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BELFAST, Northern Ireland (VN) — Giro d’Italia director Mauro Vegni insists the Italian grand tour has come a long way, and he’s not only referring to the “partenza” in distant Ireland.
Barely a decade ago, the Giro was known little more than “an Italian race,” with its field, stars, and parcours dominated by Italians racing in Italy.
For the start of the 97th edition, the Giro boasts an international flare of which Vegni said the race should be proud.
“The Giro has worked hard on internationalizing the race, and not just me, but everyone over the past 10 years or so,” Vegni told journalists Thursday. “In 2000, the Giro was very Italian, and not very international. In the past 10 years, the balance is now more international, and not just Italians.”
In 2000, Marco Pantani, Mario Cipollini, and a host of Italian teams and riders dominated the race. In sharp contrast, the 2014 Giro doesn’t even start with a legitimate Italian pink jersey contender. The season’s first grand tour also clicks into gear Friday without defending champion Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), who is racing the Tour de France, which opens the door for a mix of young and veteran riders from such diverse nations as Spain, Colombia, Australia, and Ireland to fight for the Giro crown.
Reflecting its international push, the Giro will start in Belfast for its fifth foreign kickoff since 2002.
On Thursday, also Vegni defended the Giro’s startlist. Contradicting grumblings he made to The Associated Press two weeks ago, when he decried the absence of Nibali, Chris Froome (Sky), and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), Vegni said the 97th Giro features a deep GC contenders field.
“I am satisfied with the riders who are participating. It’s natural that Nibali would want to try to win the Tour after winning the Giro,” Vegni continued. “The Giro is a launching pad for a new generation of riders, and that is very important.”
Since the 2000s, RCS Sport, owner of the Giro, has made a hard push to improve the image of the race as well as create interesting, sometimes over-the-top, course designs that have included such new additions as the Zoncolan, the gravel roads of Tuscany (now part of Strade Bianche), and even climbing time trials over dirt roads in the Alps.
Despite these efforts, the Tour remains the center of the international cycling calendar, with races such as the Giro and Vuelta a España spinning in orbit around the French tour.
Vegni adamantly defended the Giro’s recent boom, saying his race has closed the gap to the dominance held by the Tour de France.
“There’s no denying the position of the Tour, but we’ve reduced the gap between the Tour and the Giro over the past 10 years,” Vegni said. “There is still more work to be done, but do not suffer some sort of complex because of it.”
And race officials can also bank on their favorite slogan to help carry the day: the Tour might be the world’s biggest bike race, but the Giro is its most beautiful.