What’s next on the itinerary for cycling fans introduced to the sport through Lance Armstrong’s legendary run at the Tour de France? Easy: Giro d’Italia.
A light drizzle fell on Paris as I stood on the balcony of the presidential suite. The unexpected and somewhat dazzling upgrade had come courtesy of my late arrival at an overbooked hotel. Wanting to make the most of the experience, I stepped outside to sip my morning coffee in the soft summer rain. It was a Sunday, and the streets were almost empty. The Eiffel Tower jutted above the low mansard rooftops, bold and stark. Of such sublime moments is meditation born, and so a thought began running through my head again and again: What’s next?
For the three previous weeks, I’d followed each and every stage of the 2005 Tour de France. In the process, I had taken a literal tour of France, absorbing not only the drama and emotion of the bike race but also the history, food, cuisine, and immense natural beauty.
Some 15 million spectators had witnessed the Tour in person with me, and a whopping fourth of those were estimated to be American. They had come to spend their vacations in France, but they had also come to watch the final bike race of Lance Armstrong’s esteemed career.
Since 1999, when he began his streak of seven consecutive Tour victories, Americans began flocking to Europe in droves to watch him race. We had been a nation that knew little or nothing about cycling. His ascendancy led us to develop a profound appreciation for the sport’s nuances. Every day at the Tour, I’d watch Americans along the course cheer for Armstrong and the other top cyclists, calling to them by name.
But that rainy Sunday last July would mark the end of Armstrong’s career. It seemed impossible for me to believe that these cycling-mad Americans would simply abandon the sport once he was done. Their mania was too great. Their newfound appreciation for traveling off the beaten path in Europe seemed too heartfelt to be merely tossed aside.
So, as I stood on the balcony, the question of what would come next gnawed at me. What came next for America’s new legion of cycling fans? How would they manage the twin appetites for travel and competition that only the Tour can satisfy?
The answer, I decided, was still the Tour — but not the Tour de France. The race I had in mind was one that many cycling aficionados consider just as competitive and even somewhat more charming: the Tour of Italy.