The Via Angelo Rizzoli in Milan is a quiet street, lined with modern office buildings. One such building has a rather intimidating look, as if covered in armour. Very cool, modernist armour in an architectural grey finish.
Deep inside this building is a room with no windows. Huge maps of Italy adorn the walls, and on a table sits a solitary red telephone. When this telephone rings, someone dashes in to take the call. For there is only group of people who call this number. Shepherds. It’s the shepherd hotline.
“Yes, this is RCS, the Giro d’Italia organisers. To whom am I speaking?”
“That’s not important. What is important is the track I am standing on, right now. I don’t usually bring my herd this way but a blizzard has driven me onto the wrong side of the mountain. Anyway, this track – it’s maybe 30 per cent gradient for something like 20 kilometres.”
“And the surface? What’s it like underfoot, man?”
“Under the snow you mean? Well, it’s mainly goat-crap and rocks. I was thinking you could use it for the queen stage of your bike race?”
“Give me your coordinates. I’ll have a helicopter there in 20 minutes.”
Okay, it is possible I dreamt this. I often dream about designing a stage race, though in my dreams I usually end up lost and flustered in the Dolomites in a hire car that has seventeen gears, fruitlessly searching for the ultimate climb. A climb so sinister that just to mention its name is to bring on the risk of immediate cardiac arrest.
Bike racing has always been a fundamentally silly sport. Just the idea of racing bicycles over the Dolomites is daft. Daft, but in a glorious way, of course. So to grab attention for their race, Grand Tour organisers have had to embrace their inner Monty Python. Over the years, they’ve come up with all kinds of wacky ideas, some inspired, some not so much. And the Giro d’Italia has led the way. The results have been entertaining, often downright dangerous and – most importantly – have made for good television. Here are a few of my favourites from the Giro, with a cameo appearance from the Vuelta.
1978 Giro D’Italia
Legendary race organiser Vincenzo Torriani wanted to take a stage into the heart of Venice. There was a minor issue relating to a lack of roads and an excess of canals, but that wasn’t going to stop our man Torriani. He designed a 12km time-trial route that took the riders across the Mestre causeway, along the Zattere Wharf and over a series of plywood bridges. Then, his masterstroke: a floating pontoon on the Grand Canal, allowing his superstars to race into the Piazza San Marco for a spectacular finish in front of the Doge’s Palace. Notwithstanding a degree of movement by the pontoons, and some aggressive pigeon tifosi, it was an overwhelming success. Francesco Moser ran out the winner. One wonders why it’s never been repeated.
1987 Giro D’Italia
En route to his victory in this edition of the Giro, Stephen Roche had to put up with a venomous team-mate, hostile crowds and a time-trial down the Poggio. To pay homage to Milan-Sanremo, and possibly to help the local glazing industry by smashing a few greenhouses, the 8km time-trial was staged on the opening weekend. Many riders, including Roche, were openly critical of the decision, in part because a rider, Emilio Ravasio, had died on the race the year before. Equipment choice for the stage proved critical. Because it included four kilometres of flat roads and four of descent, many of Roche’s rivals opted for low-profile bikes with disc wheels, but Roche stuck to a regular road bike with 28 spokes, figuring that the responsiveness in the tight Poggio bends would give him more time than the aerodynamics of a disc on the flat. His decision paid off. He won the stage, beating time-trial specialists Lech Piasecki and Erik Breukink.
1973 Giro D’Italia
The opening stage of this edition was a two-up time-trial, an odd format for a race based on ten-man teams. The 5km stage didn’t count towards the overall classification, though that was rendered academic when Eddy Merckx dragged team-mate Roger Swerts around the course to victory, then held on to the maglia rosa for the rest of the race. Very short time-trials have been a feature of the Giro over the years. In 2005 the scenic seafront at Reggio Calabria played host to a 1km prologue. On a flat and straight course, Stuart O’Grady opted for a fixed wheel bike, but it was fellow Australian Brett Lancaster who took the victory and the maglia rosa. However, no speedy Aussie was going to upstage the real hero of the night. Starting last – because he had retired a few days earlier and wasn’t actually competing in the Giro – Mario Cipollini took to the starting ramp wearing a glow-in-the-dark pink and silver bodysuit, emblazoned with the motto ‘Sweet Years’. The race took place in the evening, under floodlights, to coincide with primetime Italian television, so Cipo got to say his goodbye to the whole nation.
