Vincenzo Nibali passes the emotional crowd in Palermo on Saturday

The return of Italy’s great bike race

The return of Italy’s great bike race

The return of Italy’s great bike race


t was hot and the Sirocco winds blew warm air down the narrow, towering streets. I was sat eating a cannolo and sipping an espresso when I overheard two men next to me talking about the Giro d’Italia. On their table were two coffees and a copy of La Gazzetta Dello Sport. One had his phone out searching, the other was writing things down on a small piece of folded paper.

“Filippo Ganna,” said the one on the phone.

“At what time?” asked the other.

The man with the paper wrote it down.

“Elia Viviani, 16:00.”

“And Nibali?” asked the one with the paper.

It was Saturday and it was the first day of the Giro d’Italia, Italy’s great bicycle race. For over one hundred years it has been held in May, but this year it is being held in October and is much needed in the beautiful country. Italy needed its race.

After the images we all saw broadcast around the world of coffins piling up in northern Italy as coronavirus arrived in Europe, this year’s Giro d’Italia has far more significance as the moment Italy could regain some normality.

Perhaps to many, a sporting event is the least important thing in the world right now. As long as there are people dying of coronavirus around the world, how small and insignificant a bicycle race must seem. But to many, and to many Italians especially, the return of the Giro is more than a sporting event, it is something deeply cultural.

Before I left London, an Italian friend of mine, Guido, sent me a Spotify playlist made of Italian songs about cycling. I laughed at the idea. In the UK we have sporting songs, it is true, but mostly they are novelty one-hit-wonders (although not without cultural significance), tunes to belt out at a football match or in solidarity. These Italian songs were serious, often ballads, speaking to something altogether deeper and referring to past heroes. Cycling, and sport in general, is ingrained into everyday Italian life, it is something that is so connected with culture that it is difficult to separate. This is why this year’s Corsa Rosa (pink route) means so much more.

A man sits and watches the riders roar past on Stage 1 of the Giro d’Italia 2020(Sean Russell)

On Saturday in La Gazzetta Dello Sport, Italy’s most read newspaper, Pier Bergonzi wrote: “The start of the Giro has always been something magic and miraculous. This time it’s even more so.” To him this was not just the return of a bicycle race, but the chance for Italy to restart as a country.

Stage one, that Saturday, was an individual time trial. Each rider would set out at a predetermined time, each separated by one minute, over the same 15.1km course from Monreale to Palermo. The fastest time wins. It was expected that with the downhill and the tail wind the riders could hit an incredible 100km/h.

“On a day like this,” the man with the folded paper told me, sipping his coffee, “we will come and go from the course. Go have something to eat, a beer, then go watch some more riders coming through.”

“Who will win?” I said.

“Today, Ganna. Overall, Nibali.”

Vincenzo Nibali is Sicily’s own son, born in Messina on the east of the island. The story goes that when he was just 13 years old he first attempted to climb Mount Etna, Sicily’s volcano, on his bike. Halfway up the road he had to surrender but decided he wouldn’t be defeated, he would return. As he grew up Nibali would go on to win all three Grand Tours (Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, and Vuelta a Espana), including the Giro twice. And although he has downplayed his chances in 2020, you can never write him off. After all, he hasn’t finished lower than third in the Giro since 2010 and Italy needs a hero: who knows what strength that will give him?

The Giro d’Italia started in 1909. It was the Italian response to the Tour de France which had begun in 1903. The truth of it was the Giro was dreamed up by La Gazetta as a way of bringing money to the then struggling paper, and it has organised the event ever since. The colour of the leader’s jersey (maglia rosa) is pink because it matches the colour of La Gazzetta’s pages, and, apart from during the wars, it has always taken place in May so as not to clash with the Tour de France, usually in July.

Near the finish line of stage one of the Giro d’Italia 2020(Sean Russell)

As Colin O’Brien mentions in his book Giro d’Italia: The Story of the World’s Most Beautiful Bike Race, the country was changing during this time. It had only been 27 years since Giuseppe Garibaldi had died, and Italy as a “unified” country had only really existed for 39 years. In fact, O’Brien writes, “cycling fans in the Bel Paese [Beautiful Country] sometimes joke that the race has done more to unite Italy than Garibaldi’s Risorgimento ever managed”.

The first race in 1909 was eight stages long over 2,500km, averaging a terrifying 306km a day. The first stage, or Grande Partenza (Great Start) as it’s still known, began on 13 May at 2.53am, and set off from Milan to Bologna. That’s 397km, a distance the modern race wouldn’t even think to cover in one day, let alone on old bikes with heavy frames and without sophisticated gears – and there weren’t many “roads” in the true sense of the word either, often no more than gravel tracks.

It was out of this that the early heroes were born. Mythical in their human strength, will and attrition. Italy finally had “Italian” heroes, but more than that, an image of “Italy” began to take shape. These – mostly Italian – cyclists were covering one country on their bikes, not many.

The modern peloton no longer covers such inhuman distances in one day on poor bikes and terrible roads, but what they achieve is still superhuman. This year they will cover 3,495.8km over 21 stages including climbing high into the mountains. And to win the Giro you need something else, you need to ride aggressively, attacking in the mountains full of Italian passion, leaving your rivals behind you.

Generally the Tour de France is controlled by one or two teams, pacing the race to their liking and stomping out attacks as they happen. In the Giro to go for glory you usually have to attack, often on your own. You see your rivals suffering, sweating, breathing heavily, zig-zagging their bikes up the climb, and that’s the moment the hero strikes and takes off, upping the pace and leaving everyone behind. It doesn’t always work but better to fail a hero than win as a snake.

