The weekly spin: Why the Giro d’Italia is better than the Tour de France

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Leave it to Simon Yates to say out loud what many in the cycling community have quietly believed for years now — the Giro d’Italia is better than the Tour de France.

How is it better? Let us count the ways.

It’s harder. It’s more beautiful. It’s more complicated. It’s more festive, less corporate, more beloved by the towns it passes through, the fans on its roadside, and, yes, often the riders in its peloton.

Let’s hear it from Yates. In an interview at Ruta del Sol, where he soloed to a stage win in Granada, the 26-year-old British rider told Spanish website Ciclo21 that he’s “not interested” in the Tour de France, which he’s started on three occasions, with a seventh overall finish in 2017.

Not interested in the Tour? Coming from a rider who could possibly win it?

Last year, Yates won three stages at the Giro and wore the maglia rosa for 13 days before collapsing on the penultimate mountain stage; he went on to take his first Grand Tour victory at the Vuelta a España in September, with one stage win. In 2019, he’ll race the same program, once again bypassing the Tour de France.

“I simply don’t feel the same passion for it,” the Mitchelton-Scott rider said. “Many people grow up wanting to race the Tour, but right now in the Tour, they’re only interested in the show instead of having the riders racing to win, which is generating the opposite effect. The most important thing is no longer the bike race. Right now, it’s a race that I do not want to return to.

“I go to the Giro and in the weeks before the race, I’m anxious to start. I go to the Vuelta and the same thing happens. I think, ‘I can’t wait to start the race and try to win.’ I don’t get that feeling when I go to the Tour.”

Funny, I don’t get that feeling when I watch the Tour, either.

Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) dominated the first 18 stages at the 2018 Giro d’Italia, winning three stages and wearing pink for 13 days.

As the biggest bike race in the world, the Tour has become bloated — too important, too controlled, too predictable. There’s too much media, too many VIPs, it’s too crowded, and all that is amplified when it’s too hot.

The Tour de France is the stadium concert, the Giro is the intimate club performance.

Team Sky, the biggest-budget team in the sport, has made winning the Tour its primary objective, succeeding six times over the past seven years with three different riders. Prior to that, the US Postal Service/Discovery Channel team applied a similar, stifling approach to the race, winning it seven years straight. In total, that’s two teams winning the race a combined 13 times in the past 20 years.

At the Giro, no team has won the race more than twice in the past 20 years; the Discovery Channel team won it once, in 2005, and Team Sky won it once, in 2018.

At the 2016 Giro, three riders wore the maglia rosa in the last four stages. At the 2017 Giro, the race lead changed twice in the last four stages. Last year, it changed shoulders with two stages remaining.

When was the last time you saw something like that at the Tour de France?

Steep mountains and spring weather

The primary differences between the Giro and the Tour are tied to terrain and weather.

Italy’s topography is quite mountainous, marked by two major ranges, the east-west arcing Alps, at the northern border, and the north-south Apennines, bordered by narrow coastlands that form the physical spine of peninsular Italy. There’s not much of Italy that isn’t hilly in some form or another.

The Central and Eastern Alps, where legendary climbs such as the Passo dello Stelvio and the Passo di Gavia are located, differ significantly from the Western Alps found in southeastern France.

The alpine climbs at the Tour are generally longer than those used at the Giro, but also wider and more gradual. Climbs at the Giro are often narrow and steep, with drastic changes in pitch, making it more difficult for any one team to control things.

Let’s pick a few iconic climbs, both technically in the Alps, to use as examples. The Col du Galibier (from at Valloire) averages 6.9% for 18.1km, with a maximum gradient of 10.1%; the Passo di Mortirolo (from Mazzo di Valtellina) averages 10.5%  for 12.4km, with a maximum gradient of 18%.

Because nearly 40% of Italy is made up of high mountains, the country is littered with rolling foothills that provide for lumpy stages and, often, uphill finishes — short, steep climbs that cause separation and, in turn, cause time bonuses to play a significant role, seeing more changes in leadership and, in turn, more dynamic tactics.

