Later on today the 100th running of the Giro d’Italia will start in Alghero on the island of Sardinia. As this is the centenary edition the race director Mauro Vegni wanted as many regions of Italy to be visited as possible. Sardinian cycling fans must be delighted as it will be only the 4th time that the race has come to the island. The first visit in 1961, which was the year the Giro was celebrating 100 years of Italian unification, saw a short short stage beginning and ending in Cagliari. It was another 30 years however till the riders returned. At least this time the islanders saw four stages (over three days) when Olbia staged the start of the race and there wasn’t as long a wait till the next sighting of the Maglia Rosa in 2007.
The fact that the Giro has only visited one of it’s regions four times seems odd, especially when you consider that the race has started in the Netherlands three time. This reason for this is mainly down to the North-South economic divide in Italy which shows increasing poverty levels as you head from the top of the boot, down towards the toe and over to the islands.
The Giro d’Italia was set up and run by the Gazzetta dello Sport newspaper which was located in Milan which meant many of the early editions started and ended in Milan. And as the race was created to publicise and increase sales of the newspaper much of the racing was at the top of the country. There has always been more money in the industrial North so the population would be more likely to buy newspapers.
For twenty or so years after the first Giro in 1909 the race barely reached south of Naples. The course followed a similar route year after year by starting and ending in Milan apart from in 1911 where Rome was the beginning and end of the circle. Eventually things started to improve for the regions so far ignored by the race. In 1929 the Giro again began in Rome and while it ended in, yes, Milan the action reached right down to the heel and toe of the country. 1930 saw things leave the mainland for the first time when the race started in Messina on Sicily and subsequent trips to the islands capital Palermo in 1949 and 1954 for the starts showed that the organisers wanted the Giro to be something that the whole country could enjoy. The Giro made further visits to Sicily and after 1960 where the typical number of stages in the race was twenty plus compared to just eight in 1909 more towns and cities were able to take part in the celebrations by hosting stage starts and finishes. The race’s ‘Big Start’ even started to change city each year from 1960. As well as becoming a race for the whole country things became international for the Giro with the race starting from San Marino in 1965, Monaco in 1966 and regular sojourns into Switzerland.
The Giro d’Italia was really reaching out. This is true though only if you don’t consider Sardinia, as it was only considered for that one 1961 stage in the first 70 editions. As you can see from the above video there was certainly the appetite for watching the Giro from the local population. There was always decent terrain and since the second half of the 20th century decent roads. The Giro di Sardegna which had its first edition in 1958 was testament to this. It wasn’t just a small regional race, over years it was won by the likes of Rik Van Looy, Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx and Giuseppe Saronni.
So why has the region been visited so infrequently? The main reason may be the logistics of transporting the race to the island but these days where every second year the race starts in a different country that excuse will start to wear thin. There have been starts in Greece, Denmark, Northern Ireland and even rumours of a future race starting in Japan so why not Sardinia, at least more often? Perhaps the various race directors over the years reasoned that cycling isn’t as popular on the island as it is in Northern Italy. There aren’t many well funded teams and not many riders make it to the pro ranks. Fewer make it to the very top. Fabio Aru was the first Sardinian to wear the Maglia Rosa in 2015. Perhaps having the Giro appear there more often could help matters and give the island their first Giro winner.