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Il Giro vs Le Tour:
Which is better?
Larry says the Giro
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Here Larry Theobald of CycleItalia cycling tours offers a compelling set of arguments as to why the Giro d'Italia is the superior race.
Il Giro vs Le Tour
At the risk of getting the Tour faithful wound up, I'll explain why I believe the Giro d'Italia is a better event than Le Tour de France.
First some background. Yours truly and wife Heather worked for most of the 1990s with an operation that arguably pioneered the "race-chasing" cycling vacation. We followed both the Tour and Giro around their respective countries, hauling our clients in 9-passenger mini-vans with bikes mounted on top, enjoying the thrill of riding on the actual race route mere hours before the pros did battle on the same climbs. Both programs used similarly-priced hotels and followed similar itineraries. We also have continued when possible, to see selected individual stages of both events as part of our current venture, CycleItalia, so our experience is not totally based on what some may call "ancient history".
Our experience coincided with the Giro d'Italia organizer RCS' efforts to open their race to a more international audience. Andy Hampsten won in 1988 while Greg LeMond often used La Corsa Rosa to hone his form for the upcoming Tour. The old days, along with claims of designing or even modifying a course to suit the national hero were coming to a close, even if the idea that somehow Francesco Moser was blown to a time-trail victory by a TV helicopter were dubious at best. By the early 1990s there was again talk of "doing the double"winning both the Giro and Tour in the same year. "BigMig" Indurain did just that in 1992 and 1993 while Marco Pantani did it again in 1998, matching the earlier feats of Coppi, Merckx, Roche and others. The Giro d'Italia was again a truly international race. Why do I think it's a better race? Read on.
Better roads. I believe it was Swiss pro Alex Zülle who explained he liked racing the Giro because Italian roads were so much better than most. What he may not have known is many of the roads used in the race get repaved just for the event! One year we were mapping a route in the Alps over the Colle Fauniera just a few days before La Corsa Rosa was to ascend the tortuous climb. We had to pause a few times as fresh asphalt was spread and rolled smooth on the upper slopes of the road! Nowadays, when riding or mapping a route in Italy with pavement that needs some work, the running joke between us is "the Giro needs to come here" because we know that's a sure-fire way to see the road repaved.
Better food. Italian food is arguably the most popular ethnic food in the world. And while most of what's sold outside of Italy would be barely recognized by an Italian, people all over the world love it. Can anyone say the same about French cooking? Years ago, after so many complaints by riders in LeTour (who must stay in hotels and eat in places chosen by the race organizer) the TdF organization brought ITALIAN chefs in to oversee meal preparation. No longer do you see photos in Italian bike magazines of Italian cycling teams eating pasta they've cooked up in someone's camper. The Italian chefs have instructed their French counterparts in the process of properly cooking pasta al dente. Sounds simple, but after trying pasta in typical eateries in France you'd think it was a mysterious, secret process.
Better hotels. I can't exactly explain the reasons why, but even today, similarly priced hotels in Italy are generally cleaner, better furnished and have more attentive staffs than their French counterparts. The racers remark about this as well when you read their diary entries during the Giro. I think the Italian "hospitality gene" is simply stronger. Our experience is not due to any language barrier as Heather speaks fluent French in addition to Italian.
More knowledgeable spectators. There might be more spectators on the roadside of Le Grand Boucle in any given year, but when you look at TV or photos of the Giro you'll see thousands cheering for their heroes. More of them have ridden their bicycles to their choice viewing spot in many cases. The crowds lining the roads in France are quite often made up of foreigners rather than French folks. France seems only to take interest in cycling during July. I can remember being in France one year while following the the Giro as it ventured over an Alpine pass and not being able to find any French TV coverage of the race! I read somewhere this year about chants of "Armstrong" in France directed at whoever was wearing the yellow jersey during LeTour. I believe more French folks line the Tour route just for the party atmosphere, they know or care little about cycling in general.
