How the hell … are Italian races better than all the others?

As the cycling world prepares to turn pink for the Giro, Euan feels the amore for Italy and asks: How the hell are Italian races better than all the others?

On Tuesday 8th May, the Giro d’Italia returns to the Italian roads where it belongs. In fact, so much of the season’s best races take place on those Italian strade. Races in Italy have an elan that we don’t see anywhere else. So how the hell are Italian races better than all the rest?

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First of all, they are beautiful to look at. Think of the medieval finish of Strade Bianche, the coastal elegance of Milan-Sanremo or the fading light around Lake Como for il Lombardia. An Italian one-day race wouldn’t be seen dead finishing in the ultra-industrial suburb of Liège! Not for the Italians the brutal utilitarian cobbles of races further north. 

I challenge you to watch any Italian classic and not think: “I’d love to go there sometime, even when there’s no bike racing on.”

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Italian one-day races also have distinct character. Milan-Sanremo is always simplicity itself. There are just the two climbs to think about: the Cipressa and the Poggio. This makes a Belgian classic feel like an over-complicated combination of a geography and maths exam. Is this the Koppenberg or the Taaienberg or even the Paterberg? And is this the second or third time we’ve done this loop? [Sometimes you really are a Philistine, Euan … ed]

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Il Lombardia makes a case for being the most atmospheric of the Monuments. Its place in the season makes it the last chance saloon. Autumnal decay hangs in the air. There’s a brief bright spot as the winner crosses the line – often illuminated by headlights from the flotilla of following traffic. And as soon as the podium is decided, that’s the cycling season over. 

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How about stage races? Tirreno-Adriatico clashes with Paris-Nice. Why race to the sun when you can ride across Italy bathed in the stuff? And that trident trophy? The best trophy of any sport anywhere.

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The Giro Rosa is probably the most prestigious women’s stage race, won by many of the greats of the sport and a proper stage race. It’s nothing to do with the men’s Giro but the Giro Rosa makes La Course and the Madrid Challenge look tokenistic by comparison.

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Then there is the Giro itself. It can take you from the baking heat in the south to the tunnels of snow in the north. It’s a true test of a rider – it’s not the pressure pot of the Tour de France nor does it follow the predictable steep-ramp pattern of the Vuelta. It’s far more comfortable in its own skin – and it isn’t too shy not to celebrate its own beauty.

The maglia rosa, the maglia ciclamino, the maglia azzurra – jerseys that are as bold and elegant as the race itself. No gaudy polka dots for the Italians. They wouldn’t dream of being like the French and Spanish races which positively encourage crimes against fashion and bike customisation. 

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So how the hell are Italian races better than all the rest? It’s equal parts style, confidence and atmosphere. Verdi said: “You may have the universe if I may have Italy” and that’s how I feel. Force me only to watch races from one country for a year and you can have the rest – I’d choose Italy every time.

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