Think Pink and Win!

It was truly pink and tricolour balloon day yesterday. Just doing the stretch from Fornoli to Bagni di Lucca we came across these decorations paying homage to Italy’s classic cycle race, the Giro d’Italia. (Photos courtesy of Sandra Pettitt).

We thought this display was particularly sweet:

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To watch the Giro d’Italia cyclists fly past in the afternoon we took a position at Astracaccio by the junction where the Controneria road meets the Brennero from Bagni di Lucca. This enabled us to get back home without having to worry about road closures and also get a fantastic viewpoint, free of crowds

Our “viewing platform,” included three Vespas whose colours reflected the Italian flag. The mixture of the three colours of red white and green combined with the pink balloons reflecting the hue of the prize winning jersey dominated the decorations hung on the buildings and across the road.

Now pink will be for ever associated with the giro d’Italia rather than girlie toys and a particular kind of elephant!

About half-an-hour before the competitors arrived there was activity in the form of police motorcyclists and a souvenir truck which sold bandanas, “hand clappers” and flags at suitably rip-off prices. Instead, we got a free sleeve hat from Baiocchi biscuits which help sponsor one of the race’s classifications.

Further vehicle rode past including team cars carrying on roof-racks, spare bikes for the competitors, each one of which would cost a lot more than your average family saloon…

Eventually, the orange flag arrived signalling that the road would now be completely dedicated to the entrants in the race.

The “testa” arrived. This is the head of the cyclists – the finest competitors, all bunched up in a peloton – French term from which we get our word “platoon” from and denoting the close formation which competition cyclist like to travel in to reduce wind resistance and improve their collective performance.

The “peloton di testa” flew past in a couple of seconds. Among the group, of course, were those who would probably gain jerseys at the end of the stage.

We waited for the main body of cyclists to arrive….. And waited and waited. It was a good twelve minutes before they arrived on the scene. Few could remember such a distance between the head and the body, not even the last time the race went through these parts which was in May 2000.

Again, the body whisked through in seconds …. And that was it. All over! Like a transient vision, the Giro had sped through Astracaccio to reach La Lama and thence begin the most gruelling part of stage five – the climb up to Abetone.

Who won?

The winner stage was Slovenian. Twenty-three year old Jan Polanc from the Lampre-Merida team was first past the finishing line at Italy’s 98th giro. Just sixteen kilometres before the finish he broke out of the head peloton and sailed to the finish with no significant competition.

The overall winner of the coveted pink jersey, however, still remains Spanish Alberto Contador (who had a spot of trouble in a drugs test in 2010 but seems to have fully recovered): his total aggregate time for all the stages so far is the lowest so far. Will he be beaten tomorrow? Watch stage six today from Altopascio to Montecatini and find out!

Members of the British Commonwealth will be pleased to know that Australian Richie Porte, of the Sky team, came fifth.

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Historically, Abetone evokes fond memories of the great Gino Bartali who was first at the finishing line here in 1947 and 1948. That’s why this stage was dedicated to him. Some of my readers have asked me what was behind the rivalry between Bartali and Coppi, apart from the obvious sporting wish to be the best.  The fact is that no two people could be more different in life-attitude. Bartali was a fervent Catholic who had his bike personally blessed by the Pope and led a sober family life. Coppi, on the other hand, was a renegade and atheist, flirting with women and not just taking drugs but boasting about doing them. (That was obviously before the present regimen of strict anti-doping rules was imposed, of course).

Bartali died peacefully in 2000. Coppi died in 1960 as a result of malaria caught while big-game hunting in Africa. Both great personalities, however, had this in common: they gave a fantastic boost to a terribly demoralised Italy emerging from the ruins World War Two had inflicted upon it. For me, however, Bartali remains my man. This is especially so since only in the last couple of years it has emerged that Gino used his practise runs during World War Two as a cover to organise communications between resistance organisations to save thousands of Jewish people from transportation to Auschwitz. For this very recent discovery modest Bartali was posthumously awarded, in 2013, the heroism award “just among the nations” from the Israeli government and joins those exceptional people, like Schindler, who risked their lives against inordinate odds to save others.

Incidentally, the last time Abetone was used as a finishing post in the Giro was in 2000 when Italian Casagrande won that stage. I did feel privileged to be able to attend at least one moment of this mythical race in the humble but beautiful stretch of road that goes through Astracaccio. Perhaps I’ll take up cycling again?

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