Giro d’Italia is cycling’s ultimate test

Giro d’Italia is cycling’s ultimate test

In its 99th year, Italy’s greatest race still offers true drama

By David Giddens, CBC Sports
April 6, 2016
Thermal cameras expose hidden bicycle motors.

In the family of sport, pro bicycle racing is the problem kid.

Scandal after scandal since forever. Unending steroidal growing pains. Like youths with bad reps everywhere, bikers aren’t the only ones cheating, but they sure have a knack for getting caught.

They have to really work at it to surprise fans now: hidden micro motors are the latest hustle.

At the pinnacle of the sport  — the races that form the triple crown — it is the Giro d’italia, the proverbial middle child, whose reputation most sorely deserves rehabilitation.

Italy’s greatest race is wedged between a pair of rival siblings. The Tour de France, the oldest of the grand tours, draws more spectators than any other sporting event on earth. Fifteen million sets of actual live eyeballs. It’s an exhilarating show. It’s just not the ultimate test of a cyclist’s abilities.

The Vuelta a Espana is the baby of the family. Twenty teams of great bikers tear up and down the baking Pyrenees. It rolls around every August and September, though, so as they say in the tv biz, it has a crummy slot. It crowds the Olympic Games and parents making back-to-school plans. 

The Giro d’Italia? That’s the one to keep an eye on. All the grand tours see about 3,000 kilometres of racing. Twenty one days in the saddle. Grand tours all mean races within races. There are team time trials, solo races against the clock, summit finishes, hair-raising mountain descent days, technically tricky rolling courses, and long straight flat drags.

They race over asphalt and cobblestone, aqueducts and dirt paths. They ride through blizzards and heatwaves. Through streets laid out millennia ago. Quietly, almost alone, and amid screaming crowds of half-naked, fully drunk fans.

The racers tangle with biting dogs, enraged geese and oblivious cattle. On the hottest days, bike wheels get stuck in molten tarmac. On frigid descents, riders stuff newspapers or anything else they can grab down their jerseys to fend off hypothermia. Drama is the essence of all grand tours…and there’s always more of it in the Italian race.

Classic sprint formation: Day 1 of 2015 Paris-Nice.

Pure muscled speed

The Tour de France begins every year with lots of sprinter’s days. Long, flat races, on wide, straight roads. Designed for pure muscled speed, and frenetic finishes. One hundred and 80 racers line up at the start, but there’s never more than five or six who can win the day.

Sprints play out like the relentless stretching of an elastic band. Everything is loose and mellow for the early hours of a sprint day. The peloton stays together, the favourite sprinters ride close to the front, minimizing risk of a group crash, but tucked in behind a few riders, to stay out of the headwinds. 

Sometime after lunch, somebody gets a message to goose the tempo a bit. Just kick it up a little. The random dots of 180 different race kits morph into meaningful bigger clusters of unified team colours. A Jackson Pollock turns into a Georges-Pierre Seurat. The speed picks up some more. Everyone gets tense now. Thoughts turn to the finish line. 

Managers bark over radios about exactly what lays ahead. It’s the last chance to make a team think clearly before brains get locked up by adrenaline. Everyone gets even more tense. So called lead-out trains form. There might be two inches between each rider in these lines. They make sleek windbreaks, create slipstreams that drag their heavy sprint champions to the finish line behind them.

There’s 30 guys jostling at the front now and speeds are sustaining into 50 and 60 km/h. After long hot days of riding, mistakes happen here and now. Terrible pile ups. Carnage. With the finish line in sight, the tension becomes unbearable.

The elastic snaps. Leadout riders go hypoxic, peel away from the pacemaking. The sprinters are finally let off the leash, bumping and crashing into each other to make space at the very front.

The commentators scream in a dozen languages. One rider pumps his fists in the air and blurs under the finish banner at 70 km/h. It is breathtaking to watch. No exaggeration. You forget to breathe when you are watching the finale of a sprinting day.

Tour de France organizers love those finishes, but they don’t do much for the all-round racers. The more sprint days there are, the fewer chances the general contenders have to prove themselves. The grand tour that thoroughly mixes all kinds of racing is simply the best test of a complete rider. That is what the Giro does.

Mark "Manx Missile" Cavendish in peak form.
The Giro d'Italia is known for the creativity of its layout.(Bryn Lennon/Getty Images) The Giro d'Italia is known for the creativity of its layout.(Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)

Anybody’s guess

After the first week of the Tour, it’s certain that a sprinter will be in the yellow jersey. At the Giro d’Italia? It’s anybody’s guess who’ll be on top. They’ll have to be versatile riders, since they will have already slogged through tricky terrain, and they’ll have to be hardy, because this is early May in the high mountains. Blizzards are more common here than at any other big race.

