The Beginner's Guide to the Giro d'Italia


, by Max Leonard

Primoz Roglic secured the overall win (maglia rosa) at Giro d'Italia 2023. Photography courtesy of: Giro d'Italia

The one-day classics are done and spring is in the air, which can mean only one thing… it’s time for the first grand tour of the season, the Giro d’Italia. Here’s Strava’s primer on the race and its long history.

The history

The Giro was established in 1909, six years after the Tour de France, and, like the Tour, it was the brainchild of a newspaper editor looking to create publicity for his paper, the Gazzetta dello Sport. That first race was 2,448km / 1,521 mi long and split into eight stages – an average of more than 300km / 186 mi each!

Subsequent races were similarly grueling, and some have called the 1914 Giro the toughest cycle race ever. With five stages longer than 400km / 250 mi, only eight riders finished. And in 1924, the first – and so far only – woman raced the Giro. Alfonsina Strada hid her gender and by the time she got to the start line, there was nothing the organizers could do. She performed much better than many of her male rivals until, during a storm on Stage 5, just under halfway through, she crashed and broke her handlebars and was forced to retire.

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The Giro Donne, a 10-day-long women’s race, was, until the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift came along, the most important stage race on the women’s calendar. Established in 1988, it takes place in July; RCS, which owns the Giro, now also runs the Giro Donne. For 2024 it will take place over eight days and has been rebranded the Giro d’Italia Women, but it has historically been very much a separate affair.

The finish line at the 1909 Giro d'Italia. Photography by: AF Fotografie / Alamy Stock Photo

Like the Tour, during the 1930s the Giro settled into the three-week format that we know today. The modern Giro d'Italia consists of 21 stages and two rest days; the race start moves every year, often decamping to neighboring countries – or even Israel or Denmark – to bring a bit of pizzazz and attract new spectators. Unlike the Tour, the finish is not fixed in one place: Milan has hosted it more times than anywhere else, but it also regularly climaxes in Rome, and in cities such as Verona, Brescia, and Trieste.

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In its first few decades, the race stars included names like Costante Girardengo and Alfredo Binda, as well as Ottavio Bottechia, the first Italian to win the Tour de France, who was found dead at the age of 32, rumored to have been murdered by fascist thugs. In the 1930s, Gino Bartali took up the baton, winning seventeen stages, seven mountain classifications, and the overall pink jersey (maglia rosa) three times. During and after the war, there were some memorable battles between Bartali and the flamboyant, all-conquering Fausto Coppi, il campionissimo, who won a record five times.

Fausto Coppi (center) won the Giro d'Italia a record five times. Photography by: Universal Images Group North America LLC / Alamy Stock Photo

In 1950 a Swiss rider, Hugo Koblet, was the first foreigner to win the race. In the late 1960s, the great Belgian Eddy Merckx began a period of domination, only challenged later by Felice Gimondi and Francesco Moser. In the 1980s, Irishman Stephen Roche and American Andy Hampsten took the maglia rosa in successive years (1987 and 1988). In the 1990s, standout figures included the tortured, tragic Marco Pantani, perhaps the sport’s all-time most gifted climber, though he was disqualified from the 1999 race because of irregular blood values – a telltale sign of doping. And then there was Mario Cipollini, the handsome, flamboyant sprinter with a penchant for garish skinsuits.

In more recent times, Vincenzo Nibali, il Squalo (the shark), has been a favorite of the tifosi, the die-hard Italian fans. And in the 2020s, Britain’s Tao Geoghegan Hart and Australia’s Jai Hindley have both taken the overall win.

Eddy Mercx at the 1969 Giro d'Italia. Photography by: Smith Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

The Giro today

You may have noticed that there are a lot of references to the Tour de France here, and, yes, the comparisons are inevitable. But the Giro and the Tour are very different beasts. So what’s special about the Giro?

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The course: The Giro is traditionally a harder race than the Tour, with more climbing. That’s partly a function of the terrain. While the Tour shuttles from the Alps to the Pyrenees, the Giro has many more mountains to play with, from the various ranges of the Alps in the north to the Appennini along the spine of the country, to Mount Etna in Sicily right down south. While the classic climbs do reappear, the race can go many years between visits while the organizers search out fresh challenges. That makes for a more unpredictable, capricious, and demanding race, and it often provokes more exciting riding.

The weather. May in Italy can be lovely. But even in the lowlands, it can also be pretty dreadful. And in the mountains, it can be positively wintry. Andy Hampsten famously won the 1998 race after ascending the Gavia in a blizzard, and the highest stages are always at risk of being modified due to inclement conditions.

The crowds at the Giro d'Italia are legendary. Photography courtesy of: Giro d'Italia

The people: Whereas the Tour de France is an all-conquering slick machine, the Giro d’Italia is by reputation more of a chaotic, spontaneous affair, reflecting the distinctive and disparate parts of Italy. And while the Tour captures all the part-time cycling fans, who love the succession of amazing images of mountains and chateaux on their TVs, it is commonly held that the Giro d’Italia is a purists’ race – one for the real fans.

As for the riders, well, it’s a fact that the world best stage racers line up for the Tour. That means the Giro most years may lack the one or two very best riders in the world – but that also often leads to a fairer fight and a more interesting, dynamic race. Come to the Giro for fantastic racing and passion.

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