Italy…The Final Word

Fact: If you want to wander around Italy and never be identified as an American by mere looks, grow some Elvis-esque sideburns. Evidently, a substantial set of lamb chops is routinely associated with the English. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that at multiple periods of my life I’ve been told “You have the map of Ireland on your face” which likely cements my Anglo/Irish identity and yields no clues about America until I open my mouth. It worked like a charm during my six month stint in Ireland way back when. Just check out the similar mugs of myself and AG2R’s lone Irishman, Mark Scanlon. Generations of fair-skinned, Irish pastiness are flowing unchecked and unabashed throughout our respective DNA structures. And what really throws people for a loop is when you bust out the La Gazzetta dello Sport to check out the daily 6+ pages of Giro d’Italia coverage.

Brace yourself: Italians don’t care too much about cycling. I know, words of such blasphemous magnitude have rarely been rendered here in print. I thought I was embarking on a magical voyage to a cycling Nirvanna, where each and every citizen is versed in the history, intricacies, and minutia of professional cycling. (That must be Belgium.) When we met my wife’s boss’s significant other (and family) native to Pescara, there were words of sheer astonishment about us driving to the summit of Passo Lanciano. “These Americans aren’t just idle spectators, they’re fanatics!” Pick up any edition of La Gazzetta dello Sport and it isn’t difficult to see what sport is king: calcio (or as we say here across the pond in the U.S. — “soccer”). If the trademark pink paper contains about 40 pages, then the first 30 or so pages deal with soccer. Amazing. Then comes Formula 1, fueled by the Schumacher/Ferrari firestorm. Then comes MotoGP motorcycle racing. I quickly became acquainted with young Italian phenom, Yamaha-sponsored Valentino Rossi. Still, tucked away near the back of a typical issue, the Giro garnered about 6 pages of coverage per day, which are about 6 more pages than American papers devote to the entire Giro d’Italia. There were multiple feature length articles dissecting the previous day’s stage, brief spotlights on one particular rider each day (usually someone out of the limelight), historical articles about Giro stages of yesteryear which traversed similar routes to the previous day’s stage, lots of photos (I was partial to the photo-essay sequence of shots dissecting finishing sprints or crashes, complete with superimposed arrows and running commentary to explain frame by frame just how Axel Merckx got schooled oh-so close to the finish line or the magic moment when Manuele Mori’s face made contact with a guardrail), daily commentary penned by Mario Cipollini, plus oodles of more cut-and-dried statistics which amass after each stage. Each day you could see each and every rider’s finishing order and GC position, find out daily and cumulative points accumulations for all the well-known and downright bewildering assortment of jersey and team competitions, and be provided with an entire start-list (complete with slash marks through riders’ names who have retired).

A little bit of Italian goes a long way to foster confusion…
This is how a typical conversation went while in Capri/Naples/Ercolano during our first week in Italy when we tried to ask random people involved in the tourist trade what was taking place in the Giro:

Me: Who won the Giro stage yesterday?
Befuddled Italian: ????????
Me: You know, the Giro?
B.I.: Giro???
Me: Yeah, the Giro d’Italia…
B.I.: (internally to himself, “Why is this Yank so insistent on talking about his tour of Italia? He’s mad…)
Me: (internally, “Oh shit, giro and Italia are magic words to Anglo cycling tifosi, but just benign words in Italian. I need to throw in something about cycling”)
Me: Giro d’Italia? Ciclismo? Petacchi? Di Luca? Savoldelli? Maglia rosa?
B.I.: Oh, si, si, si! The Giro d’Italia…Huh…You mean it already started?…What?…In Belgium????
B.I.: I prefer _______ (insert Formula 1, tennis, track & field, MotoGP, or soccer).

Fact: There are no sports bars in Italy. No Giro for you (in your best Soup Nazi voice) unless you’re at a home or luck into hotel rooms with televisions. While we were quizzing an employee at the tourist information office in Ercolano about the best venue nearby to grab some lunch and watch the Giro, we actually were invited to his home to watch the entire stage. We talked for some time about American pro cyclists, his love of watching stages in the mountains, how boring flat stages could be, and since he was leaving work for the day he kindly offered to bring us back to his house. Unfortunately, our schedule was action-packed for the rest of the day but we did convince the young men working in a nearby pizzeria to tune in the pre-stage Giro coverage while we gobbled down some pizza. We were able to watch lengthy interviews with numerous Italian stars (Basso, Bettini, Di Luca, Savoldelli, Cunego, and Simoni) who were just hanging out, biding their time in the rider VIP area, prior to putting in about 5 hours in the saddle that day.

No Madonna del Ghisallo for you…6 months! Denied. We could see the general location of the legendary chapel high on the ridge line above Lake Como, but unfortunately a general transit strike throughout the Lake District (wiping out ferry and bus travel) made our destination an impossibility. See, we were on the wrong side of the lake, in Varenna on the east shore of Lake Como, with no public transportation at our disposal. We were situated only about a 10 minute ferry ride from Bellagio, and then about another 15 minutes via rented scooters from Madonna del Ghisallo, but we were stranded on the eastern shore for the day. The only day we could see the chapel. And I didn’t feel like ponying up about 100 Euro for a taxi ride. My primal need to soak up the divine ambience of pro cycling’s Mecca nearly inspired me to become a triathlete for the day. I was fully prepared to swim across Lake Como, run around Bellagio until I found a sweet bike at a café with its Italian owner lost in thought, espresso, and sun-tanning, and steal (really…it’s more like borrowing…I had every intention to return the ride to its rightful owner) that machine and ride like a mofo up to the chapel. “Ride it like you stole it” said Lance Armstrong. Yes, indeedy.

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