Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Retrogrouch Reading: Giro d'Italia

The 2017 Giro d'Italia begins on May 5th and will be the 100th edition of Italy's famous grand tour. Just in time to mark that special milestone, Pursuit Books has just released Colin O'Brien's Giro d'Italia: The Story of the World's Most Beautiful Bike Race. O'Brien is an Irish writer, currently based in Italy and is a regular contributor to Rouleur magazine.

There are many books on the subject of the Giro, and I'm not sure how much there is to set O'Brien's book apart from the others that are out there, but I really enjoyed reading it. Though the title may imply that the book would be a near encyclopaedic account of the race's history, it actually is nothing of the sort. Rather, it mainly follows the history of the grand tour through some of its great heroes, its duels and rivalries, and occasionally through a look at some of its great mountain passes.

From a fairly detailed look at the race's somewhat humble beginnings, the book chronologically covers some of its first champions, like rivals Costante Girardengo and Alfredo Binda (the latter of whom was the first 5-time Giro champion, a seemingly unbeatable force from 1925 to 1933), later Coppi and Bartali, Merckx and Gimondi, and on to Saronni and Moser by the end of the 1970s. Some of the book's chapters look at the relationship between the race and the politics of the day - for example, the rise of Fascism in Mussolini's government, and its effect on the race and its athletes, including the famous Ottavio Bottecchia, whose death may have been politically motivated.

I think some of my favorite chapters of the book come in the latter half when the race takes on more of an international flavor - with the introduction of the American 7-Eleven team and others. These latter parts of the book feature extensive interviews with some of the Giro's living champions, like Andy Hampsten and Stephen Roche. I don't think it would be possible to read Hampsten's account of his 1988 Giro win without being convinced that he is one of the most humble, genuine people to come out of professional bike racing. Yes, the story of his unforgettable ride up the Gavia Pass in appalling conditions is one I've heard and read in many sources, but there's no doubt that it's a fantastic story and will long live as one of the great legends of the Giro.

One mild critique I have is towards the end of the book where one fairly brief chapter deals with the difficulties of believing in professional racing in today's world of doping scandals. I almost feel that O'Brien goes out of his way to sweep the doping issue away, and is almost too eager to point out that the old champions, like Coppi and Anquetil were doping too. And a modern-era racer like Marco Pantani is glorified despite the fact that his "beautiful" performances in the mountains were almost certainly fueled as much by EPO and steroids as by heart and soul. I still have a hard time with the beatification of Pantani. I pity him as perhaps a pawn in a game, used and used up by people with far more power, money, and influence, but undoubtedly another major reason why racing today has such a serious credibility problem that will kill the whole sport the same way it killed Pantani.

Despite that (again, minor) criticism, I do recommend O'Brien's book about "the world's most beautiful bike race." I think Retrogrouch readers would enjoy it, and I definitely would pick up a copy before the 100th race takes off from in Sardinia, on its 21-stage journey back to Milan.


  1. I hear you on the doping... I felt the same way for a very long time. You might want to read "Spitting in the Soup", if you haven't already. Very interesting... Also, two documentaries on Netflix; "Prescription Thugs" and "Bigger Stronger Faster". It may change how you think.

  2. I think you make a great point when you distinguish between beatifying Pantani and pitying him. He certainly deserves the latter: He either didn't realize the extent to which he was being used, or he "went along with the program", as it were, because he knew no other way to make it in the world of racing.

    I am interested in reading O'Brien's book, but not only for the part about doping.