The Gazzetta dello Sport’s headquarters is nestled away on a quiet street in the northeastern suburbs of Lombardy’s capital, a leafy area known as Crescenzago, one of many small towns that have been absorbed into into the city’s perpetual sprawl over the last century.
It’s a large, low-rise block of buildings that stands between a road and the Lambro river. Inside the complex, the courtyard is ornamented with several large pillars displaying a selection of the paper’s most iconic covers, from the lurid green of the its first edition to Italy’s Fabio Cannavaro holding the World Cup aloft in 2006 and the jubilant yellow celebration of “Roi Nibali” after his 2014 Tour de France victory. All colourful towers of heady summer memories against the sodden grey of an autumn afternoon in Milan.
In a first-floor office overlooking the square, the Giro’s director, Mauro Vegni, is busy putting the final touches to the presentation of the 100th edition of the Giro d’Italia, surrounded by mementos from a lifetime in cycling, including a replica of the race’s iconic Trofeo senza fine.
Born in 1959 outside of Siena, Vegni grew up in Rome and after university, he began a career in cycling that would eventually lead him to his current position as the director of Italy’s most important race, only the sixth in its 108-year history. Originally, he’d been a footballer, with little interest in bike racing, but by twist of fate, his affections shifted thanks to the suggestion of a very influential neighbour in the Italian capital.
“Franco Mealli lived nearby,” says Vegni. “He was a Roman who organised several races, including the Tirreno-Adriatico, the Giro del Lazio, he was one of the biggest in Italy after the Gazzetta. He convinced me to forget about football and took me with him to see some races, and with that, I started to following cycling out of curiosity. While I was at university, I gave him a hand whenever I could, and later he made me a proposal to work in the cycling world.”
Unfortunately, the legacy of organisers like Mealli has been somewhat neglected by the sport’s followers today, but once upon a time he, and others like him, were cornerstones of the sport in the provinces.
Cycling was in his blood – his uncle Adelino raced against Gino Bartali and both his brothers Marcello and Bruno were professional riders – but Franco chose a different route, towards organisation and roles in large events like 1955 World Championships, held in Frascati, in the hills south of Rome, and the capital’s 1960 Olympics. By the 1970s he had built up an impressive portfolio of beautiful races across central and southern Italy, many of which are sadly no longer with us.
So significant was he, in fact, that people often referred to him as the “Torriani of the south,” in reference to the long-serving Giro director of the time. He remained passionate about cycling to his death in 1997, when La Repubblica lamented the passing of “l’ultimo alfiere di un ciclismo antico,” the last standard-bearer of old cycling.
Both the pace and the scale of change seen by Vegni, by anyone working in cycling over the last few decades, has been striking. For better and for worse, the sport hardly resembles even the era of Francesco Moser and Giuseppe Saronni, and had nothing to connect it to the era of Fausto Coppi other than a journalist’s occasional cliché and the nostalgic concoctions of marketing managers.
But while Mealli might have been the last standard-bearer of the country’s cycling Golden Era, his understudy seems attached to elements of the past, even as he plans for the future, and whenever the subject of the sport’s transformation comes up, he seems intent that while the developments made have largely been good things, we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
“Like everything in life,” he says, “over time there are always changes. Cycling, once upon a time, lived on passion and voluntary help, but today, if you want to do it properly you need to act like a business.
“There’s been an extreme change too in terms of human relationships. Years ago, with a telephone call you could make deals and create events. Now there are contracts, lawyers and legal departments, accountants. But the whole world has changed, and cycling, as such, had to change too.
“If I think of cycling back in the 1970s, it seems almost prehistoric compared to today. It’s natural, but if you asked me what I missed about back then, I’d say the human aspect. The values. I miss that a bit. For the rest of it, change is normal and I’ve been a part of it.”
Perhaps the only concern with all of this change is its effect on the sport’s financial sustainability. Cycling has a long, inglorious history of operating in an unstructured, often hand-to-mouth, manner, but in an era of ever-increasing professionalism, the uncertainty that plagues so many of the sport’s events and its teams can no longer be ignored.
A few decades ago, teams got by on a relative shoe-string. The main costs were rider contracts, with small staff and a few vehicles to support them at races. Now, most of the World Tour’s big teams could fill a hotel parking lot with their fleets of buses, mechanic’s trucks and team cars. Most have a dedicated chef, who increasingly want to have mobile kitchens to ensure that they can provide the best possible nourishment to the riders during gruelling stage races, where backwater accommodations often come with limited cooking facilities and questionable levels of hygiene.
Team Ineos even famously has a van full of washing machines and dryers. To a layperson, these might seem like small, inconsequential details in the context of professional sport, but for all of the glitz and glamour that comes across on TV at something like a grand tour, it remains very much a sport of modest resources.
“From my point of view, cycling has created a lot of new costs, but it hasn’t been able to make the pie any bigger. In terms of expense, it’s not at the level of football, but it’s not like it was 20 years ago either. And there’s a difference, an important imbalance with sponsors, because with some exceptions, if they invest in a team, they do it for a specific amount of time. Most of them for four or five years, there have only been four or five names who’ve backed a team for 20 years.
“Compared with football, the major difference is that it’s more stable. The team structure is stronger, and the sponsor is a client. With cycling, the team is a client. OK, they might be registered companies, but the reality without that sponsor, they don’t exist. I think we need to reduce some of the costs because if they don’t have decent revenue, the costs can kill a team.”
