FORMIGINE, Italy (VN) — The old man had his hat in one hand, and his rake in the other. I wasn’t sure how long he was standing there, but I suppose it was a rather odd sight to see an American sleeping under one of his olive trees. I waved “bongiorno,” quickly stuffed my sleeping bag into my rental car, and sped away. I wasn’t quite sure where I was, but I knew where I was going: Ostuni.
It was May 1996. The Internet was in its infancy, but I had punched my ticket to Europe via the Information Highway. Twenty years ago, only a handful of American reporters covered the Tour de France, and I was on the cusp of a new wave of journalism that would change the media game forever. A start-up owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen had just switched over from producing CD-ROMs (remember those?) to running websites for some top-name legacy media entering the new-fangled World Wide Web. They made an offer I couldn’t refuse: We’ll pay you $125 per race day to cover the European stage racing season. Expenses? Nope. Free laptop? BYOMac. Internet connection? You go figure it out. Sign me up.
Thanks to a strong U.S. dollar against the European currencies — this was still the pre-Euro days of the wildly fluctuating lira, peseta, franc, and Deutschmark — bouncing around Europe was still relatively cheap, especially in Spain and Italy. My first gig was to cover the 1996 Giro d’Italia, ahead of a full season that concluded in Lugano.
I had skipped the Grande Partenza to save a little money, and drove straight to Ostuni, deep in the heel of Italy’s boot, where the Giro entourage would disembark after three stages in Greece. I landed in Europe via Holland on the Queen’s Birthday about 10 days before, and drove south across France and Italy, avoiding the expensive péage and autostrada toll roads, following the secondary highways, and sleeping next to rivers and in olive groves when I couldn’t find a bed.
Everything we take for granted today — GPS, Booking.com, Wifi, Twitter, 4G roaming with an iPhone, Facebook, and Google — hadn’t been born yet. Traveling in Europe was still an adventure, requiring a decent map and a good sense of direction. Finding an open albergo late at night in a random village required a bit of luck, and sometimes you didn’t have any.
After I waved goodbye to my new farmer friend, I arrived in Ostuni and drove around the sleepy, white-washed town to discover nary a hint that it would soon play host to the fourth stage of the Giro d’Italia. I assumed that a major international sporting event would have, well, something to suggest its imminent arrival. Somewhat exasperated that I might be in the wrong city, I strolled into the local police station. I asked, “Dove il Giro?” No one knew what I was talking about. Finally someone piped up, ah, il Giro! It arrives day after tomorrow somewhere in the centro storico. Where? Everyone shrugged their shoulders, but they were very curious if I knew Pamela Anderson.
Sure enough, two afternoons later, the Giro arrived as scheduled, and Mario Cipollini won a bunch sprint in glorious, unbridled fashion. The Lion King was in full bloom in 1996, and I can’t remember if it was in that day’s press conference, or one that would follow, when he famously quipped if he hadn’t been a cyclist, he would have been a porno star instead, but the Italian media ate it up, and so did I. This rolling circus on two wheels was quite unlike anything else I had every seen.
During that wondrous May, I got my first up-close-and-personal glimpse of the stars of the peloton: Gianni Bugno, Claudio Chiappucci, Dmitri Konyshev, Djamolidine Abdujaparov, and Davide Rebellin (who is still racing today). Marco Pantani wasn’t racing that year (but there was a song about Il Pirata that was a hit on the radio that went something like this, Marco, Marco, Marco! – grande campeone! – Marcooooo!).
Without Pantani, the GC was a gripping tussle between Abraham Olano and Pavel Tonkov. The big battle climaxed on the Passo de Pordoi, and just as it remains today, a mind-blowing, jaw-dropping setting for a bike race unrivaled anywhere in the world. For a cycling newbie circa 1996, it was something quite extraordinary. I had no idea what EPO was, nor had I heard of Michele Ferrari — all that bad stuff would come later — but I was hooked.
I remember that first Giro for two things. First, I never successfully managed to connect to the Internet during the entirety of the race. Remember that nails-down-the-chalkboard, screeiiiiooooeeeeching sound of the modem uplinking? Well, I never heard it, not once, but I made a friend whom I still consider a friend today who patiently helped me email my stories and photos every single day.
And second, and more importantly, it was during that first Giro that I forged a deep and ongoing love affair with the corsa rosa. Of all the grand tours, the Giro is by far the best. Ask anyone who’s raced it, worked on it, or watched it in person, and they’ll probably tell you the same thing. I think that’s due in large part because it’s the grand tour that most accurately reflects its host. The Tour de France has all the haughtiness of self-importance (very French), but it’s also grown too profit-oriented and commercial for its own good (not French at all). Until very recently, the Vuelta a España was never taken very seriously by anyone, but thankfully that is changing for a country as wonderful and alluring as Spain.
In contrast, the Giro’s palette reflects its warm and rambunctious host. The race is an untidy, captivating mix of passion, history, landscapes, fans, weather and racing drama that gives it its inimitable and sometimes maddening flavor. The Giro fully engages all the senses.
Today, I am back on the Giro, my arrival made easier thanks to GPS and other modern-day travel tools, and I won’t be sleeping under any olive trees this time around. The Giro remains eternal, and it feels just as fresh, enthralling and fascinating as it did two decades ago. If you can’t love the Giro, you can’t love bike racing.
Andrew Hood joined VeloNews in 2002.