The Tour de France is the world's biggest bike race, and always will be. The Giro d'Italia is Italy's version of the Tour--a three week stage race that takes in all parts of the country. The Giro has always played second fiddle to the Tour, and that will never change. But the Giro is a magnificent race in it's own right, and in many ways it's better than the Tour. (There is a third Grand Tour, the three week Vuelta a' Espana, or Tour of Spain, but it's very spare in comparison to the Tour and Giro)
Until the Armstrong Era, if you were to be considered one of the true greats, you needed to win at least one Giro. Coppi, Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault, Indurain--they are all more famous for winning the Tour multiple times, but they also won Giros. Armstrong never cared about the Giro--his fame and fortune were built around only one race--the Tour. Since Armstrong helped take the Tour's popularity to new heights, team sponsors also became much more interested in doing well in France in July as opposed to other races in other months. So, now more than ever, it's all about the Tour. Too bad for the Giro, because in many ways the Italian race embodies the beauty of the sport better than the Tour.
The leader of the Tour wears the yellow jersey, both as an honor and so that spectators can spot him as the peloton whizzes by. In the Giro, the leader wears a pink jersey (insert homophobic joke here). The newspaper that sponsored the Tour was printed on yellow paper, thus a yellow jersey. Same thing in Italy--the national daily sports page was (and is still) printed on pink paper, therefore a pink jersey for the leader. They yellow jersey is the most coveted piece of cloth in cycling, but I like the look of the pink jersey better. I can't explain why, I just think Merckx, Hinault and Indurain (pictured) all looked better in pink (insert second homophobic joke here).
One of the best things about the Giro are the fans. They love cycling in France, but they love cycling in Italy. A typical Frenchman is reserved, while a typical Italian wears his emotions on his sleeve--and it shows on the roadside. The 'tifosi' as they call them, worship the sport like few others. I would say the two countries where cycling is the most popular would be Belgium and Italy. For a decade, the top sports heroes in Italy have been cyclists. The nation was torn in half during the Coppi vs Bartali years, and later during the Moser vs Sarroni battles. Perhaps it's their hot Italian blood, or the always-flowing Italian red wine--whatever the reason, Italian fans get into the sport more than the French. And while the Tour has become a huge international event, the Giro is still very much still an Italian domestic celebration.
The Giro also wins the annual battle with the Tour for the hottest podium girls. Yes, winning a stage is prestigious. Yes, winning a stage can make a career. Yes, winning a stage keeps the director sportif off your back for a while. But it's also a nice reward after a hard day's work to get a kiss (and possibly a happy ending) from one of these race representatives.
Another reason to like the Giro is the fact that the organizers do a better job with the route each year than the Tour bosses. They mix it up--a lot of tough early stages, and tough stages balanced with easier ones throughout the three weeks. The Tour is more locked into the same, predictable formula: eight days of flats, then a weekend in the Alps, then more flats, then the Pyrenees, then flat to the finish. Last year's Giro route was greatly varied, which made for one of the most exciting stage races ever.
And then there is the Italian culture. Every cyclist lives on a diet of pasta, and there is no better pasta in the world than in Italy. The scenery along the route is incredible--whether it's racing along the Mediterranean coast, up the steep Dolomites, or past the Coliseum in Rome, there is always a spectacular backdrop. Remember the movie "Breaking Away?" The main character, Dave Stoller, was obsessed with the Italians and the Italian racing culture. The food. The music. The language. The women. The gold chains. Organized crime. What's not to love about it all?
While LeMond and Armstrong won a combined 10 Tour titles, only one American has ever won the Giro. In 1988, Andy Hampsten (riding for the Dallas-based 7-Eleven sponsored team) braved blizzard conditions over the Gavia Pass to claim the leader's pink jersey, which he never gave up. The storm that day was so bad, and most of the riders so underdressed, that many simply couldn't descend the mountain--their arms and legs trembling so much that they couldn't steer their bikes. Others suffered from hypothermia and frostbite. Many simply quit the race and jumped into the team car. Hampsten kept going, and authored one of the greatest chapters in cycling history.
There will be no American winner this year, and probably not one anytime soon. But if you like events with history, passion and excitement, you'll like the Giro d'Italia. Yes, I'm excited about this race--or is that just a cannoli in my pants?