"NOTES FROM AN ISLAND RACE" - Ned Boulting
It had been forty-two years since Sicily, this proud, confusing island, hosted its own stage race. But this spring it returned, as the Giro di Sicilia once again took up its place in the calendar. How it came to be is something of a mystery. RCS Sport, the same organisation of course that owns and runs the Giro d’Italia, Milan Sanremo, Tirreno Adriatico and Il Lombardia, did not finally confirm the race until just a few weeks before it got underway. But someone, or rather the usual collection of commercial interests and public funds, had stumped up what must have been a substantial bill for the event: The race was given the full Giro treatment with the same spec of TV coverage, start and finish infrastructure, and hospitality. These things do not come cheap.
Stage one ran across the top right hand corner of the island, skirting Vincenzo Nibali’s birth town of Messina, from whose shores you can gaze across at the Italian mainland. They placed an intermediate sprint there, just so that, in the absence of the great man, at least he’d be talked about as the inevitable breakaway of continental and pro-continental ranked teams contested the sprint. In fact only one World Tour team bothered to show up for this UCI 2.1 ranked event: UAE Team Emirates were there with a distinctly second-string looking roster, more out of politeness than conviction, one felt. And they were pretty hopeless. Jan Polanc, flown back to Sicily presumably so that he might re-enact his greatest achievement to date by winning the climb to Mount Etna as he did two years previously on the Giro, didn’t. Win the climb to Mount Etna, that is. Nor did the team manage to win any other stage, or even come particularly close.
The sprint into Milazzo was like a who’s who (as in “who’s who??!”) of reasonably modest Italian sprinting talent. If the names of Luca Pacioni, Iuri Filosi and Marco Maronese don’t mean a great deal to you, then how about Manuel Belletti or Riccardo Stacchiotti? It was these two riders who contested the first two sprints: Stacchiotti claiming victory over Belletti on a terrifying final few kilometres routed through the narrow streets of the ancient settlement of Milazzo, in the shadow of its glorious Norman fort. A tower at the centre of the castle, strengthened with laval rock by the Swabians, defended by the Austrians, Piedmontese and the British against the Spaniards, opened up endless vistas of blue seas in three compass points. The Milazzo peninsular is quite bewitching.
On the second day of racing, we headed for Palermo. Before being treated to the spectacle of Manuel Belletti gaining revenge over Riccardo Stacchiotti in another disorderly bunch sprint, I took the time to mooch around what I could absorb of the endless riches of the Sicilian capital. Balconies, stuffed with green leaves, some planted in pots, others sprouting from cracks in the stonework, a profusion of vegetation. And every third building was either a Palazzo, whose plasterwork is crumbling, and whose roof tiles sit at jaunty angles, or a towering baroque church. But this is Sicilian baroque. It is baroque squared. I have never, anywhere seen anything more baroque than the over-coloured, gold-leafed, stone-carved, fresco-lined, saint-stuffed, incense-clouded interiors of Palermo’s churches. And that’s before you start to factor in the extraordinary Byzantine architectural heritage of the city’s older places of worship. There was enough gory sanctity in these marble halls to keep me going until I return next year. I shall not want for humility.
Then the weather cracked. It started to pour. For the whole of the evening, a light dimmed across this mountainous island, and for the entire duration of the next two days, it rained so hard that it managed to make the central mountains look like the Brecon Beacons. We arrived in Ragusa at night, and the morning of stage three, I went running down, and then up to Ragusa Ibla, a UNESCO world heritage site. It’s a lump of vertiginous rock with a city somehow perched on it. I doubt, however, that young Brandon McNulty of Rally UHC would have taken the time to consider the historical marvel he was racing past, as he descended on wet roads to the foot of the final punchy climb, growing an advantage over a disorganised and hesitant chase. This was where he won the race, effectively. He was just 21 years old and three days.
McNulty’s a curious phenomenon. I first noticed the gangly kid from Phoenix, Arizona last year when he so nearly held on to thwart the bunch in the Hatta Dam stage of the Dubai Tour. He talks like a extra from Wayne’s World and rides like an embryonic Tom Dumoulin. And new to his repertoire for 2019: A Saganesque nervous giggle. Ragusa had almost certainly never seen his like before.
He defended his lead the following day on the same slopes of Mount Etna (the Nicolosi climb) that had been raced in 2011 and 2017 on the Giro. The volcano was in full “I’m a bloody volcano, don’t mess with me” mode, as grey clouds clung to its black laval slopes for most of the morning, lifting suddenly and sporadically to reveal the true scale of the beast. We stayed in a hotel called La Nuova Quercia, the New Oak. The Old Oak had been burnt to a cinder and crushed by a lava flow in 2016. That’s right, you heard me correctly: it had been crushed and burnt by an erupting volcano.
After the race was over, and the stage winner Guillaume Martin had mentioned his philosophical treatise about ancient Gods and cycling in a highly unusual post-race interview, I headed through thick fog off the mountain and towards Catania airport. Rounding a corner, I nearly drove into the back of the Rally UHC camper van, full of skinny American kids (and Svein Tuft) swigging from sponsored champagne bottles. At one point, the window opened and one of them chucked out a banana skin.
All in all, I had a wonderful time. I am very lucky. Bike races are wonderful things.