Pantan wins the 15th stage of the Tour de France in 1998

Tortured hero of the Giro

The Giro d’Italia is the basement jazz club of professional cycling events


This article is taken from the May 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Professional cycling is a tough sport, and never more so than during the three Grand Tours each year: the Giro d’Italia, the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España. Each of these covers thousands of kilometres and lasts three weeks, a time period succinctly broken down by the Danish rider Per Pedersen. “First week, you feel good. Second week, not so good. Third week, fucked.”

The Tour gets all the attention, but in many ways the Giro, which begins on 6 May, is the best of the three. Adam Hansen, who completed 20 grand tours in a row — a record which will almost certainly never be beaten — reckoned that the Giro is toughest of all, and if anyone should know, it’s him. The terrain is endlessly challenging, the climbs are steep and narrow, the weather can be atrocious, and in the high mountains the snowpack has yet to melt away.

Where France’s hexagonal shape lends predictability to each year’s route (a week of flat stages for the sprinters followed by some mountains, a few transition stages, more mountains, and the final run-in to Paris), Italy, being longer and thinner, is much less conducive to formula.

Key mountain stages often take place in the first week and shake up the leader-board right from the off. The Tour builds to a defined climax: the Giro delivers thrills and spills throughout. It is not unknown for the race lead to change several times in the last week. The Giro is never over till it’s over.

Despite the race’s toughness, riders love it. It doesn’t have the same global profile as the Tour, but that profile is distinctly double-edged. The stakes at the Tour are so high that the top teams control everything, there are hordes of journalists and VIPs, and the whole thing is sufficiently bloated and corporate as to sometimes border on soulless. If the Tour is a stadium mega-concert, the Giro is a basement jazz club. And all the better for it.

The leader in the Malaga Rosa on the ninth stage of the Giro in 2021

Whereas the Tour (July) and the Vuelta (August/September) take place at least partly during the summer holidays, bringing tsunamis of tourists who are at best casual fans, Giro spectators tend to be proper aficionados, knowledgeable and enthusiastic. Like Italian Formula 1 fans, they are known as tifosi (which literally means “those infected by typhus”) and watching a race in their company is not easily forgotten.

The Italians don’t just love their race: they love winning it too

This, perhaps, is the key to the Giro’s appeal: that it is quintessentially of its country. “The Tour is very international, whereas the Giro is Italian,” said former rider Christian Vande Velde. “Lot of cologne. Lot of hair product.” And hospitality too, of course. “You can be in a little hotel out in the country and the pasta is the best you’ve ever had, the meat is amazing, and the coffee is perfect,” said the Australian cyclist Heinrich Haussler. “No disrespect to the other races, but that’s not the case there.”

And is there a more beautiful item of clothing in any sport than the maglia rosa, the jersey worn by the Giro’s leader? The actual pink varies in tone from year to year — sometimes light and bright, other times darker and richer — but be it tamarisk or amaranth, it is always a beacon of elegance in the rainbow of the peloton as it comes whizzing by.

The Italians don’t just love their race: they love winning it too. France has been waiting since 1985 for a home triumph: in that time the Giro has seen 18 Italian victors. The last time anyone won both in the same year was 1998, and it was done by a man who was at once the pride and sorrow of Italian cycling.

His name was Marco Pantani, and he was unique. Tiny, even by the standards of professional cyclists — 5’7”, nine stone sopping wet — but you couldn’t miss him: the crooked nose, the enormous ears, the pirate’s bandana. He was a rock star, an artist, a Cavalier amongst Roundheads: Il Pirata by name and nature, attacking when he felt like it rather than when a heart-rate monitor or algorithmic download told him he should. His days were the ones when the road kicked upwards towards the heavens, the places where eagles dare and angels fear to tread: Stelvio, Pordoi, Gavia, Finestre, Zoncolan.

Pantani was Italian to his core: la bella figura on two wheels, fabulously romantic and daring. “We’re all imprisoned by rules,” he said. “Everyone longs for freedom to behave in the way they see fit. I’m a non-conformist, and some feel inspired by the way I express freedom of thought. I’ve never been meticulous or calculating, on or off the bike. I ride instinctively, responding to the moment. There’s chaos in everyday life, and I tune into that chaos.”

But that 1998 double was the summit, in every way. A year later an excessive hematocrit reading saw him thrown out of the Giro while in the maglia rosa, and he was denied the chance to defend his Tour title.

Within five years he was dead of a cocaine overdose: consumed by the chaos into which he’d tuned himself, fallen from the razor-edge of control in a hurtling descent.

A sad, lonely death in a hotel room near the sea: a long way, in every way, from the vaulting mountain amphitheatres where he’d ridden through thickets of ecstatic supporters, where he’d found grace in the expression of his supreme talent, where he’d been Icarus and flown too close to the sun.

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