This year marks the Giro d’Italia’s 100th edition...
...the hundredth time that Italians will cover balconies, walls and vintage bikes in pink paint, streamers and balloons; the hundredth time that 200 lean and restless cyclists will line up on the start line, legs filled with energy and hearts with an aching anticipation. The Giro holds a special place in the heart of the cycling community as the first Grand Tour of the season and the transition from Cobbled Classics to serious stage racing – from spring to summer. Italy’s three-week race is the least certain and most unpredictable event in the calendar. We anticipate that the favourites will come in strong after altitude training or a long break from racing, but we also hope that there will be surprise packages ready to pounce on the big names after an epic off-season.
Today’s Giro is barely recognisable from its first edition in 1909 when there were just eight stages and there wasn’t even a pink jersey. In fact, the Maglia Rosa was not introduced until 1931 and that came amid controversies of its own in an era of Fascism and obstinate national pride (pink was considered a colour too delicate to appropriately represent Italy’s strong spirit). It has earned a reputation as something of a climber’s race in comparison to its French and Spanish counterparts, and it has an atmosphere and heritage that lends it a Monumental image. Indeed, some of the legends which laid the foundations for the Giro we know and love today will live on far longer than the stories written about this year’s edition.
One of the best stories from the Giro d’Italia comes from its very first year. The race was eventually won by Luigi Ganna, but on the stage from Bologna to Chieti, the event wrote its very first controversy. Following the stage, four riders were disqualified for doing something you’d hardly dare believe: they got on a train, cutting out the middle of the stage.
There have always and will always be dominant riders at every race, and back in the ‘20s and ‘30s one man was such a destructive force that the race organisers made a very bizarre decision. In 1929, Italy’s Alfredo Binda racked up eight consecutive stage wins, convincingly sealing the overall win, but also successfully pissing off his rivals and the Italian fans. Such was his strength that he was banned from taking part the following year. To satisfy his perhaps justifiable protestations, he was compensated 22,500 lire – the amount he’d have won in prize money had he been allowed to enter (and won). Not surprisingly, he was eventually allowed back and his record of five overall wins is yet to be broken.
The legends do not just pertain to people, however. Some of the oldest and most revered brands in cycling have also played a vital part at the Giro, from the Bianchi-sponsored team jerseys to bikes propelled over the mighty Stelvio with Campagnolo componentry. Santini, Castelli and Colnago are all inextricably linked with the mythos of la Corsa Rosa.
Pain and passion
Cyclists are famous for enduring pain, but forget ‘Shut up Legs’ (Jens Voigt), climbing a mountain one armed (Simon Clarke), helping your leader to win the Tour de France despite a fractured pelvis (Geraint Thomas) or finishing a stage with broken vertebrae (Fabian Cancellara), there’s one man who can trump them all. In 1956, the infamous Fiorenzo Magni endured more pain than most of us could imagine in a feat that could be considered incredibly stupid as much as heroically determined. Magni broke his collarbone in a crash on stage 12 and, determined to carry on, he and his mechanics (including the legendary Ernesto Colnago) came up with a way to at least partially distract from the searing pain in his heavily strapped shoulder. They tied a rubber inner tube to his handlebars which he held clamped between his teeth.
It did not end there however, and on the mountains of stage 16, he crashed (not surprisingly) while descending, breaking his upper arm and knocking himself cold in the process. A shouting match between the Italian cyclist and the ambulance driver ensued, a battle Magni won, and in no time, he was back on the bike and re-joining the peloton (who had been waiting expectantly/respectfully). Fiorenzo Magni came second in the general classification that year and became the dictionary definition of the ‘pain face’ at the same time.
Some of cycling’s greatest and fiercest rivalries can be found way back in the history books, like that of Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali. Their story was echoed in some fashion decades later by Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault, and later still by Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, in that they rode on the same team but jostled for superiority. Coppi was the young pretender who Bartali put up with as a domestique until the younger man showed his strength in the mountains. The relationship broke down in the middle of the public conscious as the media seized upon the drama. On one occasion, Coppi flew off the front on a mountain stage and Bartali called on the team they shared to chase down their young teammate. At the 1949 World Championships, both riders withdrew from the race rather than help either one to win in an act that angered their national cycling association so much that both were handed a three-month ban.
In the end, Coppi probably became the more famous of the two – he is certainly the one most closely associated with that celeste blue Bianchi jersey. His climbing prowess was honoured in 1965 with the introduction of the ‘Cima Coppi’, the title given to the highest peak on the Giro where the first rider to reach the summit wins double the mountain points.
The epic elements
Some of the most iconic photos in cycling are taken from the mountain stages of the Giro d’Italia. It seems that not a year goes by in which the riders do not pass through tunnels of snow on the highest mountain passes. Extreme weather is something that has been a huge part of the Giro d’Italia since its first run. In 1965, the riders not only had to ride up a bloody great mountain, but haul themselves over the collapsed snow banks on the Stelvio.
Fans of recent editions will no doubt remember Steven Kruijswijk’s unfortunate crash into a bank of snow on the Colle dell’Agnello while wearing pink in 2016, just days away from cementing his maiden Grand Tour victory. Or Vincenzo Nibali’s almost invisible summit win on Stage 20 of the 2013 edition where the peloton finished in a blizzard. You might even recall the mud-fest that was the Strade Bianche stage in 2010 which was tarnished by a downpour, wrapping every single rider in a light brown mush. The rainbow bands of Cadel Evans just about shone through to confirm his storming victory on that stage, one that will live on in the memory of the Giro and the Strade Bianche one-day race.
To do justice to the myriad stories from the 99 years of Giro d’Italia racing would be beyond the bounds of any mere mortal, and it is a story that is still being written. On the 5th May, a stellar field will line up to contest the Maglia Rosa in a race that once again promises to light up the imagination of riders and fans alike. More details on the Giro can be found on the official Giro d’Italia site.