It is the end of the first week of competition at the Giro d’Italia and now we are deep into the Mezzogiorno, based on the Giro’s need to go somewhere and maybe catch some sun. Except that whenever they do long stages in Abruzzo it rains and everyone is exceptionally miserable. That has been the case a couple times already in this Giro, but the weather is on the upswing and the stages are relatively short. So it’ll be a blissful, aimless tour of the south for a couple days. Let’s take a look at the next quartet of stages...
Stage 9: Castel di Sangro — Campo Felice, 158km
What Is It? The grinding, exhausting Abruzzo stage, an almost annual occurrence at the Giro nowadays. None of the climbs will destroy the top riders, but the sheer preponderance of them will wear down anyone lacking the energy.
Detailed Description: I guess the best way to think of this stage is a club ride on steroids. One explanation for this image is that the race passes one valley west of Fontecchio, which I have spent time in, and while there had dinner one night at a new restaurant in Ripa. It was a quiet evening with just a few tables seated there, so being the rare(ish) Americans to stop by, the chef eventually came out to say hi. He looked more like a chef than a cyclist, but he was both (bless you Italy), and he recommended his favorite ride, which he was planning to do the next day, to Campo Felice. I had no bike and no opportunity to try this out, but we did take a side trip to Raiano over the roads next to the ones on this course. All of the roads around here are about the same: wide enough for two cars only, constantly twisting and turning, and gently undulating all the way.
I love Abruzzo, of course, but I’m not going to argue that the Giro can be won or lost over any of its roads, with one lone exception — the Block Haus. But that’s not on the list this year, so we will have to be content to enjoy this stage as one for the breakaway. There’s lots of gravel in the final few km to make things interesting though.
Giro-ness Factor: This is the Abruzzo stage of Abruzzo stages. Sure, the coastal routes were nice, but nothing tells the story of this region like a run through the humanized valleys of the Apennines. Dino Buzzati refers to this in his book/reportage collection as “Italy at its most Italian... [a] solemn landscape whose respiratory rhythm is measured in centuries.”
Does everyone know about the book, The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, by Joe McGinniss? In it, the author embeds himself in this small and somewhat anonymous town on the most obscure end of somewhat obscure Abruzzo to bask in the glow of the local soccer club, which has just completed a very improbable rise to Serie B, the second division of Italian soccer. The author, an American political journalist, isn’t terribly knowledgeable about the sport he loves, but while his arrival causes a stir in the town and he has a somewhat sweet experience with the locals, he also becomes an annoying superfan, which I suppose is what the book is about: the emotional journey of embedding yourself with the strange object of your love.
The book contains perhaps accidental overtones of Christ Stopped At Eboli, by Carlo Levi, which I am just finishing up now. The book is a journal of Levi’s time in a village in Basilicata, his second of two stints as a political prisoner in Mussolini’s Italy, whereby northerners whose leanings and activities put them a bit too far left of the regime were sent to places of extreme isolation in the south from which there was no easy escape. Levi, an opponent of the war in Ethiopia, is embedded in Aliano (which he renames Gagliano), where he slowly assimilates into the culture and community, for good or ill. The title refers to the notion that humanity only made it as far down the boot as Eboli, just south of the Amalfi Coast, and after that Italy is just a land of beasts. The book is well known enough that Buzzati’s headline for his stage report at Salerno is “Neither Coppi Nor Bartali Stopped in Eboli.”
Southern Italy might seem like a strange and unheralded place to some, particularly those of us with roots there that we want to explore more deeply. But the fact is that it has been written about nearly every way imaginable. Among the most famous books are The Leopard, by Giuseppe di Lampedusa, which tells the story of 1860s Sicily from an aristocratic view right before the Risorgimento. Obviously the most famous book about Sicily is The Godfather, which for the tens of people left who haven’t seen the movies is probably worth reading. Mario Puzo wrote another more interesting book, The Sicilian, which tells the story of brigands, another very distinct slice of Sicilian culture.
For Abruzzo, maybe the best known writer is Ignazio Silone (a pen name for one Secondino Tranquilli, which sounds way more like a pen name), who wrote lovingly of his natal region’s small villages in his trilogy of novels, including the best-known Fontamara. Silone is an incredible character, having gone on from his humble beginnings to becoming a communist party leader in Rome, then moving to Moscow where he was present for the conflict between Stalin and Trotsky, then falling into depression and heading for treatment at Jung’s clinic in Switzerland. He recovered in time to become a resistance figure in Italy and Germany, before settling down to write his great books.
