“Wine, food and travel with Marc Millon”

My weekly Italian Wine Podcast “Wine, food and travel with Marc Millon” has now launched with a new episode released every Tuesday. In this series, each week I meet wine producers all across Italy to learn about their particular corner of the wine world, the grapes they cultivate, the wines they make, where they live, and the foods they enjoy and which go so well with their wines. It’s an easy and informal chat that takes us to the heart of Italy, in the company of the people who know their places best of all: the winemakers. I hope you will join me at Italian Wine Podcast on Soundcloud, Spotify, iTunes, Apple podcasts, Ximalaya or wherever you get your pods. Here’s the series link:

https://soundcloud.com/italianwinepodcast/sets/food-wine-travel-with-marc

In praise of flysch

For the past months, I have been diligently studying and learning about Italian wine with the Vinitaly International Academy in preparation for taking the certified Italian Wine Ambassador exam. The study of Italian native grape varieties is a vast and confusing topic made even more complex and complicated by the study of Italian terroirs – the soils and rocks upon which some hundreds of such grape varieties are cultivated. I sometimes go to sleep with my head in a complete fuzz: Sangiovese originated in the south of Italy not Tuscany and is a parent of Nerello Mascalese, Frappato, and Gaglioppo. Who knew? My head is spinning with thoughts of pyroclastic matter, lapilli, lacustrine deposits, schist, basalt, and flysch. Yes, always flysch. I sometimes wake up at night (I really do) thinking about flysch in all its various manifestions: flysh in Taurasi, Chianti Classico, Barolo, Collio and elsewhere.

To be honest, I need a break from it all. Thankfully yesterday, summer finally arrived here in southern England. It’s been a pretty miserable few months for all sorts of reasons, and the wet and cool weather hasn’t helped one bit. But we have short memories here in Britain, and when the good weather arrives we embrace it with gusto, knowing full well that it will not last for long. So it was a day to get on the water: we packed a picnic, a cooler of beer, wedged the paddleboards on to our small boat, and headed down the Exe estuary, negotiating the winding channel to reach Exmouth and the sea. The tide was rushing out as we sped along the seafront, still following the starboard (green) and port (red) channel markers as we made our way to the Bell Buoy which marks safe passage.

As we passed Orcombe Point, we could see the Geoneedle, a pyramid of stone set on top of the red cliffs that marks the start of the Jurassic Coast. In 2001 this stretch of our coast was inscribed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO for the ‘outstanding universal value of its rocks, fossils and landforms’. It is England’s only natural World Heritage Site. What makes it so special is that all along its 95 mile length, from Orcombe Point at Exmouth across East Devon to Old Harry Rocks in Swanage, Dorset, the coastline uniquely tells the story of three geological time periods: the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous, collectively known as the Mesozoic Era. No other place on earth can display this period of Earth so graphically and beautifully.

We head east, gazing at the red cliifs of Exmouth, a high plateau of sandstone deposits that date from the Triassic period when the Earth was a baking desert some 250 to 200 million years ago. Further along the coast other eras are revealed. During the Jurassic period 200 to 145 million years ago the sea levels rose and turned our corner of the world into a warm tropical sea. Then, a mere 45 million years later, the seas fells again, leaving behind land masses with raging rivers, dense forests, lagoons and swamps: the Cretaceous era (155 to 60 millions years ago) had begun, and the world was alive with dinosaurs, and marine and flying reptiles!

We pass carefully through a network of buoys that mark the fishermen’s crab and lobster pots – always laid down around Straight Point (lobsters and crabs, as fossils found in Lyme Bay have shown, are animals that haven’t changed much in millions of years) and make our way to Budleigh Salterton, coming in close under the cliffs to throw over the anchor. It’s a beautiful day, the water is calm, clean and fresh, so we dive in. Afterwards, relaxing on the deck with a sandwich and a cold beer, I gaze at the cliffs in front of me. What do I see? Flysch! Yes, the sedimentary deposits are in clear striated layers of red sandstone and limestone-rich chalk that has turned to hard stone.

