Sunday, May 3, 2009

Giro d'Italia: Unique

The following is taken from a PROCYLING interview by Daniel Benson, Ellis Bacon and Daniel Friebe which appeared in; it has been edited for content as to why the Giro d'Italia is different than the other grand tours. The interviewees were past winners of the Giro: Tony Rominger, Andy Hampsten, Stephen Roche and Evgeni Berzin.

Our champions mostly agreed that racing in Italy is a unique experience, and that the fans, the famous tifosi, can have a huge impact on the race, particularly if one of their home favourites is in contention...

Berzin: You can't let the tifosi get to you too much. It's normal that a sporting crowd sides with one rider or another, or one individual - and it's doubly understandable that they side with their countrymen. In the Giro that I won, I didn't have to worry too much about either the fans' support or their hostility because I was so new on the scene.

After 15 stages, when Marco Pantani won his back-to-back stages in the Dolomites, that started to whip up a fervour, but there were only a few days left in the race then. Earlier in the Giro, the tifosi and the press only had eyes for "Miguelon" [Miguel IndurĂ¡in], Gianni Bugno and Claudio Chiappucci.

Hampsten: In my experience, there are no disadvantages to being a foreign rider.....It's actually a harder race for the Italians. For 12 months they're trying to form alliances and plans, but it never really works out and they're so hung up on creating rivalries that despite what they say in the press, they'd rather see a foreigner win than one of their countrymen.

My first experience was in '85 and they were cheering for either Francesco Moser or Giuseppe Saronni and weren't very interested in anyone else. In France the fans would generally cheer on all the riders. In Italy they really have their favourites, and if their guy isn't doing well the day is kind of ruined for them, but I didn't see a lot of jeering. In the south there are some issues with crowd control, but nothing too dangerous.

Roche: If an Italian rider is on form - Damiano Cunego, Ivan Basso - then any foreign rider coming to the Giro will always have difficulty competing. Like the Spanish, the Italians definitely do stick together... One of them goes for a stage win on one day, and then it's someone else the next day.

And then the Italian media really build their own riders up. It's a very difficult race for foreigners to be in. Everything feels very Italian - you feel like an outsider. The language of the race is Italian, whereas at many other races, because of the mix of riders from different nations, the base language is normally English, even at the Tour de France. But not at the Giro - the Giro is something special.

When a foreign rider wins, or is winning, the Italian riders - plus the media and the fans - don't like it, which all adds up to making it such a hard race to be at as an "outsider". But things have got slightly better at the Giro, I think. Since Angelo Zomegnan took over, it has kind of opened it up. It's more international now - but Italians will always be Italians...

Rominger: When I won the Giro in 1995, I was on a team with an Italian sponsor, plus we were the big favourites for the race, so there wasn't any real hostility towards me. But, saying that, because we were the favourites, in that respect we were always going to have enemies. It was the hardest race I ever did. Every day it was very aggressive from the first kilometre. I know it's like that a bit more these days, but back then it was always very slow in the first hour of a race. In that Giro, people attacked from the gun...

If you look at the pro peloton in general, the Italians make up a large percentage of the top riders, which would help explain that feeling of togetherness that they have, and which you see at the Giro better than anywhere else.

The Spanish are similar; I think it's just the southern European mentality, as us Swiss, the Germans, the northern Europeans, generally, don't mind as much which nationality wins a race.

Berzin: More than the climbs, in my opinion, it's the roads themselves, on every type of terrain, that are different. In Italy, you don't get the big boulevards that you see at the Tour, where you can easily find space to move up and down the peloton. At the Giro, you have to be attentive all the time, in case of splits or crashes or sudden changes of pace, because the roads don't leave you much room to recover.

Hampsten: Typically, the Giro has always been harder to control than the Tour, which has a lot of slower, less dangerous climbs in it.... The Giro climbs tend to favour the specialists like Cunego and Simoni, while the Alps in the Tour are six to 10 per cent but very long.

Roche: Italy's terrain is very particular. The climbs are very difficult, and there's often very bad weather in the Dolomites. The Italians know all about how hard they are, but other Europeans often don't. Many coming to the Giro for the first time haven't seen such climbs before, whereas the local riders know them inside out, and want to put on a show on home ground.

Rominger: It's also often quite cold in the mountains at that time of year, which makes it difficult, and the other big thing about the Giro is that there are never really any flat stages, with the Apennines, the Dolomites... At the Tour, you get six genuinely flat stages in the first week. No such luck at the Giro, though - and you can see that again with the route this year, with the Dolomites coming so early on.

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