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The spectacular serial nature of the Giro

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The spectacular serial nature of the Giro 01

According to Giovanni Arpino, the Giro d’Italia was a Western. “With its typical heroes, wheezing and moaning old men around, the drunk doctor, the femme fatale at the edge of the road”, according to the writer, the race could be compared to the epics by John Ford and Sergio Leone. The (agonizing) sprints, the (deadly) climbs, the (baking) heat, the snow and the loneliness were necessary frames in a spectacle capable of captivating spectators in a sequence of growing interest, just the same as a well scripted film. 

Arpino wrote about the Giro in the seventies, but many others before and after him questioned the reasons for the incredible popular success of an unusual sports format such as this stage race. The main reason is that the Giro d’Italia (like the Tour de France six years earlier, and almost thirty years later, the Vuelta a España) it was invented by the editors of a newspaper eager to advertise and sell more copies. In fact, modern cycling, unlike all other disciplines, was not inspired by the intuition of sportsmen but instead by the lively minds of European journalists in the early twentieth century who, as talented directors, intentionally conceived it as a chanson de gestes.

Compared to the primordial races, purely muscular exercises held in a single day, stage races introduced new and captivating narrative agents to cycling: tactics and cunning, versatility and long-distance. Without the commentators to educate and celebrate cycling at the same time, the big tours would never have come about. “The role of language is huge”, Roland Bathes wrote about the Tour de France. “Language gives the event, elusive since incessantly dissolved over a duration, the epic enhancement that helps solidify it”.   

It is not surprising that, in some historical moments more than others, the powerful images of stage races reported to emotionally and intellectually move the followers of small and large newspapers perfectly met the narrative needs of the countries that were crossed. For example, the Italian need to rebuild and reunify in the post-war period was convincingly fuelled by the stories of Coppi and Bartali in the Giro d’Italia. The golden age of the Italian bicycle created a unique connection between cycling and the peninsular, between the sport invented by journalists before athletes and the country imagined by academics before sovereigns. “In Italy, the bicycle is truly a part of national artistic heritage, just like the Mona Lisa, St. Peter’s Basilica or the Divine Comedy”, wrote Curzio Malaparte. “It is surprising it was not invented by Botticelli, Michelangelo or Raffaello”.

The spectacular serial nature of the Giro 02

Moreover, Italy, catholic by definition, provided fertile soil for a sequence of frames able to offer the Giro additional semantic transposition. It is hard not to see the parade of suffering cyclists riding along torturous provincial roads as a long and solemn procession, or compare the stages of the Tour to the Stations of the Cross. After visiting the Scrovegni Chapel just once, it is possible to say that the organizers of the Giro d’Italia were not the first to imagine the story of salvation as an alternation of great crowds and loneliness, with some scene of death and others of resurrection. The concept of reaching eternity after a long and tiring pilgrimage is embedded in Italian culture. The Giro thus spoke in extremely familiar terms.  

The spectacular serial nature of the Giro 03

At this point it remains to be understood how, despite rapid secularization and the end of the golden era of cycling (as of the 2017 World Tour season, there is not even one Italian team licensed with the International Cycling Union), the Giro d’Italia still has such a strong appeal. For this we have to go back to Arpino, and the race as a series of frames, with a slight update to the metaphor. More than a film, the Giro d’Italia is a TV series, and a successful one at that. The Giro has been a hit since long before Netflix appeared; three weeks of ascents across the boot have offered over a century of evolving characters that rival Breaking Bad, the same suspenseful atmosphere of Stranger Things and scenery that beats Game of Thrones any day. 

The success of long-form television that requires more of spectators’ time, several hours to investigate the characters, to develop the stories and to understand the overall picture by breaking it down, to some extent resembles the idea of the pioneers who organized the first big Tours. In this sense cycling, which has always involved waits and slow pacing, has remained so unchanged it can be defined anti-nostalgic. The Giro d’Italia is the open-air staging of scenery so classic it becomes relevant, making it the best series in program each spring, for the last hundred years. 

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