There’s something wrong with a foreign start of a grand tour. The Giro starting in the Netherlands is the equivalent of ordering a pizza with toppings of herring and gouda. Yet each time these foreign starts happen they’re a success enjoyed by thousands.
Amsterdam was the first foreign grand depart when in 1954 the Tour de France started in the Netherlands. It was sold as a European departure although the Italian team was blocked from starting. Since then there have been all sorts of foreign starts for the Tour and Giro. The Italian race had timid starts with it’s first foreign start in San Marino, the microstate inside Italy in 1965 and then Monaco the following year. It took until 1997 for the Vuelta to join in with a start in Lisbon and in 2009 the Vuelta began in Assen in the Netherlands. The Giro’s really got into a groove: Amsterdam in 2010, Herning in 2012, Belfast in 2014 and now Apeldoorn in 2016. You can spot the pattern of alternate years starting abroad. Next year’s start is tipped to be Sardinia with 2018 mooted to be in… Japan, more of which in a moment.
The start of the Giro seems odd and out of place. Here’s a Mediterranean, Latin race taking part in a northern, Hanseatic landscape. It’s like expecting herring and Gouda on top of your pizza. Not that the Giro should be the sole property of Italy, the race could visit Austria, Slovenia or Croatia instead as the first two share borders and the other is just across the Adriatic Sea. These closer choices would be an easy logistical exercise and exploit age-old cultural links.
We could view this Dutch departure as part of a sweeping narrative of developing the sport around the world, a tale of internationalism. Perhaps you imagine the children who will see the race flash by and find inspiration and take up the sport. There probably are kids who want to be Tom Dumoulin now. But the reality is less poetic: it’s business. Nobody took the Giro to Italy to promote pro cycling, instead the race is biddable, a travelling circus for hire. There’s bread and circus for the locals in Gelderland, a media spotlight on the region and photo opportunities galore for local politicians.
The sad point among the pink festival this weekend is that it takes an Italian race to bring three days of World Tour racing to the Netherlands. There’s the Amstel Gold Race for a day, there are three stage finishes of the Eneco Tour and that’s it. Even if you add the other race days this big cycling country doesn’t have many race days as the chart shows. The country has passionate cycling fans and surely deserves more although where and when is the hard part.
It’s reported that two million people watched the Tour of Yorkshire the previous weekend. This has to be better, a race that’s becoming a fixture and celebrated by locals. So instead of buying in a big race ideally the Netherlands could have its own race. But would it feel the same? A three day Tour of Gelderland with a time trial and two probable sprints wouldn’t draw the crowds in the same way, it’s unlikely that the king would show up for the podium ceremony. Buying the Giro is also buying into its branding and the ability to draw in the crowds.
If the Netherlands is far from Italy then what about Japan? 8,500km when measured by distance but a logistical leap beyond anything we’ve seen before. A grande partenza would take business to whole new level given RCS would only take the race there for a substantial premium. There’s already a business connection with Honda having replaced Fiat as the official vehicle partner. The race has looked at a start in Washington before but the mayor changed and the plans were dropped. Japanese fans make the tifosi look slack, just see the crowds that turn up for the Japan Cup and the Saitama criterium. There’s even a popular manga about cycling called Yowamushi Pedal.
But like Yorkshire the Japanese fans probably deserve their own race on the calendar, perhaps even as much as the Dutch… but until that day arrives RCS Sport can supply a slice of Italian culture. How it would work remains to be seen, presumably there would be no prologue in order to avoid flying out 200 time trial bikes for ten minutes but there would have to be an armada of ammiraglie, team cars waiting for all, presumably supplied by Honda. Above all there’s the jet leg for the peloton, if the Dutch start required a Friday to get get going then a Japanese jaunt means a three week grand tour could conceivably take place over four weeks. Then there is the time lag, would the race happen in the morning in Japan in order to suit the Italian TV schedule where the vast majority of the race’s audience resides?
The Giro’s frequent foreign forays seem wrong on paper, a trip too far but each time they’ve been a success, at least going by the crowds and the media impact. Frosty prejudice against these foreign starts melts when you see the enthusiasm. It’s the same for the Tour de France which is a huge deal when it starts in Yorkshire or Utrecht but less so when there’s a start in, say, the sleepy Vendée region.
The start might be all about business and a chance for race owners to shakedown municipalities but the Giro never loses sight of the race’s Italian identity. This is part of the attraction, the Giro’s visit this weekend brings out the crowds in a way that no inaugural Ronde Van Gelderland could hope to achieve. The secret of a good start seems to be brevity, an opening stage or two and basta the race is back on home soil.