Developments have been positive since the turn of the last decade. In a broader sense, the sport has finally come to terms with the doping scandals and flagrant dereliction of the rules that dogged it during the 1990s and into the new millennium. And closer to home, the Giro seems to have rediscovered its form after several years in the doldrums.
Gone are the inhumane stages that many hold at least partially accountable for the proliferation of performance-enhancing drugs, the senselessly long transfers between stage finishes and the following day’s start, and for the most part, the race closures that hurt the sport’s appeal at a more local level.
Reversing the trend of a decade ago, RCS is now reinvigorating storied old events and creating new races such as the Strade Bianche spring classic that has captured the imagination of riders and fans alike. A calendar full of events might not directly affect the Giro d’Italia, which, after a century has become something of a national institution, but they are invaluable in terms of creating interest amongst the wider public, framing the annual spectacle and giving a new generation of tifosi something to engage with from February to October.
“A great Giro needs to be a synthesis of all of the disciplines,” offers the director, as the conversation turns to the race’s rediscovered humanity.
“There needs to be the right mix, so I will never think of doing 15 mountain stages. It would be easy for me to design a race from Sicily to the Dolomites, up through the Apennines, only in the mountains. But there needs to be sprints, time trials, and the mountains, with climbs that are sufficient to bring out the best rider.
“One of the things I’ve tried to do in recent years is to give the Giro a more human scale. Shorter transfers, for example, more attention to the riders, so that they don’t race 130 kilometres and the spend the night driving 200 kilometres. Extremism doesn’t do anyone any good.”
A regrettable change that Vegni has seen in his time at the helm is the way in which modern riders approach the race calendar. Gone are the days when someone like Bernard Hinault would swashbuckle his way across the continent from early spring until late autumn, as adept at laying waste to the opposition in the muddy, early-season classics as he was at trouncing everyone in the mountains of a grand tour. And in Vegni’s eyes, at least, it seems as if most of the current crop are failing to live up to their billing.
“I can only speak of the riders I’ve seen,” he says, talking of favourites. “The Eddy Merckx I knew was at the end of his career. I started working in this world in 1976, which if I’m right was the last Giro that Felice Gimondi won … I struggle with the dates! I wouldn’t want to talk about them, it’s better to talk about what I’ve seen, from Francesco Moser’s generation, Roger De Vlaeminck and all those guys.
“Someone who’s on the right road today, for me, is Vincenzo Nibali. He has demonstrated that he can win everywhere – the Giro, the Vuelta, the Tour – one of only six to do it. And he’s won Monuments, too. From February to October, he races.
“Even in Vincenzo’s bad year, 2015, he tried everywhere – and then he finished the year winning Lombardia, a Monument, which is no small achievement. That’s a champion. That’s why I rate Hinault and Contador, because everywhere they went they showed that they were really strong, real racers.
“Riders who basically do one race a year don’t excite me. Hinault won the Worlds, won classics, we’re not even talking about the same thing anymore. And now, someone wins only one event, and we’re supposed to put them in the same category as someone like that? A great rider can’t finish his career without winning a Giro, or at least trying to. Or vice-versa, not to speak only about the others, if an Italian is supposed to be strong, but he only wins the Giro and never the Tour? They need to compete in all of the races at the top level. And I have my doubts about anyone who doesn’t.
“As for when people ask me, ‘Who are you bringing to the Giro?’ I need patience to respond. Whoever doesn’t come to the Giro is missing out, it’s not the Giro that is losing. It’s the Giro that makes champions, the Tour that makes champions, not the other way around.”
One thing that hasn’t changed since before Vegni’s time is also, perhaps, the most distinctive trait of the sport in the 21st century, and one that gives him plenty of cause for optimism. Bike racing, for all its problems and its myriad flaws, remains a sport of the people, and even now, in an ever-more micro-managed environment, its greatest dramas continue to play out on open roads, inches from the fans, without a ticket or a turnstile in sight. As long as the Giro stays true to that principle, it will have a place in the hearts of Italians, and of race fans around the world.
“Cycling, even the darkest moments, had the fortitude to hold on to the public,” muses Vegni, our conversation drawing to a close. “Its capacity to be close to its fans has been the sport’s greatest strength. Some people might say that it’s a sport for old people, a sport of sweat and of mud, not something attractive, that it had just become the new golf … For me, in those moments, cycling still had the power to overcome those crises and the impasses, only because of its ability to keep its protagonists close to the people.
“The riders who stop to talk to kids and to sign autographs, the way that people can go to the start and put their hand on the back of someone like Vincenzo Nibali. That’s what makes this sport special. Tell me another sport that has that, where the public, the real public, not a selected few or those who pay, has the opportunity to shake hands, talk, take a selfie with a star.
“Cycling isn’t the biggest sport in the world, but it is one of the most important, and we’re talking about the very best athletes. What other sport gives you that possibility? It doesn’t call you to the stadium; it comes to you. And it doesn’t just show you athletes, it shows you so much of the country, that would otherwise be difficult to come to know. These are great values that no one can take away. That is cycling’s great virtue.”
This is an extract from Giro d’Italia: The Story of the World’s Most Beautiful Bike Race, by Colin O’Brien. The book is available now in paperback from Pursuit Books. He is also the translator of Marco Pastonesi’s Pantani was a god, published by Rapha Editions.