The Netherlands turned pink over the weekend as the Giro d’Italia came to visit for three days. Vast crowds packed Apeldoorn for the official team presentation on Thursday evening, and those crowds multiplied to line the roads for the following three days of racing.
It was an impressive sight, and showed that the popularity of bike racing – and the Giro d’Italia – in one of Europe’s great cycling heartlands is as strong as ever. We’ll no doubt soon hear about how much money the Giro’s visit has brought to the local economy, comfortably exceeding the reported €12.85 million (£10 million) the Gelderland province spent on hosting the race.
Whether the Grand Tours should take place outside their nominated countries or not is often debated. But what I’m pondering here is whether the first three days of the 2016 Giro were actually any good from the perspective of racing.
There’s a level of expectation before the start of any Grand Tour that almost invariably exceeds what the race can actually deliver (with occasional exceptions, of course). The Giro being the first of the season, that expectation is magnified even further.
Arguably, you can hold a time trial anywhere flat and get a similar result, particularly a short one like the Giro’s opening 9.8-kilometre test against the clock. The sight of lone riders tackling an urban time trial course is not much of a spectacle in itself, irrespective of the location. There is a tradition for prologues or time trials kicking off Grand Tours… hardly room for complaint.
The time trial did indeed serve up a good winner in the shape of Tom Dumoulin – a ‘home’ win that was a crowd-pleaser. ‘Good’ as in it was a dream start for the host nation: one of the brightest stars of Dutch cycling taking a big win.
The following two stages were – as the local topography dictates – flat. Aerial TV pictures had little in the way of scenery to provide the backdrop, given the urban areas of Arnhem and Nijmegen took turns to host the start and finish of stages two and three.
Both stages were of similar length, used the same start/finish towns and had the same outcome: a sprint victory by Marcel Kittel. Despite a line-up of top-class sprinters to rival Kittel, including André Greipel, Caleb Ewan, Elia Viviani, Arnaud Démare, Giacomo Nizzolo, Kittel barely looked like he broke into a sweat – but that’s hardly the fault of the race organiser.
This will be an unpopular observation: if you ran a stand-alone three-day race using the opening stages of the 2016 Giro it wouldn’t provide much in the way of excitement. It’s hard to see a legacy event in the mould of the Tour de Yorkshire being created.
This is in no way a comment about what the Netherlands can offer: this is the home of the Amstel Gold Race. However, the way riders can throw themselves at a single day race is very different to how they would tackle the opening days of a three-week event.
After three days in the Netherlands, the race then stalled on Monday as a rest day was required for the riders and teams to ship themselves and equipment down to the south of Italy. It was the same after the 2014 Giro start in Ireland.
When the race re-started on Tuesday in Catanzaro, it felt like the ‘real’ Giro had commenced. More action was packed into the first day in Italy than in the three in the Netherlands as the race hit its first selection of steep hills.
The financial and marketing rewards of foreign Grand Tour starts are obvious. Taking your event to your audience feels like you are directly connecting with them, and perhaps even expressing ‘thanks’ for the support and interest. This is a worthy sentiment, but is there a danger that this aspect may overshadow providing a decent race to watch?
Watch: Giro d’Italia 2016 essential guide
As I write this, rumours are circulating that the 2018 Giro may start in Japan. The logistics of linking the race from Japan to Italy will be tough to achieve. How many rest days will be required for such a transfer, which will stall the race? One, two, three?
Why doesn’t Giro owner RCS Sport just create a new race in Japan if the interest is there? Or perhaps the Giro start is a way of doing just that, as a future legacy event.
Next year’s Giro will be the race’s 100th edition, and will start in Italy and stay there for its duration. We’ve yet to see what the opening stages will offer.