GIRO’16: Tuscan Tradition & History
The Giro d’Italia will visit Tuscany this weekend with a time trial on Sunday in the heart of one of the world’s most famous wine regions – Chianti. Sunday’s race against the clock is important, but it’s only a small part of the history and tradition of Tuscan cycling. Peter Easton of VeloClassic Tours knows his cycling and Tuscany, we let him take up the story of the cycling heartland of Toscana.
-By Peter Easton of VeloClassic Tours–
There is a famous photograph of Italian cycling legend Fiorenzo Magni during stage 12 of the 1956 Giro d’Italia. With a desperate and tired look in his eyes, the original “Lion of Flanders” is seen straining as he grips an inner tube with his teeth that is wrapped around his handlebars, a desperate attempt to compensate for a broken clavicle. And while more recent tales of broken clavicles, ground down teeth and Giro heroics have crumbled under the strain of living a life of lies, the image of Magni personifies something exceptional about the sport of cycling – the imagination. Magni’s efforts and the emotion that rises from the pixels of the photo speak of a singular moment in time that exemplifies the dichotomy that is cycling-glory and suffering.
Fiorenzo Magni was born near Prato, in Tuscany, a neighboring small city to Florence. And though he rode often in the shadow of Fausto Coppi and fellow Tuscan Gino Bartali, Magni was the first rider to win the Tour of Flanders three times from 1949-51(and the only to do it consecutively) and in addition to his second Giro title in 1951, he also won the first of his three Italian National Championships. While Tuscany is widely regarded as the true birthplace of the Italian Renaissance, and has been home to some of the most influential people in the history of arts and science like Michelangelo, Dante and da Vinci, it still remains in many ways a simple, peasant, agricultural land that strives to remain true to this heritage. The most highly regarded cyclist from Tuscany is the legendary Bartali, so devoutly religious he earned the nickname Gino the Pious. His legacy, and that of the Italian influence on the sport through the eyes of the Tuscans, is immortalized at the Gino Bartali museum, a treasure chest of jewels hidden beneath the shadows of Michelangelo’s David and Brunelleschi’s Duomo. By having such an archive, there is a sense of security in keeping the past alive in the minds, faces and actions of the octogenarians, and instilling this simplicity in the minds and hearts of locals and foreigners alike. Devotion to heritage – seen and felt to this day in the Sunday dinners that grace Italian tables-and reveling in the heroic feats accomplished by their brethren was important. In Tuscany this means cycling, and historically this means Italy’s greatest bike race, il Giro d’Italia.
There is a distinct luminescence that rises from behind the hills in the early morning in Tuscany. Looking east towards the hilltops from any valley the partially clouded sky is lit a glowing orange, as if a giant hand has struck a match in the early morning light. The glow fades slowly, and transcends itself into the orange and gold hues that spill off the hillsides and drip over the edges of the greens and olives that are knitted together so haphazardly, yet offer such a picturesque, elegant and enticing panorama. In the distance, a stone farmhouse, its shades of light brown at once contrasting and blending so neatly into the landscape, sits idly, as it has done so for centuries. While often times views like this are seen in photographs and paintings, the most deliberate vantage point is from the seat of a bicycle. The kaleidoscope of colors, layers and textures combined with the imagination creates one of the most beautiful and enduring landscapes to ride.
Like all Grand Tours, it’s the time trials and mountain stages that provide the drama, create the hype and ultimately produce the winner. The Giro, in all of its unpredictable glory, annually seizes the opportunity to eschew standard protocol ala the ASO’s Tour de France (1 week Pyrenees, 1 week Alps, rotate annually) in an effort to create uncertainty, excitement and drama. The first stage to do this is the stage 9 time trial in Tuscany, a roller coaster of a ride from Radda in Chianti to Greve in Chianti. An area known more for its wine and olive groves, the route-like much of cycling in Tuscany – presents a formidable challenge that plays a bit more into the hands of an all-around rider than it does a straight up time triallist. As usual, the Giro has presented an opportunity to shake up the General Classification early in the race, and is doing so in an area that is filled with all that makes Italy great – tradition, passion and of course, food and wine.
The village of Castellina sits high on a ridge overlooking the vineyards that drape the valley that drops down to Poggibonsi, and is at the eleven kilometer mark in the time trial and the first time check. Strolling through the narrow streets of the historic center, one is forgiven if they feel like they’ve stepped onto a Hollywood stage set. Tiny shops decorate the streetscape, and windows are filled with handmade articles ranging from silk to ceramics, art galleries and home furnishings. A town in Chianti would lack authenticity without a few wine shops, and Enoteca Le Volte is always stacked with a variety of olive oils for tasting, floor to ceiling racks neatly displaying hundreds of bottles of wine, and a gelato stand in the back. From the selection of wines, a bottle of 2007 La Massa Giorgio Primo is worthy of attention. Near the village of Panzano, Fattoria La Massa is the wine making grounds for Sicilian native Giampaolo Motta. Glimpsing the vineyards from the road above caused me to think: how does a Sicilian make wine in such a traditional region that has been dominated by the likes of Barone Ricasoli? The answer, as Motta states, is not to turn your back on tradition, like some have criticized him. His signature wine, Giorgio Primo, has been criticized as the complete antithesis from traditional Chianti, the oenological backbone of Tuscany. However, if one understands the history of Tuscany, Giorgio Primo never really leaves the tradition of Tuscany. Since early 1600, vine growing in Tuscany was revolutionized by grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The leading person in this revolution was Cosimo di Medici III who was passionate about wine. If the history of La Massa goes back to 1490, it is the history of generations of people who worked the unique soils in Panzano on the very same varieties found nearly 400 years ago. Giampaolo, like so many others, perpetuates history with a touch of classicism and an eye to the future.
