Sunday, May 29, 2005

Chantmerle, France

Friends: Unlike the Tour de France, the parade of sponsors that precedes the Giro d'Italia does not bombard the legions along the road with merchandise. All they dispense are waves and smiles and loud music and horn toots. The race is enough to bring out the Italians--no need to entice them with various trinkets and goodies. It was a mild disappointment not to have Giro souvenir refrigerator magnets and key chains and such to add to my Tour collection, but the biggest disappointment was not being able to compare how fanatically the Italians would scramble for them. I was shocked to see how obsessed the French could be, and knew the Italians had to be even more so, perhaps to such an extent that sponsor goodies had to be banned.

The Italians are in a class by themselves when it comes to devotion to the bicycle. While the French respect it, the Italians well nigh worship it. While I was in a restaurant eating a pizza in Sestriere the afternoon before the Giro was to arrive, person after person paused to examine my pannier-laden bike leaning against the restaurant window. They didn't give it a casual once over, but they'd kneel and look closely at its every feature, pointing out this and that to whoever they were with. Nowhere else I've traveled, except India, where they are crazy with curiosity, has my bike received such attention and reverence.

I arrived in Sestriere better than 24 hours before the Giro would conclude its 19th and next to last stage. I was far from the first arrival. The town was already aswarm with cyclists and RVs. I've passed through half a dozen or more ski towns during this foray into the Alps. This was the first that wasn't a virtual off-season ghost town. Even without the Giro coming, there would have been activity here, as it busily prepares to host the Winter Olympics next year.

As yellow is the color of the Tour, pink is the color of the Giro, and pink was everywhere (flowers, ribbons, banners and in just about everyone's attire). The Italians assert their obsessive devotion to their national bike race with such a profusion of pink, they make the French display of yellow a mere dab. There were considerably more official vans selling the Giro kit (a pink t-shirt and pink baseball hat), than I see at The Tour. And there was an equally greater percentage of Italians reading the pink sports section (which gave birth to the Giro and continues to sponsor it) than one sees reading the French equivalent during the Tour. People on bikes were in greater abundance too. I could somewhat blend in and wasn't showered with applause and bravos as in France. The touring cyclist is still a rarity, though I did see three others, much more than are to be seen at any one time at the Tour de France.

With Sestriere at nearly 6,500 feet and patches of snow besides my campsite on a cat-track under a chairlift, I feared I was in for my coldest night of the trip. Its been down in the 40's every night in the mountains, but I had yet to require any extra layers to stay warm, nor, surprisingly enough, on this night either. The balmy day-time temperatures don't allow it to get overly cold at night. I could hear raucous drumming coming from one of the RV encampments, but it didn't go on for long. The next morning Sestriere was totally clogged with tifosi (fanatics) hours and hours before the race was to arrive. They had a greater intensity than their French counterparts. The French patiently await the arrival of the racers, picnicking, playing games, reading, chatting. The Italians are much less relaxed and much much more eager for that moment. There was much more commotion and milling about, as if they were too anxious to simply bide their time.

Sestriere was at the summit of a six-mile climb about thirteen miles from the French border. On race day I continued over the summit for half a mile until I came to a break in the barriers that lined both sides of the road to keep the tifosi at bay. There would be no tight gauntlet of fans for the racers to pass through to the summit. I joined several hundred people already gathered on a semi-forested mountainside. There were scattered tents and barbecues and women sunning in bikinis and toddlers in pink and guys with the short sleeves of their shirts rolled up to maximize their tan. As the hours passed our numbers grew and grew. Unlike the Tour there was a scarcity of police monitoring the course. Bicyclists were still riding the course half an hour before the racers were due. It would make following The Tour much easier for me if the gendarmes in France were so lenient. The French harshly put the clamps down, evicting all but official vehicles from the race course, two hours or more before the racers pass, greatly comprising my ability to keep up with the race day after day.

When the string of racers passed, the fans cheered them mightily, especially the stragglers. A fan who jumped the fence to push one of the last racers was strongly booed. The fans reacted similarly last year in Milan, as several hundred of us watched the final mountain stage of the race on a large screen under a tent in the city plaza. Whenever the camera caught a fan pushing a straggler, everyone under the tent let out a vehement boo, even though we were over a hundred miles away from the action. That is what makes the tifosi what they are--extreme commitment and passion. They simply couldn't help themselves. Its a thrill to be around such fanaticism.

After the stage finished, I joined many other cyclists on the six-mile descent back towards France followed by a five-mile climb to the border and then a descent down to Briancon and then off towards the Col de Galibier. That will conclude a week in the Alps and then its off to Provence and less strenuous cycling. I had been hoping to come upon a television somewhere before I returned to France to watch the dramatic end of the day's stage, but there was none to be found. That was a major disappointment.

Later, George

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