With a Saint on its side

When travelling through the Veneto region of Italy, it's easy to pass through a town like Riese Pio...

Giro d'Italia feature, June 1, 2007

A small town in Northern Italy is about to make a remarkable transformation. Perhaps guided by the village's namesake, the patron saint of the 90th Giro d'Italia, Riese Pio X is miraculously changed from a relatively anonymous village in Northern Italy into a glorious sea of pink when it hosts the finish of stage 18 of the Giro d'Italia. April Pedersen Santinon describes the metamorphosis of Riese Pio X.

When travelling through the Veneto region of Italy, it's easy to pass through a town like Riese Pio X en route to some of the more famous towns without being stirred from your thoughts. But today is different, and it's hard not to notice the flurry of activity in the small, quiet town - a crane is at work on the arrow-straight, tree-lined section of road heading north out of town; workmen are shoveling hot asphalt from a truck and resurfacing a sidewalk; others are trimming the grass, and a man is polishing a tall bronze tablet.

But the most striking thing is the color pink, bright rose pink - it's everywhere: signs, banners, balloons, ribbons and bows, window decorations, store displays: Yes! The Giro d'Italia is arriving in Riese Pio X!

Riese Pio X? You've never heard of it? Maybe you can't even find it on a map of Italy. The town is normally eclipsed by its more famous neighbors in the Veneto region like Castelfranco Veneto, the birthplace of the artist Giorgione with its red medieval walls, not far to the south.

To the north, arcing across the plain at the foot of the pre-alps, is Marostica, famed for its chess game with living figures, Bassano del Grappa with its lovely, legendary Alpini bridge across the Brenta river, the WW1 battleground on nearby Monte Grappa (which gives the city its name), potent grappa liquor, and a world class velodrome. Then there's Montebelluna with its wooded Montello ridge, and Treviso, a charming frescoed city that is also home to Pinarello bicycles.

All have hosted numerous Giro stages, and the last three, the World Cycling Championships.

There are two Palladian villas nearby; architect Carlo Scarpa's masterpiece, the Brion Tomb, is in the neighboring town, and the magical medieval town of Asolo can be seen on the hilltop just a few kilometers north.

And Riese Pio X? Its claim to fame is...Pio X - Pius X... a pope. Yes, a pope, and the first to be beatified a saint, Riese's vice-mayor Luca Baggio proudly explains. Pio X (X, not pronounced 'ex', stands for the tenth - in Italian, it is 'decimo', pronounced DEH-chee-mo) was born Giuseppe "Bepi" Sarto in a house that faces the finish line straight of Stage 18. He would have approved. It is known that he enjoyed sports, although researchers trying to find letters or documents proving that he'd ever seen and enjoyed a bicycle race, came up empty-handed. It was during his papacy, however, that the first Giro d'Italia was contested, in 1909.

The future pope was one of nine children born to a humble couple. Throughout his life, he exemplified the virtues of humility, hard work, and sacrifice, the very virtues that are so admired and cherished by the people of this region -virtues that have always been identified with the sport of cycling as well. Thus, it was only appropriate that Riese's native son was declared patron saint of the 90th Giro d'Italia.

But it takes more than a saint's intercession be granted the honor of hosting a stage of the Giro. Without wishing to sound disrespectful, we ask Signor Baggio how a small town like Riese could even dream of putting on a world famous event.

"The idea was first proposed by the mayor in 2004; at that point we initiated a progression of contacts that lead us along the route that brought us to where we are today" Baggio replied matter-of-factly, as if it were just an everyday accomplishment.

But a pleasant, friendly young woman named Laura, who later welcomed us to the town library and youth center, put it quite differently: "When the mayor first proposed that we apply to host a Giro stage, the reaction was 'what lofty ambitions these people have!' We're still incredulous! Everyone in town is going around saying, 'Is this for real?'"

Making a request is one thing, convincing the Giro organizers of your worthiness is quite another... Vice-mayor Baggio elaborated. "Even though it's not a large town, Riese has an important image and identity, that of Pope Pius X. People from our town have emigrated to all parts of the globe [back in the days when this region was very poor and there was no work available], and they have kept their ties to their birthplace and made it known abroad. The Sarto Foundation [a charitable organisation named after Pius X -ed.] operates worldwide.

"So even though ours is a small town, you could say that we have an international presence, and are used to considering places and events far beyond our borders. For example, we were the first town in Italy to dedicate a piazza to the events of September 11, because we wanted to demonstrate our solidarity with the American people."

"And then there's the fact that we're also in the midst of the bicycle manufacturing district," he continues.

