The story of the Giro d'Italia - Italy's equivalent of the Tour de France, and its superior in the eyes of many - is as dramatic and full of extraordinary characters as the story of Italy itself. Heroism, suffering, feuds and betrayals, tradition under threat from modernity all play out against a timeless landscape. The iconic riders, mythical stories and career defining exploits are conveyed in rich, vibrant prose.

Giro d'Italia: The story of the world's most beautiful bike race is out in paperback on 26th April

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Imagine a different Italy. A recently integrated kingdom of disparate regions, mostly inhabited by peasantry. Almost half the population was illiterate, and the majority spoke dialect rather than the Florentine standard of the state. Even the country’s first king, Victor Emmanuel II, Padre della Patria, Father of the Fatherland, struggled to use the country’s official language.

What roads existed were rough and narrow and rarely, if ever, paved. Away from the cobbled urban centres, mostly they were nothing more than compacted dirt and gravel. The masses relied on mules and bicycles, not cars, for labour and transport. The Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino (Fiat), was less than a decade old and some way away from becoming one of Europe’s great automotive giants. Rome, Milan, Turin and Naples were all experiencing rapid growth, but the majority of the country’s 32 million inhabitants lived in small towns or in the countryside.

The capital was still plagued by malaria from the dreaded Pontine Marshes, and it would be 20 years before the Italian government resolved its dispute with the Vatican, having forcibly annexed the Papal States in 1870. Giuseppe Garibaldi, the general and politician who was born in Nice but would go on to lead the Risorgimento, Italy’s unification, had only died 27 years ago. The country was rapidly changing, and the Giro d’Italia was both a reflection, and a reaction, to that fact. The founding fathers’ desire to build a modern state, the creation of the Kingdom of Italy and the attempted integration of its diverse, remote and often contradictory constituent parts, was still more current affairs than ancient history when the race’s first edition rolled away from the Gazzetta dello Sport’s office on Milan’s Piazzale Loreto in 1909. As strange and as modern a contraption as the bicycle must have seemed to many onlookers, the very idea of having an ‘Italy’ to ride around was most likely just as intriguing a curiosity.

Cycling fans in the Bel Paese sometimes joke that the race has done more to unite Italy than Garibaldi’s Risorgimento ever managed. And while this is said with tongue planted firmly in cheek, perhaps there’s a grain of truth to it, because in the early twentieth century this was still very much a country divided. Much of the north was against integration, as was the Vatican, and while Naples and the south supported it, that had more to do with disdain for the Bourbon royal family and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies than it did with any real enthusiasm for the new state. ‘L’Italia è fatta. Restano da fare gli italiani,’ observed Massimo d’Azeglio, the prime minister of Sardinia and a supporter of unification. ‘Italy has been made. Now we must make Italians.’

It would be hard not to notice a certain irony in the effect that the country’s peculiar geography has on its citizens and their relationship with the nation, even today in an age of motorways, high-speed rail and low-cost flights. Because while it was never very useful when it came to discouraging foreign encroachment, Italy’s topography – from the great plains of the north, bounded by the Alps and the Dolomites, to the long, narrow peninsula that is almost completely bisected by the Apennines – has been very effective in keeping its own inhabitants separate and ensconced in their own cultural, culinary and linguistic idiosyncrasies. Even if you arrived blindfolded to a town, a simple look at a local menu would give you an idea of where you were. In our age of convenience, you might find a cuttlefish risotto in Florence or Milan, but it won’t compare to Venetian archetype. Tortellini are best eaten in Emilia-Romagna, and pizza in Naples. Turin is veal braised in red wine, and powerful cheeses with a clear French influence. Orecchiette, little pasta discs named after the ‘little ears’ they resemble, mean Puglia, and you’re unlikely to find a plate of Pajata, the intestines of an unweaned calf, or a truly special carbonara, outside of the capital. Even something as simple as the Sicilian arancini – deep-fried rice balls traditionally stuffed with a meat sauce and peas – can give a little locational hint, because they change shape from spherical to conical depending on whether you’re on the north or the south coast of the island.

Italy is a land of inconsistencies and complications. No one who’s ever spent any time here will describe it as easy, and yet, that’s part of the charm. It’s also a huge part of the Giro’s soul, because unlike the Tour de France, which can sometimes seem prosaic and anaemic in its homogeny, the Italian event is a chaotic, unabashed celebration of the country’s colourful, often schizophrenic personality. You can be in the cramped, crumbling streets of Naples one day and at altitude at an Apennine ski resort the next. The grand boulevards and Baroque piazzas of Turin can follow the snow-capped Alps or the verdant, craggy coastline of Liguria and the Costa Azzurra. The bustling, beating heart of Milan, the country’s business capital, can quickly give way to the agrarian, pan-flat expanses of the Pianura Padana, and the captivating cities of the once mighty maritime Venetian republic – Venice, Padova, Verona, Vicenza, Treviso – often herald the race’s impending arrival among the dramatic peaks of the Dolomite mountain range.

