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July 15, 2012
July 1, 2012
American Way Staff
American AirlinesNexos Magazine Staff
Celebrated Living Staff
What’s next on the itinerary for cycling fans introduced to the sport through Lance Armstrong’s legendary run at the Tour de France? Easy: Giro d’Italia.
A light drizzle fell on Paris as I stood on the balcony of the presidential suite. The unexpected and somewhat dazzling upgrade had come courtesy of my late arrival at an overbooked hotel. Wanting to make the most of the experience, I stepped outside to sip my morning coffee in the soft summer rain. It was a Sunday, and the streets were almost empty. The Eiffel Tower jutted above the low mansard rooftops, bold and stark. Of such sublime moments is meditation born, and so a thought began running through my head again and again: What’s next?
For the three previous weeks, I’d followed each and every stage of the 2005 Tour de France. In the process, I had taken a literal tour of France, absorbing not only the drama and emotion of the bike race
but also the history, food, cuisine, and immense natural beauty.
Some 15 million spectators had witnessed the Tour in person with me, and a whopping fourth of those were estimated to be American. They had come to spend their vacations in France, but they had also come to watch the final bike race of Lance Armstrong’s esteemed career.
Since 1999, when he began his streak of seven consecutive Tour victories, Americans began flocking to Europe in droves to watch him race. We had been a nation that knew little or nothing about cycling. His ascendancy led us to develop a profound appreciation for the sport’s nuances. Every day at the Tour, I’d watch Americans along the course cheer for Armstrong and the other top cyclists, calling to them by name.
But that rainy Sunday last July would mark the end of Armstrong’s career. It seemed impossible for me to believe that these cycling-mad Americans would simply abandon the sport once he was done. Their mania was too great. Their newfound appreciation for traveling off the beaten path in Europe seemed too heartfelt to be merely tossed aside.
So, as I stood on the balcony, the question of what would come next gnawed at me. What came next for America’s new legion of cycling fans? How would they manage the twin appetites for travel and competition that only the Tour can satisfy?
The answer, I decided, was still the Tour — but not the Tour de France. The race I had in mind was one that many cycling aficionados consider just as competitive and even somewhat more charming: the Tour of Italy.
THE ITALIANS CALL THEIR RACE the Giro d’Italia, or the Feast of Italy. Held for three weeks each May, the Giro
(www.giroditalia.it) attracts the same elite cycling teams as the Tour de France. Defending Giro champion Paolo Salvodelli rides for Discovery Team, Armstrong’s former squad, and they’ll be there in force. Top American rider Floyd Landis will also be on the line on May 6, when the Giro starts. So will American Tom Danielson (also of Discovery Team), who won the Tour of Georgia last April.
The Giro course changes every year, crossing the many different terrains of the Italian boot. This year’s edition (the 89th) will focus on the northern half of the nation. The riders will pedal through the sun-drenched fields of Tuscany and along the Mediterranean and Adriatic coasts, and they’ll spend the entire last week of the contest battling the steep Dolomite peaks of the Italian Alps. And that’s just a sampling.
So that’s where I’ll be come May. I love Italy. How could I resist a whirlwind tour of its regions, following back roads instead of superhighways, venturing into villages not found in any guidebook, eating in local restaurants that wouldn’t know the meaning of corporate food chain, and immersing myself totally in Italy’s race and people?
On the surface, such a journey can be daunting. Here’s a short guide to what to see and do at the Giro.
May is the perfect time to visit Italy, particularly in 2006. Italy has always been a popular travel destination, as anyone who has battled the summer crowds in Rome and Tuscany will attest. This should hold especially true this year, thanks to February’s Winter Olympic Games in Turin (just a stone’s throw from some sections of the 2006 Giro course). The nonstop television coverage was a veritable postcard for the nation, and for Northern Italy in particular, showcasing its culture, cuisine, and stunning natural beauty. Come summer, all that attention is expected to pay off in record tourist crowds. Beat the rush: May is an off-peak time for travel. Fans attending the Giro will be treated to smaller crowds, providing ease in driving the course and arranging accommodations each day, as well as more immediate access to the riders before and after a stage.
