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The Tifosi: Heroes of the Giro

In-depth
5 May 2021
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It's Giro d'Italia time. Bad weather, the Dolomites. Gianni Savio. The unpredictable nature of the racing. Sprinters going home before the mountains. Italian ProConti riders on pointless 230km breakaways. 

The fans, the Tifosi.

Words Colin O’Brien Photography Sean Hardy

The mountains of the Giro d’Italia are a long way from Ventoux and Alpe d’Huez. More so than a map or a calendar might suggest. The Tour de France’s greatest climbs are hot to the touch under July’s sun, crowded with tourists, awash with colour and the buzz of the summer holidays.

Even people with no interest in cycling know about the Tour and it’s easy to entertain yourself with the atmosphere, the views and some food and a cool beer on a balmy afternoon under blue skies. You don’t care if it takes the riders all day to get up that climb. There’s no rush. La vie est belle.

Northern Italy in May is a different prospect altogether. It can often be cold and grey, and even though you know that you’re standing on top of the world, with no buildings or trees or crowds to impede your view, you can’t see a thing.

The wind might carry the occasional wave of cheering from somewhere in the gloom below, but everything else is consumed by fog. You won’t know that the race is coming until it’s right on top of you, and that can’t come soon enough because you’re absolutely freezing. È una merda.

Except it’s not. Weather be damned, Italy is beautiful, even when the conditions aren’t. And you don’t go to see a great race like the Giro to get a suntan. On the slopes of the Dolomites or a magical climb like the Zoncolan, with the crowds tiered steeply above the road, there’s an atmosphere unlike anything else.

The teams and the sponsors and even most of the riders can seem incidental. It’s the event that matters, the gathering, the party.

The Giro is the star, and with the exception of a very small number of truly great riders, everyone else plays a supporting role. As the race’s director, Mauro Vegni, once told me while discussing riders who skip one race in favour of another, ‘Whoever doesn’t come to the Giro is missing out. It’s not the Giro that is losing. It’s the Giro that makes champions, not the other way around.’

If it’s the Giro that makes the champions, what is it that makes the Giro? The places it brings us and the colour and energy that it brings out of us.

Anyone can go and watch a rugby or football match in a comfortable stadium, complete with concession stands and toilets and public transport, but it takes something more than a passing interest to traipse up a mountain early in the morning just to see a momentary flash of action late in the afternoon. It takes passion, and perhaps just a little bit of wildness, too.

Not your average fan

The iconic images of chaotic crowds on the mountainside make a bit more sense when you consider what we call them in the first place. Fans, short for fanatics, comes from the Latin fanaticus, ‘of or relating to a temple’, and consequently, to the excessively pious, the frenzied zealots, the possessed. In short, the mad.

The Italians use ‘fanatic’ in the same way we do. Do a word search for it on a news site there and you’ll find stories of mail bombers, serial killers and religious nuts. But sports fanatics have their own denomination: the tifosi.

The word comes from Tifo, typhus, because of the way in which the wildest supporters can seem delirious, overcome by a senseless, destructive infection. The tifoso is typhoidal.

At the Giro, they’ve been like that since the early days. A small riot broke out at the 1931 Giro d’Italia when a photo-finish sprint in Pescara was awarded to Alfredo Binda rather than the crowd’s favourite, Learco Guerra.

When the race director Armando Cougnet posted the photo in a local storefront to prove he’d made the correct decision, the shop was trashed and the photo destroyed. The general consensus mattered more than the facts. It probably still does.

In 1998, around 4.5 million Italians tuned in to see Marco Pantani win the Giro. RAI’s broadcast of the action attracted more than half of the entire country’s television audience. But just 12 months later Italian cycling fell off a cliff when its biggest star was disqualified from the race for having a blood haematocrit level above the 50% limit.

With just two stages to go, Pantani was enjoying a lead of more than five and a half minutes, and the entire nation was enjoying another triumph for its favourite son. Two days later, when the race ended in Milan, it felt like all of Italy had turned its back.

Writing at the time, the great journalist Gianna Mura observed the contrast at the finish in Milan, and the damage that losing the public’s interest and its faith in the race would do to cycling.

