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.
Today’s stage finishes in Cagliari on the south coast of Sardinia. The last rider to cross the line there first in a stage of the Giro d’Italia was Alessandro Petacchi in 2007. But as he was found to have high levels of salbutamol in his system later on in the race his results were annulled*. So the last rider to cross the line first in Cagliari and still be the official winner is Mario Cipollini.
It was 1991 and the victory was the 24 year old’s 4th Giro stage win, it was evident that he was hungry and able to win plenty more. Confident as the youngster was though he might not have thought at some point he would be gunning for Alfredo Binda’s record number of stage wins at the Giro. The benchmark of 41 had stood firm since 1933. Learco Guerra came closest to it with 31 stages by the end of the 30’s and Eddy Merckx had “only” managed 24 through the 60’s and 70’s.
But Cipollini had arrived in a different time than Binda, Guerra and Merckx. The era of epic performances in black and white was over, the colour television age had arrived and ‘Super Mario’ knew how to benefit from this time both on and off the bike. Cippo forged himself a flamboyant image and is as well known for the tiger print and muscle skin suits he wore during time trials than he is for his wins. As the years pass he is getting known for wearing less and less as he wastes no opportunity to show off his impressive physique. One of his many nicknames is the “Italian Stallion” and according to his Wikipedia page he is rumoured to be a womaniser. All of this made him incredibly marketable and very rich but he also needed to be winning to keep his legend alive.
2017 will be the second year in a row that there will be no Team Time Trial at the Giro d’Italia. This comes after a decade of them being a regular feature in one of the first five stages of the race. As someone who enjoys a team time trial I’m hoping they make a return in future editions. You used to be able to count on one being in the Giro and Tireno-Adriatico which was good as the Tour de France and shorter French stage races hardly ever bother with them.
I enjoy them for a number of reasons. Firstly, they are incredibly photogenic. Lines of colourful riders on shining TT bikes is to me top class bike porn. Watching the lines break up as the riders start rotating can also be quite mesmerising to watch. However you can quickly snap out of this meditative state as any rider who crashes will often take down a number of his teammates with him.
This sense of it being a team event is another thing I like about the team time trials. A rider with ambitions for the GC will only get the same time as his teams fifth fasted rider so everyone has to pull together. When they do it presents an opportunity for one of the lesser riders to get a great reward. Usually gregarios grind themselves down in service of their leader and have little to show for it. If their team wins the time trial though they can get given the chance to become race leader. In recent years Svein Tuft, Salvatore Puccio, Ramunas Navardauskas and Marco Pinotti have benefited from being allowed to be the first across the line of the fasted team thus donning the Maglio Rosa the next day.
There was one edition of the race where the riders finishing time contributed to who won the race in every single stage.
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.
On Sunday Nairo Quintana crossed the finish line in Trieste, North East Italy, wearing the Maglia Rosa, the jersey of the leader of the Giro d’Italia to become the first rider from outside Europe, Australia, North America and Kenya to win one of cycling’s Grand Tours. How was this victory achieved and what other stories were told during three weeks of exciting and at times utterly boring racing?
Before the race was in actual Italy there were three days racing in Northern and Southern Ireland. Visiting the island was deemed a success as huge crowds lined the roads to watch the race. Those wishing to see the three home riders would have been disappointed though as Dan Martin who represents Ireland crashed out after a matter of minutes, sliding on a drainage cover and taking out half his team, so only Irishman Nicholas Roche and actual Irishman Philip Deignan were left in the peleton. Australian team Orica Green Edge had a successful start with victory inthe stage one time trial and two different riders wearing the leaders jersey. The undoubted King of Ireland was however Marcel Kittel who took two stages with some powerful sprinting. Continue reading “Giro d’Italia Review”
https://flic.kr/p/qXQB6w Photo from Brian Townsley on Flickr. This years Giro d’Italia starts in Northern Ireland on Friday. After 3 days on the Emerald Isle the race will return to Italy where RCS have organised a series of tributes to the nations most popular winner of recent times, Marco Pantani. Some form of memorial is well in order as 2014 marks the 10 year anniversary of his death.The fact that Pantani’s … Continue reading Giro d’Italia’s Marco Pantani Tribute.