No mention of Italian cycling heroes is complete without Marco Pantani. Gianni Mura wrote of Pantani – nicknamed The Pirate because of his shaven head, bandanas and earrings – that “more than a cyclist, Pantani is an emotion.” In his book Pedalare! Pedalare! John Foot adds that while Eddy Mercx, perhaps the greatest cyclist of all time, won more races in a year than Pantani won in his career, when Pantani did win it was “memorable, spectacular, tear-inducing”.

Marco Pantani, here in the maglia rosa, was known for his attacking climbing(Getty)

Pantani is remembered as a great attacking climber, the Giro personified. When he was preparing to take off he would begin a little tease. He would remove his bandana, or perhaps his glasses, or even his earring, and then off he went leaving the others behind. It’s this passionate drama and performance that makes the Giro what it is and why Pantani is still remembered, sadly and fondly, and held in great reverence to this day; he is part of the myth of the Giro, part of the myth of Italy. Pantani took his own life in 2004 in Rimini after never recovering from being accused of doping and being removed from the Giro d’Italia in 1999.

I was stood by the side of the finish straight in Palermo when Britain’s Simon Yates roared past.

The crowd cheered and shouted and banged the barriers. He wasn’t Italian and for every other rider that had passed the crowd had been mostly mute, a few claps and whistles.

“Simon was a hero,” Guido had told me. “A tragic hero because he attacked so hard and wore the pink jersey for two weeks in 2018, he was exciting, and then nothing.”

In 2018 Yates rode a spectacular, attacking race, the type Italians love, and won three stages. Then in the last week, three days away from winning the Giro, he “blew up”. He couldn’t keep up anymore and lost 30 minutes (years in cycling terms) to Chris Froome who would take the maglia rosa that year. This is the Giro d’Italia. It’s the stories and the battles and the drama. Yates didn’t win that year, but that extraordinary story is remembered, even while he rode past this Saturday.

“The race’s history is littered with riders who were nailed-on to win it,” writes O’Brien. “Right up until the moment when they don’t.”

This is the culture of the Giro, the great Italian bike race. It is why it is my favourite tour and it’s why it is so important to Italy now.

As I moved around Palermo from spot to spot, I saw many people with little pieces of folded over paper, a few scribbled Italian names and the time they were set to start the time trial.

“For Italians, if they’re into something, then they know everything about it,” said Guido.

A man watches with his folded piece of paper of names and times(Sean Russell)

But there were also those with their own bikes, decked out in their lycra gear.

One man brought his expensive bike over to where I was stood and lifted it up and over a “do not cross” chain and then he stepped over as well so he could catch a glimpse of the riders. A policeman came over to him… and asked to him about the bike.

“È bellisima!” (It’s very beautiful!)

Cycling in Italy is not just a luxury like it is often perceived to be in the UK. In Italy it is how you get around; it’s how you get to the shops or to your grandma’s or to school or work. The early heroes were mostly peasants just hoping to finish and be rewarded with a race-completion fee. The very first winner, Luigi Ganna, was the ninth son of peasant farmers. The Giro became the manifestation of that democratic idea. The mostly poor raced in front of the mostly poor. It was a sporting event that literally came to you, past your house. And it still is, to a large extent. It still may come by people’s houses (the route changes every year), it’s still free to go and shout by the side of the road. And not only that, amateurs can ride the same routes as their heroes and even compare themselves on Strava; how many sports can you directly compare yourself to your heroes and see how superhuman they are?

As I was watching, a lady walked over to the Carabinieri (domestic police) and asked when she could cross the road.

“It finishes about 5pm,” he said.

She threw her hands up in the air – you can’t please everybody. Meanwhile a boy in a pink Giro T-shirt screamed: “Vai! Vai! Vai!” (Go! Go! Go!) and clapped his hands wildly at every rider who came around the corner on the course.

And then you could hear it in the crowd. Two men were sat behind me, the live footage on their phone, sharing a large bottle of beer with two glasses, I heard them say: “Nibali’s coming.”

The entire crowd’s mumblings were louder, they all knew it too, and then like a wind roaring down the street around the corner hurtling towards us you could hear great cheers and shouts and whistles getting closer and closer and then he appeared around the corner.

“Vincenzo, Vincenzo!”

“Vai Vincenzo, vai, vai, vai!”

“Ciao, Ciao Vincenzo!”

Everyone who was sat at tables stood and cheered and banged as Sicily’s son came around that corner and smiled and laughed and waved their arms in the air and had tears in their eyes and all were shouting and all happy and for a moment those images of the coffins could be forgotten, at least for a moment…

After winning a bronze medal in the Women’s World Championships at Imola, the week before, Italian Elisa Longo Borghini said: “This bronze medal means so much for me, especially thinking about how Italy was considered back in March. We were seen as the virus spreaders of Europe, but now we’re seen as an example in the fight against the pandemic.”

Italy continues to be an example, managing to organise and host last week’s World Championships in 20 days and keep coronavirus under control across the country far better than much of Europe. Maybe this long-awaited, much-deserved Giro d’Italia really will mean Italy can start again.

On Saturday it wasn’t Nibali who would win the time trial, but another Italian, Filippo Ganna, who had only a week before been crowned time trial world champion. An Italian was in the pink jersey; could the race have started any better for the Bel Paese?

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