BUDAPEST (VN) — A retinue of RCS Sport brass and staffers flew into the Hungarian capital Tuesday to arrive for the overdue and postponed “big start” on Friday of the 2022 Giro d’Italia.
RCS Sport chief Mauro Vegni whisked through the Budapest airport Tuesday afternoon with determined aplomb as dozens of riders and staffers from across the peloton scrambled for bikes and suitcases ahead of Friday’s highly anticipated start in Hungary.
After delays in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 crisis, this bustling city on the Danube is bathed in pink in what’s become a trademark signature for the Giro in its string of high-profile “big starts.”
Just how big are these “big starts” for race organizers?
According to sources, the series of high-profile opening weekends across all three grand tours are big business.
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This year’s Budapest “big start” is the latest in a concerted drive that began more than a decade ago.
The Giro is no stranger to courting clients for its annual “grande partenza,” and is earning tens of millions of dollars across the past decade as it pursues new markets and ever wider markets.
With the Italian economy still largely bogged down by economic malaise dating back to the 2010 economic crisis, this international push is giving fresh energy and important new financial resources to the Italian grand tour.
Sources tell VeloNews that a “big start” can run from about $7 million upwards to $18 million, depending on when, where, and how many days.
While the Tour can squeeze dollars out of host cities of stage starts and finishes, as well as its lucrative publicity caravan, the Giro discovered a rich mine of international clients interested in the prestige and profile that the Italian grand tour can bring.
Some will say a flight of more than five or six hours (or more) is too much for riders, but so far, these “big starts” are living up to the billing. Others caution that race organizers are willing to see their events to the highest bidder, regardless of any other larger ethical questions.
Yet there’s no denying that an exotic and new departure city can be a boon for both the organizers and the host community.
For decades, the Giro and the other grand tours stayed largely close to home roads. As infrastructure improved and plane travel became more affordable, cycling’s major three-week grand tours started to reach beyond their traditional home bases.
The Tour, in part due to its larger size and bulk, is more selective about when and where it can take its race. The Vuelta, though more nimble, doesn’t have the same international draw. It’s the Giro that’s been able to best exploit this new market.
The 2012 “big start” in Denmark was an important milestone (see below) because it proved that the Giro can push well beyond the traditional envelope of neighboring countries when it comes to courting new clients. With all the local vehicles largely sourced in Denmark, the Giro proved in 2012 that the race’s reach could be expanded dramatically.
The real breakthrough came in Belfast in 2014, largely viewed as the most successful departure of any grand tour over the past decade.
The event was fully embraced by the local community, who shelled out a reported $7 million to bring the Giro into Northern Ireland. The wildly successful event had deeper culture and historical significance beyond the race, and give the Giro the lift it needed.
RCS Sport’s biggest coup came in 2018, when it penned a deal with Israeli billionaire Sylvan Adams to bring the Giro to Israel, Tel-Aviv and Eliat for a deal that was reportedly hammered out on a series of informal discussions between Adams and RCS brass in 2017.
Adams put up most of the estimated $18 million price tag, and the Giro made history by becoming the first grand tour to extend beyond the European realm.
These large-scale, big-ticket productions don’t only help RCS Sport, but also the local economy. With any race, the organization foots the bill to put up teams, staffers, officials, and others within the race retinue.
So not only does the local community see its landscapes and tourist sites beamed across the globe in TV images, millions get pumped back into the local economy in terms of direct spending on hotels, meals, and other costs associated with the race entourage as well as any other tourists who might show up.
The Budapest “big start” should be fairly routine for the experienced RCS Sport crew. The flight from Sunday’s finish down to Sicily is barely two hours, and the peloton and race entourage (along with a few journalists) will pile onto charter flights Monday morning.
For some reason, the UCI seems to take a dim view on these ever more outlandish and exotic grand tour departures, and is curbing the number of years it will award an “extra” rest day required to travel from beyond the reaches of Italy’s boot.
Teams see a slice of the financial pie, so everyone else is on board.
For years, there have been rumors of a start in Morocco, Spain’s Canary Islands, the Middle East, the United States, and even Asia.
Yet for a sport that’s accused of being stuck in the past, these “big starts” pump new energy, enthusiasm, and dollars into the sport — what’s not to like about that?
Fourteen and counting: the historical ‘big starts’ for the Giro d’Italia
The Giro ventures out of Italy’s boot more frequently and more ambitiously than the other grand tours.
Its first forays were local, with three of its first four foreign starts in San Marino, Monaco, and Vatican City in the “mini-states” that are entirely inside Italy or very close to its borders.
Things got more ambitious in 1996 when the Giro ventured to Athens. An overnight ferry to the “heel” of Italy’s boot brought the entourage back home. Benelux continues to be a Giro favorite, with the region hosting four of the 14 foreign starts.
Things stepped up a notch in 2010 and 2012, with long trips to Amsterdam and Denmark, respectively, that pushed the envelope on how far a grand tour could venture from home, and still pull it off.
The 2012 start in Bjarne Riis’s home region was an important milestone, not only because it was the northern most “big start” of any grand tour, but it proved that the organizers could pull it off.
Key to the success was having all the race vehicles sources locally, meaning that teams could parachute in with its riders and staffers without having to bring along all their official race cars and team buses. Some teams might still bring up mechanic’s truck, but that success helped open the door for the Giro to venture even further afield.
Another important landmark came with the 2014 start in Belfast. That’s when the RCS organization really started to turn up the marketing volume around it’s showcase “big start” event.
A record number of fans turned out for the historical and significant event that served to confirm the Belfast peace accords, and open the port city to a larger International audience.
The Giro hits its apogee with its 2018 departure from Jerusalem. Though there were some detractors, the event went off without a hitch, and proved that the Giro can extend beyond Europe’s borders.
There are still dreams of bringing the Giro and other grand tours to the Americas, Africa, and Asia.
Which race will be the first to try?
The 14 ‘big starts’ beyond Italy’s boot
1965 — San Marino
1966 — Monaco
1973 — Verviers, Belgium
1974 — Vatican City
1996 — Athens
1998 — Nice, France
2002 — Groningen, Netherlands
2006 — Seraing, Belgium
2010 — Amsterdam
2012 — Herning, Denmark
2014 — Belfast, Northern Ireland
2016 — Apeldoorn, Netherlands
2018 — Jerusalem
2022 — Budapest
Key facts on the Giro d’Italia 2022
Dates: Friday, May 6 – Sunday, May 29, 2022.
Rest days: 3
Climbing meters: 51,000
Time trial kilometers: 26.3
Start: Budapest (Hungary)
Finish: Verona (Italy)