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, or nowdays, someone with a generous data plan who is live streaming it on their phone. I usually head back down the mountain as soon as possible, 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.
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. I recall many years ago standing for hours in the sun in Prato della Valle, 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 usually 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 buses and ask the riders for their autographs. They are rested, more 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 always heavy, and maneuvering through them with a bike (or baby stroller, or dog) is difficult or impossible, even if you get off and walk. Taking photos and getting autographs are harder too.
In past years there were few Giro souvenirs available at all, and they were of poor quality. Vendors in vans still sell cheap (made in China) caps, shirts, bandanas, etc, to fans lining the route, but the official souvenir stands found at stage starts and finishes sell jerseys, polos, caps, mugs, keychains, magnets, backpacks, and many other items that are attractive and of excellent quality. 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). (There's a link to the Giro Store from the Giro site).
Photo © April Pedersen Santinon
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 Bottaro is the third rider in the breakaway in the photo on the left (that's Bjarne Riis leading the chase--they were caught). In the center photo, Mario, in a red and white jersey and blue cap, is leaning out of a doorway beneath the balcony, and my late friend Ivana's blond head can be seen in the crowd on the right. I enjoy thinking that we all shared that special moment, even though destiny had not yet brought us together.
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 (once again in the 2016 edition) and pass through the center of the picturesque little town. I arrived in the small piazza in the center of town, and thanks to a new plastic Look cleat slipping on a smooth cobblestone, fell, not only feeling extremely foolish, but landing on my waist 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 (I've been to 95 stages as of 2019). 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.
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 idols with a sweet and tender affection which is quite endearing. The Giro is warmhearted, exuberant, easygoing, and thoroughly Italian in spirit.
Ex-pro Fred Rodriguez wrote, "At the Tour there's a lot more media, it's a lot more hectic, but at the Giro it felt a bit more low-key while still being a huge event. "It's a sense of closer community and a passion for the sport. The fans that came out to watch the Giro really seemed more in tune with what cycling is whereas at the Tour de France, being such a bigger event, it's more than just about cycling. It's more of a social event. The Giro really concentrates on the quality of what cycling's all about. You get this feeling that it's all about the racing." He chimed in with a final thought about what makes the Giro d'Italia so special. "There's the Italian food and their coffee. You wake up in the morning and get a good cup of coffee; that makes a big difference when you're on the road for three weeks."
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..." I 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...sometimes even the day before. 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 ?!) 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.
Tthere 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)