Friday, May 24, 2013

Maglia Rosa: Triumph & Tragedy at the Giro d’Italia

As some of you may recall, I’m a recent convert to the Giro. In fact, you’ll find me perched near the tippy-top of the Giro bandwagon, along with all the other Ryder Hesjedal fans who hopped aboard following his surprising victory in 2012.

Now, after reading Herbie Sykes’s fascinating history of the Giro (published in 2011, two years after the event’s centennial), I’m even more intrigued and bewitched by the race for the pink jersey. Sure, the Tour de France gets all the Grand Tour-hype, but I find myself largely convinced by Sykes’s claim that the Giro is actually “the most beautiful, and the most captivating, of cycling’s great stage races.”

One of the most intriguing aspects of the Giro story is the race’s deep connection to Italian nationalism throughout its history. Sykes explains that, in the early years, the Giro brought together for the first time provincial Italians, most of whom had never left their respective regions. In this sense, the race played a role in helping create the very idea of Italy as a nation. (Interestingly, the notion of “Italy” is almost exactly as old as the bicycle itself.) Even today, Sykes suggests, the Giro “represents something beyond cycling in that it links Italy, and Italians, together.”

The links between the race and Italian politics are fascinating. For instance, Mussolini’s minions actively intervened in decisions about which riders would participate in the Giro and other races. In 1938, the Fascist Party Secretary famously ordered the great Gino Bartali to skip the Giro and ride the Tour de France instead, as a way of showing the French the “values and ethical superiority of Fascism.”(The photos of riders being herded around by Blackshirts are chilling.) Bartali grudgingly went along with the order but made it known that he was no friend of the Fascists, and that he was more devoted to the Pope than to Il Duce, which made Bartali even more of a hero to some. (Mussolini decided to leave Bartoli alone, fearing a public backlash. He recognized the power of a cycling hero in Italy.) This complex web of religion, politics, and cycling may not be exclusive to the Giro, but stories like the Bartoli one prove Sykes’s point that the Giro is much more than a bike race.   

The Stelvio.

Sykes regales us with the many legends of the Giro and the men who made their marks at it: Alfredo Binda, Bartali, Fausto Coppi, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault. But Sykes advances the compelling claim that the Giro has never been dominated the way the Tour de France has been. Yes, there have been back-to-back winners (Bartali, Coppi, Balmamion, Indurain) and Binda and Merckx each won three in a row, but compared to the Tour de France’s run of long dynasties (Hinault, Indurain, Armstrong), the Giro has proven a much harder beast to tame consistently. And this is a large part of its appeal for Sykes. He argues that the Giro has always been more open to innovation than the Tour (for instance, it allowed a woman, Alfonsina Strada, to participate in 1924) and, as a result, is “much less formulaic” than the French race.

Check out the kit on the dude far right.
My favorite part of this book is the first third or so, where Sykes evokes the heroic age of Italian cycling, from the late nineteenth century to about the 1940s. In the early years especially, from 1909 to the mid- twenties, the Giro was a mind-boggling suffer-fest: we’re talking epic stages of 350 km on average, along dirt and gravel roads, on heavy gearless machines, with no mechanical or medical assistance allowed. The competitors were the hardest of men, all Italian, mostly from working-class backgrounds, and featuring ace nicknames like “The Red Devil” (Giovanni Gerbi), “The Squirrel” (Carlo Galetti), and “The Human Locomotive” (Learco Guerra). The photos from this era are remarkable; the cyclists’ faces exude a fierce, plain ruggedness that makes for a fascinating counterpoint to the slick, often spoiled professional cyclists of our own age.

As much as I enjoyed this book, there are a few niggling things about it that I found mildly annoying. For one thing, it’s got no notes of any kind, and only a cursory general bibliography. Sykes recounts a lot of history and lore in the book, and although much of it may be common knowledge among Giro aficionados, I was often curious about his source material. Also, Sykes incorporates great swaths of interview material with retired racers as well (Zilioli, for instance), without providing much context. It’s sometimes difficult to figure out who is even talking. Plus, at times, Sykes shifts into a colloquial, matey style that makes the tone a little weird (as in British) to some North American ears.  

But these are minor bumps on the white gravel Dolomite road. The book captures the magic and mystery of this “chaotic, unpredictable, mercurial” race. Maglia Rosa is perfect for dipping into or flipping through—the photos alone are utterly captivating—especially at this time of year.

Towards the end of the book, Sykes, who lives in Turin, laments the decline of cycle-racing in Italy in recent years, with the disappearance of several traditional races. He suggests that cycling in Italy has fallen from a national passion to a middle-ranking sport. But the Giro endures, he explains, because it is so much more than a bike race. It may never have the global appeal of the Tour, always remaining something wholly Italian, but Sykes sees this as a good thing. A large part of the Giro’s charm is its special strangeness, its difficulty, its inward-looking, confounding Italian-ness. 

Note: This book isn’t easy to find and even used copies tend to be pricey. It was published in Britain by Rouleur and doesn’t seem to have been distributed in North America. I got my copy via inter-library loan.

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