There is a gentle tide and we listen to its soothing melody as it ebbs and falls over the pebble beach of Budleigh Salterton. For while Exmouth, just around the corner, has a sandy beach, Budleigh’s is made up of large, polished stones that are actually quite painful to walk on in barefeet (even the nudists on the naturist beach not far from where we’ve anchored are wearing shoes!). These stones are the result of fluvial action, a great prehistoric river that once raged over the land, tumbling and polishing the stones and creating the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths, one of the most highly regarded conservation sites in Europe.

About 20 years ago, my good friend, Geoff Bowen, a geologist and environmental consultant (sadly now departed), had the idea to plant a vineyard not far from where we live in Topsham. He experimented with hybrid vines (Seyval, Madeleine Angevin, Rondo) with some success and Pebblebed Wines (www.pebblebed.co.uk) was born, the name a reference to this defining geological feature of our area. The wines – most notably sparkling – were a great success and won awards. Pebblebed is a wine we always love drinking, not necessarily for its excellence but because it is our wine, created by a friend and of this place. Such things are important.

Not much more than three years ago, I helped to plant another vineyard with another great friend, Michael Caines, who has created a stunning country house hotel called Lympstone Manor (www.lympstonemanor.co.uk) just a few miles downriver from where we live. I remember when Michael first found the property and he invited me to come over and see it – it must have been sometime in the autumn of 2015. As we sat in front of what was then a completely run-down delapidated Georgian mansion, he outlined to me his dream and his vision over a glass of Champagne. Having been head chef at the acclaimed Gidleigh Park on Dartmoor for 20 years (holding two Michelin stars for 18 years), he wanted to create his own luxury country house hotel for the 21st century with an outstanding Michelin-star restaurant. But also  part of his dream, he explained, was to transform the overgrown parkland that extended down to the foreshore of the Exe into a vineyard to make high quality sparkling wine to serve in his restaurant. So it was that in 2018 I found myself helping to plant some 17000 Pinot Noir, Meunier and Chardonnay vines here. Last year there was a small first harvest and I tasted those wines with Michael in April of this year. The quality for wines from such young vines was simply astounding! We expected lean, maybe austere but this was far from the case: the malolactic had been carried out, there was phenolic ripeness, with still that underlying and refreshing backbone of exhilarating acidity that is the hallmark of the best English sparklers. I’d like to think that perhaps this quality, even elegance came from grapes grown on the rich, red loam topsoil – Devon terra rossa I’m now calling it – that sits over a deep and profound layer of flysch.

Just 20 years ago no one thought that Chardonnay or Pinot Noir could ever fully ripen in cool, moist England (hence Geoff’s choice of hybrid varieties). Now the Champenoise themselves are purchasing land in Hampshire and Sussex! Those who are involved in wine know that climate change is very real. Of course we know too that such periods of climatic change has happened throughout past eras – the scorching heat of those great Triassic deserts, followed by warm tropical seas, and then the bitterly cold periods when our earth was locked in ice. But such changes happened over the course of thousands or even millions of years. Today’s change is so rapid and that is what is so frightening. Our world was formed hundreds of millions of years ago. Humankind has walked this planet for only the briefest moment and one day we too like the dinosaurs may become extinct, perhaps through our own making.

But let’s not be glum: for in the meantime, there is wine, glorious wine to console us! I sip and dream of the massive collision of continental tectonic plates – Africa coming against Europe to cause the earth to move and the mighty Alps to rise. Or the Dolomites emerging from out of a prehistoric sea, the stones rich in magnesium, shiny and glistening in their majesty. I imagine fire spewing from volcanoes and flows of lava hardening into black obsidian, volcanoes that are still erupting at this moment, or else long extinct, or even which once erupted unseen and underwater. I taste a glass of Franciacorta and feel and sense the movement of massive fields of ice – glaciars we have actually skiied upon that once carved out deep lakes and pushed and moved soils and rocks as they advanced or retreated to create gentle moraine hills that today are such a propitious habitat for Vitis vinifera.

