Back in the very early days of 2006, my wife’s parents invited us to join them on a trip to Italy in May, along with one of my wife’s many sisters and her husband. Her parents would be renting an apartment in the center of Florence, and our room and board would be taken care of in exchange for services rendered as tour guides and travel planners. (We’d been to Florence on our honeymoon, and the two of us had long since proven our ability to travel internationally without major, life-ending, limb-rending incident. I guess that made us qualified.) After five days or so in Florence, everyone would go their separate ways – my wife and I headed to Bellagio on Lago di Como, her parents down to Rome, and her sister and husband back to Tennessee. Back then, when booking a flight gave you at least a 50-50 shot of getting to your destination, who would pass up that offer ?
Of course, you mention “May” and “Italy” to a cyclist, and their eyes roll back, their vision goes pink, and their mind jumps to thoughts of somehow working a couple of stages of the Giro d’ Italia into even the most family-oriented of itineraries. And I’m no different. What fun-loving spouse wouldn’t want to spend 8 hours sitting by the side of some godforsaken road to see 39 seconds of action? What 33-year-old wouldn't want some snack food thrown from a truck?
I tried, I really did. I studied calendars and routes, scrawled out revised itineraries and hatched plans for daring solo escapes by train. And I am not a person who enjoys planning. I knew my sainted wife would understand, if not enthuse, and if I played my cards right, I could even make it pay by writing a little something for one of the usual cycling media suspects. But I ran into one undeniable, immutable obstacle: the 2006 Giro d’ Italia, the Tour of Italy, would be spending its first days in Belgium during our stay in Italia. A little dejected, I sat back to begin the process of accepting a May trip to Italy that would not result in the obtainment of a pink T-shirt.
And then I remembered that graceful acceptance of defeat is not a part of cycling. If there’s one thing amateur racing teaches you, it’s that if you’re getting beaten, you just haven’t found the right category yet. With that in mind, I started looking for that different category that would allow an on-vacation hack like me to achieve victory. And like any one of a number of cut-rate Italian pros, I came to realize that even though I might never make it to Il Grande Giro, that was no reason to surrender my dreams. After all, there were still a slew of available races once you got that idea of bagging stage wins and GC glory out of your head. They’re just a little more…quaint.
In the end, I settled on the Giro della Toscana, a one-day Italian semi-classic that precedes the Giro d’ Italia start by a week and cuts through the heart of the Chianti wine country outside Florence. Still jetlagged and hazy on the day following our arrival, I drove to the start, got my press pass just as registration was shutting down, slapped the “Stampa” stickers on my rental car, and headed for the race’s biggest climb. What I found at the start, the finish, and at the top of the Badia Coltibuono was a race that will never, ever, ever be shown on Versus, but which was every bit as much a piece of the world of bike racing as a stage of the Giro d’ Italia. The result of that trip was the piece below. An edited version ran in VeloNews’s At the Back column in May 2006.
Il Piccolo Giro
If there’s one element that sums up the Giro della Toscana, it’s the publicity caravan. The little UCI 1.1 race through Tuscany’s Chianti wine region does have one, but there are none of the Giro d’Italia’s giant iced tea cups and motorized fiberglass contraptions. Instead, there’s a more reasonable fleet of four Fiat Punto hatchbacks, black, each fitted with a roof-mounted PA system. When the caravan reaches a group of spectators on the road – and a group could be defined as “five or more people” – a driver stops to deliver a brief promotional speech at top volume and maximum distortion, despite the proximity of his audience. Small green backpacks and umbrellas are then handed off to the newly deaf, and the Punto sets off for the next group of punters.
That’s the story of the Giro della Toscana, and a host of races like it across Europe each season. In many obvious ways—color, competition, sound—they’re very much like cycling’s major events, but just a little bit more modest, a little closer to the bone. The Giro della Toscana isn’t an important race anymore, though its list of 79 winners features the likes of Girardengo, Binda, Bartali, Coppi, Altig, DeVlaeminck, and Moser. These days, schedule conflicts with the Tour de Romandie and a slew of national races across Europe guarantee a field that is far from star-studded. But in an era defined by slickly marketed events with major sponsorship money at stake, Toscana feels refreshing for its lack of production values.
