This Saturday the corsa rosa, the pink race, Italy's premiere cycling event, gets underway on the outskirts of Torino, in the shadow of the Alps where the race may or may not be decided exactly three weeks and an astounding 3500km later. The Giro is the first of our three Grand Tours, each of which is imbued with a unique character... but arguably none more unique than the Giro.
By contrast, the Tour de France belongs to the entire cycling universe, however French the race will always be. Riders, sponsors and even fans from distant lands dream of the Tour for eleven months a year, and descend on it in July. It's simply the Super Bowl of cycling, and distressed French fans should take heart: the Masters is almost never won by a guy from Augusta; England has only one world cup to its name, and the Dutch haven't influenced many hockey games since the sport discovered Canada. The fact that France has serious contenders and stage winners every year looks pretty good by that perspective.
The other two grand tours are distinctly regional, for now anyway. Spanish cycling has spent a decade letting the specter of doping drag it down, including this year's unending controversy surrounding the face of Spanish Cycling, Alberto Contador. Consequently, the days when the Vuelta was seen as equal to or even superior to the Giro in certain years seem like a faint memory. [Sound like Fontecchio homerism? Consider that the UCI's team scoring scale gives out 35 points for winning the Giro and 30 for the Vuelta.] But before Operacion Puerto the Vuelta was fiercely contested among the international teams, unlike the Giro. Times will hopefully change and the Vuelta will elevate its game to where Spanish fans come back in full force. If the issue is competition, last year's unbelievable experience shows that the Vuelta will be just fine, thanks. But only if and when the country's anti-doping forces prove they're serious enough for the fans to believe. A Grand Tour is nothing without its fans.
On the flip... I have a point! (maybe)...
The Giro has suffered far less, despite the skeletons piling ever higher in Italian cycling's closet. This is because the Giro always gives you a reason to dream again. Over the last decade the Giro's organizers RCS have done a fantastic job of staking out some turf in the sport that, as far as I can tell, has won over people at the Cafe and elsewhere. Accepting that it cannot be the Tour per se, the Giro has instead taken risks with its course that emphasize showmanship in a way the more staid Tour de France typically deigns to do. There are the uphill finishes, on small hills like Montevergine which can be found throughout 90% of the country. There are days which emphasize the physical beauty of the bel'paese, such as the promenade around the Amalfi Coast or Cinque Terre. There are the nods to history, like the Agrigento stage of recent years, or the romp past Herculaneum. And the nods to Giros of yore, like the occasional plans to rerun the stage from Cuneo to Pinerolo that cemented Fausto Coppi's place in the world. Really, everything you need to know about the Giro's showmanship can be gleaned from looking back at the Centenary Giro, 2009, which rode up Mount Vesuvius and finished next to the Roman Colosseum, for crissakes. Thinking of this makes my head explode all over again.
There is more to this style of race, a more significant issue that the Giro is wise not to miss: cycling is supposed to be fun. It's supposed to make us think of other things, like history and beauty and past races and ancient Rome, because cycling exists in our world, not some heavily guarded palace with 50,000 or so comfy chairs. Cycling tours were invented to unite disparate regions of a country. Cycle racing itself was invented to sell newspapers carrying tales of pedaling feats that would enliven the imaginations of readers. Sure, the lion's share of the attention goes to the greatest feat of all -- getting around the course in the fastest time. But we love stories about the fastest mountain climb, the fastest one-time speed, the fastest descent, the canniest teamwork, and survival in the trickiest conditions. The Giro celebrates the flat-course bunch sprinters, the short-range stage-climbers, and everyone in between. At least for the first two weeks, before all eyes turn to the biggest prize.
The lesson of showmanship has not been lost on the other grand tours. Last year's Vuelta stage to Toledo was Giro-worthy: gorgeous, historic, and with a very tricky finale won by Philippe Gilbert -- as good an endorsement of a race as you can find. The Tour, meanwhile, paid tribute to the Northern Classics with an Ardennes stage (albeit ruined by a fuel spill) and a very memorable Paris-Roubaix stage. I'm not privy to such matters, but you get the sense that the other two grand tours are wondering why the Giro keeps kicking their asses in the excitement arena, and have decided to adopt the formula more. In fairness, ASO and Unipublic have long been in possession of this blueprint, and ASO's predecessors at Le Tour probably invented it. And in even more fairness, the Tour is too important to the cyclists to let showmanship dictate the course. If the Tour had 17 transfers a year, there would be blood. But too many years the Tour, even with good intentions, has allowed the media to relentlessly boil the entire race down to the maillot jaune, and too often the Vuelta has designed its course to be Tour-lite, all a prelude to the big climb.
Maybe this is the proper order of things. After all, this is Italy, where beauty and history and sport are celebrated to the utmost extreme. For hardcore fans of something as ageless as the desire people have to ride their bikes, each stage of the Giro is as rich in dimensions as seafood lasagna. Whether the Giro is your thing or not, you gotta love all the storylines. Cycling is always about the storylines.
Photo courtesy of Rouleur