A glass of Friulano from Collio makes me think of ponca which gives the wines from there such intensity, aroma and ripeness. When I enjoy a calice of Chianti Classico, maybe a Gran Selezione that fully reveals and expresses its territorio, I sense the character of Sangiovese, elegant, with firm tannins and high acidity that comes from its galestro terroir. Perhaps I’ll open a bottle of volcanic wine tonight – but which one, Etna Rosso or Soave?-  or a wine from karst limestone deposits – Malvasia Istriana or Castel del Monte? – or from tufo compacted volcanic ash such as Orvieto. I drink; I taste; I dream. But again and again my thoughts come back to flysch, flysch from Taurasi, from Chianti Classico, Barolo or Collio – and now, my god, even flysch from Budleigh Salterton!

Thank you, Vinitaly International Academy, grazie mille Professore Attilio Scienza, and bravi Henry Davar and Sarah Heller MW for teaching me about flysch – and about so much more.

Giro d’Italia 2021 – cycling (and virtual cycling), wine and food

Giro d’Italia 2021 – cycling, wine and food

In this year when travel to Italy is not possible, the following is my virtual tour of Italy following the Giro d’Italia 2021 in my mind, on a bike with wineglass in hand. Each of the tappa reports below was written in real time following the action of the race while considering also the wine country that it travelled through.

My full set of Giro d’Italia 2021 stage reports are also available on the Italian Wine Podcast through this link https://soundcloud.com/italianwinepodcast/sets/giro-ditalia-2021 – these can also be accessed through Apple Podcast and Spotify.

Stage 1 – Saturday 8 May 2021 – Torino-Torino 8.6km

Today, the start of Giro d’Italia 2021, is just an aperitivo to the sumptuous banquet of cycling to follow over the coming three weeks. The route is dead flat and the riders, each setting out individually in this time trial, will be looking to complete the course in something around the ten minute mark, hardly time even to break into a sweat. The stage winner will proudly wear the Maglia Rosa – the Pink Jersey – but everyone knows that this is a phoney war and that the real contenders will only emerge in the days to follow.

No matter, the race will be underway, and there is no need to rush. I’ll imagine myself, then, heading into the city centre of this lovely Baroque city – Italy’s first capital in 1861 – to sit out under the arcades and enjoy aperitivo. Not a glass of wine today, but rather, in this city of vermouth, a negroni ‘sbagliato’ – equal measures of Carpano Antico vermouth and Campari topped up with, instead of gin, bollecine – bubbles – just about any sort will do as freshness and vivacity is the key, but out of choice maybe a metodo classico from Alta Langa such as Fontanafredda’s Contessa Rosa, named in honour of the mistress to the first king of Italy, Vittorio Emmanuele II. Sitting out under Turin’s arches, maybe helping myself to an appertivo plate of peppers bathed in bagna cauda, a slice of vitello tonnato, a crostino topped with carne cruda all’albese. Wouldn’t that be just wonderful? We can but dream: meanwhile, it’s raining here in England and I’m drinking a cup of tea…

Stage 2 tomorrow – Nichelino-Novara

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Stage 2 – Sunday 9 May 2021 – Nichelino-Novara 179km

Stage win – Filippo Ganna
Maglia Rosa – Filippo Ganna
Maglia Ciclamino – Filippo Ganna
Maglia Azzurra – not yet awarded
Maglia Bianca – Filippo Ganna

Yesterday’s Prologue was certainly fast and furious. Blink an eye and you would have missed it? It took the young and talented Italian Filippo Ganna, who rides for the British team Ineos Grenadiers, a mere 8 min 47 seconds to complete the 8.6km course, a full 10 seconds faster than the second rider, another Italian, Edoardo Affini (10 seconds on such a short circuit is an eternity). For his efforts, Ganna earned the right to wear the coveted Maglia Rosa as well as the Maglia Ciclamino for points award AND the Maglia Bianca for best young rider. That’s a lot of maglie! Still, when it comes to cycling palmarès, you can never have too many awards.

Will young Filippo still be in pink this evening? His main rivals are further back on GC and so he might well be able to hold out. We’ll see. Today is definitely a classic day for the flat-earthers, those power sprinters who can ride 177km at pace and then, in the final two kilometres or so, ratchet up the watts to a frightening, testosterone-fuelled output, keeping in the leadout slipstream until just the right moment, throwing their bikes right or left, elbows out to jockey into position to finally propel themselves over the finish line in Novara.