At the tiny start town of Terranuova-Bracciolini, it’s immediately apparent that this is no ProTour event, not “Il Grande Giro,” which is set to start in Belgium in a week’s time. The team area isn’t a maze of custom VanHool team buses, but rather a mish-mash of hastily parked team cars, with fans wandering between bumpers and bikes. The smaller Italian continental teams that make up the bulk of the field likely can’t afford much more, and Lampre and Liquigas’ rigs are up north at the big races. Only Acqua & Sapone and Naturino, medium-sized squads for whom these are the big races, have their wheeled homes on hand. The result is a start area that feels a bit more like the big races some 15 years ago, when even the most famous names had to greet their public and the press as the soigneur oiled their legs on the bumper of the team car rather than behind the curtains of the bus.
As for those famous names, there aren’t many here. The field is mostly solid Italian journeymen and a healthy complement of the Eastern Europeans that have continued to flock to Italian squads since the fall of the iron curtain. Dane Bo Hamburger plays the role of the old timer in decline, riding now for the modest Miche squad and a long way from his days of Fleche Wallonne and Tour de France stage wins. The lone bonafide star on the start list is Damiano Cunego, here for a final race ahead of the Giro d’Italia. In that great European cycling tradition of towns awarding riders they like with random things, he’s presented a matching pearl necklace and bracelet set at the sign-in.
Which is not to say that the other riders here lack their fans. In fact, they’re here in droves, but not because they’ve read about these riders in magazines or watched interviews with them on RAI. There are a healthy number of girlfriends and family members lingering, and plenty more familiar handshakes, slaps on the back from neighbors, and pokes in the ribs from amateur training partners. Those not personally connected aren’t here to see stars of world sport or be part of an event, they’re just here to see a bike race.
But maybe Toscana isn’t so different from the grander Giro after all, because any race that has RV people can’t be all that small. Granted, there’s only one RV rather than hundreds at the top of day’s principal obstacle, the twisting 20 kilometer climb of the Badio Coltibuono, but they’re there, and they’re cooking and drinking wine, waiting at the spot where they know the selection will be made.
On a signpost just beyond the RV crowd is evidence of the other way that Toscana directly channels the Giro d’ Italia—the route markers. They’re the same familiar black arrows on a Gazzetta-pink background—literally. A bit faded and battered from their use on last years Giro d’Italia, they’ve been efficiently spruced up with a red Giro della Toscana sticker to cover up their Giro d’ Italia markings. A few Euros saved, no doubt, and a few more to tack onto the day’s prize list.
The crowd on the Coltibuono grows steadily as the race approaches, eventually reaching some 40 or so, including the carabinieri, two nuns eating lunch in a Fiat, several families, and members of the Deux Chaveaux car club who have been trapped while trying to visit the monastery perched on top of the hill. A well-fed and painted blonde woman is working the crowd, singing the praises of local boy and 2003 Toscana winner Rinaldo Nocentini, “Vincitore del Giro dell’Appennino! Vincitore del Giro della Toscana!” She’s on the verge of explosion when her man comes over the top in a strong group of 25 that will decide the finish amongst themselves.
Nocentini is still in with a shot when the nine man remains of the break roll into Arezzo to complete two local laps before the finish, and the pace and the fervor of the crowd ratchets up as the candidates turn the screws for the win. The spectators, some familiar from the Coltibuono, grab their children’s heads and swivel them as they point out their local heroes in the peloton. In the peloton a minute down, Cunego makes his only mark on the race on the first circuit, throwing a theatrical arm up in futility and pulling out with a smile on his face.
With a just kilometer remaining and a downpour on the way, Przemyslaw Niemiec breaks free and holds off Giuliano Figueras and the rest of the break by a slim two seconds for the win. Though he’s not Italian, a result that’s somewhat of an aberration in the Toscana’s 79 year history, he’s still a popular winner. A Pole by birth, he rides for Miche, a squad based back at the start town of Terranuova, so he’s a nice local boy after all. Monday morning, his victory will only warrant about 300 words in the Gazzetta dello Sport, but for the people of Chianti, he’ll do just fine.