Chris Froome’s Giro-winning day in the mountains at the 2018 edition came not on the strength of team control — though Team Sky did set a blistering pace on the early slopes of the Colle delle Finestre — but rather from an 80km all-or-none solo attack.

When was the last time you saw something like that at the Tour de France?

The Tour, of course, has the Pyrenees and the Alps, as well as the Massif Central, the highland region in the middle of Southern France. Due to France’s hexagonal shape, the Tour route runs either clockwise or counterclockwise, alternating each year; it’s a formula that works, but has become predictable.

Italy’s shape, by contrast, doesn’t easily lend itself to formulaic routes. It’s not uncommon to see the Giro route double back upon itself. Key stages often come in the first week and are sprinkled throughout the race. The Giro is not structured to build to a climax as much as it is structured to deliver maximum chaos.

“In Italy, you’ve got the full spectrum of the Alps, and the Appenines as well, so the reality is that Italy has thousands of climbs, thousands of different sceneries,” Giro race director Mauro Vegni said in 2016. “And so it’s much easier to innovate in Italy, because you’ve got the scope to do it.”

Looking at it from that perspective, it’s not hard to understand why a pure climber, such as Simon Yates, would prefer racing in Italy.

But even a tall and lanky Frenchman like Thibaut Pinot prefers to race the Giro than the Tour. As his FDJ teammate Steve Morobito once said, “Thibaut has a temperament that makes him race more Italian than French, very spontaneously. He races by feel, and he accepts his passion.”

Because the Giro is held in May, rain is common, weather conditions vary greatly, and alpine snowpack has not yet melted away.

Weather conditions are also a key difference between the two races, and often dictate which riders will excel. Last year’s winner, Chris Froome, famously prefers racing in hot conditions to wet and cold; his lone Tour de France abandonment of the past seven years came in 2014, after crashing in the rain. His Giro victory came at an edition that was unseasonably warm and dry.

In 2013, Bradley Wiggins, then reigning Tour de France champion, struggled through 12 wet Giro stages, crashing on a wet descent, before abandoning what would prove to be his final Grand Tour. Upon sealing the overall victory that year, Vincenzo Nibali reflected on winning a race the Tour champion could not finish.

“The Tour has long and straight roads, only one stage [into Switzerland] was difficult with narrow roads and turns,” Nibali said. “Here, however, was truly hard, starting from the first week. That’s the Giro; it comes earlier in the year with bad weather… with rain and cold temperatures, everything changes. Last year in the Tour, it never rained.”

The combination of mountainous terrain and spring weather also makes for more stunning imagery at the Giro, whether it’s snow-capped mountains in the background, or the peloton quite literally riding up and over snow-plowed summits.

Andy Hampsten’s ride over the Passo di Gavia in 1988, when he took the maglia rosa and went on to win the Giro, is perhaps the most extreme example, but more recently, Steven Kruijswijk watched his maglia rosa slip away when he crashed into a snowbank atop the Coll dell’Agnello in 2016.

When was the last time you saw something like that at the Tour de France?

Deeply passionate

When it comes to spectacle, the French just can’t compete with the Italians. Sometimes it’s a bit over the top, but the pageantry around the Giro — the confetti, pink everything, the “amore infinito” of it all — is second to none.

There is, of course, a self-importance to both events, but the organizers of the Tour prefer to fall back on their race’s history and tradition. Giro organizers aren’t shy about using superlatives such as “the sport’s toughest race” held in the “world’s most beautiful place.”

The same can be said for the Italian fans, known as the tifosi, who are deeply passionate about their bike racing. (In Italian, tifosi literally translates to “those infected by typhus,” meaning a group of people acting in a fevered manner.)

The Tour’s spot on the calendar, when much of Western Europe is on holiday, is both a blessing and a curse. It could be said that many spectators who line the roads of France in July are there to experience the event; they’re there for the party. Many of the fans that line the roads of Italy in May are there to watch and support a bike race.

Chris Froome won in front of thousands of fans atop Monte Zoncolan in 2018.

The depths to which cycling is ingrained into Italian culture just isn’t comparable in France. Le Tour may sit atop the event pyramid, but Italian cycling culture has a much wider base, from amateur racing to the pro ranks; Italy claims more riders in the pro peloton than any other nation.

