What’s your favourite Grand Tour?

Is it the glitzy, glamorous Tour de France, the race many view as a grand circus, with hundreds of media outlets and a thousand journalists scampering after the big stories daily? It’s the world’s biggest race, and the crowds and the pressure reflect that, with many riders saying they feel they can barely breathe for the whole three weeks.

Perhaps it’s the more laid-back, relaxed Vuelta a Espana, the ‘third son’ of the Grand Tours? The Vuelta regularly features super hard stages and some thrilling finishes, but there’s also the fact that many teams send weakened rosters, reflecting its third tier ranking in the eyes of many cycling fans.

Or is it the Giro d’Italia? For many a fan, and for many a professional rider, it’s the romance of the Maglia Rosa, the race’s famous Pink Jersey, and not the Maillot Jaune of the Tour, which gets the heart beating faster and the hairs to stand up on the back of the neck.   

2019 Gio with the Dolomites rearing up.

Like many things Italian, the Giro is all about elegance, beauty, spirit, and finesse. And underneath all that, there’s a volatility always just below the surface threatening to boil over. This provides the scrappiness and the drama to a race set amidst the beautiful Italian countryside, and it’s what wins the hearts of so many cycling fans. 

2021 Giro.

The Giro d’Italia… 

Just the sound of it takes takes the mind back to those heroic days of the legends Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali, to merino wool jerseys and gravelled roads that whisked the riders away up impossibly steep mountain paths. 

Bartali won three Giro (’36, ’36, ’46), whereas Coppi won five (’40, ’47, ’49, ’52, ’53). But what these facts can’t begin to explain is the enduring appeal that these two great and very different cyclists still hold over Italy – and not just over cycling fans. Say these men’s names to just about any Italian over the age of 20 and they will instantly know who you’re talking about, their feats and battles handed down from generation to generation as folklore.

Coppi, 1951 Tour.
2017 and still they remember.
Bartali wins his 3rd Giro, 1946.
Bartali gets a soaking in France at the Tour, 1952.

The Giro d’Italia… 

The mind flits again to the classic, elegant, skinny steel bikes from Bianchi, De Rosa and Pinarello. In Italy today there is an event called l’Eroica, which in Italian means ‘The Heroic’. Named as one of the ‘Best Bike Rides in the World’ by UK cycling magazine ‘Cycling Weekly’, the route takes the amateur riders over mostly unpaved roads around the beautiful town of Siena, famed for its cathedral. 

But there’s a catch. Each order must wear cycling clothing from the past and each bicycle must be made before 1987. L’Eroica itself is a dynamic, living tribute to the Giro d’Italia of old, and is an event that has been transported to other countries such as Spain and even Japan.

L’Eroica 2018.
L’Eroica 2018
L’Eroica 2018
Gotta love these old bikes!

The Giro d’Italia…

Hear those words and how can you not ‘think pink’? The whole nation of Italy turns pink during May when the race is held, it’s everywhere, on TV shows, website backgrounds, car storerooms, and of course at the race itself. 

The Maglia Rosa, the official race leader’s jersey, is undeniably the coolest and most stylish of the three Grand Tour jerseys. 

SImon Yates in 2018.
May means Pink

But do you know why the jersey is pink? That’s thanks to La Gazetta dello Sport, the newspaper printed on pink paper whose owners founded the event way back in 1903. The editor of the newspaper decided to sponsor a national tour, copying the Tour de France.

However, the owner of the newspaper lacked the funds to sponsor the race. So, the editor and his staff called around Italy to sports fans, company directors and anyone else they could think of, and in the end they had just enough money to hold the event. And a star was born! 

Everyone reads La Gazetta…

The Giro d’Italia…

Any fan of cycling who knows his or her cycling history will know that the race is full of heroes and great stories, but it has also had its villains, and there was one rider who embodies both sides of this.

It is no great exaggeration to say that the infamous Italian Marco Pantani was and indeed remains both a hero to some and a villain to others. And to many, he was both at the same time. 

Known as ‘Il Pirata’ (The Pirate) because of the bandana and earrings he wore, was and still is widely regarded as the greatest climbing specialist in the history of the sport, by measure of his legacy, credits from other riders, and records.

26 Mar 2001: Portrait of Marco Pantani of Italy at the Tour Of Catalonia, Spain. \ Mandatory Credit: Pascal Rondeau /Allsport

Pantani won one Tour de France and one Giro (both 1998), and was truly a gifted cyclist. But he had a dark side to him too. After being disqualified at the 1999 for a hematocrit reading of 52 percent, above the 50-percent upper limit set by UCI , Pantani faced persistent allegations of doping throughout the rest of his career. 

In the early evening of 14 February 2004, Pantani was found dead at a hotel in Rimini, Italy. An autopsy revealed he had heart failure, and a coroner’s inquest revealed acute cocaine poisoning. Pantani spent the last days of his life isolated from his friends and family and barricaded himself inside his hotel room.

Gone at 34…

 And yet thinking back to how this little, troubled man with the big ears danced on the pedals, you can shut your eyes and hear the most beautiful classical music, Italian of course, stirring in the background as Il Pirata danced on the pedals like no other man ever had or likely ever will do, a grace and finesse so natural that it almost hurt to witness. This is why Pantani is still so revered to this day in Italy. 

The Giro d’Italia…

“Then,” wrote UK journalist Matt Rendell back in 1998, “on a left-hand curve 2.8 kilometres from the finish line, Marco delivers another cutting acceleration. Tonkov is immediately out of the saddle. Marco, who is still standing on the pedals, accelerates again. Suddenly Tonkov is no longer there. Afterwards Tonkov would say he could no longer feel his hands and feet. ‘I had to stop. I lost his slipstream. I couldn’t go on.’ 

Marco could taste blood. His performance today on this climb was close to self-mutilation.

Seven hundred metres from the finish line, the TV camera on the inside of the final right-hand bend, looking down the hill, shows Marco. A car and motorbike, diffused and ghostlike, pass between the camera and Marco, emerging out of the gloom.  

As he rides towards victory in the Giro d‘Italia, Marco pushes himself so deeply into the pain of physical exertion, but then he begins to rise out of his agony. The torso lifts to the vertical, the arms spread out into a crucifix position, the eyelids descend, and Marco‘s face, altered by the darkness he has seen in his pain, lifts towards the light.”

That stage…


The Giro d’Italia…

The joy, and the suffering.

Lightness and dark.

Heaven and hell. 

All of this, is the Giro d’Italia.

Author: Lee Rodgers

Cycling coach, race organiser, former professional cyclist and the original CrankPunk.

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