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The magic and glory of the Giro

From issue 76 • Words by John Wilcockson w/images by Yuzuru Sunada

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“The Giro d’Italia by bicycle is one of the last meccas of the imagination, a stronghold of romanticism.”
— Italian novelist Dino Buzzati, writing in the Corriere della Sera newspaper in 1949

The final stage of the 1989 Giro d’Italia was an individual time trial of almost 54 kilometers. It started in the center of Prato among its 12th century churches and palaces, its orange trees and its fountain statue of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine. The course was completely flat, heading south and then east through the open fields of Tuscany to reach the city of Florence. The final kilometers hugged the Arno River, passing the ancient Ponte Vecchio on one side and the Uffizi, with its unrivaled collection of Renaissance art, on the other. The riders then turned right across the San Niccolò bridge to head up a curving climb to finish in the Piazza Michelangelo, where spectators in their Sunday best cheered the Giro’s finishers, lined up for gelato on this sun-filled afternoon and gazed in awe past the Renaissance statues and over the terracotta rooftops to what must be the most beautiful townscape in the world.

Not every Giro finishes in Florence. It’s not like the Tour de France, which has always ended in Paris. The Giro is different. Last year, it concluded in front of Milan’s multi-spired cathedral; the year before that, it was in Turin’s arcaded streets; two years before that, it was in the port city of Trieste; and four years before that, it finished inside the Roman arena of Verona. You get the picture, right? Giro organizer RCS Sport—an offshoot of the Italian sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport—has a plethora of historic sites, both architectural and natural, at which to finish (and start) bike races.

That’s why RCS has chosen Siena’s splendid 12th century Piazza del Campo as a spectacular finish venue for Strade Bianche, its instant spring classic. And, of course, it was in nearby Florence that the Giro ended in 1989, the year that RCS was established as a company separate from La Gazzetta. That Giro also happened to be the last one fully organized by Vincenzo Torriani, the colorful, chain-smoking race boss who’d been at the Giro’s helm for 40 years. When he came aboard, Italy’s grand tour had finished in Milan every year except one (1911, when it started and finished in Rome).

Torriani, a native of Milan, took over from Armando Cougnet, the man who founded the Giro in 1909 and directed the race until passing the baton to the then 30-year-old Torriani. The young new patron had greater flair and a more adventurous spirit than his predecessor. His reputation was established fast because his first year in charge, 1949, coincided with the apogee of the rivalry between national icons Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi. And Torriani started that Giro in Sicily, after putting the participants on ships sailing from Genoa in the north and Naples in the center down to Palermo in Italy’s deep south.

It was Torriani who gave the Giro a different character than the Tour’s—a fearless face that remains to this day. He wasn’t afraid to test new ideas, as he did by adding the Poggio climb to Milan–San Remo and the Sormano “wall” to the Tour of Lombardy. Torriani gave the Giro its first non-Italian send-off in 1966 with a fashionable Gran Partenza in Monte Carlo. Seven years later, by which time Eddy Merckx had won the Giro three times, Torriani took the race to the Cannibal’s homeland, starting in Verviers, near Liège, from where he routed the race to Cologne in Germany, Luxembourg City, Strasbourg in France and Geneva in Switzerland before reaching Italy at the end of stage 4. Merckx grabbed the leader’s pink jersey on Day 1 in Belgium and defended it all the way to the finish in Trieste.

Perhaps Torriani’s most outlandish feats were ending the whole Giro in 1975 on top of the Passo dello Stelvio at 2,770 meters (9,088 feet) above sea level and, in 1978, finishing a 12-kilometer time trial in Venice’s St. Mark’s Square by building a temporary scaffolding-and-wood bridge across the Grand Canal. That TT was won by Francesco Moser who, six years later, grabbed the Giro victory from race leader Laurent Fignon in the final time trial to Verona, but only after Torriani favored his fellow Italian by substituting the stage over a supposedly snowbound Stelvio with a much flatter route. But to be fair, in his 1989 swansong, Torriani favored Fignon over defending champion Andy Hampsten by canceling the stage over the Passo di Gavia, where the American climber was planning to make his bid for a second overall victory.

