The 96th edition of the Giro d’Italia clicked into gear this weekend as a grand tour in transition.
Though it’s been around for more than a century, the Italian three-week race is enjoying a well-deserved renaissance over the past several years as organizer RCS Sport has implemented a concerted effort to brush the dust off its premier bike race property.
The spit-and-polish began nearly a decade ago when Angelo Zomegnan took over the helm of a moribund Giro in 2005. Michele Acquarone, a marketing man who took over the reins in late 2011, has continued with an aggressive, multi-faceted plan that continues to pump new life into the corsa rosa.
Giro brass couldn’t have scripted a better partenza than to see the world’s best sprinter and the reigning grand tour rider of reference in the forms of Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and Bradley Wiggins (Sky) stepping onto center stage in the weekend’s opening salvo in the spectacular setting of the Bay of Naples.
That Wiggins is racing the Giro in an all-out bid for the maglia rosa after claiming his first Tour de France win last year speaks volumes about how the Giro is gaining new traction among the peloton. Giro officials confirmed to the Associated Press that Wiggins was not paid an appearance fee, in sharp contrast to the $1 million they paid Lance Armstrong to race in 2010.
Has the Giro finally reached parity with Tour? It’s an interesting question as the season’s first grand tour hogs the spotlight this month.
There’s no doubt that its French rival has long overshadowed the Giro. The Tour is older, harder, holds more prestige, and is the gravitational center of the cycling universe.
If the racing season were a galaxy, the Tour is unquestionably the sun. Without its energy, power, and warm glow, the rest of the sport would slowly fade to black. At least that’s what the folks north of Pyrénées would like everyone to believe.
The Giro certainly has gotten short shrift over the years. Beyond the Italians, for whom the Giro is all but their central focus of the season, the race indeed has long seemed like an afterthought. Most major GC riders seemed to race the Giro simply to check it off the bucket list before returning to the more important business of chasing the maillot jaune.
The newly spruced up Giro, however, has made some important inroads in its quest to gain value and respect.
This year’s deep GC field, packed with international stars such as defending champ Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp), Robert Gesink (Blanco), Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), and Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), seems to underscore the notion that the Giro is no longer just an “Italian race.”
Last year’s podium, with Hesjedal, Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), and Thomas de Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM) taking the top spots, was the first time in 17 years that an Italian was not represented in the top-3.
Perception is everything in today’s Twitter/social media landscape, and the Giro has certainly done its part to reposition the Italian grand tour as one of cycling’s leading events.
The Giro has embraced the Internet as a tool to promote and market the race. Acquarone has a high-profile presence on Twitter, and RCS’ marketing team has done a good job to get the Giro “out there” in the cyber landscape.
Also, the race organization has bravely tweaked the idea of what a three-week grand tour can look like. The Giro isn’t afraid to break the mold and steer the race to exotic locales. Next year’s start in Belfast, Northern Ireland, is just another example of how the Giro is not afraid to push the boundaries.
There isn’t a road in Italy, paved or otherwise, that the race isn’t shy to send the peloton rattling in its direction. The Mortirolo and the Stelvio are the classic climbs of the Giro, but new additions like the Zoncolan, Colle dello Finestre, the gravel Tuscan roads of strade bianche, and Plan de Corones are all new territory where the Giro is leading the pack.
The Giro, however, will be forever handicapped by a few unchanging factors.
Being first on the calendar is not a bad thing, but its May date also limits just how big the Giro could become. As Zomegnan once lamented: “Imagine if the Giro were held in August instead of May. The kids are out of school and everyone is on holiday. We would have four times as many people on the roadsides.” That’s something the Vuelta a España has taken to heart as it’s pressed to nudge the Spanish tour a full week or more earlier in the racing season, in large part to capture the tail end of the vacation season in mid- to late-August. The results have been encouraging, as the Vuelta has enjoyed some of its biggest crowds over the past few years.
Second, the Giro will always be second fiddle to the Tour simply because the French thought of the idea first. The Tour was born in 1903, and the Giro in 1909, but that six-year difference will always tilt in favor of the Tour.
Giro boss Acquarone admits it will never supersede the Tour, but rather, he’s been pushing to reposition the Giro as a complement and equal to the Tour. As he said himself, if the Tour is Wimbledon, the Giro wants to be Rolland Garros.
There’s one element that could help fuel the Giro’s ambition, and it’s neither pink nor yellow. Instead, it’s green — as in the color of money.
When Acquarone stepped in as race director in 2011, he didn’t claim to know all the answers. In fact, he humbly admitted he almost knew nothing about the nuts and bolts of running a beast as big and unruly as the Giro.
Rather than promise the heavens, he sat back and listened. He quietly went on a behind-the-scenes campaign to sit down with the sport’s major players and hear them out. He wanted to know what worked and what didn’t, and what the Giro should do.
Beyond the complaints of long transfers and sometimes insanely complicated and dangerous finishing-line approaches (two elements that still seem firmly entrenched), most of the major teams complained about money.
Teams, forever in an unstable, unpredictable game of chasing sponsorships to underwrite their $10 million annual budgets, all want a slice of the TV rights pie.
Up until now, that’s something that media conglomerates such as RSC Sport, and more importantly, Tour de France owner ASO, are loath to part with. TV income at both the Giro and Tour not only fuel the bottom line of their parent companies, but it’s also the juice that helps sustain the vitality of smaller, feeder races such as Tirreno-Adriatico or Paris-Nice. Beyond the Giro and Tour, and perhaps to a smaller degree the Vuelta, bike racing in Europe these days is a break-even proposition at best.
Whether RCS will be keen to reshape the media landscape by sharing portions of its TV rights with teams remains to be seen, but it’s considering all options. RCS is quietly listening to the on-again, off-again talks of a new racing league, now being explored by Czech billionaire and Omega Pharma owner Zdenek Bakala.
People wondered why all the major stars raced Tirreno-Adriatico instead of Paris-Nice this year. Perhaps they were sending a not-so-subtle signal to ASO. If the teams had a monetized stake in the success of the Giro, you could bet its top stars would be racing to win in Italy instead of France.
As things stand now, the Tour remains the bastion of traditional cycling. So far, it’s resisted some of the gimmicks that have been embraced by the Giro and Vuelta, simply because they don’t have to. ASO takes its role seriously as not only a for-profit organization, but also as the trust-holders of a cultural treasure that is the Tour.
In France, the Tour is viewed not only as a bike race, but as part of its cultural fabric, something that helps bring together the nation every July as the peloton weaves its grand boucle across the back roads of rural France each summer. Sometimes you get the feeling that they wouldn’t mind if everyone just left them alone to enjoy their race on their terms.
Add the eternal glamour, history, and pure emotion of Italy, and it’s easy to understand why the Giro is suddenly shining a little brighter. That much seems safe for now.
The Giro is getting closer, but until the top dogs like Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff), Chris Froome (Sky), and all the rest of the peloton change its compass, the Tour will remain eternal.
Sandy Casar (FDJ) headed for x-ray evaluation on an injured wrist after crashing during the stage.