After an undulating start to today’s stage with two categorised climbs the route heads north towards Bologna before swinging west to join the SS9 towards Modena. Instead of staying on the state highway though the course takes a detour through the town of Castelfranco Emilia before rejoining and finally ending in Reggio Emilia. The reason for this deviation in the one hundredth Giro is clear. Castelfranco Emilia is the birthplace of Alfonsina Strada who in 1924 became the only woman to ever ride the Giro d’Italia.
The 1924 race took place during a period of hostility between riders, teams and the organisers. Some of the stars of the day wanted appearance money from their teams simply to ride the Giro, as well as the usual prize money. The teams agreed but insisted that the money should come from the organisers of the race and not them. Not wanting to look soft and encourage future demands the organisers point blank refused all appeals for such payments. After getting their rebuff the top riders, and consequently their teams, decided they would boycott the race. They hopped to show the Giro that it wouldn’t be able to cope without them.
To deal with this problem the organisers decided they would open up registration to individual riders instead of teams saying they would pay for their food and accommodation during the Giro though the racers wouldn’t have any help from team cars. Some of the top riders not involved in the dispute didn’t fancy those conditions but this opened up the way for some lesser known riders to enter.
If you look at the race guide for today’s stage it will tell you it starts in Firenze (Florence) and in brackets is the name Ponte A Ema. Ponte A Ema is a small town just beyond Florence’s green belt to the south east. It is the location of the stages kilometer zero and has been chosen as the start for one reason, Ponte A Ema’s most famous son, Gino Bartali.
Bartali was the third in the line of the great Italian riders who dominated the Giro for periods. First there was Costante Girardengo, then Alfredo Binda and after that the Tuscan with the boxers nose, Gino Bartali.
His first Giro was in 1935 when he was aged 21 and strangely enough that edition included both Girardengo and Binda. Girardengo now aged 42 had once planned to retire after winning the 1925 Giro. Unfortunately he didn’t win the race in ’25 and chose to plough on to try and win his third Giro. He was now a shadow of his former self. The thirty three year old Binda was still a fine rider but had also seen better days.
Bartali finished a credible 7th but perhaps more significantly he won a tough stage 6 and the mountains classification. He returned the next year where his main rival was the time trial specialist Giuseppe Olmo. Olmo who had beat the world hour record at the at the Vigorelli Velodrome in Milan the previous October took time off Bartali in the races two time trials but Bartali was imperious in the mountains. On stage nine to L’Aquila, where he got his maiden stage win the year before, he went on a legendary solo win and finished over 6 minutes ahead of his nearest rival. The manner of his ride shocked his rivals who knew they would now be chasing greatness. He ended the race 2 minutes 36 seconds ahead of Olmo and retained the mountains classification.
Today we see the first time trial in this years Giro. The first time trial of any Giro was held in the 1933 edition. The introduction of the race against the clock would have a huge influence on who could contend for the title. Before you had to be an excellent climber and have a strong team in the rolling stages but now a new skill was needed. Specialists in time trialing could make up deficits lost in the mountains and pure climbers would see their chances of winning the Giro erode in the race against the truth. The 1933 race was also the first edition where the mountains competition was run, perhaps the organisers set it up as some kind of consolation for the climbers.
The ’33 race is seen as the first modern Giro and has many similarities to what we are used to in Grand Tours today. The type of rider who would win the Giro from 1933 on would be similar to the GC riders who could be victorious this year. The Giro itself was nearly what we are used to seeing these days too. It was up to 17 stages where before it was between 9 and 13 and it also had the races first publicity caravan. One difference was the mountain stages were at the start of the race followed by the flat stages and time trial.
The time trial was run on the 13th stage between Bologna and Ferrara and was 62 km long. It was won by over a minute by Alfredo Binda who was a rare breed of rider that can climb like an angel but also has the horsepower to win against the clock. In the end the time trial didn’t make much difference. Binda was at the top of his game that year and won the race by over 12 minutes. It wasn’t till the next year that it became obvious how important time trials were.
Yesterday after a race which alternated between dull and fairly dull the 100th Giro d’Italia finally ignited. However even after some great performances from Nairo Quintana, Tom Dumoulin and Thibault Pinot the main talking point was an incident which happened just before the main action on Blockhaus was about to start.
A police motorbikes, of all things, had inexplicably stopped on the road causing one of the riders in the speeding peloton, presumably only seeing it at the last moment, to clip it, swerve, then go hurtling into the middle of the bunch. The resulting crash caused a number of riders considered to be in with a shout of a good GC result to lose large amounts of time and put them out of contention. The episode left a sour taste in many peoples mouths as they would like to see races decided by riders racing bikes not cops on motorcycles. There were also questions raised over what, if anything, should have happened immediately after the incident.
