Ranking behind only the Tour de France in terms of prestige, the Giro d’Italia is one of the highlights of the racing calendar. The riders love it because it is more relaxed than the Tour and because the tifosi - the Italian fans - are passionately enthusiastic and knowledgeable.
The Giro d'Italia is born
It began life in 1909 when struggling Italian sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport got wind of a plan by a rival paper to launch a tour of Italy following the runaway success of the Tour de France, which had been established six years beforehand. Although they had already established the Giro di Lombardia and Milan-Sanremo, those one-day races had not yet gained the Classic status they would later acquire, and Gazzetta’s directors didn’t have the money to fund a new race off the ground, much less one lasting two and a half weeks and covering a substantial part of Italy.
Donations from across the country, including a gift from a Sanremo casino, ensured the race was established. Starting and finishing in Milan, it proved a huge success, Luigi Ganna claiming victory thanks to three stage wins, while La Gazzetta’s sales soared, which guaranteed the race’s future.
The golden age
In the inter-war period, the Giro enjoyed a golden age, beginning with a victory for the first campionissimo (champion of champions), Costante Girardengo, and ending with victory for the second rider to be anointed with that title, Fausto Coppi. Italians dominated the race, no one more so than Alfredo Binda, who claimed five victories in the 1920s and 1930s. His final success came in 1933, two years on from the introduction of the maglia rosa, a jersey as pink as the paper on which Gazzetta was and still is printed, and awarded each day to the race leader.
In the late 1930s, foreign participation at the Giro had declined significantly. However, the popularity of the corsa rosa (“the pink race”) was hardly affected. Indeed, the rivalry that emerged between Italian legends Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi pushed interest in the Giro to even greater heights. The older of the pair, Bartali had already taken two Giro titles and the Tour de France crown when Coppi emerged in 1940. The two men lined up in the same Legnano team, where Bartali was the absolute leader. But on the second stage he crashed and lost time, allowing Coppi the opportunity to show his ability, and the 20 year old went on to become the youngest ever winner.
After five-year break for the war, Coppi and Bartali returned, this time leading rival teams. Bartali claimed the title, but Coppi bounced back to regain it the following year as Italy split in its support of these two adversaries. In 1949, Coppi produced one of the greatest performances in grand tour history, overturning a 10-minute deficit on one epic stage to Pinerolo, as he claimed the third of what would be five Giro titles.
The following year, Switzerland’s Hugo Koblet became the first foreign winner of the maglia rosa, and in subsequent seasons there have been almost as many foreign winners as Italian. Belgium’s Eddy Merckx emulated Binda and Coppi by capturing five Giro crowns. In 2012, Ryder Hesjedal became the first Canadian to win the title, but Italy responded in 2013 with a victory of its own, which came courtesy of Vincenzo Nibali.
The jerseys of the Giro
In addition to the pink jersey worn by the overall leader, the other main jerseys are the blue for the mountains leader, the red for the points leader, and the white for the best young rider. The battle for the mountains title is always hard-fought given the number of severity of the climbs that tend to feature in the Giro.
Stefano Pirazzi won the mountains crown last year. Despite all the climbing, the Giro never neglects the sprinters, and last year Britain’s Mark Cavendish completed his set of grand tour points titles when he clinched the red jersey. Carlos Betancur became the second Colombian in a row to win the best young rider’s title following Rigoberto Urán’s success in 2012.
The race route for 2014
After the teams and riders insisted on a rest day following the transfer from Ireland to Italy, RCS Sport obtained permission from the UCI for the extra rest day and an unusual Friday start on 9 May. The racing begins with a spectacular 22km team time trial that starts in the Titanic Belfast museum, visits Stormont (Northern Ireland Parliament) and finishes in the city centre. The 218km second stage heads to the coast via Bushmills, the Giant's Causeway, Carrickfergus and back to Belfast. The third day starts in Armagh and ends in Dublin.
Following the transfer and the early rest day, the racing resumes in the heel of the Italian peninsula with a stage to Bari before the long haul north via Viggiano, the hilltop village of Montecassino, Foligno, Montecopiolo and Sestola, where the riders will enjoy the second rest day. The route heads east to Piemonte via Savona in the second week, with the 46.4km individual time trial through the vineyards from Barbaresco to Barolo expected to play an important role in reshaping the general classification. The 'cronometro' is largely flat but ends with a climb up to the finish.
The major mountain action begins two days later, with the third weekend of racing remembering two of Marco Pantani’s most spectacular attacks. Stage 14 finishes the Oropa sanctuary, where in 1999, before he was disqualified due to a high haematocrit level, Pantani chased back on after dropping his chain, passed 49 riders and won the stage. Sunday’s 15th stage ends in Plan di Montecampione, where Pantani threw away his nose piercing and managed to drop rival Pavel Tonkov to set up victory in the 1998 Giro.
The riders will spend the third rest day in Ponte di Legno on 26 May before the start of the final week in the Dolomites and the Friuli mountains. Snow forced the cancellation of last year’s mountain stage over the Gavia and Stelvio and up to the finish in Val Martello, but the same short stage packed with three long and difficult climbs will be back in 2014.
After some respite from the climbing in Vittorio Veneto, the mountains return for the finish at the Rifugio Panarotta at Pergine Valsugana and the 26.8km mountain time trial from the Bassano del Grappa to Crespana del Grappa, which could shake up the general classification more than any mountain stage.
The north-eastern Friuli region hosts the grand finale of the 2014 Giro d’Italia with the final mountain finish on the leg-breaking slopes of Monte Zoncolan coming immediately before the road stage and circuit finish in Trieste to celebrate the anniversary of the return of the city to Italian control.
Line-up and favourites
The field features all 18 teams that comprise the elite category WorldTour, as well as four squads that received invitations from race organisers RCS – Androni Giocattoli, Bardiani-CSF, Colombia and Yellow Fluo.
Defending champion Vincenzo Nibali is not returning to defend the maglia rosa, but the field is nevertheless a strong one. It features the runners-up from the past two editions, Katusha’s Joaquim Rodríguez and Omega Pharma-QuickStep’s Rigoberto Urán. 2011 Tour de France winner Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), third last year, is another rider with a considerable Giro history behind him, unlike last year’s Tour de France runner-up Nairo Quintana (Movistar), who is making his debut in the event. In the absence of Nibali, Italian hopes rest mainly on the defending champion’s Astana team-mate Michele Scarponi and veteran Ivan Basso (Cannondale).
In Cavendish’s absence, the battle for the red points title will be an intriguing one. Giant-Shimano’s Marcel Kittel is the obvious man to beat in the sprints, but it remains to be seen whether the German will go the distance to Trieste. On current form, Kittel’s main threat appears to be FDJ.fr’s Nacer Bouhanni, while Italians Alessandro Petacchi, Giacomo Nizzolo, Roberto Ferrari and Davide Appollonio should also be in the frame.
It all adds up to three of the most colourful and thrilling weeks of the season, culminating in Trieste on 1 June.