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Gallery: A memorable day celebrating the Giro at Monreale

A Norman cathedral, joyous fans, and beautiful countryside conspire for a wonderful kick-off to the Italian grand tour.

Ever since the Giro d’Italia announced that it was moving its Grand Partenza to the southern island of Sicily, I knew I would be at there. Sure I liked the original idea of starting in Budapest, but I love Sicily. And from a photographer’s perspective, what a start it was, with Stage 1 starting at on the hills of Palermo in Monreale, a splendid town, home to a pristine Norman cathedral that is today a UNESCO Heritage site, while Stage 2 finishes at the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento and Stage 3 on the mythic Mont Etna.

But while I have had the chance to visit the Greek temples on several occasions as well as Etna, I had never been to Monreale and was only too eager.

Arriving in Palermo on Friday before the race, I immediately drove up to the start as I understood that the ancient town would be covered with narrow cobbled streets that would be hard to negotiate on race day and it was best to get a lay of the land ahead of time.

Driving up the steep pitches I immediately noticed the nave with its intricate design that reflects its Middle Eastern influences. Would the riders have time to look around as they punched up the final pitches of this climb into the town? Probably not, but I knew it would make for a good backdrop.

Once at the town square, I was impressed by the symmetrical gallery that laced one side of the square. Obviously the repeating arches of the hallway here, would provide a natural frame for certain riders. And as I left town, the deep-plunging perspective overlooking Palermo and the Mediterranean Sea offered a clear option.

It was going to be a good day!

That said, race day is always different. The mid-day lighting was unconvincing, and I was troubled by the overnight addition of barriers and banners. But I also knew that I would have ample opportunities.

Crowds were thick on the climb, and provided a perfect frame for a classic action shot as the riders crested the final pitches. But I was also intrigued by the rhythms in the stonework and often found myself lying on the ground to maximize my frame.

At one point I moved to the town square as I waited for Australian Rohan Dennis, one of the pre-race favorites. But while I liked the frame, I found it a little too clean, and soon moved on.

The descent also was appealing, but finding a proper vantage point proved unconvincing. Standing on a couple of large-scale flower pots I managed to get above the riders and capture our height over Palermo. But the pots were far from stable and I understood that I couldn’t remain there long.

So soon enough, it was back to the climb, as I waited for the favorites. Three-time world time trial champion Tony Martin looked great as he crested the climb as he is always projects a mix of power and elegance. But it was clear that recently crowned world champion Filippo Ganna was having a great ride as he powered over the climb, and it was no surprise to hear that he would go on to post the winning time.

But while I liked the classic shot of him on the climb, in the end I preferred the more subdued view against the back of the Cathedral. His rainbow-stripped world champion skinsuit stood out against the intricate stonework while a a peak of light coming through the tunnel on the edge of the frame, gives us a clue as to where he was going.

Ganna of course was met with thundering cheers. But he was no match for local favorite Giovanni Visconti. His fan club was on hand at the top of the climb along with local fans of all ages. And nothing short of pandemonium broke out as this otherwise modest rider powered over the climb. Cameras were out. Fans screamed. And some even took up chase. For in their eyes, he was the star of the day.

And what a great day it was at Monreale. What a great way to finally start this year’s Giro d’Italia!