The most important point to come out of this, and something everyone can agree with, is that it shouldn’t have happened. The motorbike should not have been stationary on the course. If the rider needed to stop they should have found somewhere safe to do so. It is yet another example that the UCI aren’t dealing with a problem that has been causing riders serious injury and to so tragically lose their lives. Throughout the Giro and most other races there seem to be to many motos on the course and they are STILL far to close to the riders. There needs to be a clear set of rules written and applied.
The Giro d’Italia, now in its centenary edition is one of the most respected and important races in the world. Back in 1909 when 115 riders lined up in Milan to start the first edition the organisers would have still been wondering and worrying if the event was going to be a success. It wouldn’t have taken long for them to realise that they were on to a winner. Huge crowds gathered at the stage finishes and perhaps more importantly sales of the Gazzetta della Sport increased as the captivated country were desperate to find out what was happening in the race. The future and fame of the Giro was guaranteed. This month it is exactly 50 years since another two now icons of the cycling world were introduced to the Grand Tour scene.
The route of the 1967 Giro included a summit finish up a climb never before used in the race. Blockhaus sounds more like the name of a Kraftwerk album than a climb in the middle of Italy. Only a handful of riders from the area would have been familiar with it and many starting the 12th stage in Caserta may have wondered if they needed to go down an autobahn to reach it. What they encountered after nearly 200 km in the saddle was a 30 km slog with an average gradient of 6.5% with hardly any leveling out to help them gather their senses. And the further they got from the bottom the more exposed to the elements they became as the trees thinned out.
One rider who was seemingly unfazed by such a monster was the 22 year old man-machine Eddy Merckx. He had been making a name for himself as a brilliant classics rider and although still such a young age he had already won Gent-Wevelgem and La Flèche Wallonne as well as Milan-San Remo twice. The 1967 Giro was to be his first Grand Tour and on the 12th stage, lying 7th overall, he was showing that he could compete in the big mountains deep into the second week. With a little over 2 km of Blockhaus left Italo Zilioli attacked out of the leading group and only Merckx was able to respond. As a tired looking bunch containing former Giro winners Jacques Anquetil, Gianni Motta and Franco Balmamion neared the end a sprightly looking Merckx was about to cross the finishing line. It was his first Grand Tour stage, he had beaten Anquetil into 4th place, this was the changing of the guard. Merckx showed his versatility two days later by winning a flat stage and ended up 9th overall only suffering badly in one stage on the penultimate day. This was a successful start to Merckx’s roller-coaster relationship with the Giro d’Italia.
Today’s stage starts in Molfetta just on the outskirts of Bari, the city which saw the first victory of one of the all time greats of Italian and World cycling. The 5th stage of the 1925 Giro was won by a 23 year old Giro debutante named Alfredo Binda, beating the first great campionissimo Costante Girardengo into second place. The race that year was meant to be Girardengo’s swansong and as he was hugely popular most Italy were desperate for Girardengo to win his third and final Giri. As it was, Binda had gained the race lead in the previous stage and held the advantage till Milan beating Girardengo into second place by 4 minutes 58 seconds.
This started Binda’s divisive relationship with the countries cycling fans. His win was hugely unpopular in Italy, not only had the great champion been beaten but some fans thought he was getting usurped by an outsider as they considered Binda to be un-Italian. He was born in the town of Cittiglio in the north of the country but due to the poverty that effected his family he had been forced to move to Nice at a young age to live with an uncle. This was out of necessity to survive but it meant that he spoke with a mix of a rural dialect from his place of birth and French.
The Maglia Rosa has been the striking symbol worn by the leader of the Giro d’Italia since 1931. In 1946 the organisers decided it was time bring out a second jersey which was to be worn by the ‘leader’ of a separate contest within the Giro. It wasn’t given, as you might expect, to the rider winning the mountains or points classification. The climbers competition has run since 1933 but there was no leaders jersey until 1974 when the Spaniard José Manuel Fuente was the first to wear the green maglia verde (It is now the blue maglia azzurra). He wore it through the whole race so also became the first to win it. The points competition was first run in 1958 then disappeared till 1966 and in 1967 the first maglia rosso (red jersey) was worn by Giorgio Zancanaro and eventually won by the then reigning Tour of Flanders champion Dino Zandegù. (In 1970 the maglia rosso became the maglia ciclamino which was mauve. It went back to red in 2010 but the maglia ciclamino returns this year).
