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Book Review – Maglia Rosa: Triumph and Tragedy at the Giro d’Italia

Maglia Rosa: Triumph and Tragedy at the Giro d'ItaliaThe Giro d’Italia. It’s a grand tour like those races in France and Spain, but something about it seems different. For us, the big thing is more chaos. This quality seems to stem from no clear patron, a course that changes dramatically year to year, the leader’s jersey getting swapped from rider to rider to rider, dramatic changes in climatic conditions, and bitter feuds played out in media.

But there’s another larger reason for Anglophones’ distance from the Giro. Unlike the Tour, there is little in the way of history of the Giro to give context and meaning to what we’re seeing. There are many books detailing the history of the Tour, and the Tour organization itself, Amaury Sport Organization, works hard at promoting the race to the outside world. Anglophone media does their bit to help the Tour, by putting the Tour in the middle of their racing coverage, by creating, with the help of ASO, spectator guides to the Tour. We get none of this for the Giro, or the Vuelta for that matter, though we realize that the Tour vortex has snowballed thanks to the worldwide television broadcasts and a certain Texan catching the world’s attention. The Giro and Vuelta are not even also-rans in terms of the pages devoted to them, and thus, it is hard for us to begin to understand the race.

Do you care that the mountain classification jersey has changed from green to blue? Or that the points jersey is currently red, when it was mauve, sometimes described as ciclamino, for many years? Can you even name the last mountains or points winner? What about the Azzuri d’Italia classification, or the Super Team classification? Did you even notice the Intergiro was gone?

Maglia Rosa: Triumph and Tragedy at the Giro d'ItaliaWe’d love to have a better understanding of mechanics of the race. Maglia Rosa is not that book. The subtitle, Triumph and Tragedy at the Giro d’Italia, tells you more about what’s to come. It’s a history of the Giro, but not a history that starts with a thesis, sets out its goals and proceeds to tick them off. Amazingly, the last sentence of the book reveals the thesis. In this way, the book is a bit maddening, a bit like the Giro. You’re thrown into the story, but seemingly without reason, and then chapter two tells the genesis of the race. From there, it moves on to more personalities, more rivalries, and, most pleasingly, periodically gets sidetracked by larger events in Italian history, namely world wars and the rise of fascism.

Herbie Sykes, an Englishman living in Italy, takes the position that the riders are the Giro. He focuses on them, their lives, their dramas, and uses that to run through the Giro’s history. It’s as if the story of the race is that of personalities Maglia Rosa: Triumph and Tragedy at the Giro d'Italiacompeting with one another. Along the way, we also learn of stages being lengthened, shortened, added, reduced, innovations coming in, and the like. But those are often lost in learning where the great animators of the race came from, and why their life story matters.

The history is episodic. For some years, we learn how several stages play out. Others, like the 1957 Giro, get four paragraphs, with the final sentence declaring, ‘…one of the best of all time.’ The 1995 episode merits all of a paragraph, probably because Sykes calls it, ‘one of the more insipid.’ .

The chapters are mostly framed around individual riders, and the story of particular Giros or of sets of races are told around the stories of Orfeo, or Brunero, or The New Fausto Coppi. Even within the stories, Maglia Rosa: Triumph and Tragedy at the Giro d'Italiathe tales don’t seem to follow a formula. You have to make it all the way through the chapter on the New Fausto to find out that his name was Italo Zilioli. Zilioli was kind enough to let Sykes interview him and the chapter is almost entirely excerpts, but it is hard to follow because we don’t know who is talking for the entire segment.

There are countless details to be gained. Things to know that you never thought you’d need to know. Giovanni Brunero, winner of the 1921 and 1922 Giro, was a Cavanese, meaning he came from an ‘invariably small, pallid, genetically stooped people who still speak a weird local derivation of Pietmontese.’ It’s hard to believe in genetically stooped backs or people who speak a truly weird dialect, but interesting to ponder. Sykes also tells us that the people are currently trying to sell their area to tourists, ‘as a kind of tourist area for unambitious ramblers,’ but it’s not taking.

Maglia Rosa: Triumph and Tragedy at the Giro d'ItaliaHe does seem to get some good dish. Take Alfredo Binda, the trumpet-player from Cittiglio. So great was his hold on the race that he was paid off not to ride the Giro in 1930. So he went to the Tour. At the Tour he dropped out mid-race. While it was allegedly the shame of Italy, it turns out Binda dropped out because the Giro promoter had reneged on the amount promised for not riding the Giro.

At the same time, the storytelling, while intimate, seems to slide in the realm of myth-making. As is fairly common in British cycling publications, the writing is heavy on detail that, while evocative, seems to be more about creating a story arc rather than sharing facts. We’re told, that in 1936, ‘a sinewy, unknown 20-year-old Tuscan had emerged as the best climber in the race, winning the mountain prize.’ That person was one Gino Bartali. It’s a beautiful image, but looking at the pictures, it’s hard to imagine Gino The Pious as sinewy, and unknown? How does Sykes know?

Maglia Rosa: Triumph and Tragedy at the Giro d'ItaliaBartali comes across as a hard rider, he’s L’Umo Di Ferro after all, a fair sportsman, an opponent of fascism and Coppi, and savior to Italian Jews. A great man, though a gruff complainer once retired. So it’s odd that Bartali quotes, in Italian and translated into English start every chapter. Gino appears to be pithy, but we’re never told where the lines come from. A book, an interview, culled from years of race banter?

As Sykes gets closer to today, the episodes seem to meander more and more into commentary. It makes the book a better read, and we only wish he’d dared to opine sooner. His chapter on Marco Pantani delves into Sykes’ belief that Italians are culturally predisposed to need a leader and this mindset is what helped make Pantani the icon he became and remains. Laudably, he includes an entire chapter on doping and how he believes Italian cycling ignored the threats dopers presented to their own peril. And, he goes so far as to put forth his own prescription for how the race could be better. In so doing, he adds a devastating critique of the 100th Giro, one that seems to have sold its soul in the vain hope of gaining greater recognition.

We were initially frustrated with the writing, the English slang, at times both obscure and overused, the way the names and the races flowed too quickly and easily from one into another seemingly without introduction or conclusion. Maglia Rosa: Triumph and Tragedy at the Giro d'ItaliaBut as we got used to it, the intimacy started to win us over. At the same time, a second read, while something we’re considering, seems a bit extravagant to demand of any reader.

Making the reading easier is the book production. It is published by Rapha after all, and their goal is to be both modern and timeless. The sturdy pink cover and heavyweight lightly glossy pages are great to hold. The attached bookmark ribbon is a stylish touch. The classic black-and-white images are great to pore over and over, both for how the sport and world have changed—and haven’t.

Our general feeling is that since cycling writing is sufficiently hard to come by and cycling history pretty rare, it should be supported so long as it’s pretty decent. Maglia Rosa: Triumph and Tragedy at the Giro d’Italia is well beyond that mark. While we had our share of frustrations with the book, we’re glad to have read it and are now even more disposed to giving the Giro even more of our attention.