THE ITALIANS CALL THEIR RACE the Giro d’Italia, or the Feast of Italy. Held for three weeks each May, the Giro (www.giroditalia.it) attracts the same elite cycling teams as the Tour de France. Defending Giro champion Paolo Salvodelli rides for Discovery Team, Armstrong’s former squad, and they’ll be there in force. Top American rider Floyd Landis will also be on the line on May 6, when the Giro starts. So will American Tom Danielson (also of Discovery Team), who won the Tour of Georgia last April.

The Giro course changes every year, crossing the many different terrains of the Italian boot. This year’s edition (the 89th) will focus on the northern half of the nation. The riders will pedal through the sun-drenched fields of Tuscany and along the Mediterranean and Adriatic coasts, and they’ll spend the entire last week of the contest battling the steep Dolomite peaks of the Italian Alps. And that’s just a sampling.

So that’s where I’ll be come May. I love Italy. How could I resist a whirlwind tour of its regions, following back roads instead of superhighways, venturing into villages not found in any guidebook, eating in local restaurants that wouldn’t know the meaning of corporate food chain, and immersing myself totally in Italy’s race and people?

On the surface, such a journey can be daunting. Here’s a short guide to what to see and do at the Giro.

GETTING THERE
May is the perfect time to visit Italy, particularly in 2006. Italy has always been a popular travel destination, as anyone who has battled the summer crowds in Rome and Tuscany will attest. This should hold especially true this year, thanks to February’s Winter Olympic Games in Turin (just a stone’s throw from some sections of the 2006 Giro course). The nonstop television coverage was a veritable postcard for the nation, and for Northern Italy in particular, showcasing its culture, cuisine, and stunning natural beauty. Come summer, all that attention is expected to pay off in record tourist crowds. Beat the rush: May is an off-peak time for travel. Fans attending the Giro will be treated to smaller crowds, providing ease in driving the course and arranging accommodations each day, as well as more immediate access to the riders before and after a stage.

GETTING AROUND
As a rule, the train is the best way to see Europe. But that rule doesn’t apply to following a bike race. For that, nothing beats a car. This makes it possible to park alongside the mountain roads or to head off on a charming detour, should the mood arise.

Another option is a camper. Yes, a camper.­ Renting a small camper is common for visitors to the Giro. This makes for a self-­contained travel unit. It’s not uncommon to see campers outfitted with satellite dishes and small barbecues, allowing for a fine tailgating experience while its occupants wait for the riders to pass.