The Giro d’Italia…not just another cycling race

Alberto Sarrantonio
May 19, 2005

Sunday, May 15th the colourful carovana (caravan of Giro d’Italia (Tour of Italy) made its cheerful entry into Florence, which hosted the arrival of the 9th tappa (stage) of the 88th edition of La Corsa Rosa (The Pink Race), as the Giro is affectionately nicknamed. The Giro d’Italia is one of the most prestigious cycling stage races in the world, alongside the Tour de France and Vuelta a España. Its very first edition dates back to the early years of last century. On May 13th 1909, at 2:53 in the morning, 127 participants left from Milan to adventure along 2,448 kilometers divided over 8 stages. Only 49 brave men would make it to the end, with Luigi Ganna arriving first on the finishing line. Since its birth, the Giro d’Italia has always been sponsored and organised by la Gazzetta dello Sport, the most established Italian sport newspaper also known as La Rosa (The Pink) due to the colour of the paper it is printed on. That is why after each stage the race leader wears La Maglia Rosa (The Pink Jersey) as a sign of distinction from the other participants. The nickname of the sponsoring paper also explains the nickname of the Giro.

 

Over the years the Giro has turned from a sports event into a mass social phenomenon. To Italians the Giro is not just a cycling race but rather one of the highest moments of collective interest in which the whole nation can participate. Its popularity is so high that during the weeks the race is on, even football, the most popular sport in the Bel Paese, sort of steps aside and gives up the spotlight to these tireless men and their glittering bicycles. Cycling is mainly a sport of suffering and sacrifice; it is about men challenging themselves in severe weather conditions; it is the dream of a victory chased on steep mountain roads up which even cars would struggle. In other words, cycling is a metaphor for life - something people can easily relate to. The Giro is an invisible thread linking generations of Italians with the stories of its numerous champions: Coppi and Bartali in the 40’s, Moser and Saronni in the 80’s, Bugno and Pantani in the 90’s. These, as well as with many others, are the heroes that have brought large crowds onto the roads, glued eyes to the TV, and stuck ears to the radio for years and years. After all, the Giro has always been perceived as a sort of extended national holiday, each day touching several towns and villages along the track of the daily stage. In addition to that, since 1953 the Giro has been broadcasted live on television, thus bringing various corners of Italy into the homes of all Italians. From a social point of view, in those years the Giro certainly contributed to spreading a feeling of belonging and to reviving a nation that was about to live its boom years later in the 60’s.

 

The Giro 2005 started in Reggio Calabria on May 7th and will finish in Milan on Sunday, May 29th after 20 stages for a total distance of 3,498 kilometres. Last weekend the Giro re-endorsed its deep bonds with Florence and with Tuscany at large.  As a matter of fact, not only has Tuscany been home to superb artists, fine poets, inspired fashion designers, and excellent wine-makers but it has also given birth to some of the most successful Italian cyclists of all time. Above all is Gino Bartali or Ginettaccio (grumpy Gino), as he was called because of his habit of complaining about almost everything. “Gli è tutto sbagliato, gli è tutto da rifare” (it’s all wrong, it all needs be redone) was his favourite sentence with which he would approach journalists at the end of a race.  Besides all his victories (Bartali won the Giro three times and twice won the Tour de France), his epic dualism with the unforgettable all-time legend Fausto Coppi is memorable.  The Italian icon (Bartali) was from Ponte a Ema - a little village in the southern outskirts of Florence, and owes at least part of his fame to an anecdote that dates back to the late 40’s. In those times Italy was slowly recovering from the destruction it had suffered during World War II and the poverty that the conflict had left behind. Although with the referendum of 1946 people had voted in favour of the creation of a Republic and so had brought to an end the monarchy of the Savoia, the Italian Royal Family, the country was still politically unstable and overwrought by social tension. On July 14th 1948, Palmiro Togliatti, leader of the left wing party was shot in an assassination attempt by a fanatic political opponent. In the days after the shooting tensions throughout the nation were growing out of control and fear of an imminent revolution was widespread, when from France came the news that Gino Bartali had just won the Tour de France. As if in a fairytale, those who had been protesting angrily in the streets for days magically began celebrating the victory of the national hero and the crisis eventually fizzled. Well to be honest, it is always difficult to draw a line between history and myth; however, this is the version that every grandfather would tell his grandkids.

 

Among the other cyclists born in Tuscany, to mention just a few, there are individuals such as: Gastone Nencini, also known as il Leone del Mugello (Lion of Mugello, being born in Bilancino, a village that now sits under the artificial lake that was created in Mugello during the late 90’s) for the courage shown in the victorious Giro of 1957 and Tour de France of 1960; Franco Chioccioli, winner of 1991 Giro, nicknamed Coppino (little Coppi) for his astonishing resemblance to Fausto Coppi; and Re Leone (Lion King) Mario Cipollini, the sprinter lucchese (from Lucca) who in 2003 set the record of stage wins (42) at the Giro. Right before the beginning of this year’s race, Cipollini announced his decision to appendere la bicicletta al chiodo (hang up the bicycle) and terminate a successful career by taking part in the prologo (preliminary stage) in Reggio Calabria. On such an important occasion “Big Mario” waved his farewell to his adoring fans in a most flamboyant way: he rode a completely pink bicycle and wore a fluorescent pink cycling suit on which were printed all 42 wins at the Giro. “Cipolla” has always been famous for being keen on fashion and looks. Once he even went on to the podium to receive the winner’s prize wearing a flamboyant white linen suit. Can you imagine that? More proof of the Italian predilection for aesthetics.

 

 

When looking at the favourites of this year’s race, one must take into consideration Paolo Bettini. Grillo (cricket), as he is called for his lightweight build, comes from Cecina, a seaside village in the province of Leghorn and has already shown all his strength by conquering the Maglia Rosa in the initial stages. What can we say? Time passes but Tuscans are always in the front line with their thirst for excellence.

 

Sunday was the 29th time that a stage of the Giro ended in the città del giglio (city of the fleur-de-lis), the first time was during the very first race in 1909, the last time was 16 years ago in 1989. The 45km time-trial stage ending in Viale Lincoln, right in the middle of the Cascine Park, started from Lamporecchio, home town to the brigidini, typical anise sweets. Hopefully you had the opportunity to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon out in the city enjoying the nature and granting yourselves full exposure to a truly Italian phenomenon. Viva (hurrah) la Maglia Rosa. Viva il Giro. Viva l’Italia.

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