Frank, up close
Saturday marks the start of the 2012 Giro d’Italia, the tour of Italy, and it should certainly be a good one. The flash and style, the torturous climbs, the lightning-fast sprints and the tiffosi, the crazed Italian fans, the Giro is an amazing event.
While the Tour de France has its traditional feel, awarding what looks like a Greek bowl as its award to the winner, Italian style abounds and is reflected in the Giro’s trophy, a two-foot tall spiraling gild ribbon with the names of past winner etched in it. It is Italian art all by itself.
As you might imagine, for most Italian riders and teams, the Giro is the most important of the three grand tours. To race in front of the home fans on the roads on which many of them train is a rare treat. In every one of them is the fantasizing boy, chasing Fausto Coppi or Marco Pentani up the near-vertical climbs. Each sprinter, though now a pro, imagines himself sprinting against the Lion King, the legendary and flamboyant Tuscan, Mario Cippolini, record holder for most Giro stage wins. It’s the brutal beauty of the epic stories, like Andy Hampsen’s heroic conquest of the snow-covered Gavia Pass. But cycling is so much a part of Italy, and Italy so much a part of cycling that there is much more than even the Giro to celebrate.
Cycling is such a part of Italy that the fans have their own special name; the Tiffosi. They will push riders. They have been known to assault others. They will ride the same roads and wait for a week to catch a colorful flash of their favorite riders as the fly past.
Take a ride to a coffee shop. Sip espresso with your shaved legs up on a chair. Sport that retro cycling cap. My wife hates that cap, by the way. I own five of them.
I own a replica of the 2007 sprinters’ kit awarded to Italian Alessandro Petacchi. It is an outrageous magenta. Imagine a giant-thighed sprinter in hot pink coming at you like a missile. That is Italian style. In this edition, the sprinters will fight for a bright red jersey, the shade of the stripe on the Italian tri-color flag.
Waif-like climbers have worn the other prominent color of the flag, green, until this season. This year, with a change in sponsorship of the best-climber category, blue will be the color of the Re delle Montagne. Blue, of course, is steeped in Italian sports tradition, itself. The Italian national teams, whether soccer, rugby or cycling all ware the fabled azzuro.
Like the other grand tours, white is the color for the best young rider of the Giro. Maglia Blanca was won in 2007 by Andy Schleck. At the time, fans knew he was the younger brother of Frank Schleck, but until he nearly stole the GC from The Killer, Danilo Di Luca, no one knew how good this kid was. A rider must be 25 years of age or younger. The idea being that a rider really needs to be a certain age before a body can handle the demands of three weeks of racing.
The one jersey every Italian cyclist dreams of, however, is the color of a baby girl’s blanket; pale pink. The Maglia Rosa is the shade of pink once sported by the Gazzetta dello Sport, the Italian national sports journal. The paper was the driving force behind the race in its infancy. It is still a major force behind the organization, though it is a more traditional newsprint color today.
The pink jersey has been worn by the superheroes of cycling. It was won by Eddie Merckx on five different occasions. Italian legends Learco Guerra and Alfredo Binda each took five pink jerseys home, as has Costante Girardengo and Roberto Visentini. Fausto Coppi accounted for six pink jerseys, though even he was not the best of the best for the jersey. The great Francesco Moser holds the record. Moser won eight Maglia Rosas between 1976 and 1985.
So grab some espresso and a plate of brioche with some marmellata on top and get ready for three weeks in Italy. The Giro is about to begin, and it will be a good one. Ciao!
Have fun, be safe. I’m going riding, if only in my imagination.