The Tour de France is still waiting for a French winner. Since Bernard Hinault last delivered a home victory in 1985, the Tour has been a free for all. It has been won by five Spaniards, two Amercians, an Italian, a German, a Dane and an Irishman. So while the biggest Grand Tour of them all has been a largely international affair, the same is not quite true of the Tour's younger cousins.
Of the past ten years in the Vuelta, the race has been won six times by five different Spaniards. The Giro fares even better with eight victories by five different Italians. Unlike the Tour, both the Giro and Vuelta have managed to maintain a steady stream of home victories.
It's a generalisation but the Italians tend to ride the Giro and the Spaniards tend to ride the Vuelta, and then some might also ride the Tour which may dilute the presence of the French in their own race. A dilution which neither the Giro or Vuelta experience to the same extent. The price you pay for hosting the biggest race on the planet. But when the Spaniards and Italians do stray further afield, how have the indiginous riders of the two lesser Grand Tours fared in each others races?
Starting with the Vuelta a Espana, last year Vincenzo Nibali became the first Italian to win it for 20 years since Marco Giovannetti in 1990. Prior to that, Giovanni Battaglin won as part of a rare Giro/Vuelta double. Felice Gimondi won the Vuelta in 1968 to complete the full set of Grand Tour wins and Angelo Conterno was the first Italian to win it back in 1956 with one of the narrowest margins in Grand Tour history, just 13 seconds.
As for Spaniards in the Giro, it was relatively recently that their first ever victory was taken by Miguel Indurain in 1992 and he followed that up next year with another win. Alberto Contador is the only other Spaniard to have won the Giro, in 2008. So that's a score of 5-3 to the Italians then.
With Alberto Contador and Joaquim Rodriguez both present at this year's Giro and both gunning for overall victory, the Spaniards have a good chance of tightening up the scores. But while the Italians only have a slight edge in terms of overall victories, they are miles ahead in terms of individual stage wins.
Perhaps it is unfair on the Vuelta having only been raced since 1935 and due to various wars, it has only been raced with any regularity since 1955. In contrast the Giro has been around since 1909. However it was only in the mid-fifties anyway when each began frequently winning stages in each others races (four pre-50s victories for the Italians and none for the Spaniards).
Since Bernardo Ruiz became the first Spaniard to win a stage of the Giro in 1955 (its 38th edition), there have been 91 further victories helped in no small part by Miguel Poblet who bagged 20 back in the fifties. The biggest Spanish stage haul in the Giro came in 1974, when Santiago Lazcano won a stage and Jose Manuel Fuente won an incredible five. The race was won overall by Eddy Merckx, his fifth and final victory. Thanks largely to a documentary called 'The Greatest Show on Earth' it is widely considered to be one of the most exciting races ever as the final podium was split by just 33 seconds.
In contrast, there have been a whopping 148 stage wins by Italians in the Vuelta a Espana, more than twice the haul of the Spanish in the Giro. There was even an Italian stage win in the first ever Vuelta in 1935 through Edoardo Molinar (he also won the King of the Mountains that year). The Italians' greatest year in the Vuelta came in 1996 when they won half of the 22 stages through six different riders, Biagio Conte, Nicola Minali, Fabio Baldato, Marco Antonio di Renzo, Daniele Nardello and Gianni Bugno. They also placed four riders in the top 10 overall.
However, the stage winning adventures of the Italians in the Vuelta comes with an addendum. Since 1995, when the Vuelta was moved from April to September, the Vuelta has been used by many as a tune up race for the World Championships. So while this hasn't seemed to have affected the honours list in terms of overall victories, the stage winning exploits of the Italians in the Vuelta has been rather top heavy since the calendar switch.
To illustrate, more than half of the Italians 148 victories have come since 1995. If we were to only consider stage wins by each in t'others race since before 1995, the Spaniards actually take the lead 72 to 70.
Last year, the tifosi were forced to wait until Stage 12 before they saw a home stage victory in the Giro. But when it came it was worth the wait as it was won by Filippo Pozzato, the Italian national champion. This year, there has been no such anxious wait as Alessandro Petacchi made his mark on the opening road stage. However, in the stages that followed, the Spaniards picked up victories through Angel Vicioso and Francisco Ventoso and have now won more stages than the Italians in their own race.
With the amount of summit finishes in the race, Contador, Rodriguez and Igor Anton will have plenty of opportunity to add to their tally and we may well see the record of six Spanish stage victories from 1974 being challenged. The Italians need to score some victories because never in the history of the Giro have the Spaniards scored more stage wins than the Italians. Vincenzo Niabli, Michele Scarponi and Stefano Garzelli will all be eager to get their name on the top of the results sheet to prevent the Spaniards from dominating their home race.