La Dolce Vita - By Holly Blades 4/5/2012
The Italians love cycling. Whether it's because they keep producing some of the biggest personalities in the sport – Coppi, Bartali, Pantani, Cipollini to name a few – or have some of the most impressive cycling roads in the world, I don't know, but they're the only nationality whose fandom has actually garnered its own nickname, “The Tifosi”. It's perhaps unsurprising that the Italians get a little excited around this time of year in the run up to the Giro d'Italia, their equivalent of the Tour de France. Only, don't say that to their faces – in Italy, they are more likely to sneer “Tour de what? This is Giro country man!” as they neck their Espresso in disgust and flick their Sigaro Toscano ash into your face.
But, it's undeniable that the Giro wouldn't exist without the Tour. Having seen the success of Frenchman Henri Desgrange's cross country bike race to promote sports newspaper l'Auto, the owners of Italy's La Gazzetta dello Sport announced their own event five years later, in 1908, solely aimed at shifting copies of the pink papered tabloid.
And so, on 13th May, 1909 (at just before 3am!) 127 riders started the first ever Giro d'Italia on Piazzale Loreto in Milan. To date the shortest edition of the Giro, the race covered just 2,445km. Oh, but that was over 8 stages rather than the now more common 21 or 22 stages. That works out at an average of 306km per stage rather than, for example, 165km per stage in 2012. Of the 127 participants that started the event (all Italian save for four Frenchmen) only 49 crossed the finish line back in Milan on the 30th May.
The race was originally won via a points system, much like operates in the Sprinter's Jersey competition currently - only inversely. The first rider across the line won one point, whilst the number increased as the peloton rolled in – 2 for 2nd, 3 for 3rd etc. The 1909 winner Luigi Ganna, whilst finishing on the podium in six of the eight stages, would have lost by over half an hour to Giovanni Rossignoli (who was in third place!) if the modern day “accumulative time” approach had been taken.
The Italians have always been pretty hardcore, let's say “patriotic”, about the Giro. In the second edition in 1910, a French rider Jean-Baptiste Dortignacq had the “gaul” (yes, I went there) to win a stage. This made him a threat, and an Italian coalition was formed against him. After Stage 4, Dortignacq became mysteriously ill. Now, I'm not saying he was poisoned, but the police investigated and 20 riders were disqualified with Dortignacq himself having to abandon. In 1984 it was strongly suspected that race organisers altered the course, not apparently due to adverse weather conditions as stated, but so Italian rider Francesco Moser wouldn't lose any more time to nearest rival, France's Laurent Fignon. It was also rumoured that the TV helicopters aided Moser in the final time trial, flying in front of Fignon to create a headwind and behind Moser to create a tailwind! In 1987, eventual winner Stephen Roche became the Tifosi's public enemy number one when he found himself in pink after several good time trial performances at the expense of team mate and reigning champion Roberto Visentini. With his team against him and the Italian fans determined to make his race as difficult as possible, including booing and spitting at him as he rode past, Roche had only his Belgian domestique Eddy Schepers to rely on and eventually enlisted the aid of old friends and current Panasonic riders Robert Millar and Phil Anderson to assist him. They actually formed a human barrier between Roche and the Tifosi at one point!
The 1914 edition of the race was the first to adopt the overall timing classification in favour of the points classificiation, and in 1924 an even bigger change took place when Mulan wannabe Alfonsina Strada took her place on the startline. Yes, that's “her” place. A strike reduced the amount of racers willing to take part in the 12th Giro d'Italia so organisers allowed the 'man on the street' to enter, so Alfonsina dropped the feminine 'a' from the end of her name and pinned on Number 72. She completed the first seven stages before a run of bad luck saw her exclusion, although, in true Disney fashion, the organisers admired her pluck and she was allowed to continue to partake in the stages even though she was no longer qualified to compete for the overall classification. The only woman to ever take part in the Giro d'Italia finished 20 hours down on eventual winner Giuseppe Enrici.
Never one to let a decent rider get in the way of an entertaining ride, Alfredo Binda who took his third victory in a row in the 1929 race (his fourth overall) was paid 22,500 lire to not take part in the 1930 edition. That was more than the winner of the actual race took home. Fortunately (or is that unfortunately?) Tour de France organisers didn't think to do the same to a certain Texan in 2003.
1935 saw the name Gino Bartali on the start list for the first time. Bartali is a rider that I could wax lyrical about until the cows return to their field, unpack their bags, and kick their shoes off. Bartali won the Mountains Classification in his first ever Giro and won the race itself the next year and twice more after that. His rivalry with Fausto Coppi, who won the first Giro he competed in in 1940 (and still remains the youngest ever winner at just 20 years old) is infamous throughout cycling history. Remember how uncomfortable you felt watching Lance and Bertie ride together for Astana knowing they hated each other? Or back in the days of LeMond and Bernard “The Badger” Hinault? It was that, only on steel frames and in black and white. Bartali was the God-fearing country boy who taught the Pope how to ride a bike, Coppi was the innovative city kid who, when the two were racing on the same team, attacked to win the Giro rather than aid Bartali, his team mate. This rivalry continued way into the 1950's when, after both being suspended for quitting and climbing off the 1948 World Championships rather than help each other, they shared an “olive branch” bidon on a climb in the 1952 Tour de France. And then promptly fell out again over whom it had been that made the first move towards the peace offering.
The Giro d'Italia has had its fair share of controversy over the years, ranging from the usual doping allegations/revelations to several protests from riders that the race is just too hard or dangerous. It's true that it's difficult to watch Pedro Horrillo plunge down a ravine in 2009 (he thankfully survived!) or see Cadel Evans lead the bunch up the rain slicked Strade Bianche in 2010 looking like they're emerging bleary eyed from the trenches, or even hear tales of race leader Costante Girardengo climbing off his bike in 1921, drawing a cross in the road and exclaiming “Giradengo stops here”. without picturing race organisers twirling their cartoon villain moustaches and rubbing their hands together gleefully. The giro has always been fiendishly difficult. It's like the early days of the Tour when Henri Desgrange, in his best Blackadder's Queenie voice, would say “This is boring, make them do this instead.” Only, the Giro never grew out of that. It still takes cyclists to their limits, to extremes even they didn't know they could achieve, and it does it with style, panache and some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.
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