The Giro d’Italia, as I've written in the past, is beautiful because it is chaotic and irrationally executed. There is always a hint of eschatology in the brutality of its mountain finishes: the organisers constantly step up to the point of insanity lest they seem irreligeous to the Tifosi, or heretics to the adamantine ideology that this race must deal only in cruelness and beauty.
Such a pity, then, that we are now in the post-modern era of professionalism, where mundane marginal gains are thoroughly ill-suited to the spirit of a race that seems plucked from the Enlightenment. How do you reconcile a profoundly romantic race with the plodding meritocracy of watts per kilogram? This is a new and unbending orthodoxy and if there are anti-robotic counterpoints they are the sprinters, the breaks that stay away, and all the unpredictable delights that happen whilst the GC protagonists are laser-focused on the overall.
It was obviously not always this way, not least in its lowest years. It may seem apocryphal to the anti-doping canon, but perhaps doping in the 80s and 90s was the least automatous thing a rider could do: a desperately imprecise means to cheat. For all the collated evidence about systematic doping, it was very much a crapshoot, a haphazard alchemy that often killed it’s participants. The science of oxygen vector doping and anabolics is well-understood now, but there was an era where everyone was doing it and almost none of them knew how. Riders were almost incapable of being moral agents as defined by the outsider. Perhaps I’m softening my stance on moral relativism with respect to doping up to the early 2000s, but it’s not easy being a absolutist when many of the ghosts are still here. There is perhaps a middle road where you give dopers a limited shot at redemption. I don’t know.
The Giro d’Italia is a chimera, and as much as I’d like to disavow the Pantani years, or spit at Di Luca, it is impossible to take only part of its history. Despite the scandals, it hasn't met its demise and so to have Bartali or Coppi you need to make your peace with the rogues. The narrative of the race’s history is alienating at times, but we shouldn't give up on the whole damn thing as a result. Viktor Shklovsky wrote of the alienation effect of language, to “increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself…”. Robert Brecht extended this to theory to theater, and perhaps it is true for cycling’s Daedalian history. The alienation should not conclude our efforts to fathom a narrative, but redouble them. As Robert Bolt wrote in his preface to A Man For All Seasons, “enable the audience to reculer pour mieux sauter, to deepen, not to terminate, their involvement in the play.”
Italy is rolled flat in the valley of the Po river, and it is almost torn apart there, too. Just as the country subsists as a fractious civic state with a common church, so too its national race must be seen in its totality — as a collection of human beings with free will, who are not only here for our enjoyment, our endorsement, or our damnation.