Just as Italy is not only football, scooters, wine, pizza and pasta, the Giro is not only mountain passes in the Dolomites and Tuscan strade bianche.
When you say Italy, most people will picture Rome and the Vatican, Sicily, Tuscan vineyards, Bibione or some other seaside resorts. Or perhaps the industrial North of the country, Milan – the capital of fashion and design, Lago di Garda or the popular skiing resorts such as Bormio, Livigno and Cortina d'Ampezzo. For a cyclist, Italy is beautiful and welcoming everywhere.
Two of the five biggest one-day bike races, the Monuments, take place in Italy, as does the second oldest grand tour – Il Giro d'Italia. Sometimes called the Corsa Rosa (Pink Race), the Giro got this characteristic colour from that of the newspaper which started it in the first place. Just like the Tour came by its yellow. It was the La Gazzetta dello Sport that announced the race on its title page on August 24, 1908.
The first edition started in Milan on May 13, 1909. It was 2,500 km long and its eight stages were interspersed with many rest days to coincide with the Gazzetta's three editions per week schedule. The first winner was one Luigi Ganna, who came third a year later and fifth in 1913. He started to make bikes while still racing and managed to build a strong brand bearing his name. The legendary Italian rider Fiorenzo Magni won the Giro in 1951 on a Ganna bike.
We got a chance to explore the hilly Abruzzo, one of the lesser-ridden parts of Italy, thanks to Dario Galli-Zugaro, a customer come friend of Festka. With a base in our generous host's family's palace in the town of Corfinio in the L'Aquila province, we enjoyed a fantastic mixture of Italian home cooking and riding with an ex-racer who knew the best local routes like the back of his hand. Switchback climbs and descents taking us to tiny villages with minute bars selling excellent espressos for 1 euro were the main courses on our cycling menu but there was a big dessert, too, which was having a go at the 25 km climb to the mountain top finish of stage 9 of Giro 2017 – and being able to watch the pros do it a few moments later. Blockhaus, as the mountain is called, has ski lifts all over it these days but the fortress that was built there in 1860 and the fact that it served as a German artillery post during the war attests to its past strategic importance.
Featuring in the Giro for the first time in 1967, it left an indelible mark in the history of the race. The Italian rider Zilloli attacks at the foot of the climb and establishes a sizeable gap. Can anyone catch him? A first time participant in the Peugeot jersey, the Belgian youngster Eddy Merckx stands in the pedals and sets off in pursuit of the break-away rider. Zilloli looks over his shoulder a few hundred meters before the finish line and spots somebody approaching fast. In a few moments, Merckx overtakes him and wins the stage. „Our best climber beaten by a Belgian sprinter,“ commented La Gazzetta dello Sport. Merckx got slowed down by an illness during the following stages and came ninth overall. La Gazzetta thought he showed his weakness in the mountains and would never win a grand tour. They couldn't be more wrong…
So fifty years later it’s us doing the climbing. We're in no rush except we have to get to the top before the organisers close the road for the race. Our time on the segment will be 2 ½ to 3 times worse than that of the pros but even so, we counted every single pedal stroke. Five kilometers to go gate. Flamme Rouge… Then it's just wrap up in something warm, have a coffee, tea or beer and wait for the action to come to you.
And it does. Wilco Kelderman hits a police motorbike in the lower parts of the climb and takes down a bunch of riders with him, including the race leader Geraint Thomas and Mikel Landa, one of the favourites. G's GC chances vanish. The stage is won by Nairo Quintana who manages to put 24 seconds into the runners up Thibaut Pinot and the eventual race winner Tom Dumoulin.
By the way, the 104th edition started on May 8 and the opening individual TT was won in great style by Filippo Ganna (apparently no relation)…
text and photo: Jan Krofta