It isn’t just the harsh weather — Italian roads are a challenge on their own. Narrower, steeper, and twistier than neighboring countries, the mountain and valley roads of Italy have always made a tempting canvas for organizers’ route improvisations. It is a race known for the creativity of its layout. Forgive a high falootin’ moment, but up in the rarified air of professional biking, it’s all about the making of legends.

Not even necessarily who wins, but who is doing something heroic. Who has the hardest legs. Who is crashed, bleeding, and back on the bike, attacking again. Whose face registers zero emotion while pedalling into the clouds with a freshly broken collarbone. And where does that happen most often? At the Giro.

The great racers always surprise in their physical form. Look at the heros of road cycling. Little blokes! Germany’s Tony Martin weighs 140 pounds. Chris Froome is a skyscraper at six-foot-one, but he only weighs 152 pounds. The brilliant Colombian contender, Nairo Quintana, is five-foot-five, barely 126 pounds. You watch these wee fellas, all alone, clawing their way up mountainsides.

They aren’t doing what comes easy. They are putting in heroic effort. A small man staring down a 15,000-foot mountain? David and Goliath talk is not out of place. 

In 2005, writer Claudio Gregori in La Gazzetta dello Sport, whose pink pages are the reason why the Magglia is Rosa, decreed: “the Gods live in the mountains.” If you really want to test a cyclist, you need mountains. The highest, hardest passes in Grand tour Cycling all loom largest during the Giro. 

For sheer agony, few climbs compare to the Giro’s Passo Mortirolo, 12 km uphill at a grade that peaks at 18.5 per cent. The Tour de France's most feared ascent is the Col du Tourmalet, 17 km at a maximum of 10 per cent...while the Giro’s Passo Stelvio sees 25 km that rank as high as 14 per cent grade.

Italian legend Fausto Coppi was known as Italian legend Fausto Coppi was known as "the champion of champions." (Getty Images)

Cathedrals of biking

If mountains are the cathedrals of biking, Fausto Coppi is who they paint on the ceilings. He is  Il Campionissimo. The champion of champions. We cannot watch the Giro without thinking about Fausto Coppi.

He is literally unavoidable. When the Giro hits its highest point in the Alps each year,  that is called the Cima Coppi. The Coppi summit. This is where the Coppi myth takes flight. 

I first learned about Fausto Coppi when I was admiring a very small bike frame hanging from the ceiling at Sport House of Canada on Dufferin street in Toronto, which was a great little bike shop run by a gruff Italian-Canadian man in the 1980s. The frame had “Coppi” written on it, and it cost more than all the other bikes in the shop, even without wheels or gears.

I asked about the bike maker, and to this day I can see the disgust on the owner’s face when he realized I had never heard of Coppi…If you can stick it out for the next few paragraphs, you will never, for the rest of your life, get a look like that from a bike store owner.

As a kid, Fausto Coppi rode a butcher’s delivery bike. He saved and got himself a pretty good bicycle and started racing before World War II and won everything that mattered. Then the war came, and racing stopped for five years.

When peace returned, Coppi got back in the saddle. Again, he won everything. Coppi could climb, time trial, and sprint, which nobody can do anymore. He was awkward on his feet, but graceful beyond compare on the bike. His reputation went meteoric on a single day in 1949.

Mountain roads in those days were a trial in themselves. Unpaved, muddy, rutted,  narrow, riders fought for lines among exhaust-spewing moto guzzis and haphazard motorcades. That fateful day was a beast of a stage at the Giro: 254 km that included five huge Alpine passes.

Fausto Coppi's legendary day in the Alps.
While the suave Coppi was married, a great beauty fell under his spell, and a photo of him and “the woman in white” created the biggest scandal ever. (Photo courtesy Gruppo Mondadori) While the suave Coppi was married, a great beauty fell under his spell, and a photo of him and “the woman in white” created the biggest scandal ever. (Photo courtesy Gruppo Mondadori)

‘La Bomba’

Coppi rode alongside the best in the world for the first 50 km of the day, and then he attacked. With 192 km and eight hours of racing still to go, Coppi looked over his shoulder for the last time.

He rode solo over five of the most challenging passes in Europe. Eleven minutes and 52 seconds after he finished, the first of his competitors straggled to the line.

