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QUINTESSENTIALLY AND EMPHATICALLY ITALIAN, THE GIRO D'ITALIA IS PART RACE, PART PANTOMIME. IN THIS, ITS CENTENARY YEAR, WE CELEBRATE THE CORSA ROSA'S UNPARALLELED PANACHE AND UNPREDICTABLE HISTORY.

 

It’s tempting to think of the Giro d’Italia as a poor man’s Tour de France. By the time the inaugural edition rolled out of Milan in 1909, the transalpini had been up and running for six years. Whilst the Tour introduced its maillot jaune as early as 1923, Italians had need wait until 1931 for the maglia rosa. Italy routinely produced the better cyclists back then, but the Tour has always had more money and more prestige, and as such more of the world’s most talented riders. It has more of just about everything and as such, for the casual observer at least, it is the bike race. The Tour, as Italians are apt to lament, is the Tour. It’s the one race which transcends mere sport, a commercial juggernaut and a gigantic, high-summer pastiche of French grandeur. Seamlessly choreographed and immensely profitable, it’s everything that the Giro is not. A good deal bigger, then, but in professional sport bigger is very seldom better. For all its money-making acumen and all that it envelops an entire sporting continent, the reality is that the Tour has never been the Giro’s equal as a bicycle race. For over a century its route has been formulaic, its climate predictable, its racing anodyne by comparison.

 
 
"It’s the Giro d’Italia, the sporting synthesis of the Bel Paese. Put simply, it doesn’t do order."
 

Lance Armstrong “won” seven consecutive Tours, the Spanish automaton Miguel Indurain five. Meanwhile Fausto Coppi, irrefutably the greatest of all time, somehow contrived to lose eight of the thirteen giri he started. Physically there was nobody to touch him, and yet he was routinely undone by the Giro’s myriad enigmas. He was betrayed by mutinous gregari, duplicitous opponents and, in 1948, by mendacious officialdom. There were crashes (1950), mechanicals (1946) and even, in 1954, a suspect seafood salad. Only once did he retain the maglia rosa, and no Italian has retained it at all for 54 years. That seems incredible given the intensity of their relationship with it, but in point of fact it’s entirely illustrative. It’s the Giro d’Italia, the sporting synthesis of the Bel Paese. Put simply, it doesn’t do order.

Who could have scripted the tsunami which followed Marco Pantani’s dramatic expulsion in 1998? What of the apocalypse on the Bondone in 1956, or the 1988 blizzard which broke maglia rosa Franco Chioccioli on the Gavia? Then Eddy Merckx’ demolition of Felice Gimondi on Tre Cime di Lavaredo in 1968, the mysterious doping scandal which snared him the following year, or his titanic struggle with gallant young ‘Tista Baronchelli in ‘74? What of the delirium (and moral torpor) which accompanied Francesco Moser’s success in 1984? The lunacy which impelled them to introduce a pink jersey at the very height of fascist rule? The romance and heartbreak of Lauro Bordin’s maniacal 350 kilometre lone breakaway in 1914? Then Louison Bobet’s hatchet job of race leader Charly Gaul in 1957? Bobet stopped for a call of nature he didn’t need and then, when Gaul followed suit, remounted and left him contemplating his naval. It cost Gaul one of the truly great giri, but he’d have his pound of flesh the following day, sabotaging Bobet’s day in the sun by coalescing with the Tuscan Gastone Nencini.

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"Resolutely chaotic and resolutely human, it remains fundamentally a work of contemporary art."

 

Finally last year’s race, one of the best in recent times, animated by Chaves and Kruijswijk but salvaged, at the death, by Vincenzo Nibali. Notwithstanding the stolid globalist imperative, the Giro refuses – or is incapable – to subscribe to modern cycling’s one-size-fits-all matrix. These days its lead actors are seldom drawn from Tuscany, Veneto and Lombardy, but its character and temperament are still quintessentially and obdurately Italian. Thus its attempts at transforming itself into a slick sales and marketingdriven operation are so clumsy as to be frankly risible. That’s because, for all that it may pretend otherwise, at its root it’s the antithesis of the “corporate” events which increasingly dominate the sporting landscape. Resolutely chaotic and resolutely human, it remains fundamentally a work of contemporary art. It’s an object lesson in how not to organise a 21st century bike race and therein, paradoxically but very obviously, lies its greatest virtue. God forbid that it should ever mutate into something – a pale imitation of the Tour – that it isn’t.

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And so to Fabio Aru’s Sardinia, starting point of the 100th edition. Sadly, with Aru out of the Giro there will be no dualismo which characterised the race during the “golden age”, but almost entirely appropriately it will island-hop to Nibali’s Sicily next. Race director Mauro Vegni may not get an old-fashioned mano a mano, but there is a stellar group of stranieri waiting to take the maglia rosa from Nibali. Nairo Quintana, Mikel Landa and Ilnur Zakarin, the Yates brothers, Geraint Thomas, Bauke Mollema and Tejay Van Garderen lay in wait. The centenary edition, driven by the ferocious ambition of new owner Urbano Cairo, has its best peloton for decades.

 

Hold on to your hats.

THE GIRO AT 50

 

By 1967 a swashbuckling new generation of Italians had emerged, and with it an authentic superstar. Two years earlier, team Salvarani had dispatched a 22-year-old ‘neo-pro’ to the Tour. Felice Gimondi hadn’t wanted to go, but they had handed him a new contract by way of inducement. Gregario or otherwise, he’d gotten into the break on stage three, and tried on the yellow jersey for size. Then, astonishingly, he had kept it all the way to Paris.

 

Thereafter his rivalry with Gianni Motta, an impossibly talented Steve McQueen lookalike, had re-energised the sport. Motta had won the 49th Giro and now, with anticipation at fever pitch, the golden anniversary edition would pit the two of them against the great Jacques Anquetil. The Frenchman had won five Tours and two giri, so a Gimondi win here would represent a genuine changing of the guard. Everyone – La Gazzetta dello Sport, the sponsors, broadcasters and tifosi – had a vested interest in seeing the boy wonder win the fiftieth edition maglia rosa. As such the race began amidst fevered speculation of a so-called “holy alliance”. Rumour had it that the Italian teams would set aside their differences and combine against the transalpino Anquetil in the common (which is to say Italian) interest.

The race developed into a three-way tussle between Gimondi, Anquetil and another former winner, Franco Balmamion. He’d begun the Giro working for Motta, but with the Milanese off the pace their rolls had been reversed. Problem was that Anquetil assumed the pink jersey on the final Friday, a humdinger over four Dolomite passes. With two stages remaining he led the people’s choice by 34 seconds, with the anti-hero Balmamion lurking at 47. That was categorically not supposed to happen, but worse news still was to follow as overnight snow forced a penultimate stage reroute. Instead of the mighty Stelvio they’d climb Tonale and Aprica, each much lower, ergo better suited to the passista Anquetil.

Only for some reason Anquetil turned up at the start minus four of his domestiques. Objectively it made no sense given that the Giro – and by extension its prize money – was still to play for. Once the racing began the Frenchman lost contact on the Tonale, but teammate Lucian Aimar dragged him back on. However, when Gimondi attacked at the base of the Passo Aprica, neither Anquetil nor Balmamion lifted a finger. More bizarrely still their respective gregari di lusso, Aimar and Motta, also sat up. Thus the poster-boy Gimondi rode, unchallenged, into the maglia rosa of the golden anniversary Giro.

Fifty years and fifty giri on, it remains one of the great unsolved mysteries in the history of the Corsa Rosa…

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