Such stories, especially the rivalries, have set the Giro apart from the other grand tours. The first Giro legends, Costante Girardengo and Alfredo Binda, totaled seven overall victories in the years between the two world wars. Bartali and Coppi totaled nine wins between 1936 and 1953. But after four decades of the Giro being an all-Italian affair, its horizons began to open in Torriani’s reign, starting with the first non-Italian victory by Switzerland’s Hugo Koblet in 1950. The international presence expanded exponentially through the multiple successes of Charly Gaul, Jacques Anquetil, Merckx and Bernard Hinault. Their victories gave more significance to the home wins of Franco Balmamion, Felice Gimondi, Giuseppe Saronni and Moser.

But the Giro is much, much more than its list of illustrious champions. It’s also about the tension and excitement that builds up before every Gran Partenza. It’s about the incredible passion of the partisan fans, the tifosi. It’s about the architectural richness of Italy’s cities and monuments. It’s about the incomparable beauty of the Dolomites and the Tuscan hills. It’s about the insufferably hot days of racing through Calabria and the snowbound stages in the Alps. It’s about the country’s culinary finesse and, with a tip of the hat to Bacchus, its delightfully picturesque vineyards—no wonder RCS Sport now features time trials in different wine regions: Chianti one year, Prosecco another and, this year, the Trentino. It’s also about the stylishness of its bike-related industry (Bianchi, Campagnolo, Castelli, Colnago, Pinarello, Santini and Wilier are just a few of the iconic brands) and the panache of its heroes (the elegant Coppi, the flamboyant Mario Cipollini and the tragically popular Marco Pantani).

The media have also contributed immensely to the Giro’s unique cachet. The race was invented by La Gazzetta dello Sport; journalists helped create the race’s myths and traditions; and it was stories in the press that inflamed emotions around the rivalries of Coppi and Bartali, Gimondi and Merckx, Saronni and Moser. And when Stephen Roche displaced his Carrera teammate Roberto Visentini from the maglia rosa in 1987, it was the partisan reporting that led to the tifosi hurling epithets and missiles at the traitorous Irishman. In calmer times, and because of the smaller press corps at the Giro than the Tour, a lyricism can inflect the writing of scribes typing in the wood-paneled chambers of a medieval city hall or the ornate ballroom of a belle époque palace, rather than the anonymous space of a basketball arena or modern convention center in France.

Working in the pressroom at the 1949 Giro, Dino Buzzati wrote about the severity of the riders’ challenges: “Their enemies are called distance, grade, suffering, rain, fear, tears and wounds.” Thirteen of the race’s 19 stages that year were longer than 200 kilometers, two almost 300 kilometers. The epic alpine stage from Cuneo to Pinerolo that Coppi won by 12 minutes from Bartali took more than nine hours and crossed five major passes: the Maddalena, Vars, Izoard, Montgenèvre and Sestriere. There were plenty of steep grades on that stage, especially with riders using the higher low gears of that era (Coppi climbed on a 47×21 or 47×24). The suffering, fear and wounds that Buzzati listed remain among racers’ enemies today…and the Giro organizers are constantly looking for new difficulties. This year’s 101st edition, for instance, features 11 summit finishes: four of them on hilltops and seven on mountains, including the horrendously steep, 10-kilometer-long Monte Zoncolan and its 20-percent grades. What also sets the Giro apart is the more frequent use of narrow, twisting downhills that can be as decisive as (and far more dangerous than) the uphills.

When this year’s Giro comes to a close outside the Colosseum in Rome on May 27, there will be the usual celebrations by the winners, but also the satisfaction of completion by the lowliest gregario, the staff members of the 22 teams, the race organizers, the officials, the publicity teams and the media. After the 1949 Giro ended with a mass sprint at the Monza autodrome, many of the 65 finishers stayed on their bikes to ride into the sun setting over the rooftops of Milan. They’d been on the road for almost a month, first sailing the length of Italy to the start in Sicily, then racing more than 4,000 kilometers in 19 stages with overnights stops at big cities such as Naples, Rome, Venice, Genoa. San Remo and Turin, and small towns like Salerno, Pesaro, Bassano and Modena.

Recalling his and his newspaper colleagues’ departure from Monza among the flotilla of vehicles heading home, Buzzati wrote: “The racers saw our dusty car, our official nameplate, our sunbaked faces. We belonged to the same gang…fragments of a small, fascinating world that was at last dispersing to re-enter the dullness of everyday life.” The magic had ended for another year.

From issue 76. Buy it here.