It's an Italian Thing...
Since 1903 the Tour de France has become one of the most famous sporting events in the world. Unlike the Tour, the Giro d'Italia (and the Vuelta a Espana) has steadfastly retained a very national flavor. Statistics show that since 1903 the Tour has had 36 winners from the home country. By contrast the Giro has seen 64 home winners. In recent decades cycling has become a global sport and the traditional European grip on the major races has been contested by riders from around the world.
The long suffering French fans would dearly love to see a successor to Bernard Hinault who was the last French Tour winner in 1985 (he also won the Giro that year). By contrast the Giro has seen 13 Italian winners since 1985. On the surface many casual race observers would simply say that the Tour is by far the hardest of the Grand Tours. In reality all three Grand Tours are fiendishly challenging and the current Pro Tour formula has forced the big teams to send their best to each of these races.
This being the case how is it that Italian riders continue to dominate the Giro against this influx of serious foreign challengers? The answer lies in patriotic pride which sometimes reaches extreme levels and involves both the riders themselves as well as their adoring fans. This phenomenon is to be seen at races like the Tour of Flanders in Belgium and the Amstel Gold race in the Netherlands . “Flanders” is undoubtedly the most important race of the entire year in Belgium . To win here is the pinnacle of many Belgian riders' careers and they will be rewarded with immortality by the Belgian fans. At the Amstel Gold we see the same patriotic fervor motivating the home riders and fans alike.
Italy of course is well known for its love of style and it's passion for grand events. In operatic fashion, great Italian riders have been elevated to god like status. Constante Girardengo was the first “Campionissimo” (champion of champions). Years later Fausto Coppi assumed the title during his astounding career. Gino Bartali, Fiorenzo Magne, Felice Gimondi and Marco Pantani are other fantastic Italian names that resonate down through cycling history. Yet when you look at the careers of these great riders a common theme emerges, many of their great victories were achieved on home soil.
The Italian fans have little interest in races outside of their country and consequently the Italian peloton is highly motivated to produce home results. Normally at each others throats, Italian riders will push aside personal ambition when one of their important races is threatened by a foreign rider. In such situations sworn enemies will create ‘combines' to squash a foreign adversary. Compounding such challenges for foreign riders is the tifosi who themselves have caused serious problems on the road sides of Italy . One very famous incident occurred in 1960 when Jacques Anquetil was heading for victory. He very nearly lost the race due to direct tifosi intervention when they pushed Gastone Nencini up the slopes of the mighty Gavia climb.
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The first foreign Tour de France winner was Francois Faber in 1909, the seventh edition of the race. It took 33 Giro's to break the Italian stranglehold on their Grand Tour. The man who achieved this greatly appealed to the Italian love for style and fashion. It was 1950 and the Swiss rider Hugo Koblet “stole” the Giro at a time when Italian roads were ruled by Fausto Coppi, Gino Bartali and Fiorenzo Magne.
During that 1950 Giro, Fausto Coppi crashed and abandoned with a fractured pelvis. Naturally the Italian press was not overwhelming in their praise for Koblet. However the truth is that he was in such devastating form that year that Koblet would most likely still have won the race with or without Coppi.
In 2007 we do not see a Koblet, Roche, Hampsten or any other non-Italian lining up to claim the Giro victory. For the 11 th consecutive year there are plenty of quality Italian contenders to keep the spoils at home. Leading the list is Ivan Basso, but his season is balanced on a very delicate issue. He has been named in the Operacion Puerto case and unless a negative DNA test can prove otherwise not only his season, but also his career will come to an abrupt end.
My favorite for this year is Danilo di Luca who until recent years was more of a one day classics specialist. In 2005 when the Giro went over the unmade roads of the Colle dello Finestre , di Luca was in a realistic position to claim the ‘Maglia Rosa'. In fact it was he who, in Koblet style, led a three man break over that feared climb.
Tifosi awating the peloton on the Col d'Izoard
Italy is such a spectacular country with ancient roads, buildings and cities distributed in a geography that is a race organizers dream. This year the race starts on the beautiful island of Sardinia with a 24km team time trial. After two more stages on the island the race transfers to Salerno on the mainland. From there the route heads north to the Italian/French Alps. Stage 12 will be instrumental in identifying the pretenders to the Giro throne as the race ascends the Colle del'Agnello (2744m, the highest point of the Giro) and then the magnificent Col d'Izoard (2360m) before the uphill finish in Briancon.
As has been the style of the Giro in recent years they have included one climb to strike fear into the peloton and draw the tifosi like ‘moths to a flame'. On Stage 19 the race finishes on Monte Zoncolan in the Italian Dolomites. This brute of a climb is often compared to the Angliru climb in Spain . First used in 2003 it was here that Gilberto Simoni rode away from Marco Pantani. If he is on form, Simoni could well again make the Zoncolan his own. Whoever succeeds here will need to overcome 12km of climbing with an average 12% grade with sections topping 22%.
Pantani chases Simoni on the Zoncolan
At the official race presentation in December ‘06 the course was roundly greeted with enthusiasm by riders and their team management. The route provides a balance for rouleurs, sprinters, climbers and time trial specialists. The winner will need to be an outstanding all-rounder.
In 2007 the Giro course matches that of 2005 when the Colle dello Finestre and other features contributed to the best race of that year. This year the course and the list of contenders are lining up to make this “ the ” Grand Tour of the year. With typical Italian style, panache and operatic drama, fans world wide will revel in the fact that "It's an Italian thing..." .
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