Italian Cycling, Part II – regions

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.

il Mezzogiorno

Wealth gap
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.

Apennines map

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.

Italian Cycling Part I – The Ape
Italian Cycling Part II- Regions

4 thoughts on “Italian Cycling, Part II – regions”

  1. Nice bit! I wouldn’t say regions in Italy, “simply don’t do pasta” as Piedmont, famous for risotto also has tajarin, some of the best fresh-egg noodles you’ll ever eat, especially if you go in the fall and enjoy them with white truffles shaved over the top. We have a video clip on our blog of this being done (black summer truffles, alas) over risotto at our Piedmont HQ. Down in Rome, spaghetti all’amatriciana is a staple dish – one you see more than gnocchi, potato or otherwise. One of the best things food-wise about Italy is going just a couple hundred kms in most any direction exposes one to different recipes and foods. Piadina, from the land of Marco Pantani, doesn’t stray too far from Emilia-Romagna (unless you count the awful packaged crap found in the supermarkets) while farinata (the famous chickpea delicacy) doesn’t reach too far from Liguria. And of course REAL pizza doesn’t range too far from Napoli, though most any pizza in Italy is better than a pizza found anywhere else! As to burning those calories, you’re correct about the current cycling hotbeds, though as you noted it’s not always been the case, as Piedmont’s been the region of more than a few good riders while both Giovanni Visconti and Vincenzo Nibali hail from Sicily — though they had to move up to Tuscany to get into the quality competition and training of that cycling hotbed. Lombardia and secondarily the Veneto have the cycling business centers, though a lot of Lombardy is simply too crowded these days for enjoyable cycling, as noted by Marco Pinotti of Bergamo recently. Great places to ride your bike, besides the usual places like the Dolomites, include Umbria and Le Marche which you see on TV coverage of Tirreno-Adriatico and Piedmont, where you have options of the hills of the wine region to the Alps on the border with France. The south has its charms as well, Campania is one of the least densely populated regions of Italy (since everyone’s in Napoli) and the coastline south of crowded Amalfi is sublime. Same with Sardegna, where there are more sheep than people. We’re waiting for Basilicata and Calabria to spend some money on better roads and tourist infrastructure, but the food and hospitality down there are simply amazing. Sicily’s on the rise as well. Overall, we believe there’s simply no better place on earth to be a cyclist or cycling enthusiast than la bella ITALIA. But you already knew that.

  2. “…both Giovanni Visconti and Vincenzo Nibali hail from Sicily — though they had to move up to Tuscany…”

    It was from this where learnt my favourite Italian word – The adverb for cycling “ciclisticamente” (translation – cyclingly) from the (now, sadly moved upstairs to the offices of RAI) Auro Bulbarelli.

    In his distinctive voice – “Visconti della formazione ISD Neri, nato in Sicilia…ma, ciclisticamente Tonscano.” (and then Cassani cuts in with an alarming cry of “Attenzione!…ATTENZIONE!!!” following a minor acceleration)

    Sorry….just thought I would share that with you as I can’t hear Visconti’s name without thinking that Ciclisticamente he is Tuscan.

  3. Nibali tells this month’s Vélo Magazine he left Sicily with his suitcase “almost tied together with string”, jokingly referring to the image of Sicilians heading north with old suitcases to seek work.

  4. We liked Bulbarelli too, but Pancani does a good job with Cassani on RAI TV these days. Who will be emceeing “Processo alla Tappa” this year? Alessandra DiStefano took awhile to get a handle on things last year but overall did an OK job, though for us she was missed in the interview front — her multi-language skills are amazing and she could get something interesting (and translate it) out of most anybody at the end of a stage. Up on the stage I think some of her talent is wasted, though I’m sure running Processo is a much higher level job–and for a woman working for RAI that’s gotta be a big deal! I still miss the immortal words of Adriano DeZan, who began his broadcasts with “Amici sportivi, buon pomeriggio!” (Sporting friends, good afternoon!) Less than a week to go!

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