After bidding ‘grazie e ciao!’ to Sandro – one of the Team Katusha coaches (and ex-pro from the 1970’s) for a thrilling lap around the TT course chasing Juan Horrach, I hightailed it to the arena to join the fray and catch the final kms of this year’s Giro.
I fought my way back through the crowds around the team buses, who watched for their favorite rider while the teams were already busy loading suitcases and packing up for a fast getaway after the race. Contrary to what you might think, most of the riders I’ve asked just want to get home as fast as they can, the celebratory parties are left to the Giro support staffers and sponsors.
In past years I’ve seen the race complete in Milan, and found the whole thing somewhat anticlimactic, with just the usual podium ceremony held on a stage of a Milanese strada. I’ve been keen to get my final story posted and blast off myself- so I was pretty unprepared for the next few hours and a whole different end to the Giro that I was about to witness.
We walked into the Verona Arena through the press entrance – one of the portals behind the stage, and as I passed under the stone arches and emerged onto the stage where I’d sat – almost completely alone only a few hours before, my heart beat quickened as the sheer magnitude of how many people were here slowly revealed itself.
The ancient stadium was packed, Giro-hostess Barbara Pedrotti was back on stage, the concert speakers were cranked to 11, and riders rolled in one at a time as they completed their time trials (their official time was taken a 100m before at the official finish line.)
This was big league entertainment, and vastly different from any Giro I’ve seen. It was impossible to not get caught up in the anticipation of seeing Ivan Basso ride his last stage, and win this race.
The “Pink Balloons Project” dancers took the stage as Basso took the start house, and the crowd roared as Ivan rolled down the ramp and onto the corsa.
Then they called in Cadel Evans, who despite finishing 5th on GC, took home the ‘combativity’ red jersey, and the hearts of countless more Italian fans. The cheers for him were huge, and his satisfaction was clear as he rolled into the arena.
Backstage final preparations were well underway for the ceremonies to follow, with the various trophies shined and arranged, and the last blast of pink balloons netted and at the ready for one last send off.
The top riders were called in one by one: Scarponi came in after Evans and the applause meter showed he’s got a gigantic following of fans in his home country, but whether we’ll ever see him race elsewhere is anybody’s guess.
Next in was Vincenzo Nibali, and then second place David Arroyo Duran. Each time the cheers got louder, but I doubt anyone was ready for the reception Ivan Basso got. If this place had a roof, it would have come down for sure.
The place went bananas. Ivan rolled straight in and waiting for him at the top of the stage were his two young children. The very first thing he did – before he even got off his bike – was bend down and give them a huge hug – the kind only dad who loves his kids can. It was a pretty touching moment and there were more than a few moist eyes in the stadium.
With the last rider home, it was truly time to let go of the tension and apprehension, and forget the physical pain that the riders had lived with for the last 21 (or more) days.
Backstage, I couldn’t help but get caught up in that ‘just graduated’ feeling. I’ve only been on this race for the last 3 stages and I’m exhausted – I’ve no idea how these people do it for 3 weeks.
The emotions were clear and joyous – but as I watched the crowd I began to see a lot of different emotions as people hugged, laughed, sweated, and worked, as they celebrated the Giro.
The Giro mascot guy completed his finale dance onstage as part of one of the jersey presentations, and from out there it looks pretty easy… I mean how tough can it be to bop around in a mascot suit for a few minutes? But mascot-guy’s face told a completely different story – straight off the stage and the suit was already half off. He was drenched in sweat, and breathing hard. He walked to the back and shed the heavy and hot suit with the help of an assistant, who promptly shoved it into the biggest gear-bag I’ve ever seen. Giro done. Job done. It’s Miller time.
Right next to him, local press had corralled Vincenzo Nibali in the too small interview booth. But he didn’t seem to mind the crush of cameras and mics one more time – he road a huge race and has every reason to be pleased.
Scanning the crowd I spied a much quieter and more personal moment as Fabio Sabatini enjoyed the moment with his sweetie.
A glance left and here comes Barbara Pedrotti – her last Giro tidbit enthusiastically presented to the crowd, she made a bee-line for the exit, but made one more stop to shed her 5-inch stilettos. I’m pretty sure her feet then had their own celebration.
Back onstage, the various jersey and trophy presentations are well underway, and Giro big boss Angelo Zomegnan has to be pleased with this year’s race, which ran without the embarrassing rider protests of last year, and was much more exciting from the sporting side. He was still on the job, doling out last minute directions to pretty much anyone within earshot.
With things taking longer on stage than expected – like audience applause for an Italian winner and team – Cadel took a moment to rest his legs and take in the chaos around him. His satisfaction was clear, and July must be looking even clearer to him now.
The proceedings bounced along from one trophy to the next, including a huge explosion that shot thousands of pink paper shreds into the skies above the stage. I don’t care how old you are, it’s impossible not to feel like a kid amid this kind of pageantry.
Team Saxobank’s Gustav Larson won the day, in a time of 20:19, just 2 seconds ahead of Italian TT champ Marco Pinotti (those PowerCranks he uses for training seem to be working fine). Gustav’s girlfriend and pro racer Veronica Andreaason was here to help him celebrate, and never stopped smiling once.
With the Tour’s official duties out of the way, even the much photographed Liquigas Girls grabbed their own cameras to snap some shots of their own.
Buy now most of the trophies have been handed out, and riders were starting to find their way out. Caisse d’Epargne’s David Arroyo rode an amazing race, and defended the maglia rosa with pride and honour through the last week. But he looked even happier when he plopped his son onto his bike and rode to the exit.
Gibo Simoni gave us the thumbs up, and despite finishing in 69th, he secured his slot as one of Italy’s most popular riders with his bid on the Gavia. His reputation as a classy rider intact, the former Giro winner celebrated his last race with his wife and infant daughter.
By now the fun had been rocking to an endless (and pretty awesome) mix of the 80’s best hits, but the shadows were growing longer and it wasn’t without that usual pang of sadness that I watched the winner roll out of the stadium, through the same portal I’d entered through a few hours earlier.
Drawing the curtain on a three week tour is a bit like saying goodbye to a dear friend, knowing you won’t see them again until next year.
It was 7 o’clock, and I’d stayed longer at this finish than at any other Giro finale, but I was caught up in party, and simply did not want to miss one minute of it.
I’m glad I stayed – seeing first hand the emotion that comes at the end of a three week, thousands of kilometers journey around this country, for me made what can often be seen as a detached and impersonal event into something a lot more real. Sure it’s the second biggest bike race on the planet, and the physical torture the riders endure is extraordinary, but seeing it end like today, brought or me, the whole sport down to a level that is not so different from a bunch of guys going for a bike ride.
Thanks to everyone for reading and joining us for this year’s race. As simple as it may be to click a link and find yourself immersed in images and stories from the last three weeks, my mind still boggles at how we manage to pull it off every year.
Ours is a team effort all the way, and my gratitude and thanks go the PEZ-Crew: Alastair Hamilton, Dave Aldersebaes, Gord Cameron and his driver/ photog Valerie, Chris Seldon, Ed Hood and Martin Williamson, Ale Federico, Matt Conn, and Corey Sar Fox for faithfully following the race and writing our reports, and a special thanks to Jered Gruber, who’s been pretty much desk bound the last three weeks crunching together all this plus our Tour of California content, plus daily site updates and more – so that all you readers have to do is click back and enjoy.
I’d be remiss too, if I didn’t thank my own personal support crew of Mrs. Pez and our girls, Alessa & Loredana, who never like it when I leave home, but have supported me regardless, so I too can indulge my love of the sport that I sometimes call a ‘job’.
Thanks for reading.