Forza! Forza! Forza!

The first we heard of it was in the comune WhatsApp group. This was set up by the town council at the start of the pandemic and was originally intended as a means of passing on Covid-19 information, help and advice to residents of the village while everyone was in lockdown. Gradually, though, it also came to be used for thunder storm warnings, pension distribution dates, changes to the school bus timetable, ‘flu jab details, and warnings of school closures due to snow, as well as local Covid testing and vaccination programmes, and even for Christmas messages from the mayor.  

This latest message, however, was to advise people of a list of local road closures from midday until 4.00pm on Tuesday 17th May.  I was baffled: why on earth did they need to close all these roads simultaneously? They normally carry out resurfacing works overnight, and then it’s only one road at a time. And it couldn’t have been for a festa or a sagra as these are always at the weekend; plus, the roads listed were well away from the village centre… So, still slightly puzzled, I opened the PDF attachment: it was a letter from the mayor, announcing that the roads would be closed for the afternoon because the Giro d’Italia was coming through Montelupone!

The Giro d’Italia is probably the biggest cycle race in Europe after the Tour de France and was first run in 1909, originally as a means of promoting the country’s daily sports newspaper, La Gazzetta dello Sport. Incidentally, it is because this has always been printed on pink paper that each stage winner – and the overall winner, of course – is awarded a pink jersey (maglia rosa). Italians completely dominated the race until 1950 when the first non-Italian, a Swiss cyclist called Hugo Koblet, won it. Since then, however, it has become much more international, with a string of European riders having now won the coveted pink jersey, including one British cyclist, Chris Froome, in 2018 – but so far still only two non-Europeans: American Andrew Hampsten in 1988 and Canadian Ryder Hesjedal in 2012. It has been run annually, except during the two World wars, and even continued (with very strict regulations in place) during the Covid pandemic: in 2020 it was held in October between Italy’s first and second lockdowns, while in 2021 it went back to May as usual, but with extremely strict limits on spectator numbers. However, normal service has been resumed for the 2022 edition of what has become Italy’s largest spectator event. And so with the whole thing practically going past our front door, Mr Blue-Shirt and I weren’t going to miss the chance of being among the 500,000 spectators daily who turn out to cheer on the 22 teams and 176 riders.

Montelupone, we discovered, was on the route of the 10th stage of the race, and having checked the list of road numbers in the mayor’s letter against the map, we found that the race would be passing through the village at the small roundabout on its eastern edge where the road coming up from the coast and down into the Potenza valley crosses the one that leads down from Montelupone and up to Potenza Picena on the neighbouring hilltop. By that time, the race would be into its second week, having started on 6th May in Hungary (no, I don’t know either) where the first three stages were held. Everyone then transferred to Sicily for the next two stages before crossing to the mainland for the rest of the race. Stages six to eight went from the tip of Italy’s toe up to Naples, and stage nine then took everyone up over the Apennine mountains to Pescara on the Adriatic coast where week one ended – and where, after a rest day on the Monday, ‘our’ stage of the race was due to begin at midday on Tuesday.

The first half of the 196km route consisted of the long flat run up the main coast road to Civitanova Marche, then it took a sharp turn inland and up into to the hills towards Montelupone. According to the timetable, the race was due to reach us at about 3.15pm, so we set off in plenty of time to find a parking space and a good viewing position – although we had no idea how many people would be there – if any, in fact. But as we turned onto the road that leads from the village centre down towards the roundabout, we could see that it was already filling up with cars and milling with people, so we tucked into the first available space and walked the last few hundred metres. Barriers were already in place at the roundabout, with the Polizia Munizipale and the local Carabinieri striding around purposefully, but actually doing little more than occasionally shooing people off the road and onto the verge. We wandered around for a few minutes, assessing which would be the place to offer the best view. Some had opted for a position in the shade of the tall oak trees that lined the road each side of the roundabout, but most had gathered around the edge of the roundabout even though it was in full sun. And we decided to join them: getting a bit hot was a price worth paying to be able to see the riders toil all the way up one side of the hill, cross right in front of us and then tear off down the other side. So we squeezed our way into position alongside the excited gaggle of children from the local cycling school who had all gathered at the roadside in their club cycling kit, ready to wave their Italian flags and handwritten placards as their heroes whizzed past.

After fifteen minutes or so the sense of anticipation cranked up a notch as a stream of police motorcycles with their blue lights flashing powered up and over the hill, their riders waving at the crowds of spectators as they went, clearly relishing their moment in the spotlight. Then came a stream of official race stewards on strange 3-wheeled motorbikes, followed by a convoy of liveried support vehicles, their rooves bristling with bike racks and what we presumed was some kind of telemetry equipment. Soon after, a couple of TV company helicopters clattered into view, dipping down and turning figures-of-eight over the long lines of spectators and the excitement rose further.

“Here they come!” cried someone suddenly and pointed across the valley to our right. A mile or so away a line of blue flashing lights streamed down the hill on the far side with a long multi-coloured ribbon of cyclists rippling along in its wake, before disappearing from view among the trees at the bottom. But suddenly the police bikes burst out of the tunnel of green, screaming up the hill, sirens blaring. Close behind them came another gaggle of race stewards and, almost unnoticed among them, the three stage leaders who had long since pulled away from the rest of the pack. Just flicking their hips from one side to the other, they swerved around the roundabout and plunged off down the hill to our left, and as they disappeared round a tight bend, we all turned back to the right to watch the main peloton labouring up the hill like a single enormous millipede on wheels. The crowd cheered and clapped and chanted “Forza! Forza! Forza!” while the kids waved their banners as the huge, panting beast roared past us in a blur of Lycra and carbon fibre. And then, in a whoosh of warm air, it was gone, snaking off down the hill, round the bend and out of sight.

Once the convoy of team support vehicles loaded with spare bikes, yet more police outriders and race stewards and finally a fleet of Red Cross vehicles had all been and gone, and so with the excitement over, the crowds began to drift away. Meanwhile, the peloton was already well on its way up to the highest point of the stage at Recanati, the neighbouring hilltop town we can see from the end of our road. From there it was on to Filottrano, where I taught in a fashion company for some months, and then on to the finish in Jesi, the town where the language school I used to work for was based. By this time, though, the three cyclists who had led the race as it went through Montelupone had run out of steam and been overtaken, and in a dramatic sprint for the line, the victor was Biniam Girmay, the first ever black African cyclist to win a stage in the Giro. It is therefore unfortunate that this Eritrean cyclist is more likely to be remembered for having to pull out of the race only a few hours after his triumph – having popped a Prosecco cork into his own eye on the winner’s podium.

Our mayor, however, along with the town council, the Polizia Munizipale and the Carabinieri, can all be satisfied with a job well done on the day the Giro d’Italia came to Montelupone.

For the record, stages eleven and twelve took the race from near Rimini on the east coast back over to Genoa on the west coast. Then it was up into the Alps for stages thirteen to fifteen, with the second week of the race concluding in Val d’Aosta only a few kilometres from the French and Swiss borders. Over the course of the third week, the final six stages will continue to wind up, down and around the peaks of the Dolomites before descending to Verona on Sunday 29th May and the dash for the finishing line right in front of the city’s Roman amphitheatre.

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