Many people are familiar with the annual Tour de France road race, especially after Sir Bradley Wiggins’ triumphant win last year, but few are aware of it’s tougher, grittier Italian counterpart – the gruelling 21-stage Giro D’Italia ( literally the “tour of Italy” ).
Background to the Giro D’Italia
But don’t be fooled by the vibrant Gazzetta-pink branding that swathes the host towns and cities as it passes through, this is a serious race, not for the faint-hearted. The pro-cyclists rack up over 3500km in the seat ( as opposed to 3200km in the Tour de France ). And the racing includes unforgiving climbs and hair-pin descents through the Alps and Dolomites plus stamina-testing hauls through the low-lands with just 2 measly rest days. It is a true test of athleticism, grit and character that even the best cyclists don’t manage to conquer as Olympic champion Bradley Wiggins’ retirement from the race a couple of years ago testifies.
As racing kicked off, Wiggins had been favourite to do the Giro D’Italia – Tour de France double and the sense of anticipation was palpable reminding me of the excitement the year I watched the fourth tappa ( stage ) in Verona.
The Giro arrives in town
And whether you’re a fan of cycling or not, when the Giro comes to town everyone knows about it! The promotions teams arrived en masse, a couple of days in advance of the cyclists, trumpetting their presence with enormous pink tour buses, loudspeakers and every piece of pink merchandise a fan could imagine! From a replica overall winner’s maglia rosa ( pink shirt ) and baseball hat, to the obligatory whistles, flags, backpacks and even undies! Everyone is in the pink!
The air of expectation continued to build with the arrival of the international media convoy with one day to go. And overnight Piazza Brà, Verona’s main square, transformed into a hive of digital activity as miles of cables linked TV and radio vans to the massive satellite dishes perched high, ready to transmit the day’s events.
The fourth tappa was a day for the time-trial specialists to shine and expose the weaknesses of the climbers as the route took in long straight runs rather than any significant ascents. It would be no less exciting for being a short, fast race, though, especially as Verona was both the start and finish of the figure-of-eight, 33km team trial leaving from Piazza San Zeno and returning triumphantly to Piazza Brà.
Before the race started, we were treated to a glimpse into the future as budding teenage Wiggos were pitched against eachother for short sprint heats. Judging from the explosive energy and attack that went into each one and the exhilaration on the winning kids’ faces we can definitely look forward to some feisty, high calibre racing over the next 10 to 20 years!
Next to hit the roads were the pro-teams, but instead of going out full pelt, they sauntered out as if for a sunny Sunday jaunt. Not the blazing start I’d expected, just a warm up for the teams to familiarise themselves with the course. And sure enough, half an hour later, they all peddled languidly back into Piazza San Zeno looking fresh and ready to race!
On your marks….
When the tappa eventually started in earnest, the tone was completely different. Teams went out hunched and bunched tightly together, slip-streaming eachother, dressed in identikit-Lycra. Each squad started at 3 minute intervals. So whilst you didn’t get the buzz of a peloton of 100 riders screaming past you, jostling for position, you did get to really see the teams and their individual riders at their lithe-legged, athletic finest. And these cyclists are at the top of their game, legs pumping with the grace of thoroughbreds.
Twenty two teams hurtled past. Italian team Lampre was one of the first out to huge cheers, followed by Movistar from Spain. Wiggins’ British Sky squad followed 20 minutes later, without the man, obviously, due to his Olympic commitments. And American teams Garmin Barracuda and BMC brought up the rear. And then it was time for the spectators to do their own little Giro, racing across town to see the teams coming home.
In fact the race was so quick that there wasn’t enough time to watch all the teams out and back in again. But luckily favourites Garmin Barracuda went out towards the end of the pack leaving just enough time for us to catch a glimpse of them speed across the line to a tumultuous welcome 37 short minutes later. Each rider who crossed the line was engulfed in a sea of people and nearly knocked to the ground as fans clamoured to shake the sweaty hands and pat the backs of their heroes. Italians are passionate about their cycling and like to show it!
Finally the day drew to a close with Verona’s Mayor presenting Garmin Barracuda with the winners’ jerseys amid a cloud of pink confetti. The 2012 Giro had completed another spectacular tappa and left its mark on the city but now it was time to move on. Lets hope 2016 turns out to be another exhilarating year for cycling!
The race runs from Friday 6th May to Sunday 29th May 2016.
More information on the riders, teams and route can be found on the Gazzetta dello Sport website here.