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When we arrived at our new home in the Asolo hills in 1991, the fellow who sold it to us stopped by to fill us in on some things we needed to know. "I'm sorry that the telephone hasn't been installed yet," he said, explaining that the phone company had not been permitted to dig up the street to run the lines across because "some big bicycle race is going to go through here...it may even be the Giro d'Italia." Thrilled by this prospect, I walked into the center of town to find out. And indeed, the Giro d'Italia was going to pass right in front of our house! I loved the fact that a little matter like telephone service was not allowed to disturb the route of the Giro, and I didn't mind doing without a phone for the good of "the world's toughest race in the world's most beautiful place." On the big day I rode up into the neighboring town of Asolo; the riders would climb the same steep hill and pass through the center of the picturesque little town. I arrived in a small piazza, and due to a combination of my new unbroken-in clipless pedals and a slippery cobblestone, fell, not only feeling extremely foolish, but landing on my fanny pack and breaking a couple of pieces off of my camera. Fortunately, it worked just the same, and I took plenty of photos, including the ones below.

Since then, going to the Giro has become one of the highlights of my year, a holiday I start planning for as soon as the route is announced in the preceeding fall. The Giro is more than a race; it's a celebration of cycling, a festival of the people, and the continuation of a long and glorious tradition that everyone can be a part of, just by showing up.

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2014 GIRO STAGES IN THE TRI-VENETO (VENETO, TRENTINO, and FRIULI-VENEZIA GIULIA REGIONS)


May 28 Sarnonico (TN) > Vittorio Veneto (TV)

May 29 Belluno > Panarotta (TN)

May 30 Bassano del Grappa (VI) > Cima Grappa (TV)

May 31 Maniago (PN) > Zoncolan (UD)

June 1 Gemona (UD) > Trieste

Provincial Abbreviations: PD-Pordenone (Friuli-Venezia Giulia region), TV-Treviso, TN-Trento (Trentino region), UD-Udine (Friuli-Venezia Giulia region). Belluno and Trieste are the capitals of provinces of the same name.

The Gazzetta dello Sport's Giro website, www.Giro d'Italia.it, offers live, streaming video, videos and features about each day's stage, and stage maps and detailed timetables that are indispensible for seeing the race in person.

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The ugly 2013 maglia rosa.,"designed" by Paul Smith.

• Click to see the motifs of past editions of the Giro.

• Click here to see lots more Giro stuff!

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Asolo, 1991. These photos have a special significance for me. Three of my friends are in these photos--but I didn't know any of them yet! Dario is the third rider in the breakaway in the photo on the left (that's Bjarne Riis leading the chase--they were caught). Mario, in a red and white jersey and blue cap, is leaning out of a doorway beneath the balcony. Ivana's blond head can be seen in the crowd on the right, in the center photo. I enjoy thinking that we all shared that special moment, even though destiny had not yet brought us together.

THE SPIRIT OF THE GIRO

I once asked a photographer and a journalist for BiciSport (Italy's leading bike racing magazine) to contrast the Giro and Tour. The Tour, they said, was majestic, grand, and stately. They found the atmosphere at the Giro, instead, to be more human, intimate, and informal. It remains very much the people's race, and there is a wonderful closeness between the riders and the spectators, who shower their two-wheeled heroes with a sweet and tender affection which I find quite endearing. The Giro is warmhearted, exuberant, easygoing, and thoroughly Italian in spirit.

In its December 2005 issue, CycleSport magazine stated, "Everyone looks forward to the Tour de France. but for several years now, the Giro has been more interesting, more competitive, and more exciting to watch...The scenery is better, the mountains chosen are more majestic, the route is more imaginative..." We wholeheartedly agree!

