Words: Joe Hall | Date:
Italy is a nation that has forever been in love with road cycling. If you pore over the photography that furnishes the history of the sport, it’s easy to see how distinctive Italian riders, bikes and cycling culture are. Of course the French and Belgians have their own valued characteristics, but something about the fashion of Italian racing – particularly during cycling’s ‘golden age’ – has an aesthetic and sensory appeal beyond even sunflowers and cobblestones.
Italians have a very immaculate concept of the world around them. That is perhaps why Italian road racing is the very epitome of the romantic and aesthetic nature of the sport. La bellezza, that beautiful quality that makes everything seem more profound, can be seen in so many aspects of Italian life, from postboxes to pastries. Perhaps it’s a byproduct of religion, perhaps an inheritance from the days of the Roman Empire. Maybe it’s the landscape, the proximity to the equator and the goodness that comes from olive oil and tomatoes. But the reverence with which certain things are held in Italy perhaps explains why road racing, the toughest and most beautiful sport there can be, is respected so much.
Take for instance the passeggiata, the leisurely stroll taken by Italians in the evening after dinner to reflect, gossip and observe. Perhaps that explains why things seem to take longer in Italy. Food is prepared with love and care, shirts cut and sewn with absolute consideration, car journeys taken the long way to enjoy the view. Maybe this is why Italians take training so seriously. They are meticulous and approach things without haste. And this is why Italian cycling heritage looks and feels so good, from the embroidery on a jersey to the grandissimi of a mountain stage in the Dolomites. From the cappuccino in the piazza before a training ride, to the sweeping descent through vineyards, to the way the basil is arranged on your evening pizza, there is a style about Italy that is irresistible.
Take, for instance, the term gruppo sportivo. The equivalent to velo club or cycling club, it seems a more beautiful and decorated collective noun and, because cycling was the sport for so many years in Italy, seems also to represent so much more than just people on bikes. Of course, as television came to dominate the media, football (soccer) rose to prominence – it’s far easier to televise, and thus monetize, a game that’s played on single acre of flat turf.
The ‘G.S.’ embroidery adorned woollen jerseys throughout the 1950s and 1960s, particularly alongside the extrasportif (non-cycling industry sponsors) logos of teams like Nivea, Carpano and Cinzano.
And it’s not just what the Italians wear, it’s how they wear it. From Fausto Coppi striding past in his cycling kit and trenchcoat, to Franco Balmamion’s perfectly perched berretta, to the font on Gastone Nencini’s maglia.
Of course, beyond this harmonious opera of style and grace, Italians are notorious bad losers and use their well-groomed appearance to disguise cunning and ‘sportsmanship’. Another reason why many still aspire to be part of the gruppo sportivo.