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The Giro 100, by Herbie Sykes

One hundred people share their memories of the Giro d'Italia.

The Trofeo Senza Fine, the Giro's never-ending trophy, held aloft by Vincenzo Nibali
The Trofeo Senza Fine, the Giro's never-ending trophy, held aloft by Vincenzo Nibali
Getty

The Giro 100, by Herbie Sykes Title: The Giro 100 - 100 Tales from the Corsa Rosa
Author: Herbie Sykes
Publisher: Rapha Editions (in arrangement with Blue Train)
Year: 2017
Pages: 224
Order: Rapha
What it is: One hundred people open their cycling scrapbooks - memories and mementoes - and allow Herbie Sykes to tell an unconventional history of the Giro that shows why the corsa rosa matters
Strengths: Possibly the saddest, sweetest, funniest and most thoughtful cycling book you'll ever read - and in between all that, it has important things to say, about the state of cycling, the way cycling's story is told and some parts of that story that we may not know as well as we think we do
Weaknesses: You want to be greedy and demand more

Also in Raissa, city of sadness, there runs an invisible thread that binds one living being to another for a moment, then unravels, then is stretched again between moving points as it draws new and rapid patterns so that at every second the unhappy city contains a happy city unaware of its own existence.
~ Italo Calvino
Invisible Cities

Imagine yourself down on your knees at the wireless knobs, tuning in and out of the voices as they tell their stories. Listen:

My dad and my uncle had both been professional cyclists, so emulating them was all I'd ever wanted to do.1 / I come from Bosio, a village close to Fausto Coppi's Castellania, so I'd been brought up on stories about him, Costante Girardengo and the other great champions from these parts.2 / I'm not so famous. I'm Fausto Bertoglio and not Fausto Coppi, and I'm quite shy by nature.3 / The celebrity thing is interesting in retrospect, but it wasn't something I gave much thought to back then. I was twenty-three years old, I was used to people telling me I was a star, and, if I'm honest, I found cycling easy.4 / I was only twenty, I was lucky because I didn't know anything and nothing was expected of me, and of course at the age you've no fear.5 / I was twenty-one, a first year professional full of ambition.6 / I couldn't believe my luck, because here I was at the Giro d'Italia. I felt like the cat that got the cream ...7 / On the second stage of the Giro I attacked, and somehow I managed to stay away and get the maglia rosa.8 / It still pains me to think about it because I could have won that Giro if I'd had some help, but I got nothing whatsoever.9 / I was going really well but suddenly my teammates were riding for a contract, ergo for themselves.10 / At the time I was happy with second but in the days that followed I started thinking about it...11 / That was the end of the adventure, and the beginning of cycling as a job.12 / Those first three years were difficult not only because I was unable to live up to the expectations of other people, but also because cycling didn't live up to the expectations I'd had of it.13 / I harboured a sense of injustice. I always felt that cycling had let me down.14 / I'd have liked to earn a fortune, but I just wasn't fixated on the results. I tended to be happy if I'd ridden well, done my job and enjoyed myself, and the result was secondary to that.15 / I remember Eddy Merckx clinging on to my wheel once. I turned to him and said, 'Hang on there...'16 / I was the best climber that year, so I turned myself inside out to get Eddy across to them. I must have towed him 30 kilometres, which was a huge satisfaction for me, as you can imagine.17 / I was riding for a super champion, earning a decent wage and living the dream in Italy. Then, in 1980, Bernard Hinault came to the Giro ...18 / He was incredibly strong, but he had two major defects as a cyclist. The first was that he didn't like suffering, and second was he didn't have an actual brain.19

Those are snippets of conversation from Herbie Sykes's The Giro 100 - 100 Tales from the Corsa Rosa, the third of three Giro books to be published this year (following Colin O'Brien's Giro d'Italia and Brendan Gallagher's Corsa Rosa ) and The Race Against the Stasi author's fourth book-length dive into the history of Italian cycling (following The Eagle of the Canavese, Maglia Rosa and Coppi). All the snippets there, they're out of context, parts of longer stories. But, in between the bursts of static as you turn the dial and slip in and out of each, threads become visible, connecting everything.

The Giro 100, by Herbie Sykes

Gian Paolo Ormezzano talks of the three ages of cycling journalism: the cantors ("They venerated cycling, and for them it was almost liturgical."); the eroticists ("We cared about it deeply but we wanted to understand it as a phenomenon."); and the pornographers ("There is very little that's erotic about the way they present the sport, but they are explicit to the point of obscenity.").