Nobody had ever done anything like it. That’s how it was for most of Coppi’s career. For eight solid years, if Fausto Coppi rode away in front of the peloton, he was never caught again. He destroyed the field. He owned the one-hour race world record for 14 years.

Anabolic steroids were big in the Soviet Union by then. Their discoverers won the Nobel Prize in 1939, but the drugs hadn’t quite found their way to cycling yet. Like most riders, Coppi was upfront about taking “La Bomba,” — amphetamines.

Almost everyone in racing took speed back then, which was not illegal. It killed guys regularly, but there were no rules against it. Coppi thrived on the stuff. What got Fausto in trouble was his looks.

When he rode past spectators, knickers burst into flames. He was married, but a great beauty fell under his spell, and a photo of Coppi and “the woman in white” created the biggest scandal ever.

The Pope himself, Pius XII, begged Fausto Coppi to return to his wife. Then Pius refused to bless the Giro because Coppi was in it. Imagine! The Pope turns his back on Italy because of one guy? That’s Coppi for you. He was everything you could ever ask for in a racing legend. The Giro is where that legend was made.

Pope Pius XII once refused to bless the Giro because Coppi was in it. (Getty Images) Pope Pius XII once refused to bless the Giro because Coppi was in it. (Getty Images)

It’s not all Wagner Opera at the Giro. Sometimes more like Divine Comedy. Part of the race’s beautiful history was that there used to be a prize for the last guy to cross the line each day.

The final one home got to wear the maglia nera, the black shirt. We snort now, but it was quite an art, being strategically last. Second last got you nothing but scorn. Proper last? You could earn a tidy sum at that game.

Guys took to hiding in barns, having naps, doing anything to be last. Unfortunately, some riders became so good at winning last that people complained.

They cancelled the maglia nera in 1951, but the last last winner of all was a true great at slow racing. His name was Giovanni Pinarello. His family still makes some of the best — and most expensive — bikes you can buy. Nobody goes slow on them anymore, sadly.

Ryder Hesjedal became the first Canadian cyclist to win the Giro d’Italia in 2012. (Luk BeniesGettyImages) Ryder Hesjedal became the first Canadian cyclist to win the Giro d’Italia in 2012. (Luk BeniesGettyImages)

Canada’s moment

In 2012, Canadian cyclist Ryder Hesjedal won the Giro D’Italia. We got our very own polite Canadian biking God into the pantheon on Day 14. Climbing his second killer mountain of the stage — on the Swiss border - right beside the Matterhorn, Hesjedal  was not the first rider up that agonizing road. He was fifth in the field that day.

But for the riders who wanted to win the whole tour? Hesjedal caught everyone napping. The Canadian was suddenly the man to beat. All the general contenders had their eyes on a winning ride to the roof of Europe. One after another, the greats took a shot at getting past Hesjedal. They could not do it.

Hesjedal — who three years ago admitted to EPO use back in 2003 — on this day did not drop the field with a crazy, steroidal acceleration. Did not thump his chest and obliterate the also-rans. He just tapped out a steady rhythm that no one else could match. Everyone wanted to beat him, but Hesjedal alone found peace with the pain required to tackle the endless hairpin bends.

Italian commentators on Ryder Hesjedal's mountain triumph.
Canadian Hugo Houle will be riding for the Ag2R team at the upcoming Giro d’Italia. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press) Canadian Hugo Houle will be riding for the Ag2R team at the upcoming Giro d’Italia. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

If you can call it sailing at 2,000 metres, he sailed away from the world’s greatest riders that day. To each his own, but those three weeks of racing, watching Hesjedal playing 180 games of chess in the alps? Those were the proudest I have ever been as a Canadian sport fan.

It used to be, no Canadians at the Giro. We just weren’t good enough. Nowadays, it’s more a matter of who’s going. For a Canadian cycling fan, this is a beautiful state of affairs. Barring disaster this year, Canadian Hugo Houle will be riding for Ag2R and Hesjedal for Trek.

Michael “Rusty” Woods was set to debut for Cannondale until his bad spill at Liege-Bastogne-Liege ruled that out. Svein Tuft will ride for Orica Greenedge…there are more names not-so-patiently waiting in the wings.

The 2016 edition is the 99th running of The Giro D’italia, which starts on Friday. You might want to bookmark all 23 days. It’ll be great preparation for 2017, the century edition of the best race on earth. The Giro riders, like troubled kids everywhere, will be grateful for your support. Even if they show it by stealing the family car.

(Large photos courtesy Getty Images/European Pressphoto Agency)

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