I explain to Aleandro, the owner of Enoteca Le Volte, that I drank a bottle of Giorgio Primo with dinner the night before celebrating Gino Bartali after visiting his home and museum. The expression on his face told the story of a man who was suddenly transported back to his childhood, poring over the pages of the La Gazzetta dello Sport following his hero, Felice Gimondi. I told him about a Moser bike I saw, and he erupted with delight, explaining how important Moser was as a champion, a figure that appealed to all of Italy in their continued efforts to bridge the gap between their dark past and the post war expansion era. “I have” he said in Italian, rubbing his arms “goose bumps.” Sharing in his delight, I explained my celebratory dinner at La Leggenda dei Frati. The restaurant sits in the lower valley, up the SS2 from Poggibonsi. The interior is completely white, the antithesis of the stone structure that houses it, and a departure from the more traditional trattorias and restaurants that fill the village a few kilometers away. An innovative gourmet menu representing a contemporary spin on classic Tuscan fare balances time-honored Tuscan traditions with modern techniques, offering straightforward, un-manipulated fare. Aleandro pulled a thick hard cover book from his shelf, and began thumbing through the pages, until a large color photo appeared of the Saporito brothers, Nicola and Filippo, the manager and Chef of the restaurant. “We are no one without our traditions, and it is important the younger generations, like Giampaolo and Filippo recognize this history. Il Giro is very beautiful, it reminds us every year of Binda, Girardegna, Magni, Coppi, Bartali, Gimondi and Moser. If we want to go into the future, we cannot forget our past.” Aleandro, like most Tuscans, is passionate, direct, hard-working and a cycling fan.
Enoteca Baldi sits in the small piazza in the village of Panzano, an idyllic spot that attracts locals and tourists alike, primarily to widle away time with lunch, sipping wine or enjoying a caffe latte. The village sits at kilometer 33.7 in the time trial course and at the top of a stiff five kilometer climb that I sense will be the back breaker of the stage. In the dozens of times I’ve ridden this route, I’ve never failed to stopped here and indulge in the passing of time the Italian way, which is with something to eat and drink, passionate conversation about anything and plenty of gesticulating and a hearty hug as I leave. Sunday’s race as it passes through here will turn the village into a parade for one day embracing the craziness of the Giro that is a metaphor for Tuscan life – well-orchestrated chaos that is as maddening as it is welcoming. Descending to Greve is a whirlwind of vineyards, hills and olive trees, so rich in colors and the essence of Tuscany it’s almost regrettable to not pause for a photo or to enjoy the view, but I typically save that for when I am riding the opposite direction. The final seven kilometers will be a frenzy of cycling dynamics that lay in the beauty along the road. And while the end of a time trial is always about counting down the seconds leading to the finish line, this fast, twisting descent will only increase the drama.
The Giro is still trying to sell courage, bravado and a national essence that extends beyond the racing results. The Italians believe sport is deeply cultural. It is an integral part of western culture, and there is a sense of nobility about the aggressive instincts, all of which are metaphors for life. A country that endures social rebellion, political upheaval, two world wars and fascism after unification needs its sports and its heroes to also endure, to carry on their legacy, and with it their hope. The Giro is a celebration of the cultural dynamic that is spread across the regions of Italy, and the legends that have colored it throughout the years. The Giro has been, and I believe always will be, larger than the riders that race it, and rightfully honors those who respect it and conquer it humbly and admirably.
Chianti Classico Time Trial:
Sunday’s Giro d’Italia stage 9 time trial is 40.5 kilometers long and from the start in Radda in Chianti the course is set on a torturously twisty route uphill to Castellina in Chianti for the first time check. The course then drops to the Madonna di Pietracupa before it hits the two climbs; the second one is steeper and leads to Panzano in Chianti. From there the course is all downhill to the finish in Greve in Chianti.
Peter Easton is the owner of VeloClassic Tours, a company who specializes in highly personalized luxury cycling travel experiences for serious cyclists through enlightened hospitality. For over a decade, Peter has shown guests the best riding, dining and hotels for cyclists across Europe, and is an expert in the rides, roads and races that make up the Spring Classics.