From Pantani to fashion, coffee, Campagnolo, gran fondos, one-day Classics, tifosi, Bianchi and even carbo-loading, we look at Italy’s influence in cycling.
Of course, France has its national Tour and no end of influence on the cycling world; Belgium has given us some of the most fearsome races and riders in history; America has come onto the scene in the last 30 years with breakthrough teams, bike brands and tech innovations; and even little ol’ us in Blighty have made our mark at times. But, we ask, what have the Italians ever done for us?
Quite a lot, as it happens.
OK, the Giro might be on right now and Italy has some other great stage races, but don’t forget Milan San-Remo, the Tour of Lombardy and… Flèche Wallonne. What?! That’s held in Belgium, isn’t it? Ah yes, but the historical displacement of Italian immigrant miners workers in the area makes it often feel like a little bit of Italy in Northern Europe, meaning the Italian influence on one-day races stretches further than you’d expect.
And here’s to another Italian influence that has spread to Northern Europe and beyond: the idea of interspersing bike rides with relaxed moments getting your local caffeine fix. Perhaps nothing sums up the seemingly contradictory aspects of Italian life — moments of Latin passion intertwined with an otherwise laidback existence — as riding hard, then sipping slowly.
We might all now understand ‘tifosi’ is the collective terms for sports fans, but would we have ever had this little bit of Italian colour in our lives without cycling? (Well, possibly we might have thanks to the Ferrari F1 team, but let’s ignore that.). In fact, tifosi is now such an iconic word, it’s even used by a range of cycling companies, like in the eyewear brand.
Style and fashion
Speaking of stylish accoutrements, no other country has had more of an effect on the world of fashion than Italy. Even in cycling — which isn’t a pastime known for much crossover in terms or day-to-day style — Italy has had its moments, not least during the career of Mario Cipollini. The ‘Lion King’ reportedly had wardrobes full of designer suits and sported some quite incredibly flamboyant cycling kit over the years. And for mere mortals, Italian fabrics and cycling clothing still lead the way, such as Castelli base layers, gilets and jerseys.
If we’re mentioning Cipollini, who could forget his fellow Italian racing legend, Marco Pantani. While Cipo ruled the sprint finish, Pantani — or ‘il Pirata’ as he was known due to his fondness for bandanas and swashbuckling racing — was one of the greatest natural climbers who has ever lived. His life was caught tragically short, as Pantani found himself mixed up in a web of drugs accusations and controversies. But nobody who ever saw him race could deny that in the saddle, up the side of a mountain, he was little short of pedalling perfection.
The Strade Bianche
First run in 2007, the Strade Bianche gets its name from the white gravel that is strewn across rural farm roads, which are an important element of its route. Although less than 10 years old, the event is already a UCI Europe Tour 1.HC race with famous names of the peloton, such as Fabian Cancellara keen to take part. More than that, it has spawned similar mixed-terrain drop-bar bike races across the world and could even argue it has been instrumental in the rise of ‘gravel’ or ‘adventure’ bikes.
Legendary Italian cycling teams (and their kit)
The Strade Bianche might be creating its own legend in cycle events, but the nation has never been short of evocative names, especially when it comes to bike teams. Faema, Brooklyn, Carrera, Mapei, Molteni, Saeco, Fassa Bortolo and more recently Lampre have won some of the world’s biggest races and featured some of the world’s most famous riders, while also using some of the funkiest team kit ever seen in pro sport.
OK, we’re not sure the Italians invented carbo-loading — the idea of filling yourself up with carbohydrates the night before a big event — but thanks to their superb selection of pasta, they certainly made the process a lot more enjoyable.
And what events do leisure riders need to carbo load for most? That’s right, sportives or, as Italians and a huge number of people across the rest of the world — including Americans — call them ‘gran fondos’. Loosely translating to ‘big ride’, there’s a gran fondo every weekend during the summer in Italy and the list includes some real icons of the challenge ride family, such as the awesome Gran Fondo Maratona dles Dolomites.
Italian bike brands
Look around the typical British sportive starting venue and we reckon it’s a close call between whether you see more Italian or American bikes being ridden. While US firm have embraced the road cycling scene in recent years, for many people the allure of an Italian bike, with all its style and heritage, still holds strong. To this day, few bike brands have quite the same attraction as Bianchi.
Finally, if you’re going to ride an Italian bike, then you really need to have Italian components fitted to it. Shimano might rule the roost in terms of world sales, and SRAM might be the new kids on the block, but Campagnolo encapsulates cycling history, innovation, class, refinement and pride better than either of its rivals. In fact, looking at that list of Campagnolo’s qualities rather neatly mirrors the influence Italy has had on cycling as a whole. Has any nation added more history, innovation, class or pride to our sport?