Giro d’Italia: Italy’s “Grand Tour” Bike Race

Before the name Lance Armstrong was headline news (first for exciting reasons and then for depressing reasons), cycling as a sport wasn’t much of a big deal outside Europe. Yes, there had been other non-European winners of the Tour de France, but the average person could probably tell you the name of France’s epic bike race and probably Armstrong’s name – and then their cycling knowledge would be pretty much tapped out. It’s unlikely that they would know, for instance, that Italy has its own three-week bike race, the Giro d’Italia.

I’m not going to try to convince you to become a cycling fan if you aren’t one already. What I am going to do is tell you a bit about how the Giro d’Italia in Italy works, and then what you as a traveler need to know – whether you want to see the race or avoid it.

What is the Giro d’Italia?

Mini Maglia Rosa || creative commons photo by Flowizm

Mini Maglia Rosa || creative commons photo by Flowizm

The name “Giro d’Italia” simply means “tour of Italy,” an apt name for the stage bicycle race Italy puts on each year in May. The race lasts roughly three weeks, and though start and end dates vary depending on the year it typically begins in early May. It’s one of three Grand Tours, together with the Tour de France and the Vuelta a EspaƱa in Spain.

The first Giro was in 1909, put together by the sports newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport as a publicity stunt. The color of that paper, then as now, was pink – so although the race is no longer organized by La Gazzetta, pink remains the color associated with the Giro. For instance, the leader dons a pink jersey each day.

With any stage race, there are daily winners and overall winners. Time for each stage is accumulated throughout the entire race, and the rider who completes the entire course in the least overall time is the winner. There are other competitions for sprinters, climbers, and young riders, some of which are based on points earned at certain parts of the race.

If I’m losing you, don’t give up yet – the reality is that you don’t need to understand the intricacies of points, accumulated time, or team tactics to have fun watching a stage of the Giro d’Italia.

Part of this is because watching a stage can be an all-day event. There are official vehicles and sponsor vehicles that precede the riders on almost every stage, some of them throwing goodies to spectators like you’re at a Mardi Gras parade. There’s a camaraderie among spectators, too, even if you don’t share a common language. There’s lots of eating, day-drinking, listening to the race over the radio before it gets to your spot, and (hopefully) enjoying the sun on a spring day.

If you’re an adventurous traveler who’s keen to get away from the usual tourist spots in Italy, chasing the Giro for a stage or two can be a great way to do that. No, you’re not going to escape the crowds – there are huge numbers of people who line the race route each year. But it’s a whole different type of crowd than the ones you’ll find outside the Vatican Museums or Uffizi Gallery. Plus, you’ll no doubt see parts of Italy you would never see otherwise.

Where does the Giro d’Italia go in Italy?

Giro peloton climbing to Rocca di Cambio || creative commons photo by luckyz

Giro peloton climbing to Rocca di Cambio || creative commons photo by luckyz

The course changes each year, and – contrary to the name of the event – it isn’t always entirely in Italy. There are often cities included just across the border in neighboring countries, sometimes at the beginning of the race and sometimes midway through.

To see the official course map and stage description for the next edition of the Giro, go to the official race website (hosted by La Gazzetta dello Sport). Here’s an overview of the 2015 race, for instance, where you can see (vaguely) where in Italy the race will visit – and then you can click on individual stages to see a more detailed map.

Traveling in Italy During the Giro d’Italia: What You Need to Know

Giro d'Italia team presentation || creative commons photo by luckyz

Giro d’Italia team presentation || creative commons photo by luckyz

If you’re planning a trip to Italy in May, then it’s smart to see whether your itinerary will overlap with the race route at all. When you find out, what you decide to do about that depends on whether you want to see or avoid the race.

If you want to see the Giro d’Italia:

  • Pick a target spot to spend the day and watch the race as it goes by. Good bets for this are towns at the start or end of any stage (there’s a festival atmosphere in both), points along a mountain stage (the riders are going more slowly, so you can actually see them better), or time trial stages (riders go off one at a time, so you get to see lots of cyclists individually all day long).
  • Pack picnic goodies. If you’re watching along the roadside somewhere, you’re going to be there a good long while before the riders come through, so you might as well make a day of it. You can make lots of friends – Italian and international – if you’ve got something to share.
  • Get there early. Snagging a good spot along the race route means getting there early. In some cases, especially on popular mountain stages, it means camping out overnight the night before. If you’re just a casual observer and you’re not intent on seeing the race on a popular stage, you can show up later. Just note that roads used in the race are shut down before the race comes through (in the mountains, that might mean the day before), so if you’re driving around Italy you may find your route blocked if you’re not far enough ahead of the race.
  • Prepare for inclement weather. This is particularly true if you’re going up into the mountains. It’s nowhere near summer yet in the high elevations, and you may even get some snow up there.

If you want to avoid the Giro d’Italia:

  • Adjust your itinerary. If you’re consulting the race route early enough, you’ll be able to shift your plans so that you won’t ever cross paths with the Giro during your trip.
  • Make reservations early. As you might expect, hotels around the race route book up well in advance, and sometimes train reservations between race cities can be harder to come by on certain dates. If you can’t adjust your itinerary, then make hotel reservations and train reservations as soon as you can so you don’t get stuck without them.

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