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Giro organizer’s move onto Arabian Peninsula fits with international promotion plans

With a new Dubai stage race and a growing gran fondo series, RCS Sport is pushing the Giro brand outside of Europe

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LEON, Spain (VN) — Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) and the Tour de France, backers of the Tour of Oman and last week’s Tour of Qatar, are not the only organizers tapping into the Middle East petro-dollar bonanza.

Giro d’Italia organizer RCS Sport scored a coup with the announcement last month that it will promote a new stage race in the United Arab Emirates, in Dubai, in 2014.

Giro director Michele Acquarone confirmed to VeloNews the race will consist of five stages over four days, most likely in February to dovetail in with the conclusion of the nearby Tour of Oman, allowing teams to make one sweep through the region with Qatar, Oman, and Dubai all on the trip.

Contacts began with members of the Emirates royal family more than a year ago, and Acquarone described the meeting as “love at first sight.”

“They really believe in cycling. The crown prince is very involved in cycling and we started talking about the Giro,” Acquarone told VeloNews. “Then we started to talk about the possibility of a stage race in their country. They immediately became very excited about the project.”

As a teaser of what’s to come next year, Dubai officials flew in Acquarone and several key Giro staffers, as well as Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp), Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff), Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), for a New Year’s celebration — Dubai style.

The entourage stayed in five-star accommodations and participated in an exhibition race to open a new cycling facility in the desert.

“We all had a very nice party in Dubai,” Acquarone said. “Everyone is very excited about the project.”

For RCS Sport, owner of the Giro and other races including Milan-San Remo, it is the first excursion beyond the familiar confines of Europe.

Not only does the deal secure a positive cash flow of petro-dollars into RCS Sport’s coffers, but it also provides another platform for an ambitious international marketing strategy for the Italian cycling conglomerate.

Acquarone said the move into Dubai came about as a surprise, but is part of a well-planned marketing strategy to take the Giro and RCS Sport’s Italian races to a larger worldwide audience.

“I always say, ‘we will never forget we are an Italian race in Italy, and we must remember that,’” he said. “But we also want to take the image of the Giro to the rest of the world. The Giro has always been very Italian. We want to introduce new fans to how beautiful the Giro is.”

Another key element of that strategy is a gran fondo series that RCS debuted in 2012 with two events, one each in Miami and Pasadena, California.

This year, the series grows, with four events in the U.S., adding New York City and Monterrey, California, and one each in Europe, Asia, and Dubai.

“The Miami event last year was small, maybe 1,000 people, but we did not want it too big the first time. These are new roads, new locations for us,” he said. “We are just learning a new market, learning what to do. We want to grow step by step.”

RCS Sport is looking to get more out of its cycling properties. Its quiver of events includes such storied races as the Giro, Tirreno-Adriatico, a pair of one-day monuments in Milan-San Remo and Giro di Lombardia, which open and close the classics calendar, and Strade Bianchi, the popular semi-classic over the spectacular gravel roads of Tuscany.

That inventory is second only to ASO, and RCS Sport is working to raise its profile, and above all, that of the Giro.

Acquarone said the Giro is not trying usurp the Tour de France as cycling’s marquee stage race, but rather simply to complement it as an equal.

“If the Tour is Wimbledon, then we can be Rolland Garos [site of the French Open tennis major],” he said. “The Tour will always be big and prestigious, but the Giro can as well to be alongside one another.”

Since taking over the Giro in 2011, one of Acquarone’s major agenda items has been to raise the Giro’s profile internationally.

Giro officials believe that the corsa rosa is under-appreciated and not fully maximized. Starting with Angelo Zomegnan, who helped revive the race drama by shaking up how a grand tour could look, the Giro has certainly gained some heft over the past several years.

Nail-biting racing over the past few editions and the ever-popular Italian backdrop have seen the Giro’s stock on the rise.

The 2013 Giro will see a stellar field, with Hesjedal confirmed to defend his title, Italian challenger Nibali representing the home country, and Tour champion Wiggins making an all-out effort for the maglia rosa.

“We do not come begging these riders to come. They want to race the Giro,” Acquarone said. “We are satisfied because it shows that all the teams and all the riders consider success in the Giro as part of a successful season.”

Part of the Giro’s international ambitions have been hamstrung due to new rules that require the first rest day to be after a week of racing in grand tours.

Organizers considered taking the Giro to Washington, D.C., and other far-flung points, but the rest-day rule puts the kibosh on most of those exotic plans simply because taking the Giro out of Italy for nearly a week is too long.

What about Dubai? The six-hour flight puts it on the edge of practicality, but Acquarone said it would be all but impossible.

“We did talk about it,” he said. “More than anything, it is very hot in Dubai in May. Temperatures are above 45C during the day. Riders would have to race at night. We maybe could do it for a night or two, but the rest day rule changes everything.

“So we suggested, what’s better? Having the Giro for a few days once? Or having your very own race that you can build and develop over many years?” he said. “They liked that idea very much.”