One of the myriad justifications for the Pro Tour format whereby the top 20 teams would be required to field teams at all of the top races was that the races would take on a more consistent international flavor, and presumably benefit from the additional talent. Historically Italians have owned their home tour, and in the modern era, with riders having to choose the Giro or the Tour, this dynamic had changed little. For years, US Postal (like other top teams) skipped the Giro entirely, spending its resources on the Tour, and any leftover initiative on the Vuelta. Has anything changed?
Like most races the Giro belonged to the hosts at first. It took a whopping 33 tries before Hugo Koblet became the first foreign winner (1950), and by 1967 only six editions had fallen into foreign hands. Starting in the Merckx era, however, the Giro became a truly international affair and a priority for the sport's top riders, as stars like Merckx, Hinault, Fignon and Indurain began etching their names in the race's trophy. The Italians who did win in this era were mostly stars themselves, like Gimondi, Saronni, Moser and Bugno. Something changed, however, and since Pavel Tonkov's 1996 win the race has been dominated by the home crowd again.
By contrast, the Tour saw foreigners win on the seventh try, and thanks to more recent foreign dominance France has only taken home 36 wins in 93 editions, none since 1985. In 61 editions of the Vuelta, foreigners have taken 34 wins, including the first two. Recent times have favored the home crowd, with six of the last nine titles spread among four Spaniards, and a seventh yanked from Roberto Heras in 2005.
[Historically Italians made life difficult for foreigners, but in recent times, under the right circumstances Italian fans have taken some outsiders into their hearts. Andy Hampsten is still known as "Nostro Andy" (our Andy) for his upset win in the snow in 1988. This only a year after spitting on Stephen Roche, who had the temerity to ride for an Italian team... and ride away from his team captain, defending champ Roberto Visentini. Had fans known they were witnessing the first leg of Cycling's greatest trio of victories, they probably wouldn't have greeted the Irishman much differently.]
Anyway, as recently as 2002, half of the 22 teams invited to the Giro d'Italia were Italian outfits, including such legendary squadras as Formaggi Trentini and Colpak-Astro. Of the foreign teams,
Mapei and Gerolsteiner fielded Italian teams, but otherwise Telekom, Coast, CSC, Phonak, Kelme, Rabobank... all brought foreign squads. 113 foreign riders toed the line in Groningen, along with 106 Italians. By Milan, Italians had won three of the jerseys (ceding the green to South Americans as usual) and two of the podium spots, though Tyler Hamilton and other foreigners made their presence felt.
With the advent of the Pro Tour in 2005, Italy fielded only five home teams in the Giro, and less than 25% of the riders (52/219). Discovery Channel showed up... and won, in the person of Paolo Savoldelli. Fellow Italians also took 2nd overall (Gibo Simoni), as well as the Intergiro and points competitions... sweeping the top 5 points by winning 11 of 20 stages. The uniforms were much more international, as was the bulk of the field, but by Milan it had become hard to see the difference.
This year, Lampre and Liquigas are the only two completely Italian Pro Tour teams, with Milram splitting its identity... as do Continental entries Tinkoff and Ceramica Panaria. Add in Acqua e Sapone and that makes five "Italian" teams, but no fewer than eleven teams have an Italian captain, including Quick Step (Bettini), Astana (Savoldelli), Saunier Duval (Simoni), Gerolsteiner (Rebellin), Credit Ag (Caucchioli) and AG2R (Nocentini). Fifty-seven of 219 riders on the start list call Italy home.
And the results? Italians have largely dominated the event. The present top 15 includes 11 Italians, including two podium places. Italians have reclaimed the green jersey, dominated the points, and salted away the maglia rosa, though Andy Schleck has a firm grip on the white fleece. Homers have taken 14 of 19 stage wins and held the pink jersey every single day.
In other words, Italians still own the Giro, despite the Pro Tour's best efforts to internationalize the race.
Currently, the best explanation has to do with the flood of B-list Italian talent, all of which is pointed straight at Milan every year. Probably what changed in 1997 was the perception that you could race the Giro and still win the Tour. And the top Italian riders choose to stay home, not only for sentimental reasons but because few of them seem remotely capable of winning the Tour. Why should the Simonis and Cunegos and DiLucas skip the Giro for a longshot chance at the maillot jaune? DiLuca has already said he has no plans to race the Tour before 2009. Cunego won the white jersey last year, but crossed the Tour off his list for the time being, until he can win the Giro again. Savoldelli will be in London, but as a domestique. There is no Italian Lance Armstrong.
Maybe the mix will change; maybe the next wave of great Italian riders will elevate their game to become Tour threats. Maybe the foreign talent pool will start throwing more top riders at the Giro rather than saving it all for the Tour. Maybe Spain or Germany will start producing greater numbers of stud riders than Italy. Or... maybe DS Little Bear will be running this blog before we see another foreign winner in Milan.
What has certainly changed is the race's middle class, which consists largely of foreign riders on foreign teams. While this looks good on TV and probably gives the Giro some international prestige, it's the Grand Tours' (legitimate) contention that substituting foreign also-rans for the Italian continental squads is a poor exchange. Giro invites mean the world to sponsors of Italian continental teams, and riders get the thrill of racing past friends and relatives shoulder to shoulder with the giants of the Giro. Were the foreign Pro Tour teams motivated to bring their best foreign riders, this local benefit might be worth sacrificing. But since the foreign teams either go Italian for the race or field disinterested, anonymous foreign squads, it's hard to see how the Pro Tour format has made the Giro better.