Reading Italian cycling

Yes, sharp-eyed reader, you eyes are not deceiving you. The background to le grimpeur is now a shade of pink. This minor cosmetic change is to signify that 2012 will be the year of Italian cycling, your author’s attempt to better understand the subject (and perhaps to balance the critical perspective already offered here).

With such a sweeping brief, one is always tempted to revert to generalizations or even analogies to make sense of such a large topic. By way of introduction, we will start with a quote from the author Umberto Eco comparing Apple and Microsoft to Catholicism and Protestantism:

I am firmly of the opinion that the Macintosh is Catholic and that DOS is Protestant. Indeed, the Macintosh is counterreformist and has been influenced by the “ratio studiorum” of the Jesuits. It is cheerful, friendly, conciliatory, it tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach – if not the Kingdom of Heaven – the moment in which their document is printed. It is catechistic: the essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons. Everyone has a right to salvation.

DOS is Protestant, or even Calvinistic. It allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can reach salvation. To make the system work you need to interpret the program yourself: a long way from the baroque community of revelers, the user is closed within the loneliness of his own inner torment.

Now, bear with me dear reader, as I attempt to circle back to this starting point through a brief, but perhaps torturous, exploration of European cycling.

What cycling means

Cycling in different countries says much about their national character. Or to look at it another way, the national character sets the agenda for cycling. In Belgium, for example, cycling is a test of hardness. The races are abominably long, unnecessarily technical, and usually run in the toughest part of the season (spring). They are grim affairs. To win one of these races you need to embrace Belgian-style riding: big-ring hammerfests in the rain and crosswinds, up and down treacherous bergs, where only the hardest of the hard can triumph. There is little room for flair and style; results come from fortitude and hard work.

There are tough races in France, too, where they love their cycling and their competition. Here, racing has a grandeur that Belgium lacks. The French can give their races some panache, while at the same time investing them with near mythological status. The mountains, for example, are more than just tests of conditioning, they are a challenge to man’s place in the world. Yet at the same time, there is the air of Gallic insouciance. At some level, there is a skepticism that perhaps cycling is just a bourgeois conspiracy to exploit the working class. At any moment, the French look like they could shrug their shoulders and walk away. C’est la vie.

In Spain, cycling is a celebration. The country is larger and more diverse than others in Europe, and divisions bubble under the surface. So racing becomes an expression of joy; the Vuelta is a carnival of cycle racing. It can be a statement of nationalism (see the Basques) but also a buoyant expression of identity. The riders express themselves in this context, showing their character as well as using cycling as a philosophical learning process about themselves. Results are less important than the personal development of the rider.

Cycling as religion

In Italy, cycling is a religion. It is perhaps no coincidence, then, that Italy is also the home of Catholicism. Cycling has its own church, and its own saints. At its roots, cycling is a tragedy (see: Coppi, Pantani) where racers seek glory and salvation on earth, as a prelude to higher judgement later on. The tifosi worship at the altar of cycling, throwing themselves wholeheartedly and without reservation into its pursuit, a “community of revelers”. Rules and regulations (see: doping) are secondary to the higher purpose that cycling has – the expression of the human condition, of competition and of daring, of the revelations it offers. Cycling will save us all, so long as we worship it unreservedly. And if we succumb to it, we are martyrs.

To the victor the spoils, but how the race was won is important; it must be won just as the fans support it, with reverence and devotion and with total commitment to the glory of suffering. But it must also, like Catholicism in Eco’s terms, be a sumptuous victory; not the plodding Calvinistic inner torment of the time trial win, but the flashy showmanship of the sprint win, the reverence of the long breakaway, or the splendor of crossing the line alone in the high mountains. It should be like religion itself: the transcending of the ordinary in pursuit of the sublime or even the miraculous.

To stretch the analogy even further, one might seen parallels between Eco’s characterization and Italy’s most prominent contribution to modern cycling, Campagnolo. Is it too much to suggest that Campagnolo is the Apple of groupsets? It has its patron saint (Tullio Campagnolo), and an inception founded in myth. It components stress the purity of design, and might even be described as sumptuous. They are presented as a complete package, each groupset stands on its own, and there is no compatibility elsewhere. Devotees stress its history, its essence and its form over functionality, and maintenance is best performed by high priests with special chain tools at your local bike shop. Shimano, by contrast, makes no such lofty claims and presents components that are functional, interchangeable and open to free interpretation (Ultegra here, 105 there, and add a FSA crankset and a SRAM cluster). Its hermeneutics is the user poring over instruction manuals to make adjustments and to perform maintenance.

Reading Italian cycling

But perhaps your author has gone too far, stretching the analogies to their breaking point, offering up sweeping generalizations in place of detailed analysis. There is undoubtedly much to learn about the subtleties being glossed over here.

Despite the centrality of Italian cycling in any history of pro racing, there are surprisingly few books on the Giro d’Italia, particularly when compared to the Tour de France. There are, however, several titles available. One, The Giro d’Italia: Coppi versus Bartali at the 1949 Tour of Italy by Dino Buzzati, has already been reviewed on this blog in reference to the Giro d’Italia as epic. Two other books are quite recent: Bill & Carol McGann – The Story of the Giro d’Italia (volume 1, 1909-1970; Herbie Sykes – Maglia Rosa: Triumph and Tragedy at the Giro d’Italia. Sykes is also the author of The Eagle of the Canavese: Franco Balmamion and the Giro d’Italia.

There is also Matt Rendell’s biography of Marco Pantani, which was published in 2006. It perhaps speaks volumes about the book that it was never published in Italy, the publishers warned over the outcry that challenging the ‘official’ narrative of Pantani’s life would prompt from the public. This book was a fantastic read at the time; in light of subsequent revelations about doping in European cycling it will be useful to return to its in-depth analysis. (You can read two interviews with Rendell on Pantani and other topics here and here.)

One might question, of course, the epistemological challenges inherent in discovering the ontology of Italian cycling: how might one understand it without living, breathing or experiencing it fully. But one must start somewhere, with the resources at hand. We can never be certain that the outcome will be successful, but perhaps the journey will be illuminating. We might indeed see the process in religious terms, and salvation might be possible (your author may purchase a Campagnolo product, for example). Will it serve a higher purpose? To paraphrase Buzzati, Italian cycling is “one of the last meccas of the imagination, a stronghold of romanticism, besieged by the gloomy forces of progress, and it refuses to surrender.” We shall perhaps see if it remains that stronghold today.

Giuseppe Saronni showcasing his personal style in the maglia rosa

6 thoughts on “Reading Italian cycling

  1. Very well written, and as passionate as Pantani was about making one suffer in the high mountains. Good to have you back!

  2. Campy as Apple – yep. But more with the zeal of its followers. Devoted followers who have seen the light and are sure everyone will love it if they try it.

  3. I spent a week following Mario Cipollini and his Acqua-Sapone team at the Giro. One sprint victory was celebrated with a victory salami, much like communion in the Catholic Church.

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