As the 103rd Giro d’Italia leaves the island of Sicily, no one can be more satisfied than race director Mauro Vegni. After all, only a few months ago Italy was one of the longest and strictest lockdowns as the country was simply ravaged by the coronavirus crisis, and its biggest bike races including Milano-Sanremo and the Giro d’Italia, were the first major races to be canceled. And there were no assurances that they would be rescheduled this year.
But as the Giro returns to Italy’s mainland, it is safe to say that it is off and running on the heels of undeniable success in Sicily.
Sicily of course, while on the 2020 route, was not scheduled to host the Grande Partenza this year. That honor was initially awarded to Budapest, Hungary, which originally hoped to host a historic foreign start to the race. But they were quick to pull out as COVID-19 ravaged the European continent this past spring.
“The main challenge for us, like with every race organizer really, was simply that we were facing something new, something we did not understand and something where history supplied no answers,” Vegni told VeloNews before the start of stage three in Enna. “For us, the biggest challenge was probably waiting out the first big wave. Italy got so hit so hard, and really, during the peak of the pandemic, it wasn’t even worth discussing the possibility of a 2020 Giro d’Italia with the Italian government, because it was simply the last of their concerns,” he added. “But once the country started opening up again, we understood that there was the possibility to still have the Giro this year.”
Vegni and his team at RCS Sport, of course, kept working virtually as they prepared all of their top races from Strade Bianche, Milano-Sanremo, Il Lombardia, Tirreno-Adriatico and of course the Giro d’Italia.
“Sicily was just a logical choice,” he added regarding the Grande Partenza. “The COVID-19 situation down here was more or less under control. And once we had the big explosion of COVID and the Grande Partenza in Hungary was not possible, Sicily was the logical choice.”
Unlike the Tour de France, however, which was literally able to copy and paste their race route from July until September, the Giro organizers had to replace the three stages originally scheduled for Hungary. Sicily was originally scheduled to host three stages. But in the end, they added the opening time trial from Monreale to Palermo, and two additional stages on the country’s southern tip, with an additional stage to Matera and another to Brindisi (stages six and seven).
But Vegni, a natural-born race organizer, saw such obstacles simply as challenges. And while the Tour de France has often looked to the media when picking a race director, Vegni has done virtually nothing but organize bike races. Working as a race organizer in the 1970s, he was then race director for the 1994 world championships in Agrigento, which hosted stage two of the Giro on Sunday. And since 1996, he has been working with RCS Sport.
“I am passionate about the organization itself and the ability to plan everything. I just love looking at an event as a big picture and then working out all of the details from A to Z so that everything comes together,” he says as his eyes light up behind his face mask. “And I have a great team that helps make this happen time and time again. I have a great technical team that looks at all of the details of the race route, but even today, I still love to participate in scouting out the race route.”
Vegni understands that great bike races are not only about the bike. And every year the Giro offers him a blank canvas, one where he can sketch out a new race route that mixes a challenging course with one that shows off the Italian landscape and culture. “We live in a beautiful country with amazing landscapes and culture. And one of the missions it to use the Giro to promote Italy outside of the country, and we always to feature something in the race that people from outside of Italy might not know.”
And the start of this year’s race was a case in point. Stage one started in Monreale, a small village above Palermo with a pristine cathedral that is a prime example of Norman architecture. Stage two then finishes under the shadows of the magnificent Greek temples in Agrigento, while stage three finished on the slopes of Mount Etna, a spectacular volcano that towers over the city of Catania. And in just a few days the race visits Matera, considered one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world that finds its roots in ancient cave dwellings and today is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
While Vegni likes to show off his country to the rest of the world, he also understands the unique relationship the Giro has with Italy itself.
Here at the Giro, the official racebook is called the Garibaldi, named after Giuseppe Garibaldi, one of the key figures in the founding of Italy.
“The Giro is absolutely something that unites the country,” Vegni explains. “Don’t forget Italy was a country that was unified by war (i.e. The Wars of Unification in the mid-19th century). And it is not just because the country was officially unified that all of that it was unified in the soul of the people. The Giro has helped that sense of unity because the Giro was part of everyone’s heritage, everyone from the north to the south.”
And the Giro’s power to unify is never more present than this year as the country is rebuilding in the wake of the coronavirus. Certainly, the actual start of this year’s race was long in doubt, with each passing day confidence only increases that it will indeed finish in Milan on October 25.
“You know we had a lot of practice,” Vegni said. “Don’t forget we put on the first World Tour races when the season resumed with Strade Bianche, Milano-Sanremo and the Il Lombardia. That was a stiff learning curve as we were the first ones to put into place all of the new [health] measures imposed by the UCI. But that really helped us here. It really helps the Giro get off to a good start.”