Interested in Napoli? You’ve probably already heard of Elena Ferrante’s books on her upbringing nearby. They’re a Netflix show now and it’s great stuff. Are you a true crime fan? If you don’t know about Gomorrah, the brilliant reporting by Roberto Saviano. There are a million books on the Sicilian mafia. There are another two million on the American mafia. I guess depravity sells. But for me, these stories and the Godfather movies were just the forerunners, and the influx of books about the Mezzogiorno’s non-criminal existences, which make up some 99% of the region, are a refreshing change.
One last book name drop: Terroni, by Pino Aprile. I haven’t read it yet, but am very tempted, even though I have some suspicions about its content. The book theorizes that the south was actually doing just fine, economically and socially, before the Risorgimento, and it was the increasingly financially stressed houses of Piedmont and Savoy who attacked and annexed the South, using a fairly racist/classist line of thinking to set up the north/south dynamics of the next century or so, which is when the divide actually occurred. This sounds a bit radical — the Bourbon kingdom of Sicily was pretty stagnant and feudal when Garibaldi arrived, and various statistics suggest that the European economic train had pulled out of the station without them. But the tenuous farming economy collapsed after the Risorgimento, and the people who barely clung on to the land are the ones who then jumped ship to the U.S., South America, other parts of Europe, etc.
In sum, my literary search for the identity of my ancestors will probably take a lot longer than my actual life to get through. Avanti!
Pofiteers: The breakaway should be gifted this one. You might see a bit of skirmishing among the GC contenders on the way up to the ski resort at the very end, but I wouldn’t count on that. Of course, with INEOS around and their tendency to fight for small advantages, maybe the final few km with their 14% ramps and gravel surfaces will encourage some jockeying for seconds. The stage could also get interesting if the race lead is in play, but as I write this, that is too difficult to predict.
Stage 10: L’Aquila — Foligno, 139km
What Is It? When the Giro rides past a bunch of twisting climbs, you know they are giving the peloton a purely transitional affair. At 139km this is more of a staycation than a major event.
Detailed Description: Another major city, L’Aquila is the capital of Abruzzo, and since it’s name means the Eagle, you can bet that leaving the nest is no easy task. Sure, there’s an A-route now for cars to snake their way down the valley to Rome, but for everyone else, there’s some climbing involved. But from the crest of the saddle, the Sella di Como, the Giro organizers try to keep this stage as mellow as is possible for one cast in the shadow of the Apennines, and it’s a fairly mellow ride all the way to Foligno and the first rest day.
The finish area is pretty cool, and definitely looks like they are expecting a sprint. The peloton approaches on the Viale Roma, does a bit of a jughandle, then ends up on the wide boulevard circling Foligno’s ancient city walls with the finish line on a broad straightaway. It all looks pretty manageable and sprinty.
Giro-ness Factor: We are doubling back a bit on terrain I have already written about, and in a nakedly transitional way. The Giro is spending an extra day lounging around either here or in Perugia, the capital of the province by the same name, whose distinction is that it is the exact center of Italy, and all that implies: mountains, wine, pasta, the church, people who gesture with their hands too much, etc.
So now I will look up who Saint Francis of Assisi was. Because I don’t already know and have heard his name a million times, and also Assisi is just down the road so if you were riding the race, or if we can all just be the Giro in human form and be traveling around like this, then on our day off we could wander over to Assisi and check things out, something several billion people have already done.
And he actually sounds pretty great. Here are a few highlights:
- He founded the Franciscan Order, which is nothing to sneeze at;
- He is the patron saint of Italy, which is kind of like being the Brazilian saint of soccer, or the sausage king of Bavaria;
- He is best known for his teachings around the subject of nature and animals, for whom he preached a high level of respect and appreciation, something a few Christians I know should maybe stop and think about before driving their SUV into a “mysterious” wildfire;
- He once talked a wolf out of eating people in Umbria, convincing the wolf that its victims were made in God’s image, and anyway if he stopped eating them Francis would make sure he got hooked up with some prime grub;
- During a 40-day fast, he got the stigmata from a six-winged angel, which is pretty badass;
- He went to Egypt to convert the Sultan and put an end to the Crusades (which then went on for another 200 years);
- The current pope took Francis in his honor.
Not a bad legacy!
Pofiteers: The sprinters. I think I gave away the ending already. There aren’t a ton of sprints left and already Caleb Ewan has gone home, so we will see who’s left to deal with this one.
Stage 11: Perugia — Montalcino, 162km
What Is It? A promotion for the Strade Bianche to be anointed the Sixth Monument. The race covers some 35km of gravel roads through the precious wine country of Tuscany, just in case there are any tourists alive who have not already traveled here.