SEEING THE GIRO LIVE

Everything you've heard is true: excited people of all ages lining the roads, picnicing, partying, cheering wildly as the race goes by. How do you go about joining them? First, download the excellent route maps and detailed timetables from Gazzetta dello Sport's website, www.giroditalia.it. Study the route and talk to the locals, who know the prime viewing spots. Get to your chosen spot well in advance of the caravan's arrival. On a climbing stage, this may be a couple of hours before, and at a mountaintop finish, even more (allowing yourself plenty of time to do the climb). The waiting and the excited anticipation are part of the fun. You hang out with fellow fans, run into acquaintances, talk cycling, swap tales and reminiscences, eat thick slices of salami and cheese on crusty bread, drink wine from plastic cups, strain to catch to the live race report on someone's little radio, and just savor the moment in time, knowing that it will be etched in your memory forever. (A friend of mine saw Coppi twelve times, and he can tell you every detail about each one: when, where, who, the weather, and other particulars). Spectators who go by car drive up the passes the night before and sleep in tents or campers, since there is limited parking and a lot of traffic and confusion, and because the roads are closed hours before the race comes by. Bicycles, of course, are allowed, and it is a delight to join thousands of other cyclists making their way towards the summit. Today is our day! A day that celebrates cycling, when bikes rule the roads! Sorry, drivers--no cars allowed! Fellow cyclists will encourage you and spectators will cheer, offer you a glass of wine, and even give you a push if it looks as if you could use one. Finally you see a spot that looks good, dismount, and find a place for your bike. You should have a few essential items: a jacket and cap--even more if cool weather is predicted (remember Andy Hampsten on the Gavia Pass?!). Sunscreen. Footwear or cleat covers. A snack or energy bar can be a lifesaver: on the Manghen Pass in '99, some of the bars underestimated the crowds and ran out of food and drinks! Savor the ambiance and appreciate how fortunate you are to be in this place on this day, and to have arrived here under your own power. Team cars, police and photographers on motorcycles, and other official vehicles will go flying past. Then finally, someone will tilt his head, put a hand to his ear, and blurt: "the helicopter!" You can feel the electricity run through the crowd as the climactic moment draws near. An Italian poet wrote, "anticipation of pleasure is in itself a pleasure." Nowhere is this more true than at the Giro. You begin to hear the spectators' cheers, from far below at first, then growing louder and closer as the riders make their way up the mountain, and you know that at any moment they will appear around the bend. If you are in an uncrowded spot, their arrival may seem strangely quiet and undramatic--there is nothing but the soft whir of chains and gears, the sound of their breathing, and perhaps some words exchanged among them.

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(below) Once upon a time...

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...and there he is, il Pirata himself, on what was probably the penultimate happy day of his life (just two days later he would be expelled from the race for a too-high hematocrit).

The Manghen Pass (Trentino region), 1999. Note the hovering helicopter, signaling the imminent arrival of the race caravan..

Davide Cassani, ex-pro turned tv race commentator, noted this difference between the Giro and the Tour: look at the Tour spectators on the mountain stages, he said. How many of them are cyclists? How many of them rode their bikes there? You don't see many bikes strewn along the Tour route. But go to a Giro stage and you'll see thousands of bikes lying next to the road and propped up against every available tree and post, and thousands of cyclists awaiting the race. These fans, having just ridden up the climb, understand how hard it really is and appreciate every racer's effort, so they cheer for each and every one of them, down to the very last. When you watch the race on tv or videotape, you see only the lead riders and chase groups. But live...that is a whole other story. You see the riders who have given their all for their team leaders and have nothing left; you see the sprinters, who regard the mountains with fear and dread; you see the riders who are sick, injured, or the victims of mechanical misfortune. You see faces with blank and haunted expressions, and faces etched with pain. Sometimes it is unpleasant and uncomfortable to witness such suffering. But only then do you finally understand what a terrible, brutal, magnificent epic the Giro is.

After the riders have passsed, many spectators scramble to find someone with a radio or tv. I usually head back down the mountain right away, making sure that the fine gara--end of the race--car has passed so I don't run head on into any race stragglers or vehicles. At this point things get crazy, with thousands of bikes, pedestrians, motorcycles, and scooters all heading back down. At least you will avoid the cars and campers if you don't hang around too long.

