A year ago, the Giro d’Italia was billed as a prize fight between Vincenzo Nibali and Bradley Wiggins, and the corsa rosa left Naples with its most star-studded field since before the dawn of the ProTour era. Twelve months on, however, some of the biggest names in stage racing are missing as the Giro sets out from Belfast. Nibali and Wiggins have not returned, while Alberto Contador and Chris Froome have also built their seasons around the Tour de France.
In an interview with AP last week, Giro race director Mauro Vegni decried the relative lack of marquee names in the race, but speaking to reporters in Belfast on Wednesday, he sounded a bit more optimistic, pointing in particular to the presence of Nairo Quintana (Movistar), second overall and best young rider at last year’s Tour.
“As far as Nibali’s concerned, I think I’ve said everything that needs to be said. As a rider who won a great Giro last year, it was legitimate for him to have the ambition to try and win the Tour,” Vegni said in Belfast’s Waterfront Centre.
“But if you’re asking me if satisfied with the riders who are participating, then the answer is yes. For me, it’s significant that the Giro is a launch pad for a new generation of young riders. That aspect is important.”
While acknowledging the Tour’s position as the most prestigious race on the calendar, Vegni was adamant that the Giro had taken significant strides in boosting its own profile since the turn of the century.
“I can’t deny the value of the Tour but I have to say that in the past ten years we have reduced the gap that existed between the Giro and the Tour before the year 2000. There’s still a lot of work to be done but we’re not suffering from any inferiority complex faced with the Tour or any other race.”
In 2012, Vegni even floated the idea of alternating the dates of the Giro and the Tour, allowing for the Giro to take place in July every second year, but for now at least, the emphasis from RCS Sport has been on broadening the race’s international appeal. Under the stewardship of previous race director Michele Acquarone, in particular, the Giro made particular efforts to engage with an international audience.
“The Giro has worked a lot of its internationalization, the recognition of the product abroad. In 2000, it was probably a very Italian product, and not very international. But in the last ten years, the balance has tipped towards having international protagonists and not just Italians,” said Vegni.
The Giro’s start in Ireland, of course, is part of that very process of internationalization. Thursday evening’s team presentation is an all-ticket affair – unlike the Tour de France presentation in Leeds, however, it is free – and Belfast has been festooned in pink in the weeks leading up to the race.
“I think that here in Ireland we’ll have a great result in terms of public turn-out because the expectations that have built up around the event are huge – there’s been a great communications project for this Giro,” said Vegni, who was quick to stress that the trio of Irish stages would be a sporting challenge as well as a commercial benefit.
“Given the kind weather conditions we could have for the first three days, this a very tough start to the Giro. If it’s as windy as it’s been in the past few days, there’s the chance that a contender who’s hoping to build form as the race goes on could get caught out. Ireland is more exposed to the ocean and the wind will condition the race the race far more than in Denmark [where the Giro started in 2012.]”