Excitement. Speed. Suffering. Three of the most obvious sensations that come to mind when you think of professional cycling. But to me, none of that holy trinity, so beloved of the marketeers, is the reason we watch bike racing. Not really.
There are more exciting ways to pass an afternoon than watching a peloton wind its way through the countryside, patiently waiting for an instant of action. There are faster sports. And disciplines where the athletes suffer more.
But unless you’re very unlucky, you have no idea what it feels like to be kicked in the face by Conor McGregor, or steamrolled by Wales rugby captain Alun Wyn Jones. You do, however, know what it’s like to drag yourself and a bike up a long mountain climb. We all do.
And we know what it’s like to stand by the road, with a beer or a sandwich in hand, piecing together a race from the radio, patchy website updates, or if you’re lucky, a small TV in the back of a camper.
Waiting for the race to pass, so close that you can hear the laboured breathing, smell the sweat. So close that the painful, grimaced expressions can be hard to look at. That’s why we watch. The human scale of it. That’s cycling’s great virtue, the democratic madness of taking one of the world’s biggest public events, and parading it through a rural village.
The last time the Giro d’Italia started in Sardinia, it was 2007 and the world was a very different place. People were still doing their best to believe that the likes of Alessandro Petacchi and Danilo Di Luca were clean, and a 23-year-old Riccardo Riccò was fresh-faced and full of promise (and who knows what else), a full four years away from his DIY blood transfusion and the ensuing kidney failure, hospitalisation, and ridicule.
Away from bike racing, Tony Blair was the British Prime Minister, the feckless banks of the City and Wall Street were definitely too big to fail, and everyone was certain that George W. Bush was, without a doubt, the most idiotic president that the United States of America could ever possibly elect. Such innocent times.
The only other time that the Corsa Rosa visited the island, for a single stage in 1961, Jacques Anquetil was in his pomp, Fausto Coppi was only dead a year, and Bertha Mae LeMond was pregnant with a son who would grow up to leave an indelible mark on cycling.
It was still six months before Brian Epstein would first meet the Beatles, the US Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba had failed to oust Fidel Castro from power the previous month, and Harper Lee was just awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Two days after the race left Cagliari for Marsala in western Sicily, John F. Kennedy told a joint session of Congress in Washington DC that he wanted to send a man to the moon.
What’s all this got to do with the 100th edition of the Giro? Not a lot, perhaps. Or maybe everything. The point is that it’s a rare thing, this route.
Both islands, followed by four stages on the southern mainland. Almost half the race in the Mezzogiorno, contradicting the stereotype that Italian cycling exists only in the north, and bringing the country’s biggest annual event to people all too often isolated or excluded from the nation’s premier occasions.
It’s a route that suits current race director Mauro Vegni. After all, he grew up in Rome, and made his name organising races like the Giro di Puglia, the Giro della Provincia di Reggio Calabria, and the 1994 World Championships in Sicily with Franco Mealli, Italy’s last great independent race organiser, known as the “Torriani of the south,” after the legendary Giro director Vincenzo Torriani.
It was easy to see how much the visit meant to the locals. The team presentation, an event that often looks abandoned, resembled a music festival, so dense were the crowds.
And in spite of its sparse and scattered population, the roadsides in rural Sardinia were lined with people. There were parades in traditional costume, village fetes, and even the towns in the island’s beggared interior were draped in pink and effervescent with excitement.
The only disappointing part of the Grande Partenza was the absence of the injured Fabio Aru.
Sicily, too, embraced the Corsa Rosa, with the final sections of the climb to Etna’s Rifugio Giovannino Sapienza packed thick with fans, the dusty black embankments and the rims of volcanic craters resembling football ground terraces, complete with chanting, flares, and flag-waving loons.
In a place where unemployment is almost twice the national average, and where crumbling infrastructure and drastic urban poverty make it hard to believe you’re in one of the world’s biggest economies, excuses to celebrate the region are all too rare.
The stage finish in Messina, home to Vincenzo Nibali (above), was a cacophonous, heaving hot mess, and watching a mob, 10 or more deep, engulf a Bahrain-Merida car as it tried to ferry the four-time grand tour winner away to the team hotel, it was impossible not to wish for a swift return, logistics be damned.
So what if the opening days lacked a real GC punch? Etna might have been different, but the organisers can’t plan for headwinds and rider apprehension. And Blockhaus more than made up for it.
Too rarely used on the race, it’s special not just for the fact that it might be – taken in isolation – the most testing climb on this year’s route, or the fact that it was the scene of Eddy Merckx’s first grand tour stage win, but also because it’s so obviously Abruzzese.
The most iconic climb south of the Alps and the Dolomites, tucked away in the Maiella Massif, it’s rugged and unforgiving, but there are also spectacular views of the serene Adriatic below. It’s home to feral predators and not so long ago, to bands of roving brigands who resisted Italian unification and the power of the centralised state.
It provided a reminder that Italian cycling is about more than just a handful of northern switchbacks – and gave Quintana (below) the perfect opportunity to lay down a marker and build some kind of bulwark against the coming assaults from his rivals.
With so many GC hopefuls taking part this year, the early Mexican – Italian? – stand-off was inevitable. It’s a route that has everyone guessing, and we should be thankful of that.
It could suit Tom Dumoulin, the tall, powerful time triallist, as much as it suits the diminutive pure climber Nairo Quintana. And with so many tight, technical descents to come in the final week, you’d be foolish to discount Nibali, the best bike racer in the Giro pack this year.
There were grumbles. It would be strange if there weren’t some moans – cycling is surely the world’s pre-eminent sport when it comes to complaining – but who among the drone of dissenting voices really expected Nibali, Quintana et al. to be raging right from the off in Alghero?
No, good things come to those who wait, and a grand tour isn’t some miserable microwave meal to be scoffed quickly with one hand, while the other grubby paw is let loose on social media.
It’s a celebratory banquet, and we’re just getting to the tastiest parts of the menu. And the best part of it all? The coming treats are still a complete surprise.
Colin O’Brien is a freelance journalist based in Rome. His book, Giro d’Italia: The Story of the World’s Most Beautiful Bike Race, is out now.