Indeed - this officially designated district spans several provinces of the Veneto region, and includes approximately 100 firms which produce 80% of Italian cycling products, including frames, components, accessories, and clothing. Riese-based GSG cycle wear and Bassano Selle saddles are among them.

"Riese gave many cyclists to the world," the vice-mayor tells us. "Mario Fraccaro, Simone Fraccaro [now owner of the aforementioned GSG], Dorino Vanzo, and current pros Matteo Priamo and Matteo Tosatto, to name a few."

In fact, twelve riders from U.C. Riese, founded thirty-seven years ago, made it to the pro ranks. This is not surprising, because the Treviso province is renowned as the most sporting province of Italy, counting 155 cycling clubs and teams, 6,309 federation license holders, 167 directeurs sportif, and 35 race directors. The official Giro guide reads, [We now enter] the Veneto...We are in the heart of a zone that has always been known for spirited, flourishing cycling activity, an ever-prolific nursery for riders, races, and passion, great passion...The little city [of Riese] is hosting the Giro d'Italia for the first time, an event lived with great passion."

Little Riese, therefore, has tutte le carte in regola - all of its credentials in order - to be a Giro stage town. It has been able to count on the support of a vast network of organizations and entities in both the public and private sector, and the honor and worldwide fame the Giro will bring have attracted the sponsors and funding needed to pay for the rights to host the stage, and the costs of producing it. Offers of sponsorship have come from surprising sources: when Joseph 'Bepi' Gardin, owner of a forklift manufacturing company near Toronto, heard that the town of his birth would be hosting the stage, he immediately contacted the town officials and told them, "I want to be a sponsor!"

After the first rush of excitement following the news that they'd been granted the stage finish, the next phase of hard work began. "We have many organizations helping out, such as the civil defense and the national association of ex-Carabinieri," said Baggio. "But the real credit goes to our pro loco [civic organization]. We have 250 members, and each and every one has worked hard to make this a success."

"In addition, we've organized a series of 30 collateral events, which started early this month and continue until mid-August." There are school visits by professional cyclists, conferences, exhibits, mass participation walks and bike rides, concerts, film showings, an elite/U23 bicycle race, and more, all related to the Giro, and uniting sport, culture, and entertainment.

In addition, three new bike paths have been inaugurated, named in honor of Fausto Coppi, Gino Bartali, and Marco Pantani. Pantani's mother, Tonina, and Coppi's son, Faustino, attended the ceremony as honored guests of the town. The Pantani connection came about because he came in second, in 1991, in a famous race held every year in Riese, the Gran Premio Sportivi di Poggiana. There's even a film of young Marco (sporting a full head of hair) racing through the surrounding countryside, then looking rather disconsolate standing on the second step of the podium, one below winner Paolo Lanfranchi.

The day before the Giro's arrival, the finishing touches were being put on a series of public works: the outdoor theater has been renovated, fountains cleaned, flowers planted, grass trimmed...

"The most gratifying thing that's come out of this experience is the unity solidarity, and good will of our citizens," the vice-mayor concluded. "They've all been involved in this, and I wish I could give everyone in town a front-row seat - but it's just not possible.

"Our goal is to present the best of our town to the world: our scenery, architecture, history, culture, and activities... and of course, our native son, a humble man who started out as a simple chaplain and parish priest, then worked his way up to being a monsignor, bishop, cardinal, pope, and finally, a saint. One could say that his ecclesiastical path mirrored that of a racing cyclist, who starts out in the children's categories, then progresses to being a junior, dilettante, elite, and finally a pro."

A charming comparison.

After bidding goodbye to Signor Baggio and leaving his office in the beautiful Villa Gradenigo Venier, once the home of Venetian doges and now the town hall, we take a stroll around town, enjoying the colorful, creatively-decorated store windows (a prize will be awarded for the best one). Our final stop is the youth center, where we see the projects that children have created for 'BiciScuola', a contest held in each stage town along the Giro route. The children of the winning class receive all sorts of gifts, and are awarded their prize on the podium.

The theme is simple: the use of the bicycle. Riese's children have created a delightful, clever, heartwarming array of posters, booklets, sculptures, dioramas, and even a Power Point presentation. Bicycling is fun! they all tell us. You can enjoy nature, reduce pollution, and stay slim and healthy, all at the same time!

Judging from the children's expressions of love for the bicycle, and from the indelible memories that the Giro's visit will provide, we can safely say that cycling will continue to live in the hearts of Riese Pio X's citizens for a long time to come.

For a thumbnail gallery of these images, click here

Images by April Pedersen Santinon

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