Sometimes we get a little too caught up in narratives, and nobody pumps out more narratives than the Giro d’Italia. Whether it’s paying tribute to Marco Pantani, Fausto Coppi, or Giuseppe Garibaldi, or maybe tracing Garibaldi’s route in the unification of Italy, or tracing the 1949 Giro route which traced Garibaldi’s route, or... you get the point. The Giro loves telling stories, and frankly, who are we to argue?
So that’s what’s noteworthy about this year’s route: the lack of narratives. It’s like that scene in Singles where Kyra Sedgwick calling out Campbell Scott for having no game being his game. This year, the Giro’s game is its apparent lack of a game. This year’s course is the creative white space around other Giri. It’s the amuse bouches between courses.
Or... is it something more?
Here’s a brief description of the course’s main features...
- The course stays entirely within Italy. Well, there’s the San Marino time trial, but honestly, I’m not really sure why that’s not just part of Italy. But if you’re going to step back from narratives about Italian Unification and what not, popping by a state that asked Garibaldi to leave it off his new map is about as strong a play as you can make.
- By the way, the Giro has settled into a habit of starting overseas in even-numbered years. 2018, Israel; 2016, Netherlands; 2014, Belfast, 2012 Denmark and so on. Next year they are off to Hungary. The overseas starts are a mix or money, vanity and narrative, especially last year’s Holy Land connection. Riders get pushed to their limits by the travel demands. Writers run stories about the race’s exotic backdrops. Good times.
- But this year it’s about cycling. Only cycling. It’s about three short time trials and a truly brutal array of mountain stages, including the iconic Gavia-Mortirolo duo. The fun, eye-popping stages aren’t about history or culture, but cycling. When they go to San Luca Saturday, it’s a lovely spot, but it’s also home to one of the world’s great classics, the Giro dell’Emilia. The race also includes a bumpy stage to Como, a luxurious travel destination, sure, but that day’s race is most truly a nod to Il Lombardia, the monumental race of the falling leaves, ascending the Madonna del Ghisallo and the Colma di Sormano. Even Milano-Sanremo gets a not on stage 11 as the Giro works backward up the race course toward the starting area.
Taken together, the message is clear: this Giro course is about Italian cycling, nothing more or less. And I could not be happier. The Giro needs to take something seriously besides tourism and media narratives. Cycling is what the race is all about, and for the organizers to fully train our attention on it is what Italian cycling needs.
Let’s face it, Italian cycling is in terrible shape, thanks to the lack of a World Tour team of any real Italian character. I know, Astana and Trek have their Italian flavors, but they will obviously never bear the Tricolore standard. And sure, I know I am speaking in an outdated voice, there are no such things as trade teams with a single national identity.
But for ZERO teams at the highest level of the sport to hold Italian registration is downright bizarre. For Lampre to become Team UAE Emirates, and for the remaining squads to fold and be replaced partly by Bahrain-Merida, shows how feeble the Italian sponsorship presence is in a sport it once dominated. I grew up taking the train into Boston to buy Italian magazines and read about a cycling landscape dotted with top Italian teams: Carrera, Atala, Del Tongo, Gis and so on. Sponsorship is very, very different now, and so on, but still: the lack of any truly Italian top-level teams is still unfathomable. Historically, Italian cycling didn’t travel that well, making the local riders even less likely than other nationalities to ride overseas. That too has changed, which is cool, but for the top teams to be the Usual Suspects (and I mean that) Bardiani, Androni, and Nippo Fantini, it’s not enough.
I’m not entirely down on Italian cycling, however. Vincenzo Nibali is in the autumn of his career, but is so decorated and so fascinating a rider that he rightfully commands plenty of attention still. Alberto Bettiol just captured Italy’s first Flanders win in 12 years. Italians actually lead the CQRanking win tally, albeit on the strength of a lot of smaller events and races on home soil. There are riders to talk about.
But it’s up to the Giro to take the lead in training the focus of Italian fans on the sport and the riders, as opposed to the window dressing. Maybe Italian fans can get revved up by a Nibali win. Maybe the enthusiasm for the race will lift the profiles of a few of the country’s top competitors for stage wins, like Elia Viviani or Diego Ulissi. The sport is constantly evolving and Italy’s place within it is subject to plenty of change, to the point where a cracking Giro probably won’t bring in a slew of top sponsors. But the race should take itself seriously as a competition, first and foremost, and I approve of this year’s ditching of the travel tips and getting all the way down to business, on day 1.