If it’s July it must be the Tour De France but for one (Rome-based) Irish cycling journalist, Colin O’Brien the true Queen of the grand tours is June’s Giro d’Italia. He spoke to the Irish World’s Adam Shaw
In terms of sport, the British and Irish summer has well and truly kicked off. A Lions tour, the first Test series, Wimbledon, the business end of the All-Ireland competitions and the athletics World Championships coming to London’s Olympic Stadium.
Even for those who swear by the creed of Cruyff, Maradona and Pele, there is endless transfer speculation and a host of pre-season tours to whet the appetite.
Then there’s another major sporting event taking place; one that everyone will know of but very few will actually dissect.
The masses of fans desperate to get their face on the telly, confusing clocks and even more confusing tables, the Francophile scribblings on the pavement, a bright yellow jersey.
British interest might have surged in recent years given the impressive feats of Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome but the Tour de France remains something of a divisive contest.
For Irish fans, this is even more apparent – the days of Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche way off in the past.
So if this is the state of the most famous bike race in the world, what does that mean for those considered to be ‘lesser’ events?
Colin O’Brien, an Irish freelance journalist based in Rome is a defender of these battles that are so often overlooked by the general populace.
He has gone so far in that he has written a book about another of the Grand Tours and one with an equally famous leader’s top.
Giro d’Italia: The Story of the World’s Most Beautiful Bike Race intertwines the history of the competition alongside that of the country in which it is held.
An apposite release, given that 2017 saw the one hundredth edition of the Giro, Colin wants to prove that, as much as he loves the Tour, there’s a new kid in town.
“In pure sporting terms, it tends to be more open and a lot more interesting up until the final stages,” he says.
“Aesthetically I prefer it as well – Italy is blessed with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to landscapes.
“The route changes an awful lot every year whereas, even though they’ve improved, the Tour can feel a little bit stale and as if you’re watching a replay.”
Excitement, check. Scenery, check. And as majestic as it has been watching Froome glide down the Champs Elysees holding a glass of fizz, Colin makes a point about the Tour’s relative predictability.
“It’s a lot easier to micromanage. You look at Team Sky and they go every year with an incredibly strong squad and they look to control every last detail.
“When you compare their attempts at winning the Giro, things haven’t really gone to plan. For someone who isn’t totally au fait with the different aspects of cycling, this gives them a clearer indication of what it’s like.”
The various levels of excitement at the Giro and the Tour are far from black and white, however.
Colin explains how things took a while to get going at this year’s centenary race in Italy because they tried to fit too much into the schedule in an attempt to cover the whole country, including its islands.
And in France, we have already witnessed a dramatic crash which led to a nasty injury for sprinter Mark Cavendish and a disqualification for his long-time foe Peter Sagan.
But it is this kind of unpredictability that attracted him to the prospect of covering cycling, something which he believes is unreplicated in other sporting fields.
“I began cycling as an amateur – a practitioner, for want of a better word – and over the years I gradually got more and more into it. I ended up doing lots of sports coverage but never gave cycling much thought.
“But watching cycling as a fan, it became really apparent that it was unpredictable, exciting and that every race is completely different. There are different possibilities, different landscapes, different histories, different protagonists.
“It seemed to offer a lot more than say a football or a rugby match in terms of that unpredictability. You could never write a race report halfway through the stage.”
This should be enough to encourage anyone to spend a few hours dipping in and out of a tense race yet Colin despairs that this is an attitude adopted only by the few back home in Ireland.
He explains that, even though the country has a long – and successful – affiliation with the sport, lots of people aren’t invested in it. For this he partly lays the blame at the feet of the Irish media.
“I think things are quite insulated. The broader Irish public might know who Sean Kelly is but they might not realise the scale of his achievements.
“Somebody like Stephen Roche, he did something that only he and Eddy Merckx have ever accomplished by winning the Tour, the Giro and the World Championships in the same year.
“They don’t even realise the enormity of Dan Martin winning Monuments and the fact that, on his day, he’s one of the best riders in the peloton.”
Colin notes that this is mainly due to the fact that, for whatever reason, the media in Ireland doesn’t consider cycling to be worth the effort.
He adds that this is an even bigger shame since Ireland continues to produce some fantastic riders who “punch well above their weight” and since Irish fans, when provided with a hero, are superb at getting behind them.
He makes reference to Tipperary man Sam Bennett, who was unlucky not to sneak a stage win at this year’s Giro, and five-time Irish national champion Matt Brammeier, who rides for Ireland’s Aqua Blue Sport team alongside Conor Dunne and Martyn Irvine.
Their achievements often outrank those of others in different sports yet Irish news outlets tend to brush them aside. As he says, when was the last time Ireland had a top tennis talent?
Yet there will be reference to all of the major tournaments before cyclists are given column inches.
“I hope it changes because we have some very good riders who just aren’t on the radar at the moment,” he adds.
Talented they might be but Colin doesn’t see anyone from Ireland emulate Roche and Kelly by landing the Giro anytime soon.
That doesn’t mean it is a race that should be ignored by Irish sport lovers – this is the whole premise of his book; it has so much to offer.
“It’s become more international in recent years, which is great. Traditionally it used to be a very Italian race but it’s got this global reach now that means, these days, it’s not a million miles off the Tour.
“And it keeps growing, something that I believe is very much down to this international aspect of things.
“You’ve got Colombians, Tom Dumoulin was the first male Dutch rider ever to win, and you’ve still got great Italian riders.”
Dumoulin’s victory was a case in point. In spite of the early wobbles, the exciting finish meant that organisers were vindicated in the decisions they made.
And this was all set against the backdrop of a beautiful country, something which holds true even on the less impressive Giros.
It might not have the glitz and the glamour of the Tour – the big one by which all top cyclists are judged by casual viewers. But it does have a lot to offer – I mean, just look at that pink leader’s jersey.
“It has something for everyone. I mean the Tour is great but the Giro’s cool and it’s the weirder, less predictable brother,” Colin says.
“If you’ve never watched it, get into it because you’re missing out.”
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