„There’s an old saying that applies to me: you can’t lose the game if you don’t play the game.“ -William Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet
Here we are, ready to play the game as the first Grand Tour of the year is charged and ready to take to the stage. The curtain will raise on the 102nd Giro d’Italia this Saturday in Bologna, where a 21-stage drama will commence. The power of the iconic pink leader’s jersey driving them along through cities, past seas, up and down mountains to their final destination: Verona. The rider quickest against the three-week clock will stand head held high crowned by a roaring crowd within Verona’s amphitheatre.
Italy has immense pride in its aptitude to conserve tradition. The Giro itself has proven innovative over the years offering an antidote to, say, the Tour de France, but the race always comes down to the traditional arena of the Alps and Dolomites mountains. For riders, staff, and fans, the Giro feels like a celebration of Italy, from road to table.
EF Education First Pro Cycling Team sport director Fabrizio Guidi, an Italian who now calls Switzerland home, gets right to the point when asked about the high points of Italian dining.
“Tignanello wine and fiorentina are good together, but I think my favourite wine is Sassicaia and my favourite dish is Catalana di Scampi — but they don’t go together,” Guidi says. “Scampi has to be eaten with a white wine.”
“I did the Giro two or three years ago with [Alberto] Bettiol and Fabrizio and in one of the stages around Florence they basically got this special delivery for us of Fiorentina from, according to them, the best butcher in Italy,” says Joe Dombrowski. “There’s this knowledge and pride around the food in Italy that I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else in the world.”
Life in Italy follows a long-ago written script. Like the romance that plays out between Romeo and Juliet, passion has a twine that twists its way through society. Foods and wines must fall together like lovers in each other’s arms; design and architecture are fertilized by craftsmanship and beauty; flamboyance is the pillar of language and fashion.
So when it comes to a bike race, one that’s more than 100 years old, it embodies all this with tradition being its beating heart. It’s a race that the nation has grown up watching, an occasion for family get togethers.
„I grew up with the Giro, watching it on TV with my father and my uncle and brother. We had one TV and we would meet as a family and watch it together,” Guidi explains. “Some of us would support one rider, some would support another. As a child it was fascinating to see the energy that people put into watching this sport.”
Its personality is different in comparison to cycling’s other heartlands, like France and Belgium Guidi says, “In Belgium you are strong if you can ride hard on the cobbles. Here in Italy everyone loves the one who can survive on the mountain.”
Sticking to tradition, this year’s race has back-loaded the mountain stages into the third and final week.
“The last week of the Giro is always the big crescendo, but the geography of Italy and the way the race is designed means it’s much more varied. It’s not like in the Tour de France where you have blocks of flat days and then you arrive in the Pyrenees and then the Alps. In Italy there can be something hiding behind every corner,” sport director Charly Wegelius says.
This year’s Giro d’Italia has a total of three time trials, giving the riders who aren’t as strong in the mountains the chance to claw some time back. But as a consequence of this those missing kilometers have to be made up elsewhere. This year there will be nine stages that exceed 200 kilometers in length. Stage 16 serves up an eye-popping 5,000m (16,400 feet) of vertical elevation over 226 (140 miles) kilometers, where the double act of Passo Gavia at 2,618m (8,589 feet) and Mortirolo at 1,854m (6,100 feet) will soften riders’ legs to clay.
“I have the impression that it’s more of a classic Giro, in that there’s long stages and some really big mountain stages in terms of the amount of climbing. The second half of a Grand Tour, the narrative is completely different, guys start to get tired, there’s just this sense of apathy and when you have that it turns into opportunities for the opportunists,” Dombrowski says, his thirst for the mountains quite obvious.
Being the Grand Tour that takes place in spring can mean the weather can be unpredictable. It’s not unheard of for the peloton to race between walls of snow at the top of climbs. Descents down mountains after monster efforts climbing up them can chill riders to the core, adding another layer of complexity to keeping it all together. Everything is scripted to be unpredictable.
„I think the race reflects the best things about Italy to be honest, a lot of passion, a lot of color, all kinds of unexpected things going on. Odd things can happen in this race. That’s a bit of a rarity in pro cycling at the moment. In 2010 there was a 56 rider breakaway that got 40 minutes on the peloton, which is unheard of generally in cycling,” Wegelius reflects, a pang of lust towards a race that he rarely works nowadays.
There’s something about this race, it embraces you, taking you on a journey it doesn’t want you to forget.
If what Shakespeare wrote for that famous love story in Verona is true, ‘Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs,’ then the passion for a bike race is made from the grimaces of pain fighting for pink.