This year’s Giro celebrates the 150th anniversary of the unification of the country, marking the moment when a collection of kingdoms, fiefdoms and other lands on the peninsula were finally united into a single nation, in part by military force.
Italy might have obvious geography, being bordered by the Alps to the north and its long “boot” standing out from the Mediterranean sea. But the country is still very much a collection of regions. I’ll generalise but ask an Italian abroad where they’re from and they’ll often state the region; if two Italians meet outside their country they will quickly enquire which region they are from. To this day there’s plenty of local pride, indeed rivalry.
There’s also a more serious political and economic side to this. Italy has 20 regions. The southern half is known as the Mezzogiorno (“midday”, as in where the sun stands at noon) is significantly poorer than the northern half. Obviously some rural areas in the north are modest too but there is a split between the prosperity of the north and south; indeed many Italians have migrated north and in times past most of the emigration to America came from the southern regions. To this day a variety of statistics, whether economic or social, suggest life is better in the north. The south also suffers from the dead hand of organised crime although this reaches the north too. Some try to make political capital from this, the Lega Nord, or Northern League, is a political party dedicated to the recreation of Padania, a northern state that does not have to subsidise the south. You might have seen their white and green flags at bike races.
Variety + Tradition
The good news is that the regions are great for visitors. You get a variety of cuisine, some regions have particular types of pasta whilst other regions simply don’t do pasta. The Po valley for example is home to rice fields and risotto and the region around Rome is home to potato gnocchi. All carbohydrates, ideal for cyclists.
The history means that architecture varies and there are different dialects and many other differences, once again this might be one state but traditions and cultures remain unique to each region.
Hotbeds of cycling
There are three hotbeds for cycling. Lombardy, Veneto and Tuscany. The first two are a mix of industry and agriculture and Tuscany is a more rural region but its from these three regions that many of the champions come from, although not all. Fausto Coppi was from Piedmont. And cycling is popular everywhere, it’s just that this trio of regions tends to have more riders out racing or riding at the weekends than elsewhere.
The Apennine Mountains
If there are 20 different regions, Italy has one shared characteristic noticed by cyclists: hills and mountains. The Appennini go from the Alps right down to the tip, or toe, of Calabria effectively forming a spine that runs the length of the country.
Some regions are flat, there are great plains in the north. But you are never that far from a climb, especially as the north is home to the Alps, where from the border with France all the way to Slovenia you find some of the most fearsome ascents in Europe. The country is also home to two of Europe’s largest volcanoes, the active Etna in Sicily and the dormant Vesuvio near Naples, and the Apennines are also prone to seismic activity, otherwise known as earthquakes.
One nation, Italy is still a collection of regions. Three stand out for the sheer popularity of cycling but each area has some great food and some fantastic riding, not to mention some great races. If you are going to watch the Giro be sure to look up the region where the day’s stage passes through so you can note the landscape, the buildings and more. If you’re lucky enough to visit then be sure to enjoy the local food and try a climb or two on your bike.