Word round town was that the Giro d'Italia is currently exploring a start in the vicinity of Tokyo sometime soon, and kinda maybe New York was still on the menu of possibilities. The former has some reporting behind it; the latter maybe more conjecture. But anyway it's an intriguing time, coming as the topic does during a week in which the Giro just finished cashing in on a trip to the Netherlands.
The logistics of foreign starts are a well-worn topic, falling into a couple categories of hardship: jet-lag for the riders, and the expense and headaches of teams to manage the equipment involved in a race. I can accept the jet lag issue, I guess, which makes me wonder why New York isn't being discussed as earnestly as Tokyo, being about a third less distant (eight hours vs 12+). Overcoming jet lag isn't easy, though my brainstorm for it would be for the Giro to run a few flat stages once they re-start in Italy and neutralize the time gaps for those stages; just do sprints for stage wins, points and time bonuses. Not an insurmountable problem. The logistics is one of those issues that tips the balance in favor of rich teams that can hire double staffs and double the equipment, so some careful planning would be required. But it seems like it's worth trying.
The benefits to these international starts are clear: eyeballs and dollars being chief among them. I'm not privy to what RCS got paid for the Gelderland start but I have heard a lot about the struggles of Italian towns to pay for hosting stages, so beginning in Holland had to have meant more profits, which the Giro undoubtedly needs. The huge crowds that turned out there, an area of one country that's a short drive from several others (particularly Germany), were extremely healthy for the race -- more on that in a second.
Either of these starts would be spectacular. The one being discussed for Japan would consist of a possible climb up Mt. Fuji, which has a tourist station at the 2000-meter mark that could accommodate a stage finish. The profile of that climb would make for a pretty amazing day, as it's over 11km at 9.9%. The scenery there, as well as perhaps at an urban or coastal finish in a three-stage grand start, would be simply amazing. Nice (if narrow) roads definitely exist everywhere. Japanese fans would turn out in incredible numbers, and Japanese cycling could use a boost. [It's worth noting that Taiwan isn't too far away, houses much of the world's bike frame and component-making industries, and is an incredible place to ride by all accounts. Simply mentioning this alternative to the organizers in Japan might be worth a 15% raise in the fee.]
A hypothetical New York start could play upon sentiments of Italian Americans and the immigration history there. A hilly stage could be ginned up, and a ride up the Hudson would be beautiful. It can work, though New Yorkers are a lot more resistant to disruption than they would likely be in Japan, or China.
Reports are that a Giro start in Tokyo would come with a price tag of EUR 35 million. Money talks, a lot, and the Giro's lack of money has been rumored for years. From that angle it seems like this is a real possibility, at least as long as the Italian economy doesn't allow for more investment from home.
But what it all seems to be coming down to, for us fans, is this... Is the Giro going big time?
My thinking is this: In the last two decades we emerged from the era of GC winners either being Italians who only win big in Italy, or foreign riders who fall into approximately the same category. Starting with Ivan Gotti's two wins, sandwiched around the great Pantani double (insert asterisks), the Giro tended to be won by riders like Paolo Savoldelli, Stefano Garzelli, Gilberto Simoni, Cunego, Di Luca... all riders who did next to nothing in the Tour de France. Remember Eddy Mazzoleni and Marzio Bruseghin? These were Giro podium finishers in the 2000s.
Then things changed. Alberto Contador accidentally won in 2008 (over another wafer-thin field), and the '09 Centenario spettacolare went to Menchov and the Doperettes. But in 2010 Ivan Basso and Vincenzo Nibali brought some higher credentials to their successes, with David Arroyo in between and World Champion Cadel Evans just off the pace. Then foreigners really took over. Contador returned (again under duress?) to win in 2011 over Scarponi and Nibali, and some other foreign quality riders in Kreuziger, Joaquim Rodriguez, etc. Hesjedal snagged the 2012 race from J-Rod. In 2013 Nibali scored the most recent Italian win -- and even that looks nothing like the 2000s, since Nibali is now a Tour de France champion -- over Uran, Evans, Majka and (briefly) Bradley Wiggins. That's three maillot jaunes in one Giro start, if you're counting, and all of them aiming to win. Next, Nairo Quintana confirmed his Tour promise with the 2014 overall victory, over Uran and Fabio Aru. Last year Contador came back for one more helping, of his own free, will, and held off an array of less accomplished but promising young climbers.
On that basis alone, isn't the Giro different now? When this community was born in 2006, the Giro was a race where foreign teams went to feign interest and fulfill obligations; now, be it due to the World Tour points system or the rise of the international cycling media, they are much more likely to come to win. Sure, the Giro-Tour double seems largely out of reach, so the guys primed for the Tour will either not show in the Giro or will minimize their effort, but the next wave of guys -- just below real Tour contention, or maybe true rising stars but in need of a bit more seasoning -- are coming, and they mean business. This year, chasing Nibali are perennial Tour quasi-hopefuls like Valverde, Kruijswijk, (briefly) Jice Peraud, Majka, Uran and Fuglsang. They join rising stars like Landa, Dombrowski, Dumoulin, Formolo, Jungels, Chaves and Zakarin. Even the usual suspects like Pozzovivo, Pirazzi and Scarponi aren't too offensive to your GC sensibilities.
Ultimately, cycling's real currency is eyeballs -- the more people watch, the more sponsorship is worth, and the more money there is for everyone. The Giro has always gotten plenty of attention, but compared to the Tour of the classics, or some other newly popularized races, it's like a crumbling mansion on a big lot, in a neighborhood with good schools and rising house values. It's a property that's ripe for capitalizing on in a sport where things seem to be growing -- if it gets the right attention. It will never compare to the Tour, in all likelihood, because the Tour is known to even the most casual cycling fans, which means it can count on lots and lots of eyeballs in summer, and everyone involved in cycling sponsorship knows they can pay their bills in July. It's simply in a class of its own. But with improving fields and heightened team interest, if the Giro can become a broader draw, in more countries, reaching more people, and fostering rising interest, it can return to being the sport's clear second-biggest.
But it can't prop up its standing in this way solely on the basis of stages in Italy, favoring Italian riders, and putting up barriers to that growing international interest and support. Yes, the Giro must always make its Italian character the main feature -- that too is a big selling point around the world. But it must be seen and raced as an international event, with foreign teams investing more of their precious athletic capital in the race. And the foreign starts are a big, dramatic message to the cycling universe that the Giro wants to make this leap.