Italy along with France and Belgium are steeped in cycling history. They are the places where it all began and the experiences of the many riders and races from there have left their mark on the population. Football has taken over as the dominant sport but cycling still has a huge following. In some areas people can watch a few top races every year without traveling to far from home, fan clubs can be joined and there are plenty of like minded folk to chat to about the sport.
Being a fan of cycling in Glasgow is very different. If you mention the sport in a pub people will often look at you with confusion. When they do respond it will usually be to say “Ach they’re all on drugs anyway”, as they watch Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte’s latest teams play each other. When they do take an interest you tend to explain things with footballing analogies. Seemingly futile breaks up the road are like small teams entering cup competitions. It seems pointless but once in a blue moon there is a moment of glory, and there are financial incentives. Froome and Wiggins time together at Team Sky is like the Scottish National team in the old days when Celtic and Rangers players would supposedly not pass the ball to each other. It would be difficult to explain though, even in a city of Old Firm hatred, what was going on in the 1987 Giro.
Just after today’s first sprint in Sappada the road goes up slightly and over the Cima Sappada before dropping down for a long descent. Tackled the opposite direction the Cima Sappada is a pretty difficult climb and it was the finish of tough stage in the 1987 Giro d’Italia. The winner on that 15th stage was Johan van der Velde but it was the soap opera which unfolded behind him during the day which everyone was talking about.
The winner from the previous year, Roberto Visentini, was one of the favourites before the race start along with Moreno Argentin and Robert Millar. Visentini’s Carrera team mate Stephen Roche was probably the form rider after good early season wins at the Tours of Valencia and Romandie and a decent second at Liège–Bastogne–Liège. Visentini season had been pretty insipid in comparison but as the reigning champion he believed that the issue of team leadership wasn’t in question. Roche would ride for him at the Giro in return for his help at the Tour. In reality the Carrera team management would allow the issue to play out on the road but still chose a team of riders deeply loyal to the Italian. In the squad there was only the Belgium gregario Eddy Schepers who Roche could call a friend. Roche wasn’t happy at this imbalance and when he found out that Visentini had booked a holiday for July, when he would apparently be helping Roche at the Tour, the Irishman decided he would be going for the Giro, no mater what team orders dictated.
Today’s stage is has the perfect terrain for an escape artist, slightly undulating with a couple of climbs at the end to gain an advantage then descend to the finish. The 6th stage of the 1950 Giro had a similar profile and would have passed through Valdengo, today’s start town.
Until 1950 the Giro d’Italia had always been won by Italians but as time passed it was inevitable a foreign rider would eventually win the Maglia Rosa. It would have been no surprise if he had come from France or Belgium but the emergence of two fine riders, Ferdinand Kübler and Hugo Koblet, meant the nationality would be a little more left field, and Swiss. Switzerland had produced a few decent cyclists in the first half of the century, Oscar Egg was perhaps the best with stage win in both the Giro and Tour to go along with his more famous World Hour Records. There was nothing ever to suggest though that two Swiss riders would dominate the top two stage races in the world for two years running. And it all started on that sixth stage of the 1950 Giro d’Italia.
The two had a few things in common apart from their nationality. They had both been national pursuit champion and their personalities were outgoing, friendly. Both also had a love for America, Kübler collected Stetson hats and was known as ‘The Cowboy’ and Koblet loved driving across the US, emulating his favourite American films. Their similarities didn’t go on though. Kübler and Koblet couldn’t have been any more different to look at on the bike. Kübler, older by six years, had a pointy nose and bony face while his riding style was clunky and sluggish. Koblet pedaled effortlessly over all terrain and always with perfect hair to complement his boyish good looks and playful smile. He always carried a comb and bottle of aftershave with him while racing and would use both before crossing the line while blowing kisses to any girls in his vicinity. He soon gained the nicknames ‘Le pédaleur de charme’ and ‘Beautiful Hugo’.
Today’s stage starts in Castellania, the birthplace of Il Campionissimo (Champion of Champions) Fausto Coppi. He was born in September 1919 just a few months after Costante Girardengo, known as Campionissimo no.1, won his first Giro d’Italia. The fact that Girardengo comes from Novi Ligure only a few kilometers away makes this area highly significant in the history of Italian and world cycling. But perhaps both riders wouldn’t have been able to reach the heights they without a third character from this otherwise unassuming little area on the Piedmont and Liguria border.
Biagio Cavanna, born in Novi Ligure in 1893 was a boxer and track cyclist turned trainer and masseuse whose reputation reached legendary and even mythical status. Based in Novi Ligure throughout his life he built up stable of riders, champions and gregari alike mentoring them in all things from training to sleeping. Cavanna was a guru much like the Maharishi but instead of rich hippies going on a pilgrimage to seek his blessing and find themselves it was poor young men travelling from all over Italy, wanting to escape the drudgery of a lifetime working in the fields or factories, hoping Cavanna would accept them as cyclists of merit. And just like the yogi claimed transcendental power it seemed like ‘The Wizard of Novi’ held magic in his hands as he got to work at his massage table.
Cavanna’s relationship with his riders was similar to the master-disciple relationship in a religious sect. He was an all or nothing type of trainer who demanded strict discipline and obedience. The riders would be woken up before five every morning for coffee and bread and then get sent off on a 200 km ride, partly timed and partly riding as a group. This happened no matter the weather, Cavanna’s philosophy was: ride each and every day. After the riders came back he would check their muscles to see if they had ridden all the way and hard enough, which they usually did as he was prone to fly into terrible fits of rage. Each evening all the riders and their master would sit together at a large table to eat and inevitably the conversation turned to cycling. They all literally lived and ate cycling. After the meal everyone was expected to have an early night and it would be a rare occurrence for a young rider to sneak out late at night to have some fun as Cavanna would have found about it from one of his spies in the small town and he was even known to knock on doors late in the evening to make sure everyone was tucked up in bed. He was so strict that even the focused Costante Girardengo, Cavanna’s first star pupil, who abstained from sex around races found his creeping around town checking up on what he was doing to be too much at times.
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.
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 →
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 style of riding is sorely missed in today’s peleton, with its obsession of power meters and marginal gains, and the tragic circumstances of his passing, make the inclusion of Monte Carpegna on stage 8 seem fitting. This was Pantani’s favorite training climb and while he went through much of life with a tortured mind he was able to forget his troubles on these roads and it was one of the few places where he felt free.
However what about the summit finishes on stages 14 and 15? Oropa and Montecampione were added to the route to celebrate two of Pantani’s famous wins in the Giro. Fantastic to witness at the time, these victories are now seen through more suspicious eyes. Particularly his victory up Oropa in the 1999 Giro. After his chain came off at the foot of the climb he managed an epic fightback to the leaders before denying Laurent Jalabert the stage victory. Days later he was kicked off the race for returning a high hematocrit value after a blood test the morning after another mountain victory at Madonna di Campiglio.
While ‘Il Pirata’ was ultimately failed by the people people inside an outside his sport which he should have been able to rely on cycling wont be able to move on until the different organisations who run the sport are more honest when addressing the past and fans wont be able to pay proper respect to their heroes.