As a rule, the train is the best way to see Europe. But that rule doesn’t apply to following a bike race. For that, nothing beats a car. This makes it possible to park alongside the mountain roads or to head off on a charming detour, should the mood arise.
Another option is a camper. Yes, a camper. Renting a small camper is common for visitors to the Giro. This makes for a self-contained travel unit. It’s not uncommon to see campers outfitted with satellite dishes and small barbecues, allowing for a fine tailgating experience while its occupants wait for the riders to pass.
GETTING THE RIGHT DAY — OR WEEK
If you’ve got time to spend three weeks following the Giro, by all means absorb everything about the event. Revel in the journey. Marvel at the scenery. But if you don’t have that kind of time (and most spectators don’t), a few days or even a week will do just fine. When to go? If you’re planning to spend three or four days watching the race, I’d suggest being there for the start. The 2006 Giro actually spends its first four days in Belgium this year. The intent is twofold: to pay homage to the 262 miners, including 136 Italians, killed in a mining accident in the Walloon region 50 years ago, and to subject riders to the harsh and muddy conditions of springtime riding in Northern Europe. The riders won’t have the luxury of easing into the race, saving their bodies for the weeks of racing to come. The action will be intense from the very start.
If you have a week to watch the race, I’d suggest being there for the finish. And boy, will this be a week to watch. Giro officials have scheduled all the mountain stages for the final week. The steep switchbacks up through the stark, gray Dolomites will be lined with fans, particularly on May 26, when the riders conclude a 137-mile day in the saddle with a finish atop San Pellegrino Pass; and on May 27, which finishes with an assault on the legendary Mortirolo, a climb with a 12.4 percent gradient that many consider the toughest in all of Europe. For the sheer adrenaline rush alone, there will be no better place to watch the race. But be warned: The high mountain passes may still be choked with snow, and it is not unheard of for the warm spring temperatures to suddenly turn. Riding through blizzards is not uncommon at the Giro. The Giro is a race in which, literally, anything can happen.
If you have just one day, go straight to the cobblestones of Milan for the finish. You’ll be in for a treat, as organizers have scheduled two stages for that final Sunday in May. First comes an uphill 11-kilometer individual time trial that finishes atop the Ghisallo. It’s a legendary peak in Giro history, and its nine percent gradient is sure to put the riders to one last brutal test. Each rider will challenge the mountain alone, competing only against the clock. No matter how large the gap between the overall leader and his rivals before the start of the time trial, it’s certain he won’t rest easy until it’s done.
The second stage of that final day, however, will be largely ceremonial. Thousands upon thousands of fans will line the Corso Venezia in Milan, cheering the weary riders as they pedal the final miles of a long and demanding race. It will be a conqueror’s welcome. When it is done, the overall winner will stand atop the victory podium wearing the Maglia Rosa, the pink jersey denoting the Giro d’Italia champion.
GETTING A BITE TO EAT
Pasta is Italy’s best-known export, but Northern Italy is a land of red meat and full-bodied red wines — Brunellos, Super Tuscans, Chiantis, Barolos. Plan time on each day of travel to find a small café and enjoy these regional specialties. And while the cafés and restaurants along the race course will invariably be crowded, finding a quaint local hole-in-the-wall is as simple as detouring a few miles off the main road. A little fearless exploration can add so much to a journey. It’s yet another reason to have a car.
GETTING A TOUR OF THE TOUR
Let me say right up front that bicycling tours are not my cup of tea. But plenty of people whose opinion I trust swear by them, saying it’s a relaxing and lively way to meet people and see a new country. You travel with your bike and meet the Tour group in Italy, where you are whisked off for a week of full-immersion cycling. The goal is to ride portions of each day’s stage, then stop at a small café to sample the local fare and watch the racers pass. The groups tend to be a manageable size, somewhere between 10 and 20 cyclists. For one all-inclusive price, a traveler’s accommodations, meals, and transportation during tours are covered. An added benefit is that Tour organizers take care of maintenance and snacks during the ride. In many ways, it’s like being on a cycling cruise ship. I’d suggest giving www.trektravel.com and www.ridestrongbiketours.com a look, if you’re interested.
See you there.