The Giro 100 isn't a conventional history of Italy's grand tour: if you're looking for myths and legends, dubiously sourced stories of champions of the past, if you're looking for bullshit sloganeering - "The world's toughest race in the world's most beautiful place"; "If you can't love the Giro, you can't love bike racing"; "The world's most beautiful bike race" - this is not the book you want to read. Where others struggle to tell you what is special about the Giro, what is different about the Giro, Sykes knows when to just shut up and let the stories told to him speak for themselves, let his guests show you why the Giro matters.

The Giro 100, by Herbie Sykes

Gianni Zola, who rode with Moreno Argentin as an amateur and for him at Sammontana when he turned pro: "It was like meeting a soldier you'd once known and all of a sudden he's a general. I knew straight away that it was going to be difficult, and from there on in he and I barely spoke."

The stories told, they're like Marco Polo's accounts to Kublai Khan of his travels in Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities: all different in obvious ways, all the same in some curious fashion. Invisible Cities has been providing epigraphs for me for each of this year's crop of book's celebrating the one hundredth edition of the Giro, short little quotes that say something important about each of the books reviewed. It is, I think, a particularly apt source here: Sykes's approach to story-telling may be heavily indebted to Tony Parker (May the Lord in His Mercy be Kind to Belfast) but The Giro 100 comes close to speaking as profoundly about the Giro as Calvino did when writing about Venice in Invisible Cities.

Where Calvino grouped his stories by themes (desire, memory, names, etc) Sykes groups his around a reimagined version of the 1962 Giro d'Italia - a thread linking The Giro 100 back to his first book, the Franco Balmamion biography The Eagle of the Canavese - the stages there here given over to stories told by direttori sportivi, maglie rosa, vincitori, gregari, stranieri ... in short, stories told by people who are part - in one way or another - of the history of the corsa rosa. As with the way Sykes told the story of the Giro in Maglia Rosa they are all stories which seek to humanise the Giro: not quite strip it of its mythic elements, but to show that those myths are about real people, not just larger-than-life characters in well-worn stories.

I had a terrible hunger flat, and I still had five really steep kilometres to climb. I was zigzagging from side to side, just trying to keep the pedals moving, and then I saw an elegant looking woman with a fur coat and heels. I figured I must have been hallucinating with the fatigue, because you didn't see things like that on mountain stages of the Giro d'Italia.

However, as I got closer, she seemed to become real, and she was shouting encouragement at me. Then she ran alongside me and gave me a push. It was probably only a second or two of relief, but I was in such a state that it felt like divine intervention. Maybe she didn't realise it, but she helped me enormously.

I made it to the finish, and later that evening I was having a massage. There was a knock on the door and the soigneur said, 'There's someone to see you.'

The woman with the fur coat walked in, and introduced herself. She said her name was Olga, and that she was the wife of the owner of Molteni. She told me she'd been cheering for me because I was the only Italian in their team. Then she disappeared ...

~ Giancarlo Bellini

In the same way that Maglia Rosa had a number of set-piece chapters - Tino Coletto, Orfeo Ponzin, Italo Zilioli - The Giro 100 serves up two set-piece affairs: an account of the 1974 GS Filcas team, a little-team-that-could fairy tale in the proper sense; and a multi-threaded account of Paolo Savoldelli's victory in the 2002 Giro, which opens with his mother showing Sykes something Savoldelli wrote when he was eight or nine ("My bike used to be broken and I couldn't use it but now it's fixed. I sit on the saddle and pedal and I take the bend at full speed. [...] With my bike I'll be formidable and unbeatable. When they see me the others won't dare race me because there are no other professionals like me in the entire world. Although I'm only a kid, I can even beat Moser if I try really hard ..."). In a way the two stories are one, the Savoldelli story quietly linking back to the GS Filcas tale, it being about a little-team-that-did.

The Giro 100, by Herbie Sykes

Cesare Sangalli - the Giro's mapmaker for over fifty years - provides specially commissioned introductory maps for each of The Giro 100's chapters, his an unseen hand gently guiding the proceedings: "I played my part, because everything was decided according to the drawings I did, the timetables I drew up and the architecture of the stages we put together."

