Shortly after Strade Bianche, on a visit to Lucca, I left the Museo della Follia and, glancing up at the ramparts of the famous Mura Urbane, thought I caught a glimpse of Mario Cipollini.
He was wearing what can only be described as tight-fitting jogging pants, because they were tight-fitting jogging pants. In some ways, this didn’t remotely surprise me. I had been told by the landlady of the B&B I was staying in that he was often to be seen striding along the city walls, like some spectral custodian. And there he was. I think.
A few days later, on the second day of Tirreno-Adriatico, in the Tuscan hilltop town of Pomarance, I wandered into the mystically-named Ganesh Café to reacquaint myself with a certain rainbow jersey on the wall. It had once belonged to Paolo Bettini, and the former double world champion had scrawled illegibly on it with a sharpie.
The jersey was still there. But that was not all. In a fridge alongside the counter, there was a trident-shaped sponge cake, emblazoned with two heavily iced digits (15!), artfully bedecked with rainbow icing, that proudly declared it had been fully 15 years since Pomarance’s favoured cycling son had ridden to victory in the Race of the Two Seas.
‘IL NOSTRO RE!’ the cake trumpeted, in food-coloured piping. ‘OUR KING!’ Disappointingly, when the race finished, Bettini didn’t show up, preferring to remain in the shadows.
This is a land of ghosts. From Coppi and Bartali through to Pantani and beyond, they haunt Italian cycling, and seem especially active during the late winter months, mooching around the margins of Tirreno-Adriatico, inhabiting the dead wood and brown hillsides, drifting into the smoke that rises from isolated farms in the softly sunlit Tuscan landscape. They whisper on the wind, cursing Fabio Aru and chuckling at Giacomo Nizzolo. They are mildly untrustworthy.
It has been three years now since Vincenzo Nibali inveigled the Giro for himself at the expense of Steven Kruijswijk’s Wikipedia page. It has been nearly four since Aru somehow bobbed and lurched his way to a Vuelta win without winning a stage. This is thin soup. Nibali’s sheer understanding of what it takes to win led to that sensational Lombardia/Sanremo double in 2017/18.
And, sure, the RAI cameras still lavish their attention on him, but they do the same to fountains in piazzas, campaniles in Umbrian villages and marble statues of forgotten dukes. Nibali is a rider who is increasingly hemmed in. The enemy is crowding at his borders. And the ghosts are whispering his name.
Elia Viviani may be the fastest man in the world right now. He may be riding in the red, white and green of Italy. All this is true, but… somehow a sprinter, even Cipollini, doesn’t speak to the yearning of the Italian cycling heart.
These hearts are the eternally hard-to-please organs, hidden under shiny puffa jackets, or layers of logo-strewn lycra. There are the hearts of the old men by the side of the road on a Wednesday afternoon in some tiny Marche village, veterans of the ditch and hedge whose withering stare would freeze the blood of many a Bardiani-CSF makeweight, forlornly chasing the mountains points in a doomed breakaway.
Where are the true campioni? Who will now take the race to the world in the snow-lined Dolomites and asphyxiate the opposition?
At the Rouleur Classic last year, I asked Ivan Basso who he considered to be the next Italian Grand Tour winner. After a few seconds of hesitation, Basso mystifyingly replied, “Gianni Moscon”. I didn’t know what to say, since he is Ivan Basso, and I am not. But I thought he must have taken leave of his senses.
Italy has it all. Endless coast. Total history. Pappardelle al cinighiale. But I have often wondered whether the chattering population that crowds the hypermarkets of its built-up plains, worries frantically behind the wheel of a car on its network of terrifying roads and fusses endlessly over etiquette in all manner of simple situations, feels weighed down by the pressure of its great ancestry.
I think I would rather be Dutch. Or British, French, Colombian or Slovenian. But if I were Italian I would want, above all, to win in Italy. I would want to collapse the whole peninsular, with its endless hills and ribbon-unwinding roads, its fervent scepticism and terminal nostalgia. I would want to silence the ghosts for good.
This article was originally published in Rouleur 19.3