The new jersey which arrived in 1946 was black and it was awarded to the man who was placed last at the Giro d’Italia. The colour of the jersey was chosen as it was a gloomy alternative to the leaders striking pink but there was also a possible political undertone to it. The 1946 race was the first edition since the Second World War. Fascism had been defeated and the fascist uniform, the black shirt, was something that no longer commanded respect, it was to be ridiculed. Those wearing black shirts were no longer the leaders at the top, they were the losers. The race director Vincenzo Torriani was known to have anti-fascist sympathies which may explain the colour but his reason for creating the icon of the black jersey was as much to do with marketing as anything else. Race fans would hang around the stage end for a lot longer to catch a sight of the black jersey coming in, perhaps spending a little money as they did so.
Now that the 100th Giro d’Italia has reached the 6th stage there have been opportunities for riders to do something special which means the record books need to be updated. Lukas Pöstlberger became the first Austrian to win a stage as well as the first to lead to race. There have in fact been been three riders to lead the race for the first time. Before the 1st stage there had been 259 different riders to have led the Giro over its 99 editions. That number will have to change but so will the total for the number of riders to have worn the Maglia Rosa. Only 237 riders have worn the pink jersey as leaders of the Giro because the first one wasn’t awarded till 1931.
In 1930 the Gazzetta dello sport who were the organisers of the Giro d’Italia decided that the leader of their race should be easily identified from the rest of the riders. It would add excitement for the fans at the roadside but also give the newspaper something new to talk about and increase its sales. So the idea of the Maglia Rosa was born. The colour pink was chosen because it was the same colour as the paper that the Gazzetta was printed on. There were some high up officials in the fascist party, who wanted to promote Italy as a macho country, that thought it a too delicate colour for a sports contest but the decision had been made and the Maglia Rosa would be used in the 1931 Corsa Rosa.
Today the Giro reaches Messina, the home of the most talented Italian rider of recent times, Vincenzo Nibali. The current champion is one of only six riders to have won all three grand tours and was seen something of a saviour for Italian cycling at the start of the decade when there were fewer top riders and fewer top Italian teams. The decline in Italian teams in the World Tour reached its zenith the year after the demise of the Lampre squad meaning their number has reached zero. And now with ‘The Shark Of Messina’ reaching 32 Italian cycling fans are desperate for a new hero to emerge.
Fabio Aru, missing this years Giro due to injury, is the obvious heir to Nibali but after a disappointing 2016 he still has much to improve before becoming a reliable champion. As he gets older and reaches prime Grand Tour age perhaps he will be able to help Italy keep its proud tradition of winners at the Giro going.
Of the 99 Giri 69 have been won by 41 different Italians. It wasn’t until 1950 that the first foreign rider, Hugo Koblet of Switzerland, won. After that the Italians had to share the prize with an increasing number of countries such as Luxembourg, France, Belgium and Sweden. At the start of the 90’s the hosts had to go three years without a win but Ivan Gotti’s victory in 1997 saw the return of Italian domination.
Not many sports hold events on volcanoes but, pardon the clichè, cycling is not just any sport. The Giro d’Italia makes a visit to Mount Etna on the island of Sicily today and as it has done in the past it’s almost seen as no big thing. The mountain is still far from ordinary though and the same can be said of the winner of the stage finishing up Etna in the 1967 Giro. It could even be said that Franco Bitossi was more like Etna then his rivals chasing him that day.
Bitossi was known as falena or ‘moth’ as his smooth pedalling style could make it seem as if he was floating. His victories seemed to be achieved in a state of calm but like Etna every so often the peace was shattered by something deep within. Falena wasn’t his only nickname, he was also known as cuore matto or ‘crazy heart’.
The Tuscan had been diagnosed with heart-rate problems early on in his career and his beats could reach 220 in a minute on occasion. It’s not certain whether he had an irregular heartbeat or was suffering from a psychological problem like panic attacks but one thing was clear, whatever the condition it wasn’t an ideal one for a professional cyclist to be suffering from. The only advice his doctor could give him, apart from to quit altogether, was to stop riding when his heart rate got to high. Fans at the side of the road would witness the bizarre scene of the leader of the race flying past them only for him to stop, get off his bike and watch as the rest of the race passes him and continue up the road. If his pulse raced up towards the finishing line he would continue but seemingly in slow motion, grinding his way along flat finishing straights as if he was going up the Mur de Huy. There is footage of him at the of 1972 World Championships approaching the finish with a seemingly unassailable lead when he suddenly starts weaving along the road looking as if he is pedalling through mud. He is eventually pipped on the line by his Italian team-mate Marino Basso.