Some of the great stories are told, but from odd angles. So you get Montecampione as told by one of the riders struggling not to be among the 45 riders who Pantani sent home that day or you get a fleeting reference to Merckx on the Tre Cime, from his direttore sportivo. And while the big stars are here - Coppi, Bartali, Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault, Indurain - they are as seen from within the gruppo: Bartali has short arms (he was even tighter than Patrick Lefevere), Indurain is a generous padrone, Anquetil is a true gentleman, Hinault is flawed but humble, Merckx is revered, and Coppi, well Coppi is Coppi.

The Giro 100, by Herbie Sykes

Anna Portinaro was a 'Miss Tappa' at the 1962 Giro: "And that was that - weeks of stress and anxiety for those five minutes as 'Miss Tappa'! Did it go well? I think so. Everyone seemed happy enough, and my dad was proud of me."

Some stories appear several times, such as De Munyck losing the Giro to Gimondi: some think it was a stitch up, there was no desire to see a foreigner win the race, some think that De Munyck simply screwed it up. This isn't about creating a definitive version of events, this is about showing how the Giro is understood: there are facts - who won what where when and how - and there are contradictory opinions about how those facts came about and sometimes it's best to just sit back and embrace the complexity, enjoy the uncertainty. (At least one of the stories told to Sykes is pure imagination, but he's not telling which one.)

The Giro 100, by Herbie Sykes

Giovanni Tarello, one of the tifosi, tells a story about one of his heroes, Adriano Pella, who gave away his cap to a little girl one day and was rewarded for his kindness with a week's holiday in Forte Dei Marmi.

There's so much to laugh at, like when Dorino Vanzo tells how he became a philosopher or Marcello Bergano describes a failed café raid or Aurelio Cestari talks about the Bobets attacking right at the moment they got Charly Gaul at the side of the road with his cock out. There's much to be sad about, such as Benedetto Patellaro's account of winning a stage while his father was dying of cancer. But no bitterness, despite the dreams shattered on the rocks of reality. And modesty, even from giants ("People say I was a champion, but I never felt like one; in fact I maintain that I wasn't one," says Gianni Motta).

The Giro 100, by Herbie Sykes

Another of Cesare Sangalli's maps commissioned for The Giro 100, this introducing the chapter in which people involved with the organising of the race tell their stories.

In short, The Giro 100 is probably the saddest, sweetest, funniest and most thoughtful cycling book I've yet reviewed for the Café Bookshelf. For English-speaking cycling fans, it's the Giro d'Italia book that effortlessly shows you why the corsa rosa matters. Though you'll probably have to read it several times to really grasp some of its buried depths.

I remember that first win with absolute clarity. It was the first summit finish of my first Giro, and I'd never seen so many people at a bike race before.20 / It was a mountain full of humanity, and that was when I truly understood the love that people had for the sport.21 / It had taken me ten years, but I'd finally won a bike race.22 / The following day there was a time trial around the town, and that's where my cycling career started to fall apart.23 / There were times when I literally shat myself from the sheer physical exertion, but I was a racing cyclist and physical exertion was what I was about.24 / I can laugh about it now, but at the time it was just humiliating.25 / As I said, none of us really knew what we were doing ...26 / I stopped aged twenty-eight, and I've regretted it ever since. I'm still convinced I had a lot more to give ...27 / It's been five years since I stopped and, if I'm honest I'm still coming to terms with it.28 / We're almost irrelevant now, because while we venerate the past, it moves on regardless.29 / We might take it for granted, but as Italians the bike is part of our DNA.30 / The thing that hurts me most was - and is - the capacity to forget.31 / I kept a stone from the Gavia for forty years, but then in 2000 I donated it to the Museum of Dreams at Feltre.32

1 Florio Brale 2 Piergiorgio Camussa 3 Fausto Bertoglio 4 Gianni Motta 5 Orlando Maini 6 Ennio Salvador 7 Stefano Diciatteo 8 Davide Boifava 9 Ugo Colombo 10 Giorgio Zancanaro 11 Tommy Prim 12 Gianbattista Baronchelli 13 Enrico Zaina 14 Simone Fraccaro 15 Oscar Pellicioli 16 Claudio Bortolotto 17 Giancarlo Bellini 18 Phil Edwards 19 Pietro Zoppas 20 Mario Becca 21 Fabrizio Delmati 22 Renato Laghi 23 Fiorenzo Tomasin 24 Massimiliano Strazzer 25 Fiorenzo Tomasin 26 Remigio Zanatta 27 Remo Rocchia 28 Dario Andrioti 29 Gianpaolo Ormezzano 30 Ennio Doris 31 Claudio Gregori 32 Cesare Sangalli