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The Long March

The Giro d’Italia – the race itself – is just the beginning. Herbie Sykes examines the afterlives of its constituents…

There’s a thing about the guys who ride the Giro. They are young, half-formed, and for three weeks the better ones amongst them are pretty much self-obsessed. That’s the paradox of it, because they’re not yet ready to know themselves. They don’t yet know themselves, and they certainly don’t know what lays in wait.

Broadly speaking, a handful of them set out each year with aspirations of winning the thing. One of them accomplishes it and the rest, by definition, do not. Regardless, when it’s done they all pack up and, ostensibly at least, move on to the next race. On the surface there’s nothing so very complicated about any of this, but the reality is that the Giro is far from done with them. If they’re any good those three weeks are going to come back to them, and eventually they’re going to attach themselves to them.

The other thing about the Giro is that you’re not going to fully understand it by watching it and nor, if I’m honest, by reading about it. You’re going to enjoy it, and probably to appreciate it. However appreciation and understanding are two very different things, so the best thing to do is to try to spend some time with its protagonists. You’re as well to do that when their careers have ended because, as we’ve already established, the race itself is but an antipasto.

Familiarize yourself with ‘Tista Baronchelli or Italo Zilioli. They’re two of the nicest, most decent human beings you’re ever going to meet, and it’s no coincidence that they’re also the best riders never to have won the Giro. Between them they came up short 27 times, but to know them is to be acquainted with its intimate truths.

The Giro isn’t about the here and now, and it’s certainly not about all the stuff that we journalists bolt onto it after the fact. What it is about, unequivocally and absolutely, is consequence. What I mean by that is that it matters not one iota how many other non-Giro races ‘Tista and Italo won. People don’t care that Zilioli wore yellow and ‘Tista won Lombardy. Nobody’s interested in their home lives, the stuff they did after their racing careers and nor, in truth, even their happiness. The only thing that matters is what they did (or didn’t do) at the Giro d’Italia, because being within touching distance of them was an unforgettable experience.

The Giro always constitutes a happening, and all of its memories are good ones. That’s why, everywhere that Zilioli and Baronchelli go, they’re reminded of a bike race they failed to win in their twenties. They will be until their dying breath and so, I suspect, will Fabio Aru. He’s won the National Championship and the Vuelta, but the Giro is the Giro and the Vuelta is not. Aru is Italian and so, whether he likes it or (more likely) not, everything he does for the next 50 years is going to be informed by and measured against those three weeks in 2014

Baronchelli and Zilioli struggled with that for decades. Italo, dubbed “The New Fausto Coppi” when he burst onto the scene in 1963, finished second three times in succession without so much as a day in the maglia rosa. He was a magnificent bike rider, and he’s a generous, expansive guy. When I first met him, though, he hated talking about cycling. He readily admits that only in his seventies did he begin to unburden himself of it all, that it took 40 years to exorcize his Giro demons.

Baronchelli won nearly 100 races, and many of them were very important. Still, however, he could find no peace, and it took an epiphany for him to untangle it all. After decades spent chuntering in his bike shop, ‘Tista found God a few years ago. He lifted his head up, started saying yes, and finally embraced the notion that the taking part had been more important than the not winning. He learned to enjoy the company of those who’d suffered with him, and discovered that the Giro was his friend after all.

Winning the thing doesn’t necessarily indemnifies them – just ask Ivan Gotti. Ask Fausto Bertoglio because, notwithstanding the fact that he won a great Giro, he’s always felt short-changed by it. His was the first post-Merckx maglia rosa, and as such it’s been somewhat ill-treated by history. Poor Bertoglio is a simple, shy man. He never really figured out how to be a Giro winner, and in the end he gave up trying. He won it, but it’s difficult to conclude that he hasn’t been damaged by it.

Franco Balmamion was the last Italian to win successive editions, in 1962 and ’63. He’s also one of only 20 living Italian winners, and I wrote a book about that ’62 race. Franco’s not as a famous as some of the others, probably because he won two Giri without winning a stage. As a rider he tried not to involve himself too much with the media circus. He failed to see the value in talking about himself, and it suited him that others enjoyed the spotlight. By nature he’s an extremely modest person, but his daily life is indicative all the same…

Balmamion’s a bit like Nibali, which is to say he’s predisposed to give. He knows that the Giro made him, and understands the unwritten contract that being a two-time maglia rosa implies. Almost sixty years on the demands on his time still come thick and fast, and he seldom says no. He doesn’t always want to go, but he does as many as his 80-year-old body will allow and never asks for anything in return. He, too, had to learn to be a Giro winner, and to understand that those three weeks were infinitely more important than he’d first imagined.

The point of all this – finally – is that wherever they go and whatever they say, it’s never not a celebration. The Giro has always been free, and magical, and that’s why millions line up on the roadside to catch a glimpse of it. Still more watch, read and talk about it, and a lot of them can’t help but fall in love with it. So when Balmamion appears, or Zilioli, or Baronchelli, the older generation are reminded of their youth. The younger one gets to imagine a different cycling and a different, rosa-tinted Italy, and everyone feels a profound sense of fellowship.

I don’t know so much about the Tour, because I don’t live among its constituents. I do know, though, that long after the race has finished and the media circus has gone home, the Giro resides in the hearts, minds and dreams of ordinary people. I also know (because I see it all the time) that guys like Balmamion, Zilioli and Baronchelli belong to it. It’s much, much bigger than them, so the best thing they can do is to embrace it, enjoy it and share it out.

It’s easy to be cynical about the governance of cycling, and easy to decry some of the choices the race organizers make. It’s easy to lose sight of the immense beauty which is the Giro’s beating heart, but it’s not easy to contemplate the month of May without it. It’s true that the virus has “put a lot of things into perspective”, and one of those things is just how important those three weeks are.

Mercifully it’s only an arrivederci.

Viva il Giro…

Balmamion

Renowned cycling historian Herbie Sykes plots the history of the race’s least likely winner. Drawing on his immense knowledge of Italian cycling and personal encounters with a man he now calls a friend, Sykes introduces us to Franco Balmamion and retells the tale of his forgotten Giro win in 1962.

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Stay tuned for more Giro ‘62 stories as we bring you the race’s defining moments.

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