Detailed Description: The course warms up the riders for a few hours of rolling over relatively sane roads, knowing full well that all hell is likely to break loose once they reach the first section of “white roads,” the narrow, gravel tracks that make this area so magical for cycling, at the 92km mark. The first 9km stretch is slightly downhill, so riders will have to get comfortable on the gravel pretty quickly, but the second stretch is where the real issues are likely to begin. It’s a long and occasionally steep drag up to Montalcino over the western approach of the Passo del Lume Spento. The peloton passes through town, then heads clockwise to the south for a loop that takes them back to the Lume Spento, and finally back into town, for the finish.
This is the closest the Giro has come to re-running the famous Cadel Evans stage from 2010 (and a similar event in the 1987 Giro, won by Moreno Argentin). It’s not the same, as the 2010 stage approached from the north, but the finale is, and anyway the choice of road is similar to rolling out of Will Cycliste’s front door — you can’t really go wrong in any direction.
Giro-ness Factor: Defo the wine-iest stage of the Giro, since the major character of the area is its wine infrastructure and the endless rows of grapes. Do you know anything about wine? I don’t really, other than occasionally drinking something I really really like. But the identity of Montalcino as a wine capital is kind of curious. Tuscany has long been known for Chianti, which is produced in massive quantities and sent all over the world. Montepulciano isn’t far away, better known to southern regions but creeping into the border area passed through on this stage.
But the finale is about Brunello, which like Chianti is made from a sangiovese grape. The Brunello dates back to the 1400s, but by the 1960s there were a mere 11 producers. Even still, it was pretty well loved, so people started producing more and by 1980 there were 53 wineries making Brunello. By the end of the century there were 200.
Is this strange? Did wine everywhere just take off in the 1960s? I can’t do the subject justice. But if you think Montalcino is the wine capital of something... you’ve been watching too much cycling, and not drinking enough wine.
Pofiteers: Like I said, it’s a classics riders’ stage, for absolute sure. The Strade Bianche hasn’t been won by tiny climbers so much, and it’s fair to say that some of the larger, stronger guys are likely to show up here. I’m not sure who all to name but you can absolutely bet that a couple dozen guys have this circled on their calendar. I’d expect a brilliant day of racing.
Stage 12: Siena — Bagno di Romagna, 212km
What Is It? The pattern of every other stage being difficult is long gone by now, as the Giro sets off on its fourth challenging course in five race days. I guess they can point to the restful Sunday and day off Monday to justify all this madness. But there’s no more pretending that the stage will downsize itself to a breakaway event; this one will bring out the Bigs.
Detailed Description: Basically the 212km version of the last three climby events (minus the strade bianche). Tight, winding roads that look super fun to climb, if not necessarily descend, depending on the weather. This one is different from Abruzzo though, as the gradients get a bit steeper and the cumulative climbing increases from the state-mandated 3400 meters (you think I am kidding) to 3700. The gruppetto will be horrified all the way to Bagno di Romagna, and that’s even before English people start attempting to pronounce that name. Hopefully Michelin has taken to printing maps with “banyo dee romanya” on them by now.
A 14% ramp looks bad enough in real life, before someone goes and makes a profile of it. To me, though, it’s that three-plus kilometers at 9.5% that make me think something will happen on this stage. It should be exciting, regardless.
Giro-ness Factor: We have occasionally talked about geology on this site, if memory serves me, right? Well, there is more to the peninsula than earthquakes and volcanos. On mellower days there are incredible karst formations resulting in brilliant caves, such as those at Stiffe, not far from Campo Felice.
This stage ends at a hot springs. Italy has an apparently uncountable number of them, and the ones here are pretty well known, reaching some 47 degrees Celsius, which for us Americans is like 2 million degrees. Apparently the water doesn’t evaporate at that temperature because it’s full of wonderful-smelling sulphur.
I digress, and now that I live in an area with natural hot springs... I can’t believe we have natural hot springs! Growing up in New England, the idea of such things, or being warm at all, were never discussed, like black magic or why New York is awesome. But to people the world over, the idea of taking a bath wasn’t made up by parents — it is something people have been doing as a matter of course since forever. Here at Bagno di Romagna, even the Visigoths would get dirty or cold and decide to wash themselves off naturally. It’s all about the simple pleasures.
Pofiteers: If the Bigs do come out to play, the big question on the day will be whether anyone can parlay a gap on the major climbs into actual gaps on the line, with a nearly 10km drop to the line after the last climb. It doesn’t look like the descent will be very technical. Here’s a shot of one of the typical hairpin bends on the way down:
Cyclists have been known to overcook even some harmless-looking corners, so you never know, but this won’t be the kind of white-knuckle affair that sorts out the riders in any major way. Still, if you can get a minute on the way up, you can probably keep most of it on the way back down, if you are up for a hairy ride down.