is a tough sport, and never more so than during the three Grand Tours each year: the Giro d’Italia, the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España. Each of these covers thousands of kilometres and lasts three weeks, a time period succinctly broken down by the Danish rider Per Pedersen. “First week, you feel good. Second week, not so good. Third week, fucked.”
The Tour gets all the attention, but in many ways which begins on 6 May, is the best of the three.
who completed 20 grand tours in a row — a record which will almost certainly never be beaten — reckoned that the Giro is toughest of all, and if anyone should know, it’s him. The terrain is endlessly challenging, the climbs are steep and narrow, the weather can be atrocious, and in the high mountains the snowpack has yet to melt away.
Where France’s hexagonal shape lends predictability to each year’s route (a week of flat stages for the sprinters followed by some mountains, a few transition stages, more mountains, and the final run-in to Paris), Italy, being longer and thinner, is much less conducive to formula.
Key mountain stages often take place in the first week and shake up the leader-board right from the off. The Tour builds to a defined climax: the Giro delivers thrills and spills throughout. It is not unknown for the race lead to change several times in the last week. The Giro is never over till it’s over.
Despite the race’s toughness, riders love it. It doesn’t have the same global profile as the Tour, but that profile is distinctly double-edged. The stakes at the Tour are so high that the top teams control everything, there are hordes of journalists and VIPs, and the whole thing is sufficiently bloated and corporate as to sometimes border on soulless. If the Tour is a stadium mega-concert, the Giro is a basement jazz club. And all the better for it.
Whereas the (July) and the (August/September) take place at least partly during the summer holidays, bringing tsunamis of tourists who are at best casual fans, Giro spectators tend to be proper aficionados, knowledgeable and enthusiastic. Like Italian Formula 1 fans, they are known as tifosi (which literally means “those infected by typhus”) and watching a race in their company is not easily forgotten.
This, perhaps, is the key to the Giro’s appeal: that it is quintessentially of its country. “The Tour is very international, whereas the Giro is Italian,” said former rider
“Lot of cologne. Lot of hair product.” And hospitality too, of course. “You can be in a little hotel out in the country and the pasta is the best you’ve ever had, the meat is amazing, and the coffee is perfect,” said the Australian cyclist
“No disrespect to the other races, but that’s not the case there.”
And is there a more beautiful item of clothing in any sport than the the jersey worn by the Giro’s leader? The actual pink varies in tone from year to year — sometimes light and bright, other times darker and richer — but be it tamarisk or amaranth, it is always a beacon of elegance in the rainbow of the peloton as it comes whizzing by.
The Italians don’t just love their race: they love winning it too. France has been waiting since 1985 for a home triumph: in that time the Giro has seen 18 Italian victors. The last time anyone won both in the same year was 1998, and it was done by a man who was at once the pride and sorrow of Italian cycling.
His name was
pirate’s bandana. He was a rock star, an artist, a Cavalier amongst Roundheads: Il Pirata by name and nature, attacking when he felt like it rather than when a heart-rate monitor or algorithmic download told him he should. His days were the ones when the road kicked upwards towards the heavens, the places where eagles dare and angels fear to tread: Stelvio, Pordoi, Gavia, Finestre, Zoncolan.
Pantani was Italian to his core: la bella figura on two wheels, fabulously romantic and daring. “We’re all imprisoned by rules,” he said. “Everyone longs for freedom to behave in the way they see fit. I’m a non-conformist, and some feel inspired by the way I express freedom of thought. I’ve never been meticulous or calculating, on or off the bike. I ride instinctively, responding to the moment. There’s chaos in everyday life, and I tune into that chaos.”
But that 1998 double was the summit, in every way. A year later an excessive hematocrit reading saw him thrown out of the Giro while in the maglia rosa, and he was denied the chance to defend his Tour title.
Within five years he was dead of a cocaine overdose: consumed by the chaos into which he’d tuned himself, fallen from the razor-edge of control in a hurtling descent.
A sad, lonely death in a hotel room near the sea: a long way, in every way, from the vaulting mountain amphitheatres where he’d ridden through thickets of ecstatic supporters, where he’d found grace in the expression of his supreme talent, where he’d been Icarus and flown too close to the sun.
Cricket is played in America, but only really among Indian and Pakistani migrants. Rugby must seem barbaric without all the protective equipment and time-outs of American football. The governing bodies for soccer — or real football as we should call it — are forever told that if they truly want to break the American market, the game needs wider nets, more goals, more breaks in play and no draws.
The late Sir Richard proffered the only response to such crazy proposals. But why, when it comes to sport, is America so different? It cannot be, as some suggest, because Americans need everything faster and bigger than everyone else. American society leads the world in hit-demanding, instantaneous pleasure-seeking, give-me-what-I-want-and-give-it-to-me-now commercialism, but urgency cannot be the issue. Baseball is reassuringly slow. Basketball can go on for hours. It requires the patience of a saint to watch American football with all its stoppages.
Perhaps we need to explore an altogether more horrifying explanation. Might it be that Americans prefer American sports because they are simply superior?
It is certainly the case that in some respects American sports can be more advanced. Cricket has learned from baseball as fielding methods and training have grown more sophisticated. Football — real football — has borrowed ideas from across the Atlantic in the application of data. In planning trips across the
music to the hot dogs to the kiss cams, karaoke cams and celeb cams, every second of every event is squeezed for entertainment. Even high school basketball teams get cheerleaders.
In England the lunchtime entertainment at a test match is the Yorkshire Tea brass band, where the musicians parade around the pitch dressed as giant kettles and tea pots.
In football, a brief 1990s experiment with cheerleaders at Villa Park ended badly when oafish fans sang sexist songs. Even without that, it cannot have been much fun for the cheerleaders, since Birmingham on a cold January night does not much resemble California on a summer day.
But if American sports put on plenty of extracurricular entertainment, it does not follow that their sports are better. While in the rest of the world we are entertained enough by sport, in America the sport requires something extra. We fans can be subjective about it: surely the skill of bowling in cricket is greater than pitching in baseball, real football more graceful and skilful than American football, and rugby more physically and technically demanding than anything produced the other side of the Atlantic?
Alternatively, we can try to be objective, inventing and comparing metrics to test skills: speed, strength, force, stamina, technique. But it would all be misleading and impossible to compare. Just as Michael Jordan was the greatest of all time in basketball, his switch into baseball was a flop; what works in