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.
Just after the midpoint of today’s stage the race goes over the category 3 climb the Giovo. Just to the the south is Trento, a city visited by the Giro many times for stage starts and finishes. Trento is also where you would start the climb of Monte Bondone which in 1956 was the end point of one of the most epic stages in Giro history.
Stage 20 was to be the final mountain stage of the 1956 Giro d’Italia and with only two flat days to come it would be clear who the winner of the Maglia Rosa would be atop the Bondone. Only 9 seconds separated Pasquale Fornara and Cleto Maule in 1st and 2nd and anyone down to Giuseppe Buratti in 8th and 3 minutes 38 seconds back would have been in with a chance of snatching the lead. The day was a long 242 km from Merano and would go over Costalunga, the Rolle and the Brocon before the final climb so there would be plenty of opportunity to put time on rivals.
The pre-race favourites hadn’t been having a good race. Fausto Coppi had crashed out on stage 6 and Fiorenzo Magni, the defending champion, suffered two horrendous crashes. He had broken his left collarbone on stage 12 but decided to doggedly fight on. Before stage 15, a short uphill time trial, the muscles in his left arm were in agony making it almost impossible for him to steer his bike. So his mechanic came up with the crazy idea of tying and inner tube to Magni’s handle bars and getting the Italian to stick the other end between his teeth and steer by yanking his head back at the right moment. I don’t know what is the most surprising, the plan, the fact that Magni went along with it or that it worked. The next day he went down again, broke his upper arm, fainted, came to in an ambulance before getting back on his bike to continue. At the start of stage 20 he was only around 7 minutes behind the leader, remarkable given the circumstances.
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.
Luigi Ganna and Carlo Durando on Sestriere in the 1914 Gito d’Italia.
Today’s stage of the Giro travels between Reggio Emilia and Tortona stretching for 162 km. The length is a little below the average of a typical stage in the race these days and and quite a bit shorter than this years longest stage which was yesterdays at 237 km. That distance though would be considered short in the first edition of the race. Since then the formula of the Giro, in terms of the number and length of stages, has been tinkered about with. In general there are now more but shorter stages. More is being done to make the days interesting and varied rather than planning the route in terms of getting from one city to the next. It took a while to get to what we are used to today, 21 stages of varying length but nothing much more than 250 km and about 3500 km in total.
The very first stage of the Giro d’Italia was a mammoth 397 km slog between Milan and Bologna and stages in excess of 300 km were the norm in the formative years of the race. The finishing time of that first ever stage was 14 hours 6 minutes and 15 seconds and the average speed was 28 km/hr which is not bad considering how uncomfortable it must have been on those early racing bikes going over rough roads for so long. It must have been disheartening for the riders to know that the next stage was going to be 376 km.
Fortunately there were at least one rest day between stages back in the early Giri. There were also only 8 stages in 1909 but the total distance of 2447 km meant an average stage length of 305 km. In 1911 the number of stages had gone up to 12 and so did the overall distance. At 3530 km it was as long as this years centenary edition which has 21 stages.
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.
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.