What’s it like to catch a Grand Tour stage from the roadside?

Catching the Giro d'Italia in person from a small town in Italy

June 3rd, 2019 by | Posted in Rides+Events | Tags:

Having the chance to watch Giro d’Italia live likely conjures up visions of thousands of fans lining steep mountain roads, or the road of the crowd reacting to a thrilling sprint finish.

But what is it like to watch a Grand Tour if you’re not on the side of a mountain tangled up with an Astana rider, or anywhere near the finish? What if you’re in one of the many towns lining the route along the way?

On a recent trip to check out Pinarello’s new Dogma F12, and the Dogma F12 X-Light which was being raced by Team Ineos in Italy, I had the chance to check out a couple different stages. Our group watched Friday’s stage 19 start in Triviso, so I felt alright not trying to find my way to the finish the day before in Santa Maria di Sala.

Plus, the stage was passing within a kilometre of the hotel, and I wanted to get a ride in of my own, right?

So, here’s how the day played out:

Big screen TV, coffee, and Google Maps.
Noon – 3:30 pm: Live … on TV

I return from my morning ride on time to catch the start of live coverage on RAI Sport HD. As the peloton crushed km’s through the countryside on the TV, I tried to decipher the Giro route map to see where the race would pass by. After a solid half hour of going back and forth, I was able to reconcile the organizers stylish hand drawn map with the more practical google maps and figure out where I had to be.

The entire stage is broadcast on TV, everyday, because cycling is huge in Italy. Football is still king, though, so Giro gets kicked down to standard definition when there’s football on (there’s been no mention of the Raptors yet…)

2:30 pm: Wake up in a panic

I’m severely jet-lagged after a weekend spent racing and “re-hydrating” after the final Nimby 50 in Pemberton, B.C. before this trip, and my functional time zone is as close to opposite as I could get without going to Australia. Also, watching three hours of the group riding leisurely through rolling hills is a better sleep aid than any drug. The same three riders remain in the break and the same three teams are rotating on the front of the peloton. I jolt awake, and rejoin the live coverage, where little has changed.

3:30 pm: Walk to the course

Roads have already been closed for an hour, so there’s massive lines of traffic sitting on the road. A crowd has gathered at a nice, over-90-degree corner. In-the-know fans arrived early and have claimed seats at a patio bar. Everyone else jockey’s for the best positions that combine a good view, and a reasonable place to sit and wait.

And then we wait.

A visual assessment of the cruiser was followed by some rigorous tire kicking.
4:00 – 4:40 pm: The Caravan

A very stressed local police officer is trying to keep the growing crowd in check, while one helpful spectator tries to help him diagnose a slow lead on his cruiser. The officer parks and re-parks his car to try best direct traffic around the road furniture . It’s not working, and several advance cars take wrong turns.

Eventually, a moto official shows up, throws some course tape up to close off all but one lane, and the crowd moves to form a more effective barrier.

Low flying helicopters signal the peloton’s approach.

More advance team and organization cars and a trio of Giro merchandise vans pass by. Then we can hear helicopters, causing a buzz of excitement as everyone re-positions to get the best iPhone shot angle, myself included. The tall nervous police officer positioned himself perfectly to block my view, so I strategically move behind a teen who doesn’t mind using his data to live stream the race he’s about to watch, doubling down on the TV and live experience.

The three rider break group
4:40 – 4:45 pm: The race

There’s a breakaway five minutes up the road, so actually watching the race takes a while. First, the breakaway group passes by, and their team cars. There is much excited chatter among the gathered fans.

Another set of police bikes wiz by, and a second helicopter approaches overhead. The peloton flies by in a dizzying flurry of colours. The racers are followed by an equally bright procession of team cars. There’s cheers as an ambulance takes the corner too hard and nearly hits the curb, and again when Lotto Jumbo’s team car squeals its tires shortly after as it tries to catch up to the group.

Helicopters, motos, team cars and a dizzying array of colours

There’s one more round of cheers when the Broom Wagon passes by, empty, and then a mass exodus. The roads are open again, but I’m back at the hotel before the blocked traffic really starts to clear after the lengthy road closure.

Watching il Giro pass takes much longer than it looks on TV, but the whole ordeal is maybe four minutes. And a total of maybe 30 seconds to a minute of that is actually watching riders.

While watching that couple hundred metres of racing doesn’t take long at all, it’s incredible to think that there are people gathered like this over hundreds of kilometres today, and thousands more over the course of the three week long race.

Showing up at an arbitrary corner over 30 kilometres from the finish line and seeing a crowd stretch out in either direction, it’s not hard to see how this has become a national sport. The race literally touches huge stretches of the country as it passes through communities, not just the more iconic nearby mountain summits.

EF Education First’s car rallies past the patio

When I get back to my room, there’s still 15 km left in the race and the breakaways lead is down under two minutes. They might hold on, but the gap is rapidly evaporating.

At 2 km, they have just 30 seconds. It will be close, but it’s not clear whether the day will belong to the break or the sprinters. The chasing peloton has tired legs, and isn’t particularly organized. It looks like our little trio we all cheered on might actually make it. With two Italian continental riders in the break, they definitely have the crowds supports.

In the closing metres, the group is all but caught. It looks like heartbreak is immanent, that the breakaway will be eaten up by the sprinters. All, that is, but Damiano Cima. The local Nippo-Vini Fantini-Faizane team rider holds on to win by barely a bike length. Bora Hansgroe’s Pascal Ackermann has overlap but, against stacked odds, Cima has stolen the sprinters final chance at glory in the 2019 Giro d’Italia out from under their noses.

The crowd, and RAI’s Italian commentators, are going wild. While I only caught minutes out of five hours of racing that day, it feels like I was a little bit more part of the finale, even if I still watched most of it on TV.