The Giro isn’t the biggest race in professional cycling, but in the eyes of many fans and a lot of riders, it is the most beautiful – and difficult – grand tour. Because unlike the Tour, which is often formulaic, and dominated by the strongest, richest teams, the Giro is unpredictable and capricious. An abundance of choice means that the route is always original and fresh, and in contrast with the Tour, even the most iconic climbs can go through long periods of inactivity while the organisers look elsewhere for something novel. The springtime climate coupled with the Giro’s predilection for callous climbs and technical descents means that the race tends to reward the rider who takes the biggest risks. You don’t win a Giro by riding conservatively – you have to grab it by the scruff of the neck. In many ways, it’s a race for the purists. The route is more difficult, the terrain more varied, the weather more changeable, and the racing less controllable. And a strong Italian presence in the peloton always ensures that local pride plays a role, which is why you often see hard-to-fathom breakaways and incredibly emotional victory salutes. If the race passes by a rider’s home, you better believe he is going to put on a show. And though the crowds don’t always compare to those found at the roadside during the Tour, the Italian tifosi are more passionate and knowledgeable, because even in the twenty-first century, as road cycling becomes ever more globalised, Italy remains its heartland. Many of the sport’s most iconic brands hail from the peninsula, and legends like Gino Bartali, Fausto Coppi, Felice Gimondi, Francesco Moser and Marco Pantani continue to inspire. Italians still make up the majority of the professional peloton, and amateur riders come from all over the globe to ride iconic climbs like Stelvio, Gavia, Mortirolo, Zoncolan, Tre Cime di Lavaredo, Colle di Finestre, Giau, and Monte Grappa.

The first edition of the Giro was an audacious publicity stunt, cobbled together on the fly by a handful of ambitious young journalists at the Gazzetta dello Sport, but more on that later. A lot has happened in the subsequent 108 years. It has grown from an eight-stage war of attrition, where brute endurance was the order of the day, to a 21-stage battle of wits and tactics, played out at breakneck speed. It waited until 1950 for its first foreign winner, the charismatic and hugely popular Swiss rider Hugo Koblet, but has since become an incredibly pluralistic and international event, without ever losing its indelible Italian character. During the sport’s golden age, the romance of the rivalry between Bartali and Coppi captivated the entire country and in some ways still influences how Italians view the sport in the twenty-first century. The enmity that characterised the relationship between Moser and Giuseppe Saronni, decades after Coppi and Bartali, still occasionally spills over even though they are both now in their sixties, and the controversy over Stephen Roche’s 1987 Maglia Rosa still has the power to whip stubborn supporters of his teammate and rival, Roberto Visentini, into a rage.

On top of creating sporting legends, the race has also become entwined with political and commercial life in Italy. It’s been used by governments as a propaganda tool, embroiled in the machinations of the Catholic Church and the Mafia, and exploited by many an entrepreneurial soul looking to gain exposure for their business ventures. Bicycle brands have built fortunes from Giro success, and with almost four million readers in print and online, the Gazzetta’s position as Italy’s most-read daily owes much to the race, even if football has since taken over from cycling in the hearts of most sports fans. One famous example of what the Giro can do for a business is that of Romano Cenni’s Mercatone Uno, a relatively small, regional supermarket chain that sponsored Marco Pantani’s team. Riding the wave of Pantani-mania that swept Italy at the turn of the last century, Cenni has openly credited the diminutive climber’s popularity with the proliferation of his shops across the country. Cenni even built a monument to him outside the company’s headquarters in Imola. After Pantani, the Giro went through a difficult time that was marred by doping scandals and declining public interest, as cycling seemed to become more like a science lesson than a sporting competition. In recent years, however, the race has been enjoying a renaissance and is beginning to crawl out from under the shadow of the Tour to be seen by the wider global public as one of the world’s most important sporting events and an idiosyncratic highlight of the calendar in its own right, rather than just an Italian precursor to the main event across the border. The 2016 edition had a total audience of 827 million people in 194 countries, across more than 5,500 hours of dedicated television coverage. More than 500 of those hours were in Italy alone, and on the penultimate stage, some 3.6 million Italians – more than a quarter of the country’s total TV viewers at that time – tuned in to watch the action unfold. Around 12.5 million turned out on the roadside to see the Corsa Rosa – the Pink Race is a common nickname for the Giro in Italy – pass by. And over the course of the race, around 2,000 journalists produced more than 46,000 articles. The organisation booked a total of 17,500 rooms over the course of the event for teams, officials, guests and some members of the press. And because this is the social media age, it would be remiss not to mention the 50 million tweets recorded during the month of May. With its idiosyncratic character, complex history and huge cast of characters, the Giro can sometimes seem to elude full comprehension, but it means a great deal to an awful lot of people. This book sets out to explore why that is.