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I’m not quite sure how I’ve managed to get almost 30 years into a career as a cycling journalist and writer and yet, as I write this in a hotel just outside the town of Ponte di Legno in the Italian Alps, this is the first time that I’ve covered the Giro d’Italia. Giving it a bit more thought, it struck me that I’ve spent most months of May over the last three decades either writing, copy-editing or editing a guide to the Tour de France, so there was often never room for a trip to the Giro. When there was, other colleagues whose knowledge of Italian extended well beyond the very basics were always likely to head to Italy before me.
However, thanks to VeloNews, I’m now a week into my Giro debut and loving it — for the most part. Since arriving in Rome on the second rest day and travelling through the monsoon of a storm to reach Pescara that same afternoon, passing on route the dramatic peaks of the Maiella range where the race had finished atop the then un-snow-capped Blockhaus the day before, I’ve much seen so much that I’ll never forget.
Among the highlights were the sumptuous octopus dish that I ate in Pescara on that first night, the thrilling and historic victory taken by Eritrea’s Biniam Girmay the next day, the grandeur of Parma and Genova on day three, the absolute brilliance of the stage into and around Turin, a city that surprised and is certainly among the most magnificent I’ve ever visited, and, in recent days, the awe-inspiring beauty of the Alps.
One aspect of the Giro experience hasn’t turned out as I’d expected, though. I was led to believe by almost everyone I spoke to beforehand that the corsa rosa is chilled, a long way from the high-intensity slog that the Tour de France becomes in July. Yet, while the atmosphere around the race is laidback, I don’t ever remember being this tired on the Tour. The Giro’s stages are long and the distances required to cover them are even longer. Come the finish in Verona on Sunday, the race will have crossed almost every region in the country, in just 18 days, following the three-day Grande Partenza in Hungary.
Several themes have stood out since we left Pescara heading for Jesi on stage 10. The most evident that day was the verve that Biniam Girmay brought to the race. The Intermarché rider’s success that afternoon came at the end of his second enthralling finish-straight duel with Mathieu van der Poel. Up against each other, the two riders brought out the very best of themselves, and Girmay’s enforced departure after being hit in the eye by a cork exploding from a bottle of prosecco on the podium robbed the Giro of one of its principal sporting narratives. Deprived of his rival, we’ve seen little of van der Poel since, while the points contest, which looked as if it might be turning Girmay’s way, has become into an uncontested romp for Arnaud Démare.
I’d been expecting the passion of the tifosi to be palpable, but have been surprised to sense it most obviously in the towns and cities, rather than in the mountains, as is the case when watching the corsa rosa on television. I felt this exuberance, the excitement of the Giro d’Italia coming to town everywhere, in Reggio Emilia, Sanremo, Turin, Cuneo… It was perhaps most evident in Genova where I walked the length of the kilometre-long finale, which ran straight and slightly up a beautiful boulevard, the fans filling colonnaded cafes on each side and standing half a dozen deep on the barriers, Alpecin-Fenix’s Stefano Oldani providing the moment that they all craved with a home win.
The battle between the sprinters has been as captivating as the Girmay-van der Poel duel. Arnaud Démare has emerged as the most successful of the surging pack, largely thanks to the unity and power of his universally strapping lead-out team. But there have been wins too for Mark Cavendish, who confirmed to me in Sanremo that he wants to race for another two seasons, and young Italian Alberto Dainese, who’s got speed to burn when he can get into right position to unleash it.
The race’s best sprint, and arguably the best of the season so far, took place in Cuneo at the end of a stage through the rolling hills of the Langhe region where a four-man breakaway held off the bunch until they were well inside the final kilometre, where Démare edged out Phil Bauhaus and Cavendish. For the best part of an hour beforehand, watching the fluctuations in the time gap between escape and gruppo made for gripping viewing, destroying the ridiculous notion that sprint days are dull.
The final thing that’s struck has been the way the race has been structured. It wasn’t until my fifth day on the Giro that I saw the GC favourites come to the fore on what was a scintillating stage in Turin. This seemed an unnecessarily long wait. Indeed, when I asked João Almeida about the lack of GC opportunities over the opening fortnight, the UAE Team Emirates leader said that the race had been “a little bit boring”. It had been hard, the Portuguese rider added, but GC riders had spent long stretches of it doing little more than trying to stay out of trouble.
We’ve seen the flip side of that since that epic sprint in Cuneo. The sprinters have been relegated to the fringes and won’t re-emerge until they get the chance for a final contest on Thursday into Treviso, five stages on from their last opportunity. This has clearly been done in order to keep the GC result in the balance, and in that respect it’s been a huge success. But in applying this formula, it feels like the organisers have ignored the daily variations that make three-week Grand Tours such compulsive viewing.
In their defence, the organisers would no doubt point to the fact that four riders are still in with a chance of overall victory in Verona. I’ve no clue which of them will emerge as the champion, but I am sure that this Giro will serve up some more splendours on the way.