A CR Hall of Fame Article

By Graham Jones
CyclingRevealed Historian




Back to the Future

The Innovator of Legends

One of the great epic stories in Grand Tour history does not relate to a racing cyclist. In 1909 Henri Desgrange had the idea to send his Tour de France racers over the Pyrenees . In the early part of the 20 th century most mountain roads were little more than rough tracks used for logging and by farmers. It was considered a preposterous idea to send cyclists over such terrain and to such high altitudes. Undeterred by his detractors Desgrange sent his assistant Alphonse Steinès to evaluate the feasibility.

Having spent most of a day and all night battling natural obstacles, bad weather and snow Steinès eventually scaled the mighty Tourmalet. As soon as he located the next village he sent back the now famous telegraph to Desgrange – “ Have crossed the Tourmalet on foot- stop- Road passable to vehicles- stop- No snow- stop”. With that the Pyrenees and then the Alps soon became synonymous with Le tour and legends were born in 1910.

The Critics

Echoes of the outburst against Desgrange's proposed Pyrenean adventure could be heard again almost one century later when the organizers announced the 2005 Giro d'Italia route. This time the uproar was against the little known climb of the Colle della Finestre. “It is preposterous to send a 21 st century race peloton over unmade roads.” Those 7km or so of unmade roads became a magnet for pre-race analysis. Many believed the road impassable for cyclists. The public discussion continued unabated until May.

On the big day we saw spectacular racing. The race leader (Paolo Savoldelli) was isolated from his team and then dropped on the Finestre. Huge crowds turned out to see the spectacle. The 2005 Giro was, to most informed race followers, the best race of the year and certainly far superior to Le Tour.

For 2006 the Giro organizers have again created a furor. This year the issue focuses on the Stage 17 mountain top finish at the 2,275m summit of the Plan de Corones ski station. This 17km monster averages 7.5% with ramps as steep as 24% towards the top. The last 6km are on dirt track. As if that was not enough the race passes over the 15km (6.4%) Passo Di Pinei and the Passo Delle Erbe (4.9%) before reaching the climb up to Plan de Corones.

Retro Marketing

Desgrange the innovator was always seeking ways to make his Tour more spectacular. His ultimate goal was to sell more of his newspapers. Stories of great racing exploits and tragedies were the fodder for his stories. He would be proud to see the modern day Giro organizers taking a leaf out of his book on marketing.

There are loud voices in the administrative hierarchy of cycling who claim that the sport is mired in the past. The Giro's retro excursions are a step back to the future using sound marketing principals (demonstrated by Desgrange) to draw attention to their race. When making comments about the sport being mired in the past a very clear distinction needs to be made between the athletic challenge and the business aspects like sponsorship and racers compensation.

This is not to advocate bringing back monstrously long stages of 300 plus kilometers or including extended sections of unmade roads. The Giro's approach of injecting a brief taste of retro racing adds spice, great media material and attracts huge numbers of spectators. In fact all of the ingredients that appeal to race sponsors.

A Little Giro History

It took until the 33 rd Giro for a non-Italian to win the race. The breakthrough was made by the great Swiss rider Hugo Koblet known as the “peddler of charm” . However in 88 Giro's the race has been won 62 times by the home country. The last nine editions have all gone to Italian riders. By contrast it has been a quarter of a century since France has seen one of its own win (Bernard Hinault, 1985) Le Tour.

With the globalization of the pro peloton it is surprising to see the Giro remaining in the grip of the home country. Last year the advent of the Pro Tour obliged every Pro Tour team to participate in the Giro. This created a huge influx of non-Italians in the race but still it was an all Italian affair. The 2006 version looks to be setting itself up for another all Italian showdown. Defending champion Savoldelli will be severely challenged. Double Giro champion Gilberto Simoni is hungry to take one more Giro before he retires. 2004 winner Damiano Cunego wants to eradicate memories of a dismal 2005 season and demonstrate that his 2004 win was no fluke. Last year Danilo Di Luca roared through the spring classics with wins at the Amstel Gold and Fleche Wallone and came to the Giro wearing the Pro Tour leader's jersey. His goal was one or two stage wins. He ended up fourth on GC and provided us with magnificent images of him leading the race up the feared unmade road of the Colle della Finestre. This year he has largely avoided the early season races and focused all of his preparation on the Giro. He could well be the man to beat. However CSC 's Ivan Basso is also targeting the Giro. Last year he was on track for a podium finish until he was sidelined by a stomach problem. Like Di Luca, Basso has yet to win a Grand Tour but many believe he can accomplish a rare Giro/Tour double this year.

Giro d'Italia Start in 2006

The first four stages of Giro 2006 are taking place in the Walloon region of Belgium much of it on roads familiar to Fleche Wallone and Liege-Bastogne-Liege race fans. This region first hosted the Giro in 1973 and was in fact the very first time that the race started outside of Italy . There is a strong bond between the Walloon region and Italy . For centuries migrants have moved north to the region looking for work. In the 1950's huge numbers moved here to find work in the coal mines and steel works. In 2002 the Giro again passed through the region having started in the Netherlands , passing through Germany , Belgium , Luxembourg and France before finally entering Italy . That year the race was celebrating the 50 th anniversary of the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community as well as the introduction of a single currency – the Euro. This year the Giro helps celebrate the 60 th anniversary of the Belgo-Italian treaty on coal.

With the first four days spent in Belgium other parts of Italy will not see its beloved race. Sicily and the heel and toe of Italy 's “boot” are not visited at all. A few stages down the Adriatic coast take the race to Peschici as its southernmost point. Most of the serious action will take place in the Dolomites and Alps . Out of the entire three weeks only three days feature flat race routes. This will be much to the liking Venezuela 's Jose Rujano who burst on to the scene with incredible displays of climbing. As an unknown newcomer he managed to gain significant time on several occasions. The big guns have his number now and his escapes will not come so easily.

Depending on your viewpoint, this years Giro puts the Tour de France to shame when it comes to climbing. With 31 categorized climbs scaling 39,949 meters, the riders will be racing up hill for about 330kms. The total vertical ascent is equivalent to approximately four and half times the height of Mt. Everest (8,850m). The high point of the race, literally, comes on Stage 20 with the Passo Gavia at 2618m which makes it one of the highest passes in Europe . This year the summit is recognized as the prestigious “Cima Coppi”.

At CyclingRevealed we will be following the race to provide our readers with our perspective on each day's stage. This series will be more than just results. Our analysis will add color to the plain results of the day. Stay tuned to CyclingRevealed.com.


May 6th – May 21st, 2006 Giro Journal special


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