Next weekend will be another high-day for Italian cycling, and not in the least for Belgium. The Giro d'Italia starts in Belgium, more precisely in Liège with a prologue followed by three stages through Wallonnie. The Wallonnian (or French-speaking) part of the small Northern European country is preparing for virtually a week of cycling euphoria, with the passage of the Tour of Italy being used as an ideal opportunity to honour the mine workers, the first Italian immigrants who arrived in Belgium just 60 years ago.
The 60th birthday of the Accord du Charbon, the agreement which regulated the first wave of immigrants from Italy after World War II and the commemoration of the terrible mine-disaster in Marcinelle, which took the life of 262 mine workers 50 years ago, are two events which will be highlighted during the passage of the 2006 Giro. Especially with Sunday's stage finish in Marcinelle, the reference to the mining industry is clearly present during the four days the Giro is ridden on Belgian soil.
Getting the Giro start to Belgium is an expensive adventure. Mister Joseph Crotteux, director of the division sports of the Province of Liège and the man who brought the Giro to Belgium, is expecting a very positive return. "To start with economically," Crotteux told Sportwereld, "all the hotels are booked out. The Giro caravan counts no less than 800 cars. All of those need fuel. Studies have revealed that there are on average four people in those cars. Those all have to eat, drink and find a hotel room. The second effect is the taxes staging this event generates. And the third factor is tourism. We expect 100,000 spectators. It's half of what the Tour de France had, but the Tour gets more exposure and takes place during the summer holidays."
The organisation is expecting for a majority of those spectators to be of Italian descent. Liège is home to no less than 50,000 Italians. If one adds the second and third generation - those people with Belgian passport - this amount triples. Most of them are descendants of mine-workers, the first Italian immigrants.
"The parcours will pass as many mine-sites as possible, but we had to take sporting parameters into account," continued Crotteux. "The stages were to be maximum 200km long and it's not our intention to make it into a battlefield. The third stage is a bit harder, but in all it'll be fluently ridden."
The Italian consul in Liège, Marco Riccardo Rusconi, born near Milan, 30 years of age and a mad cycling fan, has moved to Belgium only a year and a half ago. According to him, the four days of the Giro in Liège and Wallonnie mean more to the community than just an opportunity to look at passing cyclists. "Although it's been a long time since we're pauperised mine-workers, it is beneficial to our self-esteem," Rusconi told HNB.
"We have to thank two parties for this Giro start in Belgium: first of all the Italian organisers who wanted to make a nice gesture for Italian people abroad," he continued. "It's something which isn't that obvious as there's is an abundance of candidate-cities in Italy itself. Cycling is a very handy bonding tool; because all Italians love sports and in contrast with soccer or tennis or Formula 1, cycling goes to the people. And secondly, we thank this project to the province of Liège - those people have a nose for big events."
The important social roll of a big stage race like the Giro is something Rusconi is wishing to underline. "When Bartoli was successful in the Tour de France it was really heartening for the Italian immigrants in France. They immigrated to survive and Bartoli made them proud of their Italian origin," Rusconi said.
"The first Italians in Belgium were poor too. But in the meantime, the Italian people have made it to the top layers of the social hierarchy. Because doing business is in our blood, a lot of Italians have become successful entrepreneurs. It's not necessary for us to 'get revenge', but it does improve the image we have of ourselves. It shows us as winners, and I don't just mean that literally, winning cyclists, but everything surrounding cycling."
The consul would love to see an Italian on the podium. "It would be magnificent, and I think it's perfectly possible. During Liège-Bastogne-Liège I saw that the Italians are ready. Basso, Cunego, Bettini: they're there. In Italy there's no gaps in between generations of talent, like there is in France for example. The stream is constant, there's always fresh blood. Italy is the biggest cycling country," the consul proudly boasted in typically Italian fashion. "Well, Belgium is second, after Italy. Eddy Merckx of course is the biggest cyclist ever. I have gone for a ride with him a few times. He speaks Italian with a Milanese accent, just like me. It's very funny, very sociable. But it's been a while since I've got the bike out of the shed though. I'm Italian. And an Italian waits for the sun to shine to get out. So I have been waiting for a long time."
Courtesy of Sabine Sunderland