Further back, even before Torriani’s 40-year reign, Giro organisers used velodromes to whip up some excitement among the locals. In the 1930s most decent-sized towns and cities had a velodrome, and track racing was enormously popular. So at the end of a long stage (up to 11 hours of racing) the peloton would be stopped and the riders would have to do a timed lap sprint around the track. An 11 hour preparation for a 40 second time trial; I bet that’s not the British Cycling warm-up protocol.
2015 Vuelta a España
Next time you go on a beach holiday, and wander up to get a cold drink or an ice cream from that little café by the promenade, make sure you stop and look up. You may just see a team of professional cyclists screaming past, all in a long line. Team time-trials at Spanish beach resorts are very common these days; some package holidays are offering a ride with BMC as an optional extra. This farcical stage, which ended up neutralised for the general classification, is an example of the wrongheadedness of some race organisers. The venue was picturesque but wholly impractical for a bike race, so what resulted was a televised demonstration of riding expensive bikes in a line. Six different surfaces, roads that looked more like bike paths, and a liberal dusting of sand across much of the course. It was never going to be a fierce battle.
Television companies do not have any direct input into the routes of Grand Tours. But when we see silly stages like the opener at the 2015 Vuelta, we can sense the organisers pandering to economic, rather than sporting, interests. This was a stage designed for television, and therefore for advertisers and sponsors. Horribly steep climbs are more relevant to a bike race than sandy paths – cycling has a long tradition of sending its boys over climbs like the Angliru and Plan de Corones. Though even here, we should acknowledge that steep can equal silly. While riders may cry that steep climbs are inhumane, surely the greater crime is that they are slow, and therefore boring. We want to see our heroes pounding up Alpe d’Huez, not grovelling up the Colle delle Finestre. Behind the leaders, the gregarios lurch from push to push, accept drinks and wigs, take selfies and update their Instagram accounts; they’ve made the cut-off calculation and that’s all that counts.
The Giro prides itself on being innovative and creative. Torriani’s courses were unpredictable and he brought in many innovations we take for granted today, such as time bonuses for stage winners. But in modern times there is a conceptual problem with the Grand Tours. True creativity has been replaced with nostalgia masquerading as innovation. The landmark stages are nods to the past, or to other races. In 2010 the Giro included a stage to Montalcino, including long sections of strade bianche. When maglia rosa Vincenzo Nibali crashed on a corner, Linus Gerdemann, Alexandre Vinokourov and Stefano Garzelli attacked and an elite group including world champion Cadel Evans got away. Heavy rain had turned the gravel roads into brown gloop and the race became more reminiscent of the famously muddy Lembeek Cyclo-cross Worlds than Fausto Coppi racing the Giro. Evans’ rainbow jersey had taken on a very grim seventies hue by the time he won the sprint in Montalcino. Crossing the line, he pointed to his chest. He was the first rider to win a stage of the Giro in the rainbow jersey in 20 years.
It was a dramatic race, a poetic win, and it helped to launch Strade Bianche as a one-day classic. But the mud on the riders’ glasses might as well have been sepia. Cycling is obsessed with the past. True innovation, of the kind Torriani would endorse, looks to the future.
Perhaps the future lies in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula. Christian Prudhomme seems to think so. Plans for a Grand Départ in Qatar have been mooted, and the Worlds are being staged there this year. Could cycling in 20 years look more like Mad Max than Stars and Watercarriers? Fortunately, JG Ballard didn’t write a book about an apocalyptic cycle race in a sandstorm; everything else he wrote has come true.
So here is my own contribution. It’s innovative and future-looking but also uses one of cycle sport’s principal assets – hot air. Any of the Grand Tour organisers are welcome to have it, I won’t claim copyright. It’s based on the premise that the most exciting word in cycle racing is ‘crosswind’. Find a flat circuit in a sparsely populated area. Build some wind turbines and adapt them to work like hairdryers. Start the race, then at intervals blast the peloton with sudden crosswinds. To make the whole thing more interactive for the viewing public, the turbines could be controlled through Twitter vote, or by a lucky competition winner who gets to sit with Sean Kelly in a television studio and press the E for Echelon button.
Everyone will be happy – the viewers, television companies, organisers, sponsors, wind turbine companies.
Oh, and the riders? In all this silliness I almost forgot them. Well, they don’t always appreciate the fun. The idea of riding a time-trial bike at 55kph along a sandy beach path, millimetres away from the back wheel of a friend, colleague and valuable brand asset, doesn’t fill them with sparkling happiness. The killjoys.
From Rouleur issue 62. Paul Maunder is a novelist and freelance writer