The Giro’s recent route announcement confirmed the race is returning to Rome, a publicity coup for the mayor Virginia Raggi (pictured). It’s often seemed odd having a national tour that doesn’t visit the nation’s capital, more so given Rome cityscape can provide stunning images. But the ensuing story of the route wasn’t about Rome. As well as the route being presented – more of which soon – one snafu was the use of race graphics mentioning “West Jerusalem” as the start location only for the Israeli government to threaten to pull the funding if this wasn’t promptly changed to “Jerusalem”. And lo it was.
This small spat highlights the ongoing sensitivity over the territorial disputes between Israelis and Palestinians. There are plenty of other places to discuss this and the point is that the Giro’s start is so controversial this blanked out thoughts of the racing on the opening days with more focus on the labels and their political sensitivity than the actual roads.
Ask yourself: do you know what the terrain is like? How are the roads? Will there be crosswinds? Instead so far all we’ve got is cross words over the Israeli–Palestinian. See the way RCS had to change their graphics became a story or listen to The Cycling Podcast’s coverage which featured an Israeli perspective and a Palestinian perspective too. The point here is that politics trumps sport, the story is not the course but the money paid, the rationale for the start and the controversial issues.
Cycle races have long been exercises in territorial dominance. Early editions of the Tour de France were deliberate attempts by the race director Henri Desgrange to define and even defy the Franco-German border. The Ballon d’Alsace mountain was included in 1905, not just for the climbing challenge but because it marked the border with the German empire, the provocative frontier between psychogeography and nationalism. He then challenged the Germans and in 1906, 1907, 1908 and 1910 he sent the Tour into the “occupied” Moselle region. With tensions rising Berlin refused the race entry in Germany for 1911 and Desgrange routed the race right along the Lorraine border. The 1919 Tour de France was launched on the day the Versailles Treaty was signed where France reclaimed land from Germany and the race route included new stage towns like Strasbourg and Metz, back on French soil.
The Giro d’Italia’s own website tells how “the first act of the  Giro was to go to Trieste and Trento, which had been won back from the Austrians. In these two cities, where it was given a triumphant welcome, Costante Giradengo raced by wearing the Champion of Italy jersey with the colours of the Italian flag, bearing the message of reconquered Italy.”
Now just because bike races were instrumentalized for a political, publicity or territorial agenda a century ago doesn’t make it right today but it does show the sport has long been at it. It continues today, whether on a subtle level like the Giro d’Italia threading all of Italy’s regions together – its race manual is called the Garibaldi after the general who unified Italy – or more explicit terms like the Giro’s 2014 start in Belfast where riders pedalled part giant murals depicting balaclava-clad men clutching Kalashnikovs only to show a softer side when the city turned pink.
Perhaps next year’s new Oro y Paz stage race in Colombia will help dispel a few stereotypes too? It doesn’t always work, for example the now defunct Tour of Beijing may have highlighted the significant air pollution concerns rather than the grandeur of the Chinese capital. Now it feels like the Giro is taking this to the next level, partly because of the controversy, partly because of the audience.
Us cycling fans are only a small part of this. While the politics have crowded out discussion about the route – does the wind get up in the afternoon to make Stage 2 potentially risky? – neither these questions about the route and who it might suit nor those debating the politics of the region probably matter to RCS and Israel. Instead what surely counts is a mention on the evening TV news bulletin in Italy and possibly beyond with images of the peloton pedalling and a rider doing a victory salute: exactly what it does in Italy and by implication to show images that are not of intifada, incoming rockets and other scenes that we often associate when Israel is in the news. Only all this makes the race becomes an obvious vehicle for protests or worse where any disturbance could prove more newsworthy than the race itself making this a high stakes start. Already there’s talk of a Plan B for the Giro and this alone is going to be problematic, like saying to holiday makers considering a visit to Israel that they’re most welcome but it’d be prudent to reserve flights and accommodation elsewhere just in case.
Confused? Happy? Angry? Whatever you think of the decision to award the Giro’s “big start” to Israel in return for premium payment it’s not for sporting reasons and so far the announcement has attracted commentary rather than interest. Those following sport or politics may have views on the decision but few in Italy and beyond will have noticed where the race is going at the moment, let alone think about consequences. Instead the real point is reaching the mass market and beaming back familiar imagery of a bike race as a means to promote the country. Cycling has long been used for this but the Giro’s venture feels like a step beyond anything seen in recent times.