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The world's toughest race

We visit the Giro D'Italia

The world's toughest race
20 May 2012

Mark Cavendish has won the BBC Sports Personality Of The Year, three world titles and 32 stages of cycling’s Grand Tours, putting him tenth on the all-time winners’ list. He also has a banana named after him. And it’s not just any banana; it’s the official banana of the Giro d’Italia.

Cavendish is the biggest thing in cycling. When we join him and the rest of Team Sky – the British professional team created to develop the sport in the UK – in the northern Italian town of Modena, he’s at the centre of cycling’s most colourful circus. It’s good to learn the local lingo when abroad, but visiting the Giro requires only one word: pazzo. It means mad, crazy, and sums the whole thing up.

First there are the fans. It’s impossible to express what the Giro means to Italians. This arterial race is seen as a unifying thread for a country barely 150 years old. Consequently, the sun-baked streets are buzzing. There are babes in arms, leathery old women who look like they might have attended the Giro d’Holy Roman Empire, and paunchy middle-aged men in replica racing shirts of logo-distorting tightness. They gladly accept freebies from noisy, garish sponsors’ vehicles, including a truck shaped like a Cavendish banana. In the VIP area, people in better fitting clothes are busy consuming freebies of the bubbly variety.

Then there are the riders. Watch the Giro and you’d assume they were stark, raving pazzo. The 21 stages in 23 days comprise gruelling mountainous climbs, sprint-inducing flats and city-based time trials, all of which add up to a distance of 2,177 miles – roughly the equivalent of London to Damascus. The Tour de France may be more famous, but he Giro makes it look like freewheeling.

“It used to be known as the riders’ tour,” says Cavendish, “but it’s recently become so hard. It’s so, so hard.”

“Over the years the stages have got more and more extreme,” adds David Brailsford, general manager of Team Sky and stupendously successful performance director of British Cycling. “The climbs in Italy are quite different from France. They are steeper, harder. So it’sa tough race.”

And riders risk much more than stiff limbs. The Giro has claimed four riders’ lives, including that of Belgian Wouter Weylandt in a crash last year. This year Cavendish was lucky to get away with some very painful skin-loss when Italian Roberto Ferrari inexplicably cut him up at 40mph.

“I’m still p*ssed off,” says Cavendish. “I believe I could have won the stage, but it’s nothing to do with that. I’m p*ssed off because I have a family and a career. It jeopardises a rider’s life.”

The gold standard

Cavendish hopes to win Britain’s first gold medal of the Olympics when he takes part in the road race on the opening Saturday, but for him, winning stages on tours like the Giro is just as important. For other British riders here though, like Geraint Thomas and Peter Kennaugh – who want to be part of a successful team pursuit on the track in London, it’s different.

“It’s all about the track at the Games,” says Kennaugh, an Isle Of Man product like Cavendish. “We’ll be wrecked for a week or so after the Giro, but hopefully we’ll benefit from it. I did the Giro last year and your pain tolerance goes up so much. ”

“There’s loads of endurance, which really helps in the last kilometre of the pursuit,” adds Thomas. “The time trials are quite similar to the pursuit, too. The days in the mountains are just about surviving. That’s the toughest part.

It hurts everywhere. You get hungry sooner, your legs hurt, but the Games keep me going.”

Thomas also used the Giro to prepare for the team pursuit in Beijing in 2008. His gold medal is testament to its merits.

“In an Olympic year the Giro falls in just the right spot,” says Brailsford. “You’ve got to race hard. You’re pulling more out of yourself and it’s a dream scenario in that respect. The Tour de France is too close to the Olympics for the track riders, so that’s why the Giro is so important.”

The winning habit

Today’s stage, stage five, from Modena to Fano on the Adriatic coast, travels along the ancient Via Emilia. As you’d expect from a Roman road, it’s 209km (130 miles) of near perfect straightness to be cycled at an average speed of 30mph.

To add to the fatigue, it will take place in 30 degrees of windless, cloudless sunshine. Relatively flat, the stage is ideal for producing a bunched sprint finish, which means, according to the locals, only one winner: “Cavandeesh”.

“Winning used to be like a drug,” he says. “But now it’s not a big deal if I win a race, it’s a big deal if I lose. I want to win whatever. It’s been like that since I was a kid – not just at cycling, at everything. Anything I did, I didn’t want to just be the best I could be, I wanted to be the best. Board games, everything, I have to win.”

But whatever the individual motivation, cycling is a team sport and Cavendish won’t win without his. They’ll be battling to get him into pole position for the sprint finish, helping him stay strong by providing him with a slipstream that will save 25-30 per cent of his energy. Kennaugh is 22, but barely looks 15. He resembles a boy who’s lied about his age to fight in the trenches and, in sporting terms, that’s what he’ll be doing.

“It’ll be stressful,” he says. “For the last 80km (50 miles) everyone will be battling to stay at the front, trying to keep Cav in position. It’s a prolonged stress. You can’t tell how stressful it is on TV, but when you’re actually in that peloton (the main group of riders), it’s just a constant flow of riders trying to get to the front. Everyone’s got their gloves off.”

You definitely get a sense that this is a Band Of Brothers; a ‘golden generation’ in British cycling that’s grown up together.

“We win as a team but we only have one person stand on the podium,” adds Cavendish.

“It takes a special group of people to kill themselves for that. At the end of the race, you can never let them down.”

The stage provides more evidence of Italy’s love for this race. The route is lined all the way to Fano. If any nation knows how to stand outside for prolonged periods it’s the Italians, but even they excel themselves, waiting hours just to see a colourful whoosh of wheels go by.

Some villages even have trays of cakes waiting for riders, such as the climbers waiting for the mountain stages, who are worried about conserving energy.

In Fano, the circus of Modena is replicated; banana trucks and all. The crowd on the home straight, anticipating an arrival still an hour away, cheer everything and anything that goes past. If ever a squirrel had a chance for a moment of glory, this is it. Large screens show the race unfolding and the tension increases palpably as the peloton gets close. As it enters Fano, the pictures reveal a train of Team Sky jerseys leading the way.

As the riders come into view, the volume increases with the speed. Cavendish is in prime position, nestled behind his Austrian teammate Bernhard Eisel, waiting for his moment to pounce. Once he does, 200m from the line, there’s no doubting the result. He said it’s only a big deal if he doesn’t win; everyone else appears to disagree.

As the victor dismounts his bike, he sinks to the pavement, his face bright pink from sun and exertion. He’s given everything today – and he’ll do it again tomorrow. And the next day. And the next. They all will. Pazzo?

Undoubtedly. But the grins on the faces of Cavendish and his teammates suggest there’s method in this madness.

(Image: PA)