Il Futuro, Il Bel Paese: Ciclissimo! At The Baby Giro With Axeon Hagens Berman Cycling Team

All words & pictures by Andrew Peat/ AP Sports Photo

In 1992 a 22-year old Marco Pantani, not yet a pirate or an elefantino, won an Italian amateur stage race riding in the yellow colours of the Emilia-Romagna region. His victory was sealed on the 20-odd mile climb to Campo Imperatore in the Marche region (find Rome in the atlas, then head right towards the Adriatic and stop halfway). Within two years, he was riding in the less appealing mock denim of Carrera and won two stages of the Giro.

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Fast forwarding twenty five years to June 2017, the Giro Ciclistico d’Italia, aka the Baby Giro, was set to return to Campo Imperatore for the finale of seven days of top level under-23 racing. Absent from the calendar since 2012, the race’s list of winners includes from the early 1991 to 1995 runs “Casagrande, Pantani, Simoni, Piepoli, Di Grande”, and this was a much awaited and welcome return for what was once Italy’s second biggest stage race (sorry Tirreno).

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Imola – Imola

Temperatures were already above 30°C as Axeon Hagens Berman’s resident Irishman Eddie Dunbar applied his third layer of suncream on the morning of stage one, in a glass-strewn car park near Imola’s moated castle. Unfortunately for Ambre Solaire shareholders, they were to be his last layers of the race as a series of crashes in the last 10km of the opening stage did for the under-23 Flanders winner and his teammate, Logan Owen.

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It was another Axeon rider, Neilson Powless, who announced the team’s arrival in Italy by escaping the wreckage to finish 9 seconds clear of the bunch and claiming the first maglia rosa of the week.

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Castellarano – Castellarano

When Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon – TV’s Alan Partridge and Uncle Bryn in private life – toured Italian eateries for a film and TV series in 2014, the recurring soundtrack to their journey was Alanis Morrisette’s 1995  classic, “Jagged Little Pill”. Rumour has it that it was a sophisticated nod to the under-23 age restriction to the event, but for one reason or another the organisers of the Baby Giro appear to have chosen Adele’s “21” to fill the same role on this trip to Italy.

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It’s unclear whether the hilltop monastery at the finish of stage two already owned a copy of 21 to go with the europop that it had been playing for most of stage two, or if it was shipped in for the occasion, but I’m sure the riders enjoyed Rolling In The Deep of their own lactic as they sprinted up the final climb.

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Bagnara di Romagna – Forli 

It was once said that Switzerland is a Venn diagram of smokers and people who wear acid-washed denim. Taking photos at bike races is an equally inexact science combining light, location and luck. In the brutal light of a midsummer’s afternoon, location is the dominant factor. Sometimes you can plan it (but then it’s a racing certainty that someone will stand in the shot in hi-vis) and other times it just happens.

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Neilson – still being announced as “Nelson Pauwels” by the PA system commentator – suffered on the last climb and lost time to the lead group, losing his maglia rosa to BMC’s Pavel Sivakov, but retaining the maglia rossa of the points leader.

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Forli – Gabicce Mare

A transition stage as the race moved south from the Imola area towards the coast. I got zero racing shots of the team today, other than one of crash victim Michael Rice having just crossed the line – but technically the race was over by then so it doesn’t really count. So I now have a story about how I went to a race and came away with no images of the race…

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Four days of hard racing and Italian cornering was taking its toll on the riders, not least Ivo Oliveira, who was sporting a heavily taped shoulder following a crash the previous day.

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Senigallia – Osimo

A 06:15 breakfast for the riders before a 45 minute transfer and 09:15 rollout was the payoff for having last night’s hotel 100m from the finish line. For all we know, Il Principe of Gabicce Mare had agreed to close his town centre in return for a race’s worth of hotel bookings, so whilst it makes more sense to an outsider to have transferred to Senigallia last night, the outsider – like the opposition party in government – isn’t the one who actually has to deliver.

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The big story of the day was the stage win by Dimension Data’s Joseph Areruya, in a Strade Bianche type finish up a big hill through a cobbled old town then downhill to the line.

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The afternoon’s time trial didn’t do much to disturb the race overall but it was past 8pm by the time we got to the hotel. Sadly Axeon rider Will Barta was a DNS, having thrown up over his bike in the morning and spent a short period of time in an ambulance. Four were down to three.

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Francavilla al Mare – Casalincontrada

Palm trees and Adriatic beach loungers at the partenza, and it was the first day where the riders stayed hidden in the air-conditioned rental camper.

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This pretty much sums up the day:

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They’re doing this left handed because Ivo, on the left, finished the stage with a broken arm:

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Down to two.

Francavilla al Mare – Campo Imperatore

The morning’s signing-on appointment was down at the end of Francavilla pier and the survivors were now greeted by a podium “miss” each. I obviously wanted to explain to Mirea and Sara that podium girls are an anachronism with no place in modern society, but in the same way that “gemütlichkeit” has no adequate English translation, that combination of words simply doesn’t exist in Italian.

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Stories about foreigners who naively follow their SatNav down roads that don’t really exist then end up driving through grossly inappropriate conditions are amusing in the local press and, most importantly, when it happens to someone else. I’m still traumatised by my own decision to turn left onto a Strada Biancha (the word ‘strada’ being generous, it was just a load of rocks) so am not yet ready to relay it more fully here. Eventually – but not before I’d privately decided to forget about the race and just make it out safely – the track led back to an actual paved road which happened to be on the race route, so the game was back on.

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BMC Development Team’s Pavel Sivakov – well thought of by everyone I spoke to and surely set for a pro contract next season – had been in pink at the start of the day and was only a few seconds behind Aussie duo Jai Hindley and Lucas Hamilton up the 30km climb of Campo Imperatore, enough to retain the jersey and take overall victory.

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Bentornato, Baby Giro.

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