We did the Première Manche - the first round - of A Travers riding across France from Dieppe to Marseille in the summer of 2009, and it was the original inspiration for this blog. The plan to put the 'band back together again' for another go in 2013 for the second installment fell on stoney ground, with life just getting in the way for too many of us, much to our disappointment. However, our enthusiasm for the bike remains undimmed, and so I'll keep posting my thoughts on the diverse and beautiful facets of the sport regardless. But there's bound to be another big 'adventure ride' coming soon - quite possibly in Italy - so potentially a name change too: Attraverso l'Italia in Bicicletta anyone?

Monday, 11 November 2013

Passion: The Life Blood of Cycling

Remember those crazy South American football commentator ‘gooooool’ celebrations? These seem to get repeated on TV quite often in this country come World Cup time, and whilst I’m sure the editorial intent is for us to be amused at how another nation responds to sporting success, I always thought there was a subtly implied sense of superiority from, say, the BBC, our commentators patronisingly looking on at their hot-blooded counterparts’ exuberance as somehow amateurish, compared with our stiff-upper lip, controlled, British kind of way.

The reason I love the Giro d’Italia is that the race organisers have had a habit lately of giving commentary teams ample opportunity to really stretch their vocal chords in a way that would make those Brazilian fútbol crazies sit up and take note, and they oblige with gusto.  I watched stage 15 of the 2012 Giro first on Eurosport where the venerable David Harmon was screaming himself hoarse at the finish, and then found it again on YouTube where I watched – and listened to – the Italian TV coverage. Forget that this was a stage win by an Italian, in a race where the home nation seems to be having less and less success of late, this really was a stage that restored my faith in cycle racing: one of the best stages I’ve ever seen in a grand Tour, and the two commentators only added to the euphoria by completely letting their emotion getting the better of them. A strange phrase that, since surely losing a little bit of self control is what watching sport is supposed to do to people. No matter if you don’t understand Italian – passion sounds the same in any language.

It could be argued that it’s the riders that make the race rather than the percorso, but in recent years the Giro has consistently outshone its transalpine rival for enthralling racing. Whether the Tour is too big, there’s too much at stake, and that the emphasis on the tactics of control and defence – rather than attack – is a result of the French race’s predominance could generate a mini-novel of blogposts on its own. Is the traditional demanding final week in the Dolomites at the Giro really an incentive to dope? It’s a criticism that I’ve seen leveled at it, and ostensibly the reason why races like the Tour have reduced the number of kilometres and mountain-top finishes. But despite our Bradley’s outstanding win at this year’s Tour, for long stretches, and in the mountains where the race is supposed to come alive, what we somewhat reluctantly witnessed was Team Sky’s total dominance and control of the racing. Apart from Cadel cracking, it was like watching a wattage-controlled high-intensity Sky altitude training camp, day after day. Was the route not hard enough? Would it have made a difference anyway?  Undoubtedly if the route had been more challenging, Sky would have changed tactics and the result may wall have been the same. Whatever the  reason, I’d argue that the Giro better expresses what I consider to be ‘proper’ bike racing, where there’s something, an indefinable quality, that encourages riders to throw caution to the wind and try and make a race of it. Something in the water? There is a recipe on the peninsula for something called ‘Acqua Pazza‘ - 'Mad Water' after all…

Regardless of my opinions on the reasons, Stage 15 was undeniably an epic; I challenge anyone not to be moved by the action in the clip below, stunning racing augmented by two Italian commentators who ably add their quintessential latin passion to the race finale. Matteo Rabottini, a young pro with the Farnese Vini-Sella Italia team and son of former pro Luciano, thrilled the partisan crowd by holding off a storming Joaquim Rodríguez of Katusha in a pulsating finish. It was a performance of daring and bravery from the 24-year-old, who led the stage from almost start to finish, picked himself up off the tarmac after a fall in the wet at the foot of the final climb, and still had enough grinta to repel the challenge of the rampaging Rodríguez at the summit at Piani dei Resinelli. The Spaniard appeared to have timed his final effort to perfection to win the stage – as well as take the maglia rosa – by catching Rabottini with just 400 metres to go, but the proud Italian refused to let go of Purito’s wheel as he tried to accelerate past him, and then surprised him with a last-ditch winning effort to the line. And this after a gruelling 169km stage, alone for the most part through rain and mist over four categorised climbs – an exploit that is becoming a rarity in these days of almost palpable commercial pressure not to lose, rather than win. To an extent I think the outburst of emotion from both the British and Italian commentary teams is as much one of relief as anything else, relief that a race like this can still happen and a welcome indication that even ‘modern’ cycling still has this wonderful potential to help us lose ourselves completely in the pure excitement of the sporting spectacle.