NFL fans of a certain age will back me on this. The Super Bowl is the Super Bowl, and it always will be ... but if you love the sport for what it is, there is no guarantee that the Super Bowl will be the greatest game of the season. For what seemed like decades, the Super Bowl was a complete dud, a necessary afterthought to another great NFC championship game between some combination of Bears, Giants, Niners, Redskins or Cowboys. The NFL wasn't allowed to say anything, but we all knew.
In Cycling, the Tour de France acts as the Super Bowl, the event that everyone agrees is the pinnacle of the season. Riders want to win it more than anything else. Teams too. Sponsors cherish exposure at the Tour like nothing else. TV networks cover the race exhaustively. Fans crowd into Alpine settings by the hundreds of thousands, rendering rural French terrain uninhabitable for a few days. Children crane their necks just for a glimpse of the caravan publicitaire. Everything about the Tour is the biggest thing there is.
So what does a Tour de France fan make of the Giro d'Italia, Cycling's sometimes-disputed No. 2 race? Not much, to the casual glance, but if you look closer you can see an event so packed full of splendor that you might wonder if the best man is about to upstage the groom. Let's back up a bit...
The Giro d'Italia is the second-oldest of the three Grand Tours, starting in 1909 -- just six years after the Tour de France, and occupying a spot before the Tour ever since. Like its brethren, the Giro began as both a physical challenge to the ever-increasing desire of turn-of-the-century cyclists to ride themselves into oblivion, and as a marketing tool translating 'national unity" into newspaper sales. Over time, the Giro has followed the Tour's lead, expanding to 21 manageable stages (as opposed to circling the country in eight massive ones), and venturing to places around the country and outside its borders as a way to bring communities together around their love of cycling. La Corsa Rosa is the premier event in a country that's mad for sports in general, with cycling high up on the list. The honor roll of great Italian champions is as long as any other country's.
So how is the Giro different from the Tour? Too many ways to count, but here are some biggies.
Probably the most notable characteristic of the Giro is all the climbing. Italy simply doesn't have a lot of flat roads; unlike France and Spain, where a true tour of the nation involves linking the mountain ranges together with some long, flat stages, in Italy you're never far from some serious climbing, from the majestic Alps and craggy Dolomites up north to the short, steep hills of the quiet south, the volcanoes of Sicily and Naples, the rolling beauty of Tuscany, connected by the Apennine mountains running down the length of the Boot.
This has had a few notable consequences. Some years there simply aren't many sprints on the docket. Apart from Emilia-Romagna and the plains of Piedmont, there aren't many wide-open spaces, but Italy has had its share of great sprinters, and you can always find the lungomare, the broad waterfront boulevards found in many a coastal town. This year's course boasts seven sprint stages. Any less than that and you can count on the world's great sprinters to either show up and drop out before the final week, once the handful of sprints are contested, or to stay away from the race entirely. The points competition, often regarded in France as the "best sprinter" classification, has been won by many a mountain goat at the Giro.
Another consequence is that the Giro occasionally goes overboard. Former race director Angelo Zomegnan was known to try to steal the Tour's thunder with a race that packed in so many mountain stages that, frankly, it got out of control. The 2011 edition featured seven summit finishes, including a mountain time trial and the horrifying Monte Zoncolan. Really, it was too much.
Mostly, though, Italy's endless supply of mountains gives new race director Michele Acquarone the chance to vary the climbs, rather than going to the well over and over. Spending the third week down south? Look for ways to incorporate the Block Haus (a/k/a Passo Lanciano) and a trip up Mount Vesuvius. Swing up to the Alps, even the French ones, for that element. Wind through the Dolomites for more madness. End at one of Italy's numerous ski areas or religious sanctuaries perched atop a steep 10km climb. There are always more.
May isn't July. High mountain passes can be snowed in. Cold weather can descend on the race from nowhere. Moreover, life in May isn't anything like July. In May, Italy still belongs to Italians. The foreign hordes haven't descended on the Giro and the locals haven't run for the hills. Consequently, the roadsides aren't as packed with fans. Supposedly you can get where you need to go, within reason, and probably scare up a place to stay. None of these things are true at the Tour.
The fact that Italians are still around helps ensure that the local guys will be the stars of the show. Whereas the Tour belongs to the world, the Giro is very much an Italian event, with outsiders occasionally muscling in. A foreigner didn't win the Giro until it was 42 years old. In the last sixteen editions, Italians have won 13 of them. As much as the sport has internationalized over the years, the Giro remains a tough nut for foreigners to crack.
France has sunflowers. Italy has the Amalfi coast. France has chateaux. Italy has monasteries. France has big, craggy mountains. Italy has big, craggy mountains, some of which are ready to erupt. The Tour likes to finish on the Champs Elysees. The Giro recently finished at the Colosseum.
Don't get into a scenery-flaunting contest with the Giro d'Italia. You will lose.
Those are some basic elemental differences between the Giro and the Tour, but it's not very meaningful to speak in terms of the scenery or the race profiles. It's the riders who make the races, and here... the Tour probably wins more often than not, but it's hardly written in stone.
The Giro is ridden differently than the Tour. In the latter case, the race goes hard from the start, with so much ambition on the line. The Giro is notorious for (historically) waiting for the helicopters -- and TV cameras -- to arrive before clicking into gear. Bit of a cliche now, but you'll get a piano (slow tempo) stage still.
Next, guys generally can't go as hard in May as in July. The second 3000-km race doesn't hit the legs as hard as the first, I'd imagine. But more to the point, a lot of riders hold back in Italy if they think they might be on their team's Tour squad. The sheer number of guys riding to win at any point in the Giro is pared down from the number of guys giving their all at the Tour. That's not an especially good thing.
Still, the ones left competing can put on a hell of a show. In 2005 and '10 the race came down to the last mountain stage, and the overall lead changed hands. Ivan Basso's victory in 2010, where he and Vincenzo Nibali worked over poor David Arroyo, was a thing of beauty, not to mention suspense. Paolo Savoldelli's nail-biter in 2005 had all the suspense missing from Lance Armstrong's Tour defense two months later. Last year, Ryder Hesjedal overcame Joaquim Rodriguez in the final weekend's time trial for a narrow win.
Guys who win the Giro are top quality, most years, and a suspenseful Giro is generally the kind of racing you hope for, and don't always get, at the Tour. The Italians have everything at stake and will leave it all on the road. The foreigners often feel like they have nothing to lose, and ride accordingly free of caution. Combine that with a majestic course and endless scenery, and you have a very, very grand tour.