If you’ve got time to spend three weeks following the Giro, by all means absorb everything about the event. Revel in the journey. Marvel at the scenery. But if you don’t have that kind of time (and most spectators don’t), a few days or even a week will do just fine. When to go? If you’re planning to spend three or four days watching the race, I’d suggest being there for the start. The 2006 Giro actually spends its first four days in Belgium this year. The intent is twofold: to pay homage to the 262 miners, including 136 Italians, killed in a mining accident in the Walloon region 50 years ago, and to subject riders to the harsh and muddy conditions of springtime riding in Northern Europe. The riders won’t have the luxury of easing into the race, saving their bodies for the weeks of racing to come. The action will be intense from the very start.
If you have a week to watch the race, I’d suggest being there for the finish. And boy, will this be a week to watch. Giro officials have scheduled all the mountain stages for the final week. The steep switchbacks up through the stark, gray Dolomites will be lined with fans, particularly on May 26, when the riders conclude a 137-mile day in the saddle with a finish atop San Pellegrino Pass; and on May 27, which finishes with an assault on the legendary Mortirolo, a climb with a 12.4 percent gradient that many consider the toughest in all of Europe. For the sheer adrenaline rush alone, there will be no better place to watch the race. But be warned: The high mountain passes may still be choked with snow, and it is not unheard of for the warm spring temperatures to suddenly turn. Riding through blizzards is not uncommon at the Giro. The Giro is a race in which, literally, anything can happen.
If you have just one day, go straight to the cobblestones of Milan for the finish. You’ll be in for a treat, as organizers have scheduled two stages for that final Sunday in May. First comes an uphill 11-kilometer individual time trial that finishes atop the Ghisallo. It’s a legendary peak in Giro history, and its nine percent gradient is sure to put the riders to one last brutal test. Each rider will challenge the mountain alone, competing only against the clock. No matter how large the gap between the overall leader and his rivals before the start of the time trial, it’s certain he won’t rest easy until it’s done.
The second stage of that final day, however, will be largely ceremonial. Thousands upon thousands of fans will line the Corso Venezia in Milan, cheering the weary riders as they pedal the final miles of a long and demanding race. It will be a conqueror’s welcome. When it is done, the overall winner will stand atop the victory podium wearing the Maglia Rosa, the pink jersey denoting the Giro d’Italia champion.
GETTING A BITE TO EAT
Pasta is Italy’s best-known export, but Northern Italy is a land of red meat and full-bodied red wines — Brunellos, Super Tuscans, Chiantis, Barolos. Plan time on each day of travel to find a small café and enjoy these regional specialties. And while the cafés and restaurants along the race course will invariably be crowded, finding a quaint local hole-in-the-wall is as simple as detouring a few miles off the main road. A little fearless exploration can add so much to a journey. It’s yet another reason to have a car.
GETTING A TOUR OF THE TOUR
Let me say right up front that bicycling tours are not my cup of tea. But plenty of people whose opinion I trust swear by them, saying it’s a relaxing and lively way to meet people and see a new country. You travel with your bike and meet the Tour group in Italy, where you are whisked off for a week of full-immersion cycling. The goal is to ride portions of each day’s stage, then stop at a small café to sample the local fare and watch the racers pass. The groups tend to be a manageable size, somewhere between 10 and 20 cyclists. For one all-inclusive price, a traveler’s accommodations, meals, and transportation during tours are covered. An added benefit is that Tour organizers take care of maintenance and snacks during the ride. In many ways, it’s like being on a cycling cruise ship. I’d suggest giving www.trektravel.com and www.ridestrongbiketours.com a look, if you’re interested.
See you there.