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Italian Cycling Comes to New York
Sharing the homeland's rich, even if checkered, tradition of cycling is one step in the recapturing the beauty and simplicity of the sport
In May, Italians and Italian Americans celebrate lots with May Day, the Italian day of the worker, Memorial Day, and, most of all, better weather. It's the unofficial start of summer for both countries. As the weather warms, outdoor sports get more attention, which is why May is also Bike Month. And cycling has long been a rich part of Italy's sports history.
Although Americans have not taken to cycling in the same way, they have learned a bit about the sport, thanks to the Tour de France and Lance Armstrong. Still, they mostly live in the dark about Italy's biking culture – at least until now. Italy is trying to get in on the act by showing off its biking passion in New York on May 20, when for the second time the Gran Fondo will have thousands of cyclists competing in a number of categories.
The competition is 100 miles long with 8,500 feet of climbing, according to the event's Web site. There are four timed climbs. Among other sites, the cyclists will pass through the George Washington Bridge. The competition will feature a winner in the categories of overall, age groups, cycling team, and his and hers. There will be participants from more than 70 countries with Italians and Canadians making up the largest international groups. Those who don't want to compete but still want to partake in the joy of cycling can join the Medio Fondo, a 65-mile course that runs from New York City to Bear Mountain.
For those who don't know it, France isn't the only European country with a rich tradition of cycling. The Italians have the Giro d'Italia, which has cyclists competing annually on a course that takes them across Italy. My father, who left Italy in 1960 for the shores of America, fondly recalls rooting for Fausto Coppi and Gino "Ginettaccio" Bartali, contemporaries who were two of Italy's greatest cyclists ever. The two shared one of the greatest rivalries in sports history. It was a simpler time when sports were cleaner – no doping and much less money for athletes. They were cycling for love of sport and honor. Their rivalry, which was fierce, didn't prevent them from being gentlemen. They famously shared a water bottle in an uphill battle in 1952. Even though Italy was divided between north and south, communists and socialists, and Coppi and Bartali fans, there was some unity, too.
Observing these talented cyclists brought the country together in a way. Coppi won five Giri d'Italia and two Tour de France, while Bartali won three Giri d'Italia and two Tour de France. Since the Coppi/Bartali years of my father's infancy and childhood, cycling in Italy has seen darker days. Probably the most noteworthy – or at least the best known in the United States – moments surround the doping scandals in the sport.
For a while, it seemed like everyone in cycling was using performance-enhancing drugs. The worst casualty of this scandal was that of Marco Pantani. In 1998, he became the first since Coppi to win both the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France in the same year. The next year, he was booted from the Giro d'Italia for allegedly using performance-enhancing drugs. Although there was never conclusive evidence of his doping, he was shamed and unable to compete, which had him experiencing bouts of depression and alleged drug abuse. He would eventually die of circulatory and heart failure after isolating himself and allegedly using illegal drugs.
While Pantani's death brought up many questions about professional cycling and a dialogue about how things should be moving forward, it also sparked the revival of cycling purists, who wanted to recapture the magic of the days of Coppi and Bartali. In bringing cycling to New York – to the world – the Italians are doing good by Coppi, Bartali, and Pantani. It's a chance to showcase the good in the sport and to get back to basics. To celebrate this initiative and what it means for the sport and Italians and Italian Americans, City Council member Jim Gennaro and members of Italian American organizations are holding a press conference in honor of the Gran Fondo on April 30 at 1 p.m. on the steps of City Hall. It's the start of Bike Month and, with any luck, the advent of a new era in cycling, one that brings the sport back to its roots and to the United States.
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