Or consider the mythology built around iconic cycling brands such as Campagnolo or Colnago; there is no French equivalent.

It’s hard to quantify passion, but it’s real, and it’s significant.

Italy’s ongoing economic crisis may have severely affected the financial backing of Italian races and teams, but at the Giro, where attendance is free, you’d never know.

While the Giro feels like a major event, it’s not overwhelmingly so. Start and finish towns embrace the race, but like the riders, they’re not overcome by the race. Hotel rooms and restaurant tables remain accessible, even on short notice. And in my experience, Italian hospitality is just… superior. Same with Italian coffee.

By contrast, the sheer number of spectators at the Tour makes it both physically and mentally difficult for journalists to access riders, who are often overwhelmed by the masses and the onslaught of media attention. Given the amount of coverage provided to the Tour, by media as well as team press officers, I’ve often said that there’s no race harder to cover on the ground, and easier to cover remotely, than the Tour de France.

ESPN’s Bonnie Ford spoke with six riders who had competed at both the Giro and Tour, back in 2009 when Lance Armstrong competed in his first and only Giro. They spoke on topics spanning from race ambience and organization to food and prestige.

Asked about the differences in cuisine between the two events, Hampsten, the 1988 Giro champion, put it succinctly. “It’s paradise at the Giro,” he said. “Much better and healthier than at the Tour. Most of the hotels are small, family run places with modest rooms and absolutely crazy-good restaurants.”

American Bobby Julich echoed Hampsten’s sentiments, saying, “You never have to worry about getting good pasta in the hotels [at the Giro]. The Tour organization has made efforts to improve the level of hotels and food, but there are a few times during the race when you have an absolutely miserable experience.”

Julich also pointed out the most significant, if intangible, difference between the two races. “The stress [at the Tour] is second to none,” he said, “because there is so much at stake.”

Team sponsorships hinge on Tour de France participation; rider contracts hinge on Tour de France results. There’s so much at stake, in fact, that the racing often becomes neutralized in the final week as riders settle into defending their top-10 positions, a situation far less seen at the Giro.

Unpredictable and chaotic

In expressing his preference of the Giro over the Tour, Yates may have said what few riders have said publicly, but that’s not to say it hasn’t been voiced elsewhere.

In putting together this column I uncovered a piece written by Larry Theobald, a longtime commenter here at CyclingTips, also published in 2009. Theobald lists the reasons he prefers the Giro over the Tour, which span across sporting and personal criteria — better roads, better food, better hotels, more intimate, more beautiful, more exciting, et cetera, et cetera.

Ten years later, it’s as true than ever — and it seems more top GC contenders are catching on. Just look at the start list of this year’s event.

Simon Yates will be there, along with 2017 winner (and 2018 runner-up) Tom Dumoulin of Team Sunweb, and 2016 winner Vincenzo Nibali of Bahrain-Merida.

Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana), third overall last year, and Richard Carapaz, fourth overall last year, will both return. Carapaz may not even be his team’s leader, as he’ll be joined by Movistar teammates Mikel Landa and Alejandro Valverde, both podium finishers in the past.

In Yates, Dumoulin, Nibali, and Valverde that’s three Giro titles, one Tour win, and three Vuelta victories between them, and once again, the Giro is their season objective.

“I’m not so narrow minded that I only think about the Tour and everything else is shit,” Dumoulin said in January. “I really love the Giro.”

Team Sky phenom Egan Bernal will be making his Giro debut in his first attempt as a Grand Tour leader. Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma), fourth at the Tour last year, will also race for the maglia rosa, as will Fabio Aru (Team UAE Emirates) Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin), Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), Mike Woods (EF Education First), Bob Jungels (Deceuninck-Quick Step), and Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe).

All said, it’s a wide-open race for the general classification. When was the last time you said that about the Tour de France?

In July, Froome will be attempting his fifth Tour victory. Yes, I’ll be watching, but I’ll take unpredictable and chaotic racing over formulaic and controlled any day. Hey, I know Simon Yates agrees with me.

The Tour de France is the biggest race in pro cycling, and there is honor in that. But the Giro d’Italia is the best of the Grand Tours.

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