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Grand Tour? Home Cookin'!

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While there may never be a shortage of fans willing to call the Giro the most beautiful race of the Grand Tours, and even their favorite of the big three, the Italian character that people find so appealing is also the singular reason the race never has and probably never will measure up to the Tour de France. [Which is just as well: one race of overwhelming difficulty per year is enough, and Cycling could hardly stand for the Giro and Vuelta to match the Tour's longer stages and climbs.] More than the other grand tours, Italians keep the Giro for themselves, and don't care if every year the international audience is left muttering "Such a beautiful race; if only (fill in missing names) had been there."

The Vuelta, while a wonderful race, is a grand tour in a country full of older, storied and no less wonderful regional tours. The Tour de France is France's gift to the universe. The Giro? Same as ever, it's THE Italian Tour.

First, some numbers. Everyone knows that the Tour is truly International. Since Hinault's win in 1985, visitors have won 21 straight editions, and 60 of 63 podium placings, representing 14 different countries. In 2007, the Tour invited six French teams (and one slightly French Caisse d'Epargne), with 36 Frenchmen of the 189 riders on the startlist (19 percent). By comparison, the Vuelta invited six Spanish teams (counting Cd'E), but with 64 Spanish riders among the 189 starters (34%).

The Giro's home-country participation last year was on or just below par with the Vuelta's: 56 of 198 riders (28%) and four Italian teams plus half-breed Milram and Tinkoff. This year's numbers are 55/189 and five home teams plus MRM and TKF again. In the pure participation sense, the Pro Tour's attempt to bust the Italian monopoly on its race has succeeded. In the two years preceding the Pro Tour invasion, the 2003 and 2004 Giri each contained 11 Italian teams, of 19 total. In 2004 the startlist was 44% Italian (75/171); in 2003 it was 47% (81/171).

But no amount of internationalization has managed to break the Italian stranglehold on the maglia rosa. No increased foreign teams or foreign riders or ventures into foreign soil (Belgium, Austria, France, Sicily) have made a difference: the home country has won eleven straight titles and taken 24 of 33 podium places in that span. [The Tour is discussed above; the Vuelta, apart from five straight Spanish wins from 2000-'04, has long been fertile ground for foreign champions.]

Impressive? Not really, when you consider that the Giro Winners' Circle looked a lot more international when, throughout much of its history, it managed to attract the world's top stars. When Hinault or Merckx or Indurain were dominating the sport, they were winning the Giro too. Fact is that the phenomenon of increased specialization has hit the Giro hardest, for two reasons I can think of. One, it's earlier in the calendar than the Tour, and compared to the later Vuelta, where Tour riders are no longer guarding their form, nobody wants to lose the Yellow Jersey in May. Two, the extent to which the Giro is beloved at home means that even in an era of specialization, you can count on the top Italian riders mostly staying home. Forced to choose between the Giro and the Tour? Most Italian stars choose the former, and only "graduate" to the latter when they have proven their merit in the Giro, or (like Cunego this year) head for France instead when the home course doesn't suit their tastes.

This year, ironically, Astana has threatened to break the trend, but even here the exception proves the rule. Solely due to the Tour's controversial exclusion of the blue pajama boys can the Giro (opportunistically) say the world's top grand tour rider is showing up. And if/when Contador, possibly with a teammate or two, invade the Giro podium, it will be as much a show of defiance directed toward the race they wish they were going to as it will be a triumph in Italy. Subtract Astana's accidental participation, and this race's top ten would be as Italian as ever.