This is an article by invitation. Nigel Smith is currently Head Coach of Kanakia Scott Racing Development. In this piece, he provides an overview of the Giro d’Italia, one of road cycling’s three Grand Tours. Nigel is a Level 3 Cycling Coach, accredited through his National Federation, British Cycling, in the UK. He is based in Mumbai.
The 2020 edition of the Giro d’Italia is currently well underway.
The unusual global situation has created an even more unusual race.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the event’s regular calendar slot of mid-May was shifted to October. This created various knock-on anomalies whereby riders who, at the beginning of the year were focussed on the ` traditional’ Grand Tour calendar of Italy (May), France (July) and Spain (September), have found themselves having to totally re-align their training to a heavily back-loaded calendar of events. Additionally, the climatic challenges faced in Italy at this time of the year are not what riders typically expect, the wind and rain atop the `mere’ 1658m stage 9 finish at Roccaraso was clear to see. Rain and autumnal leaves swirled across the road, in contrast to the melting snow we sometimes see in May.
But how important is the Giro d’Italia? Where does it rank in relation to other races? What is its difficulty in relation to other stage races? What is its history?
Let’s first establish what a ` Grand Tour’ is in cycling parlance. A Grand Tour is a three-week stage race (actually held over 23 days as there are two rest days) consisting of 21 stages over various types of road terrain. There are usually (but not exclusively) 5-6 ` high mountain’ stages, 6-7 ` intermediate’ (rolling) stages, 5-6 ` flat’ stages and a couple of individual time trials (sometimes there’s a team time trial as well).
In road cycling, there are only three Grand Tours – the eldest and most famous is the Tour de France, first held in 1903 and the most widely recognised and followed bike race in the world. Italy’s equivalent, the Giro d’Italia, is only six years younger than its French cousin, first held in 1909. The third, and youngest, Grand Tour is Spain’s Vuelta a España; a mere 85 years old.
The teams that compete in the Grand Tours will always be the same 18-19 ` World Tour’ teams. These teams make up the equivalent `Premier League’ of teams and compete at all the prestigious one day races, stage races and Grand Tours. The start list is then usually bolstered by 3-4 local pro teams from the second tier ` Pro Conti’ division.
So, what of the Giro’s importance? To the fans, it is generally a close second to the Tour de France. To the riders, it’s a Grand Tour – they covet a Maglia Rosa (` pink jersey’ awarded to the leader) almost as much as a Maillot Jaune (` yellow jersey’, awarded to the leader of the Tour de France). But if you’re a ` Grand Tour’ specialist (example: in recent times the likes of Spain’s Alberto Contador, the British-Kenyan cycling ace Chris Froome and Columbia’s Egan Bernal) then winning three week stage races is what you’re paid to do and winning all three cements your name in the history books (only six riders have achieved it).
How hard is the Giro? It’s easily as hard as its two counterparts. The Giro has recently – over the past 10 years – tried to create its own ` niche’ by incorporating brutally hard (and now iconic) mountain passes. The Stelvio, The Mortirolo, The Gavia and The Zoncolan are all now sought out and conquered by amateur enthusiasts, just as the French L’Alpe D’Huez, Tourmalet and Mt Ventoux are every year. Each Italian climb has its own unique character, whether it’s the height of the Stelvio (2758m), average gradient of the Mortirolo (12.5kms at an average of 10.4 per cent!) or the maximum gradient of the Zoncolan (20 per cent).
While France has access to two main mountain ranges – the Alps and the Pyrenees, Italy borders the Alps across its northernmost regions and has its own range – the Dolomites in the country’s uppermost north east region.
To the Italians (fans and riders alike), the Giro will always be the most important race on the calendar. Indeed, it wasn’t until the 33rd edition in 1950 that a non-Italian (the Swiss, Hugo Koblet) won. Through the 1980s, the race was big enough to satisfy the aspirations of most Italian cyclists and produced some epic home-grown battles, notably the one between Francesco Moser and Giuseppe Saronni, interspersed with non-Italians making their own history (the Frenchman Bernard Hinault won in ’80, ’82 and ’85 – one of the fabled ` six’ to have won all three grand tours).
The race also has its share of controversy. In 1984, local favourite Francesco Moser finally won, beating French favourite Laurent Fignon to second place but only after accusations of drafting behind team cars and being pushed up the mountains; not to mention – the race’s highest summit stage, over the Stelvio, getting mysteriously cancelled due to (non-existent) snowfall (it was later claimed that Moser would lose too much time to Fignon over the Stelvio and so the organisers concocted a reason to avoid it).
In 1987, Ireland’s Stephen Roche invoked the ire of not only the partisan ` Tifosi’ (the name given to the Italian fans) but also the majority of his own team (the Italian Carrera Team) and especially his Italian team-mate (and Tifosi favourite) Roberto Visentini, by riding off the front of the bunch and gaining time on his own team-mate. He was to hold the advantage all the way to the finish, enduring taunts, abuse, physical punches and spitting.
More recently, who can forget Chris Froome’s superb 80km attack on stage 19 of the 2018 race to propel himself into the lead, which he held onto, thus claiming his first Giro victory and seventh Grand Tour (and becoming the sixth rider to win all three Grand Tours).
Like the Tour de France, the Giro has looked to broaden its appeal and global reach by starting outside its own borders. Recently it visited Israel, Holland, the UK and Denmark to name four. However, just like the Tour de France showcases Paris in the final stage, the Giro always finishes in Milan against a backdrop of much Italian fanfare.
As the sport continues to find ways to extend its global reach and engage new audiences, we as fans can sit back and marvel at our favourite teams and some of the biggest names in the sport do battle over iconic stretches of road. It inspires us further to ride our bikes. We will always have our preferences and favourites in terms of events, but as long as I can tune into live cycling coverage for three weeks at a time, three times a year, I don’t mind where the racing comes from!
(The author, Nigel Smith, is the Head Coach of Kanakia Scott Racing Development. For more on Nigel please click on these links: https://shyamgopan.com/2018/06/16/there-is-no-reason-why-that-structure-cannot-exist-in-india/ & https://shyamgopan.com/2018/12/22/if-a-rider-still-wants-to-be-part-of-the-team-the-door-is-open-nigel-smith-head-coach-scott-sports-india/)