More challenging route. They say riders make the race rather than course designs, but after this year's disappointing TdF route, I'll argue that is not always the case. While LeTour often designs a flat first week for various reasons, its Italian counterpart rarely does so. Of course Italy has fewer flat places to race so one could say they couldn't do it in the French style even if they wanted to, but I believe they want a more balanced race with a mixture of terrain right from the start. Everyone and anyone can have a chance to wear La Maglia Rosa in the first week, not just sprinters or chronomen. Moreover, the climbs are steeper when they do hit the mountains. Much steeper. Examples? Does LeTour have anything as tough as Passo Mortirolo with 12.4 kilometers with an average grade of 10.5% and maximum of 18.5% or Tre Cime with almost 8 kilometers at an average of more than 9% and a maximum grade of 17%? Compare TdF's fearsome Col du Tourmalet, 17 kilometers and average grade of 7.4% with max of 10% to the Giro's Passo Stelvio, 25 kilometers averaging 7.2% and a max of 14%. I have ridden all of these climbs during my 20+ years of cycling in Italy and France and can without fear of contradictionthe Italian climbs are generally more difficult.
More intimate. La Corsa Rosa is a smaller affair overall than Le Grand Boucle. I remember seeing LeTour when the official cars were from Peugeot and official water from Perrier, but it has become a multi-national, corporate affair dominated by Nestle, Nike and the like. Il Giro rarely gets the huge, international corporate sponsors. Instead, the Giro's start village promotions are smaller and mostly Italian concerns, which give a more intimate feel to the atmosphere. Foreigners are heartily welcomed based on that "hospitality gene" I noted earlier and everyone, no matter where they're from, feels more a part of the goings-on rather than just a spectator.
More beautiful. Make no mistake, France is a beautiful country with spectacular mountains, seacoast, lakes and vineyards along with picturesque villages, castles, cathedrals and more. But Italy has…well, ITALY! How many wall calendars, posters, refrigerator magnets, etc. have been created with images of and from Italia? The TV helicopter shots of the Dolomites alone simply blow away anything seen in France! Even Graham Watson, the famous photojournalist, calls Passo Gardena in the Dolomites "a sumptuous ascent offering the most spectacular scenery in Europe" in his book The Great Tours. I won't argue with him!
More exciting, with more passion. I'll not claim the Tour de France is dull, far from it. I was there when Greg LeMond beat Laurent Fignon by the smallest margin in history with the fastest time trial in history. The Giro is exciting in a different way. I believe it's because it has more passion. I believe more Italians (at least the men) have raced and ridden bicycles than their French counterparts while more Italian women have stayed home and listened to Il Giro on the radio and later watched on TV than their French counterparts. Most of the spectators alongside the Giro route are Italian (though more foreigners seem to come each year) and a LOT of them ride their bikes to their choice viewing places. Go into any bar in Italy. You'll find people knowledgeable about cycling and chances are the guy making your espresso raced against the current famous Italian sprinter when they were juniors! In my experience few of the folks on bikes at LeTour are French. The French seem only to care about bicycle racing during July when the free show of Le Grand Boucle is in front of them. I believe this is also reflected in the recent state of French pro cycling. They've not had a winner at Le Tour since 1985 or at Il Giro since 1989. They just don't seem to get as worked up about it as the Italians. But of course nobody gets as worked up about most things as the Italians do! That passion and emotion is contagious and much more on display in Italy.
Am I horribly biased? After a decade following both events under almost identical circumstances and another decade operating CycleItalia I have to admit I am. But this comes only after those years of experience. I saw my first Giro in 1989 (after seeing my first Tour in 1988) and thought then it was as sophisticated as the "Tour of Baja, Mexico". Twenty years later the charms of La Corsa Rosa have converted me. One final examplerather than being unceremoniously yanked off the official route and watched closely by gendarmes as the race closed in on us at LeTour, at the Giro, we were escorted (to cheers from the fans) to the roadside by the Moto-Guzzi mounted polizia stradale as La Corsa Rosa roared by, only to be welcomed back onto the course (to more cheers)as we continued along the route, all after a peaceful lunch of plates of pasta and a glasses of wine, this pranzo stop being the reason we were on the course so late in the first place.
Would I discourage anyone from seeing Le Grand Boucle live in-person? Absolutely not! But if seeing LeTour is on your to-do list, seeing the Giro should be as well.
You can get Larry's CycleItalia e-newsletter by contacting him through his web site.