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Giro d’Italia

May 17, 2013

In 1997 I watch my first grand tour, bicycling stage race. It was the Tour de France and Jan Ulrich won. At that time cycling was not a popular sport in the US. pre Lance Armstrong many people paid no attention at all. In fact, the race only shown at 2-3am, 15hrs after its completion. In order to watch it, you had to record it on VHS and play it the next day. For me, the next day meant when my father got home from work at 5-6. 30hrs after the race had completed, I finally got to see it. During the lance days, Outdoor Life Network (OLN) began showing the race live. On mountain stages they would even do an extended coverage that started at 6am. I can remember waking up to watch the race on these very important days. Along with the tour, OLN also began to broadcast the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España, the other two grand tours.

As a kid watching these races I always dreamed of going to one of the races. Of course, I wanted to be a professional bike rider and experience the race from the riders’ perspective. The thought of hiking up a mountain just to see each rider for 1-2 seconds never crossed my mind. At this point it’s obvious that this isn’t going to happen. Instead of being a bike racer I’ll have to settle for being a fan. Being a fan I America is tough because all of the grand tours are in Europe. It doesn’t make sense to travel all of the way to Europe just to see a bike race or two. When you consider the fact that you literally see less than one minute of action it becomes an even worse proposition. The only advantage to a cycling event versus football of golf is that most events are free and you don’t need a ticket (unlimited space).

Being a bike racing fan and living in Italy in the month of May are quite compatible. This year’s Giro has three stages within a 1-2hr radius of Padova. The closest is finishes in Vicenza (stage 17). The second closest finishes in Treviso (stage 12). The Treviso stage finishes in a loop around the city. If you are in the right place you will see the riders twice. The other close race is the final individual time trial (stage 18) and involves lots of climbing.

Yesterday I went to Treviso to watch stage 12. The race usually finishes around 5. I didn’t know exactly what to expect so I arrived early, 12pm. Finding details about the race proved a difficult task. I guess the details are published in Italian somewhere. I was never able to locate them. The only information I could find was aimed at people who were not attending the race. All or the reports predicted a sprint finish because of the short distance and flat terrain. Mark Cavendish was the prerace favorite. Going into the stage he has 99 career wins. A win in Treviso would be his 100th. There are some maps online but I found out when I got to Treviso that they were not very accurate. The weather in Treviso was typical for the current cycle, rain, rain, rain. If you have been following the Giro you know that it has rained on over half of the stages so far. This year is already one of the rainiest on record. As I was coming into town on the bus, I could see markings for where the race would be. After I figured out that my maps were irrelevant, I backtracked to one of these points to follow the race path to the finish line. The path that I took covered the last 2km. I arrived at the finish line around 1. There were about 20 people a news crew and the race set up workers. The workers had just finished setting up and were enjoying a beer in the back of a van. The news crew was filming clips for the prime time broadcast. By this point I was soaked. My boots filled with water, my pants saturated. I decided to eat in a caffe and warm up a bit before people began to fill the streets.

Treviso is the home of Pinarello, the bicycle manufacturing company. Though I read it in the prerace reports, I was surprised by the efforts and desires by Pinarello to be visible on this day. The reports all mentioned the teams who are sponsored by Pinarello and the particular riders who might try to do something special because of the finish in Treviso. The entire town was covered in pink balloons. From the TV it was impossible to tell but they were all provided by Pinarello and had the company logo stamped on them. These balloons were in EVERY store front and EVERY street. Many stores, especially stores with no cycling affiliation, (clothing, furnisher, travel agency, ect.) had Pinarello bikes placed in the window. I must have seen 250 bikes paced around town. On top of this, near the race course there were stores that had been converted to Pinarello merchandise stores. I saw at least two but there were probably more. Reading these lines in the news about manufactures and hometown favorites does not even began to describe the effort and public involvement put forth.

By the time I finished eating, the race had just begun and it was time to find a spot along the course. As I walked toward the finish line, the rain let up and people rushed to the barricades. I ended up about 6 people from the finish line. On my right was a group of guys who were pulling for Wiggins. I’m not sure where they were from, but they were not from England. To my left was a seventy+ year old Italian man. He was quite an inspiring man. Of all of the people around me at the race, he was the most excited and this was not his first race. He was so excited that he couldn’t sit still and he had this child like twinkle in his eyes. One of my biggest pet peeves about Italy is umbrellas. When it rains, everyone pulls out an umbrella. And, it (apparently) is not considered offensive to bop someone in the head or poke them in the eye with your umbrella as you walk down the street. The only thing I can figure is that there is an assumption that everyone else has an umbrella so if you hit them, it was just their umbrella, not their face. In other words, an umbrella is more useful as a shield from other umbrellas than from rain. The Italian man next to me, in his excitement must have hit me, what felt like a thousand times because he couldn’t keep still. While I was inspired by his child like enthusiasm, I was glad when the rain stopped.

Before the race arrives, the organizers do a good job of entertaining. There is a goofy guy who makes jokes and show boats around. At one point he was walking around in flippers and a snorkeling mask to make fun of the rain. He tried to impress a female reporter with a French TV channel (in his flippers) by dancing in a very goofy way (she wasn’t impressed). There was also a parade of Giro sponsors who stopped near the finish line and dance and show off with lots of music. They give out samples and marketing materials. Every once in a while a report of the race status is given over the loud speaker. People (most people) cheered during many of the reports because the prerace favorite, Bradley Wiggins, was having a bad day and this was good news for the Italian leader Vincenzo Nibali.

Just before the race, everyone clears the street. Police cars pass through followed by race officials. Then the riders come. Because of the prior announcements you know what to expect. There was a 30 second gap between a breakaway group and the main group. 2 minutes behind the lead group was the group of Bradley Wiggins. As the riders passed by, all I could see was a blob of color flying by. The only rider that I was able to identify was Cadel Evens in the main group. I did spot Wiggins but only because I knew where to find him and I only saw his backside and number, 181. I am very glad that there was another lap because the first one was amazingly quick. For the second lap, I didn’t know exactly what to expect. It was not clear whether the breakaway survived or not. There is a curve around 350m to the finish. This is the first point that you can see anything. It’s not until 200m that you get any idea of what is going on. By 200m I could tell that the breakaway was caught and there was a mad dash for the finish. As they passed me, I was able to identify Mark Cavendish as the stage winner. The only way I could tell was because I knew the color of his jersey. Everyone else was just one big blob of passing color.

After the race I tried to get to the area where the racers would stop and get off of their bikes. This was an impossible task. I did manage to make it to the stage where the champions were crown. My only complaint about the race is that this was not arranged well. The stage was placed at an intersection just after the finish line. The sidewalks were open to fans but the street was still closed. Folks from the grand stands (invitation only) were allowed to walk from the stands (down the closed street) to an enclosed area in front of the stage before the rest of the street was opened. By the time the street was opened, many of the awards were finished. Within 30 minutes of the race finish, things are basically done. The news crews and racers are gone and the setup crew was tearing things down.

I felt badly for the local stores. The overall turnout was poor because of the rain. I had hoped that the caffes would be full of people celebrating the race but they were mostly empty. On my walk back to the bus I could hardly even tell that there had even been a race. I was glad to get home and take off my wet cloths but I am even more excited about attending another stage. I will probably only go to one of the remaining two but I’m not sure which one. After a warm shower, I reviewed the videos and photos from the day. It was difficult to see me in the videos but I was spotted in a few pictures.

Me in a picture with Cadel Evens and Vincenzo Nibali

Me in a picture with Cadel Evens and Vincenzo Nibali at the finish of stage 12 in Treviso

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