‘Last year there were thousands of people, today in Milan, no one,’ he wrote. ‘It was like a melancholy catwalk, with a silent and small crowd. Fabrizio Guidi won the sprint, but the people were sad, there was little desire to smile.

‘Everyone was thinking of Pantani, of what happened yesterday, excluding the champion who had dominated the race, excluding the best, the one who had entered the hearts of the tifosi.’

The Italian mob

There’s nothing impartial about the tifosi. Subjectivity is the name of the game. It didn’t matter what they said about Pantani doping, or what the facts were. All that mattered was that he entertained. If the diehard Italian sports fan ever gave a moment’s thought to the facts, they’d explode in a blaze of cognitive dissonance before collapsing in on themselves like tiny black holes.

That’s why the record books will tell you that in 1987, Ireland’s Stephen Roche beat Scotland’s Robert Millar by three minutes and 40 seconds to win the Giro, while most Italian cycling fans will tell you that it was really Italy’s Roberto Visentini’s Giro, or at least it should have been, had Roche not rebelled against the natural order of things by outperforming his Italian teammate and taking the pink jersey off his shoulders.

That Visentini openly admitted to making empty promises to Roche didn’t matter. That Roche’s entire Carrera team did its best to undermine the Irishman’s chances by attacking him while he was in the maglia rosa was irrelevant.

And never mind that Roche would go on to win that year’s Tour de France and then the World Championships, a feat that had only ever been achieved once before, in 1974 by Eddy Merckx. Roche might be a hero to everyone else, but the tifosi know better.

Speak to the Irishman about that Giro and he’ll tell you he can still vividly remember the banners – Roche Bastardo!, Roche go home! – and the fans who spat at him and tried to hit him as he rode in the mountains. For the final week, his mechanic refused to leave Roche’s bike out of his sight for fear of sabotage, and his soigneur had to make food especially for the rider in case someone tried to poison him.

It seems unlikely these days that anyone, no matter how deranged, would try to poison a rider, but just four years before Roche’s ordeal, his own team (albeit under a different name) had been embroiled in a scandal when it was revealed that one of their sponsors had conspired to pay two waiters a fee of two million lire to put a laxative into the food of the Del Tongo team.

In the pink

It’s usually only the bad fans who make the headlines, and that’s a shame. It’s easy to moan about the drunks running alongside the riders, or the flags and the flares getting in the way.

At the 2019 Giro, Astana’s Miguel Ángel López being knocked off his bike by a fan before turning to violence in frustration makes it easy to assume that the average tifoso is a nuisance, and potentially a danger. But it’s not representative.

There were tens of thousands of fans on the road that day, like every day at the Giro. Almost all of them are impeccably behaved. Many are eager to chat and are generous with their food or a glass of their wine. They’re the ones who make the race, who give it the colour and the energy that few other events, of any kind, can muster.

You’ll find all sorts on the roadside: parents with babies in strollers and gangs of friends with stereos and coolers full of beer. There will be pensioners gossiping and playing cards outside the bar, all old enough to remember when Merckx and Moser rode through town, and kids in school uniforms who are barely old enough to have seen Alberto Contador.

The grassy verges will fill with cyclists in Lycra who rode up early in the day to wait for the action, and rotund older gents tending makeshift barbecues, who haven’t been on a saddle in years.

You’ll see the travelling fan clubs with their customised campers, decked out with posters and banners dedicated to their favourite riders. You’ll probably spot the odd dog in a costume. You may even see a sheep painted pink.

Of course, not everyone is a sports fan. Plenty will tell you that, in Italy, the race gets too much air time and too many column inches, when attentions should be focused on more important issues.

But in May, it’s hard to ignore the Giro, especially if it’s passing through your town. Much easier to give in and become a tifoso, if only for a day. And even for the casual observer, watching it up close can be a visceral experience.

When you’re surrounded by tens of thousands of cycling fans – all laughing, shouting, eating and drinking on the roadside – it gets you and you get it.

It’s infectious. When the symptoms start to show and you really get into the swing of it, you’ll come to understand something elemental about bike racing: it’s about a lot more than just the result.

This article was originally published in issue 90 of Cyclist magazine

Want to read more about this year's Giro? Check out our guide on this year's route and on how to watch the race