Meet Richard, a friend from the U.S. who is passionate about bike riding – to the point that he brought his bike to Italy from the States to ride some of the routes the professionals would be riding only days later in the Giro d’Italia. The Giro is a staged bike race that takes place over, usually, 21 days, across plains and over Alps. It is a part of the Grand Tour of Bicycle Racing, along with the Tour de France and the Vuelta a’ Espana. The race has a long and interesting history; the first race was run in 1909, and was started by the Gazzatta dello Sport, a newspaper printed on pink paper, which accounts for pink being the official color of the race. There are various classifications within the race: General, Mountain (for climbing experts, blue jersey), Points (for sprinters, red jersey), Young Rider (under 25 years, white jersey) and Team (covered with logos jerseys). Points are awarded each day in each classification. The cyclist who wins the General classification each day (that is, with the lowest aggregate time) gets to wear the famous Pink Jersey the next day. The overall winner of the race is the person who wins the total General classification.
As luck would have it, the 14th day of the Giro passed through the town where our friend Leo lives in Piemonte (frequent readers of this blog will have met Leo through his recipe for Bagna Cauda and his mother’s stuffed eggs. He was also instrumental in procuring the materials for Speedy’s tandoor.) Anyway… Leo knows people, and he was able to get a pass that allowed us to drive up one of the steep mountain roads to the little town of Caprile whence we could watch the Giro pass by at speeds where you can actually see the athletes. On the flats, as in Rapallo several years ago, they tend to be a blur. Here’s the route of day 14:
Rated amongst the most difficult stages of the race this year, it’s a grinding 164 Kilometers (102 miles), beginning at an altitude of 315 meters (1,033 feet) in Aglie, climbing to Alpe Noveis at 1110 meters (3,642 feet), descending back down to Biella at 420 meters (1,378 feet) and finishing at Oropa, a large Catholic devotional complex, at 1110 meters (3,937 feet). Alpe Noveis has figured prominently in the outcomes of several Giri as it presents riders with some very difficult climbing challenges. Richard rode up there from Leo’s house in Sostegno (!) – we drove and parked in Caprile, then walked about 2 km up the road to a good vantage point.
All along the race route there were pink balloons, pink signs, pink bows.
It wouldn’t be an event in Italy without a food stand. On our short walk we passed two, of which this was the smaller and better decorated. A sign on the church roof? Yes! There were two helicopters in constant attendance on the race providing real-time non-stop television coverage. They flew quite low, and I’m sure Caprile’s cheerful welcome was quite legible to those on board. The sign reads, Caprile greets (welcomes) The Giro.
We got to our viewing spot about 11 a.m.; the race was due to pass at about 1:30. Somehow, with a picnic and lots of other race viewers, the time passed quickly. Bike riding is wildly popular in Italy. We frequently see cyclists pumping up the steep hill outside our house, all dressed in spandex so they look like bees, chatting away comfortably, as if a steep ascent were the easiest thing in the world to do. Many cyclists, like our friend Richard, like to ride sections of the Giro before the actual race. Here are just a few of the literally hundreds that rode past us:
You might notice they’re using the whole road. It’s not just because it’s race day and the road is closed to traffic. Here in Italy bicycle riders take whatever part of the road they need, and if it happens to be your whole lane, then you just have to trail behind them until there’s a place to pass. Can you imagine what would happen in the U.S. to bicyclists with habits like that? Honk!! Splat!!!
As the hour approached the excitement level grew. We could hear the blades of the helicopters thumping in the distance, and suddenly there were no more amateur riders, only official seeming cars and motorbikes.
At Last! The car that announced the beginning of the race!
But they were just kidding. In fact, they really did make an announcement over the loud-speaker to say the race would be along in 9 minutes. In the meantime we were entertained by a continuing parade of support vehicles, an ambulance, police in cars and on motorcycles and other officials on motorcycles.
And then, suddenly, there they were:
And then they were past, followed by a huge number of support vehicles, another ambulance, medical support, bikes, tires – what a lot of stuff and personnel it takes to keep the race going. Just the number of spare bikes is mind boggling.
Turns out that wasn’t the end of the race by any means, though. That was just the first group of riders, the leaders. In all the hub-bub of support vehicles there was another car with a loud-speaker that announced the rest of the race would arrive in 4 minutes. Great excitement! More police cars, more officials on motorcycles, more cars carrying bikes and tires. Then here they came, a much larger group this time:
Here are two things that really struck me. One was how very close we could get to the race participants. We could have reached out and touched them; that gave an immediacy and a thrill to the undertaking that one would never experience from, say, the bleachers at a baseball game. The other thing that amazed me was that support cars, police and all manner of other traffic came along well before the last racer had passed. Those near the end of the race (and I won’t call them ‘stragglers’ because no one who can ride up those mountains is a straggler) really had to negotiate motorized traffic. Seems a bit hard on them. Or on most of them; this man looked like he was out for a Saturday afternoon pleasure ride. Then, all at once, it really was the end of the race. The sound of the helicopters faded, the same people we had watched trudging up the hill began to reappear on their way down. At dinner at Leo’s that evening we were all recounting the day’s adventures to Isa, who had a quiet day at home. She suddenly remembered something, a drawing hanging on the their wall-of-a-hundred drawings in the hall:
It is a portrait of Luigi Ganna, the winner of the first Giro d’Italia in 1909, drawn by an artist who lived in Sostegno. That year there were 127 cyclists in the race, and, I’m guessing, a lot fewer support vehicles, though this photo of Ganna suggests there was at least one:
This year there were 22 teams of 9 each, 198 racers and they all wore helmets instead of snap-brimmed hats. When I see photos like the one above I always wonder: in a hundred years will we all look as quaint and old-fashioned to our great-great-grandchildren as these people do to us today?
(If you want to see way too many more photographs of the racers and the general environs, click here.)