Today sees the return of Milano-Torino, the one day Italian race. The term “classic” gets abused these days, races with no history appropriate the label, for example the World Ports Classic whose inaugural edition took place a few weeks ago. But Milano-Torino was first run in 1876, making it the oldest race on the Italian calendar and one of the oldest races in the world.
Today’s race, tomorrow’s Gran Piemonte and Saturday’s Il Lombardia all have deep roots in the past but they are also a guide to the future.
Milano-Torino was created at the dawn of cyclesport. The first official races ever were in held Paris and then spread, with the creation of Paris-Rouen marking the first long distance race. Historian Fernand Braudel wrote of the “tyranny of distance” because if a 200km journey today is no problem whether by car, train or even bicycle, in 1876 it complicated even if the railways were spreading across Europe and the Milan to Turin line had opened in 1856. The genius of a bike race was that it told the public people could cover huge distance by bike and if the manufacturer’s product could survive a pounding for hours then your average worker could get to the field or factory with ease. Milan and Turin in particular are two of Italy’s most industrial cities with large populations so the race attracted plenty of interest. The first winner was engineering student Paolo Magretti who covered the 150km route in 13.3km/h.
The Turin skyline is dominated by the Alps on the horizon but the nearby Superga was often the decisive point of the race. It’s a prominent hill outside Turin that is dominated the basilica on top and known to football fans because of plane crash in 1949 when the entire AC Torino team died after their plane crashed into the hill on approach to Turin during a storm. The race dropped off the calendar but has returned, a remarkable event as once a race has stopped it loses a lot of organisation momentum.
“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”
– Tancredi. Il Gattopardo, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
The 2012 edition is different. No longer can 150km seem impressive, no more will giant crowds gather in Turin to applaud the arrival of the race. Things have had to change to keep a 136 year old race going. Today TV rules, the big change is the finish. Pro cycling’s economics depend on TV with team sponsors paying for the airtime and audiences attracted to action instead of procession. In order to make the race more attractive the race will now finish atop the Superga, a 5km climb that averages 9%. Gone is the chance of a bunch sprint, this should offer a fine TV spectacle as riders launch attacks on the final slopes.
Giro del Piemonte
Tomorrow has another race, this time a one day race across the Piedmont region, the Gran Piemonte, formely known as the Giro del Piemonte. The home of the legendary Fausto Coppi and a fine region for cycling, it also a gastronomic area famous for its food and wine. The race comes at time when all the grapes have been picked and sit macerating in tanks ready. Just like the vines have done their job for the year, the same is true for the riders as there’s almost no point training any more.
Here’s a video of Gilbert winning in 2010, stomping on his rivals like they are grapes. Fastforward to 12m45s for the final kilometre to watch as he goes clear. It’s a good clip as you can see his attack style up close. Note how he looks around both ways before moving, the move is telegraphed in advance but nobody can follow. He is out of the saddle and stands relatively upright but looks solid. Impressively once he takes ten metres nobody can pull him back and he just keeps churning out the power.
Formerly known as the Giro di Lombardia, race owners RCS have re-branded it as Il Lombardia. This way the Giro is… the Giro, as in the three week grand tour. It’s another historic race that used to be called the race of the falling leaves but it’s been moved on the calendar this year to bring it ahead of the Tour of Beijing meaning few leaves are falling. But it is still a visually stunning race.
This year the race starts with a retro throwback as it starts in Bergamo with a tribute to the elegant Felice Gimondi. But the race is also seeing the reintroduction of the Muro di Sormano. First used in 1960, it didn’t stay long in the race. With an average gradient of 15% and sections reaching 27% it was painful to watch… but dropped from the race because the descent was too dangerous. Even today braking in wet conditions with leaves on the road on a 20% slope is a lottery.
The reintroduction of this climb is meant to revive images of riders hunched over their bikes, some forced to stop by the slope. But the climb is no longer a problem, in times past some were walking up but today’s riders have compact chainsets and wide range cassettes meaning gearing is suitable for anything. Still it will again make for good TV.
Interestingly the road has become a piece of architecture, culture and design. Some roads around Europe retain their graffiti of old bike races, riders names etched on to the roads, in places you can even spot a few faded Il Pirata tags for the late Marco Pantani. But the Sormano is different. A firm called IF Consultants were hired to transform the road from a mere strip of tarmac into a museum of the sport, a storybook and an interactive experience. The road has been painted with words, facts, quotes and more. It’s an interesting project.
Similarly the next climb in the race is the Ghisallo. With a chapel at the top dedicated to cycling it vibes spiritualism and cycling, blending catholic iconography with trade team branding in a very Italian way. The climb is hard and the views at the top are great but it is not the best ascension in the region as it picks its way past houses, goes flat in the middle and then winds up again. Yet it remains a “must ride” piece of road for cycling fans. If the chapel has made it famous the Ghisallo site has itself become contemporary with a good cycling museum opposite the chapel.
Riding a bike from Milan to Turin is no longer enough to impress and watching two hours of TV that ends in a bunch sprint isn’t a winning format either, even if the winner is a champion. So things must change. Sometimes the sport can dine out on tradition and heritage but in fact its essence is always being updated, it’s just the exploits of the past only add to the story today. The sport is driven by commercial forces and takes place in an open environment rather than a closed stadium.
Here we have three races from the past but a common theme of branding and design for the modern era, exploiting the past but adapting to the present day. Milano-Torino gets the TV-friendly summit finish, even if coverage today looks scarce for those outside Italy. Il Lombardia has re-branded but still trades on its heritage and this year’s edition will even exploit the scary Sormano with its artwork even if modern components render the slope less scary.
As we look ahead these races can remain on the calendar if they continue to adapt, to ask who the audience is and what they want to see.