OTHER VIEWING OPPORTUNITIES

Of course, mountain stages are not the only opportunities for seeing the Giro live. Stage finishes are perhaps the worst, as you must either arrive very early to get a good spot or wind up seeing nothing. In 2000 I stood for hours in the sun in Padua, crushed up against a chainlink fence right next to the finish line, pouring sweat and dying of thirst, all to see a sprint finish that was over in the blink of an eye. (Was it worth it? Sure!) If there are several laps around a finishing circuit--or if it is one of the occasional circuit stages--you should be able to find a good spot away from the finish line. After the finish, the riders are hot and tired and thinking of their showers, massages, and dinner. It's not a good time to bother them. They'll often jump into their team cars right away, though they will sometimes ride their bikes to their hotels if they're staying nearby, and you can ride along with them! Stage starts are much better. You can often get close to the team cars and ask the riders for their autographs. They are rested and relaxed and quite approachable. Time trial starts are the best of all, as you will often come upon the riders hanging around or warming up, then milling around the start area waiting for their turns. It's great for photo ops. I would recommend against riding your bike to stage starts and finishes though. The crowds are usually heavy, and maneuvering through them with a bike is difficult or impossible, even if you get off and walk. Taking photos and getting autographs are harder too.

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It's hard to keep climbing when everyone invites you to to stop for a bite to eat and a glass of wine.

How are we supposed to watch the Giro when they keep us behind bars?!

SOUVENIRS

Official souvenir stands can be found at stage starts and finishes, and vendors in vans sell cheap (made in China) caps, shirts, bandanas, etc, to fans lining the route. The jerseys, caps, and many other items sold at the stands are attractive and of excellent quality and will last longer. The official publicity caravan vehicles also toss out stuff that is usually nothing to get excited about (but getting into the spirit of things, everyone does anyway), though I once received a nifty straw hat with a colorful woven headband with little bikes and "Ferrero al Giro d'Italia" on it (Ferrero is the manufacturer of Nutella, and the late Signor Ferrero was a passionate cyclist who rode in many gran fondos). Until recent years there were few Giro souvenirs available at all. Italians have refined taste and aren't into clothing or gadgets displaying the logos of events they've attended, places they've visited, or favorite performers or teams. You'll see cyclists (and to a lesser degree, soccer and basketball fans--mostly children, at that) wearing jerseys of their favorite teams, but you won't find any "Property of Team Lampre" sweatshirts, scuffies or towels bearing the Liquigas logo, Androni team jewelry, matching Acqua e Sapone bedspreads and curtains, or anything resembling the "officially licensed" NFL, NBA, MLB, or NHL merchandise sold in the USA. Now, however, there are plenty of really nice souvenirs available, including some very cool, classy clothing, in an evocative retro vein. It's expensive but unique and irresitable (er, I should know). (There's a link to the Giro Store from the Giro site).

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Budding fans gear up to watch the race

Do we look cool or what?!

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The Giro Rosa/Giro d'Italia Femminile is recognized as the world's most important and prestigious women's race. (Although it is not organized by Gazzetta dello Sport, as the male race is, it is allowed to use the same title--unlike the women's Tour de France, which is prohibited by the arrogant Tour owners from calling itself by that name). The Giro Rosa usually has at least one stage, often more, in the Veneto, and draws large crowds of enthusiastic and appreciative fans. Rai broadcasts a half-hour long summery of each day's stage.

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The aptly named Alfonsina Morini Strada (strada means "road") was the only woman ever to participate in the Giro d'Italia along with men. In 1924, the smiling, tenacious farm girl from Modena, wearing number 72, rose to as high as 41st place in the GC (out of 90 riders), in a race whose shortest stage was 250 km. Roads were unpaved, and riders had to do their own repairs and look after themselves. After a crash caused her to arrive outside the time limit on one stage, she was officially out of the race, but the officials allowed her (as well as some male competitors) to continue anyway, and she completed the Giro--quite a feat, because tens of riders had abandoned the race due to illness, injuries, exhaustion, and harsh, brutal conditions. She was accorded great esteem, respect, admiration, and affection by both her fellow competitors and the public--this in an age when a woman's place was decidedly in the home.

The attention she garnered at the Giro made her quite a celebrity, and allowed her to continue to make a living as a professional cyclist. Her bicycle can be seen in the Madonna di Ghisallo chapel.

If you'd like to know more about Alfonsina's incredible life, read the wonderful and moving Gli Anni Ruggenti di Alfonsina Strada (The Roaring Years of Alfonsina Strada) by Paolo Facchinetti, published by EdicicloEditore (www.ediciclo.it) in 2004 (ISBN 88-88829-03-2).

(left) a card that Alfonsina handed out to her admiring fans.

2014 will be the 90th
click here for GIRO FUN
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