The Giro d’Italia al dente

The 95th edition of the Giro d'Italia starts in four days in Herning, Denmark. European cycling journalist, Gregor Brown, provides a quick insight to the allure of the Giro as well as the challenges faced by new race director, Michele Acquarone.

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The 95th edition of the Giro d’Italia starts in four days in Herning, Denmark. European cycling journalist, Gregor Brown, provides a quick insight to the allure of the Giro as well as the challenges faced by new race director, Michele Acquarone.

Pasta is best served al dente, just on the edge of perfection – overdone, its mush and too little, it’s crunchy. It’s not easy, because simultaneously you are occupied with your sauce and setting the table. It’s a combination of timing and artistry. And, don’t forget to button your shirt, because if you don’t look sharp, you’re eating alone.

The Giro d’Italia has the looks; it’s been attracting teams and their cyclists for one hundred years, from Felice Gimondi to Alberto Contador, from Mario Cipollini to Cadel Evans. The party stays the same year after year, but ingredients change.

“As a boy, I was drawn in to the way they linked all the cities, the mountains, the flats and the descents,” says former race director, Angelo Zomegnan. “It is like creating art for someone who may not even be an artist.”

Angelo Zomegnan (left) during the press conference last year announcing the start in Denmark.

Zomegnan, with his grey-hair and roundish figure, is from northern Italy’s Lombardia region, which helps explain his gruff and no-nonsense attitude. He wrote for La Gazzetta dello Sport newspaper before becoming the director of its great three-week race. In his time, he brought Lance Armstrong to race, big-money sponsor contracts and cleaned up after predecessor Carmine Castellano. Zomegnan basically restored the Giro back to its post-war glory, when Vincenzo Torriani designed and directed the Giro.

No ham sandwich

“Every Giro has to have a concept,” Zomegnan explains, “and around that concept you can build fixed points.”

He says it is in between those points – cities and villages – you are able to “draw lines” to create stages. “There’s no space for triviality” and so even sprint stages will have a twist. The mountain stages tend to come towards the tail-end, and especially on the weekends, to take advantage of their beauty and difficulty.

Stage 13 of 2011 Giro d'Italia started in Spilimbergo.

Almost making it sound like a ham sandwich, Zomegnan says, “You select your important starting and ending points, and put the Giro d’Italia in the middle.”

The Giro this year, May 5 to 27, starts in Herning, Denmark, for three days. It returns with a team time trial in Verona, travels south to Lago Laceno in Campania and north through several cities, such as Assisi. The final week is sprinkled with mountain passes, stages that mostly start and end in mountain towns.

The cities pay to host the stage starts and finishes, and even more in Herning’s case for the “Grand Départ.”

“As with all the cities in the world that pay to host events,” Zomegnan says quickly. “An amount is quickly absorbed. The return is around 10 fold.”

For fans worldwide

Michele Acquarone began planning the race since last year when he inherited the “director” title. He is from San Remo along the Italian Riviera, laughs and smiles often, and has a CV with years in marketing for race organiser RCS Sport. He became closer and closer to the Giro, followed it in 2000 for work and encouraged Zomegnan for the Danish start prior to becoming director.

Snow white and the seven dwarfs on Macugnaga during Stage 19 of last year's Giro d'Italia

“It’s the Giro d’Italia and it should take place in Italy, even if we go abroad every few years,” Acquarone says. “The Giro is an important race with not only Italian fans, but fans worldwide.”

Acquarone adds, “Above all, the cities come to us.” Offers are on the table from Naples, Parma, Florence and six others for 2013. He will start the race on home soil next year and will have to plan thoroughly before another foreign start. Cycling’s governing body now prohibits the first of two rest days to fall within the first five days of a Grand Tour.

“Maybe he we could stay abroad for five days,” he says with a smile. It would be a record if the Giro did so. “Trust me, though, we have possibilities.”

The magic

The Giro is more than a ham sandwich. The race touches parts of Italy that seem to come from another era, a time before Torriani and the Second World War. It skirted along Cinque Terre and the edge of Mediterranean Sea, up goat tracks to Plan de Corones and created a new legend, Monte Zoncolan in recent years.

The grupetto skirting along the Italian west coast through the town of Sori.

“The allure of the white gravel roads on the way to Montalcino,” says Zomegnan. “Even if it hadn’t rained, they would’ve had to deal with the dust.”

Hours of rain turned the white gravel farm tracks in central Italy into a mud bath in 2010. It made for a fascinating stage, where Ivan Basso and Vincenzo Nibali crashed, and Cadel Evans utilised his mountain biking skills. After hours on the edge, Evans lifted his arms as winner outside the village’s church with his Worlds’ rainbow jersey stained from the effort.

Cadel Evans and Alexandre Vinokourov during stage 7 of Giro d'Italia 2010

“It is often very different from the Tour de France,” Zomegnan continues. “The Giro has a life and soul of its own.”

‘I want to race the Giro!’

Just like that, the Giro teeters on the edge of perfection – too little your criticised and too much its mush. Or worse yet, your ousted.

Tifosi celebrating the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy near the summit of Mt Etna during stage 9 of Giro.

The Giro celebrated 150 years since the unification of Italy last year. Zomegnan used it as his inspiration and took the race from Turin down to Mount Etna on the island of Sicily, which was similar to how Giuseppe Garibaldi travelled a century and a half earlier. He then took the race back north through the Alps, which included three consecutive summit finishes.

Zomegnan recalls 1961, the year Italy celebrated 100 years of unification and the Giro visited the two big islands, Sicily and Sardinia. After these travels, riders were swearing Italy and wishing it never became united. After last year’s Giro, RCS Sport replaced Zomegnan with Acquarone.

Last year, Acquarone says, “I learnt to listen to the critics, the fans, the athletes. All the great events became that way when they got everyone going in the same direction.”

Acquarone faced criticism shortly after drawing his first Giro route, connecting the “fixed points” as Zomegnan says. Brit David Millar Tweeted that even Contador complained on his way winning the Giro last year and that “nothing was learnt” by the organisers.

“I appreciate all that Millar has done, the good and bad. Don’t forget, he was in the pink jersey that day Wouter Weylandt died. He helped us move forward,” Acquarone explains.

Every few kilometers during the Giro had signs honoring the memory Wouter Weyland.

“Look, I’ll tell you honestly. For Italians the Giro is the cream of the crop, but what we are trying to do is let the whole world know the Giro is the best race. There’s not just the Tour, but also the Giro. I want that babies today to grow up and say, ‘I want to race the Giro!’ This is what they’ve all always said about the Tour, but I want to hear them say, ‘I want win the pink jersey!”

The Tour de France then is like Paul Simon in the Simon & Garfunkel years. Art Garfunkel is just as talented, maybe more so, but often under-rated.

“I know the Tour organisers are good at what they do, but we’ve created a good story, where there will be new chapters read every day,” Acquarone says, again smiling. “They can think of their race, I’ll think of mine.”

Acquarone spent his summer one year working at New York City’s Bice restaurant. He was a bus boy, but he may have well been serving the plates, as it seems he’s good at it. Ahead of us is a Giro al dente.

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