What’s your favourite Grand Tour? Is it the glitz, glamour and massive publicity machine of the Tour de France? Perhaps you prefer the more informal Vuelta? For many a fan, and for many a professional rider, it’s the romance of the Maglia Rosa of the Giro d’Italia, not the Maillot Jaune, which gets the heart beating faster and the hairs to prick up on the back of the neck.
The Maglia Rosa: just the sound of it whisks you back to those heroic days of Coppi, Bartali, merino wool jerseys and gravelled roads. Classic, elegant, skinny steel bikes from Bianchi, De Rosa and Pinarello. The beautiful pink jersey named after that classic pink newspaper, La Gazetta dello Sport.
Then there’s the Tifosi: those passionate cycling mad fans lining the roads of steep mountain passes, the verges still blanketed in towering drifts of snow as yet unmelted by the warm spring sunshine. Isn’t this the true heart of cycling, THE tour to follow?
This is the Giro’s 100th edition, and what a heritage this classic and beautiful race has! Think of Alfonsina Strada, the “Devil in a Dress”, the only woman to complete the full race against the men back in the 1920’s on a racing bike she received as a wedding present. Merckx, the Cannibal who ate up the opposition mercilessly as he dominated the late 60s and early 70s. Think of Pantani, the pirate, whose brilliance burned so brightly it tragically brought about his downfall.
But of course, we have to come back to the Bartali/Coppi rivalry. Two different characters: the younger Coppi, beset by a marital scandal and impudently challenging the devout Catholic, Bartali. It divided a nation. It was the youngster who was to steal the crown of the ruling giant of his era, that religious “Iron Man of Tuscany”.
It was a classic battle of the traditional argarian south against the more wordly, secular values of the industrial north. As the writer, Curzio Malpati once said, “Bartali prays while he is pedalling: the rational, Cartesian and sceptical Coppi is filled with doubts, believes only in his body, his motor." Religion versus doubt, prayer versus grit and determination. Whatever side you lean towards, the battle is a romantic one, one that arouses passions and transcends a sport from mere physical competition. It asks of you: who are you? What do you stand for? What do you really believe in?
My own personal experience of the Giro began in the early 90’s when, working as a runner for a film production company in London, I was sent out to the local Italian Deli for the sandwich order. Arriving at the packed shop in a side street in Soho, I hauled my way to the front of the counter while screaming Italians, eyes burning, throats hoarse, stood transfixed to the TV screen. A football match? No. A bike race! The charged atmosphere, views of a snaking road up a mountain pass and shots of a bald, bobbing head flying up the mountainside rooted me to the spot too. I was late back that day, with the Milanese chicken on ciabatta, the tomato and mozzarella salad, the cappuccinos. I was chastised by my boss, but I didn’t care. I’d just seen Pantani attack the Mortirolo and win a famous stage of the Giro. I was hooked.
Last year we saw the opening stage roll out from the northern climes of Holland for three stages before finally making it to its true home. Fittingly for its 100th edition, it’s more of a homegrown Italian affair with the Grande Partenza in Sardinia - a flat 206km course that will give one of the sprinters a chance to don the Maglia Rosa at the end of the day.
After that it’s the usual mix of lumpy routes that could favour classics riders and puncheurs as well as the speed merchants before we hit the hit the real mountain stages. This being the Giro we have our fair share of climbing with stage 4 seeing the first summit finish on the steep slopes of Mount Etna. Later there are some classic climbs for us to enjoy: Blockhaus, Mortirolo, Stelvio, Umbrail Pass, Monte Grappa and Pordoi. Stage 16 includes a whopping 5,300m of climbing over 227 km alone!
The Brits are represented this year by Geraint Thomas for Sky and Adam Yates for Orica Scott who will by vying for the podium places in the GC. Both look in good form this season and, for G, this is a chance for him to prove himself as a team leader having supported Chris Froome so loyally in the Tour de France and Vuelta in previous years.
But it’s Nairo Quintana that most people will be on the look out for. He’s going for a Giro/Tour double. Having won in 2014 and eased to victory at last year’s Vuelta, not to mention his three podium finishes in the Tour, the diminutive Colombian clearly has what it takes. How much will he be willing to push himself given his Tour ambitions?
The Italians love a homegrown winner and Vincenzo Nibali will be up there as one of the favourites despite some questions about whether his form is on the wane. Meanwhile, other well known names who are looking to re-establish their credentials are Thibaut Pinot, Tejay van Garderen and Bauke Molema. Keep an eye out, as well, for Steven Kruijswijk who dominated the race last year but fell short when he crashed on stage 19.
What’s great about the Giro is that it’s less controlled than the Tour. Chuck in a bit of unpredictable spring weather, some tough climbs, even on the gentler stages, the chaos and passion of Italian racing and you’re left with what can be an unpredictable, exciting, classic race. Yes – even in this modern era of powerful and dominating teams, the romance, grit and passion of a bike race survives!
Watch the Giro this year. Watch the riders make their way pedal stroke by pedal stroke up the length of the entire country until they get to those awesome climbs, the cathedrals of cycling, the Dolomites and the Alps. You’ll see heartbreak, grit, determination, passion, audacious and courageous racing. Hopefully you’ll see the heroism of Pantani, Bartali, Coppi and Alfonsina Strada.