Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Why Il Giro Is, And Always Will Be, Better Than Le Tour

After this years hotly contested Giro d'Italia, riders at tis years Tour de France will be hard pressed to give a more exciting, breathtaking, and down to the wire competition than the one that was on display through out Italy this year. The fight for this year's Maglia Rosa was one of Epic proportions, one that will be talked about throughout Europe for years to come as the main protagonists where laid to rest in a late and hard fought battle sieged by the Spanish prodigy and late entry Alberto Contador. While most Americans were completely unaware, the roads through out Italy were set ablaze, and the Italian favorites were badly burned...

And this is why the Giro is so much more exciting than the Tour. The Italians are fiercely proud of Il Giro, as well all of their cycling traditions for that matter. No other race in the world is as hotly contested by all of it's native riders as Il Giro.

Here are the reasons why the Giro is hands down better than the Tour, this year, years past, and all the years to come.

1. National Pride: No one, except maybe the Belgians, take cycling as seriously and personally as the Italians. Cycling is a matter of national identity. There is one Grand Tour in Italy, a number of 1 week tours, and spring and fall classics that take place through out the boot of Europe. With the exception of this year's Giro, the race has been won by an Italian every year since 1996, and Italians have won 65 out of the 81 years the race has been run since 1909. The Italians are undeniable in their domination of the Giro, and for good reason. The Tifosi, or Italian fans, have cycling in their blood. They live for bicycle racing, and the cyclists in Italy give their best for the Italian people. The Tour de France is very different. A Frenchman hasn't won the Tour since the Badger, Bernard Hinault. Hinault was a true champion in the European tradition, racing all year and winning everything he could. If a Frenchman doesn't win in 2008 it will be 23 years since one has worn Le Maillot Jaune in Paris. But the French riders don't really seem to care. Instead of fighting for the overall they bicker with each other. Instead of showing a united national front they ride for themselves trying to be the best Frenchman, instead of racing to stand atop the podium in Paris. Because of this, the tour has been won by every other nation in Europe, and much to the disdain of the French, by Americans... more than ten times. Although the tour gets the most international coverage, it simply lacks the national enthusiasm that the Giro has in spades.

2. Race Schedule: Il Giro happens earlier in the year than Le Tour, spanning most of the month of May, which is generally pleasant but cold and snowy in the mountains. This years Giro was punishing as it took riders through the high mountains late in the race. Andy Hampsten, the lone American to have won Il Giro in 1988, was the main animator over the Il Passo di Gavia during an all out white out snow storm. In pictures of Il Passo di Stelvio there is regularly 8+ feet of snow lining the mountain roads. Although the Tour is sometimes plagued with heat on Mont Ventoux, the weather is rarely as dastardly as Il Giro.

3. International Coverage: Or lack there of. The Giro remains behind the shroud of the Atlantic for Americans, with the exception of those willing to pay for's shit coverage, or those committed enough to wake up at 3 a.m. to watch streaming live coverage from Italian TV. Because of this much of Il Giro and it's traditions remain shrouded in secrecy. While many American cyclists don the Maillot Jaune, the emblematic symbol of leadership in Le Tour, rarely do you see any American's in the Maglia Rosa, despite it being a considerably more elegant garment. Now often people call me curmudgeon-y, and maybe that's why I love Il Giro so much... because so many others miss out on it completely.

4. Terrain: Le Tour is tough. I'm not going to say it isn't. Le Alpe de Huez and Mount Ventoux are emblematic climbs that have defined Le Tour for years and years. Mount Ventoux even has the dubious distinction of having killed a man... or maybe it was the drugs, either way, Tom Simpson, World Champion and Hero of British Cycling died on Ventoux. Regardless of all this, the Italian Dolomites are unrelenting. Climbs like Il Passo Gavia y Stelvio are climbs that not only strike fear in cyclists because of their impending gradiants and level of difficulty but also because of the cold that chills to the bone at the summit. Routes are regularly raced on dirt roads, and many climbs pitch up to as much as 25%.

5. 2008: This year will be a lynch pin for the sport, whether change is good or bad. In a poorly thought out attempt to re-estabish Le Tour as the grandest of the grand tours, ASO has decided to strike out from the UCI and deny the worlds greatest stage race team, as well as the home of last years Tour winner, Astana. I personally am contemplating not watching Le Tour at all, as the winner of this years Tour will only be a paper champion, having not beaten last years winner. Unlike what will become of this years Tour, this years Giro was a battle. It pitted last years Giro Champ against last years Tour champion. The gap from 1st to 2nd going into the final stage was 4 seconds. A gap like that hasn't been seen since Greg Lemond beat Laurent Fignon in 1989. Contador came off of Vacation to race Il Giro, and still handed the competition it's proverbial ass. It was an absolutely incredible race marked with incredible attacks, and nail bitingly close gaps between the leaders. I can't imagine the Tour coming close at all to the excitement level of this years Giro.

For the past 4 years I've watched both Il Giro d'Italia and Le Tour de France, and since 2005, when Il Falco won the Giro with style and Panache while Lance utilized science and the best team in the pro peloton to win the tour I've thought the Giro has been the better race. Italians ride Il Giro with Style and Grace, they stamp their authority on it, and when an outsider like Contador wins, they demand a win with typical Italian flair. Maybe the Tour, the ASO, and French Cycling could take something away from that.

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