Today’s ride, from the outskirts of Torino takes the riders first south into the province of Asti (maybe time to snatch a quick glass of Grignolino – nothing too impegnativo for there is work to be done!) before heading back north and past the rice paddies of Vercelli. Will it be a calm and clear enough day for the snow-covered Alps to be reflected in the still waters of the rice fields? The final frantic powerhouse finish will be in Novara, so if you’re a spectator, make sure and stand clear. Anything, literally, can happen!

I’m hungry and a little exhausted just thinking about the effort required for such a power stage, and this is only Day 2! A risottino is in order, made with Carnaroli rice from those rice fields the peloton will have cycled past today, perhaps with asparagi since it’s the season. Then something more substantial to fortify for the rigours that lie ahead: brasato alla Spanna, Fassone beef braised in Spanna wine. Spanna, the name for Nebbiolo in Alto Piemonte, is used to produce both straightforward Spanna as well as a host of more prestigious wines that are too rarely encountered outside of the zones of production such as Gattinara, Faro, Sizzano, Ghemme. Too much choice, too little time. I’m opting for a glass – no make it a bottle – of Ghemme, at best an elegant northern Piedmont expression of the great Nebbiolo grape.

A domani.

Tappa 3 tomorrow – Biella-Canale

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Tappa 3 – Monday 10 May 2021 – Biella-Canale 190km

Stage win – Tim Merlier
Maglia Rosa – Filippo Ganna
Maglia Ciclamino – Tim Merlier
Maglia Azzurra – Vicenzo Albanese
Maglia Bianca – Filippo Ganna

Cycling, like wine, only gets interesting where the hills start, but at least flat stages at the start of a grand tour do at least get the whole circus underway. And it is a circus, a real spectacolo. It’s always a beautiful sight to see the whole peloton, some 180 riders, all riding along at pace as if a single unit for most of the day. Not much seems to be happening, but the backdrop to it all is the always beautiful Italian countryside and the towns and villages passed along the way. Yesterday the real race only really started in the final 5km that led into Novara as the tempo increased to something around an astonishing 65 km an hour, finally exploding into an eyeballs-out power to the finish by the strong men: unexpectedly, Belgium Tim Merlier of Team Alpecin-Fenix (making its grand tour debut) took to the front with 250 metres still to go and was powerful enough to hold off Italian favourites Giacomo Nizzolo and Elia Viviani to take his first grand tour stage win.

Today’s Tappa from Biella to Canale could well be called a wine stage as it passes through a number of Piedmont’s wine regions, both prestigious and less well known. Lessona, from the wine hills just outside of Biella, and Bramaterra are two more Alto Piemonte reds produced primarily from Spanna, sometimes with the addition of Vespolina or Uva Rara to temper the naturally high acidity and tannin that Nebbiolo in all its manifestations always has. White Erbaluce is also cultivated within the Biella district to make a dry, still wine that is usually crisp and fresh in style, though passito versions are also made by some producers. Today’s route then heads south to Asti and over its wine hills cultivated primarily with Barbera for reds and Cortese for whites. Canelli and the Belbo Valley come next, dedicated exclusively and intensively to the cultivation of Moscato Bianco for delightful, fresh, grapey and low-in-alcohol wines such as Moscato d’Asti and fully sparkling Asti Spumante (a wine that should not be scorned!). Finally, the cyclists will climb over the wine hills again, pass through Alba, capital of three great wine regions, Barolo, Barbaresco, and Roero, crossing the Tanaro and over the wine hills of Roero to finish at Canale. So many wonderful wines: what, then, to drink tonight? Since we’re in Canale, it could be a Roero Rosso, normally a somewhat lighter expression of Nebbiolo than the classic Barolo and Barbaresco wines of Le Langhe. But, after another long day in the virtual saddle, I’m looking forward to getting stuck into something refreshing yet also structured, one of my favourite Italian whites, Arneis. It is fascinating to think that this characterful varietal, and many other wonderful Italian grape varieties (I’m thinking of Fiano, Falanghina, Pecorino, Recantina, Dorona for starters), had almost been allowed to disappear. It was only through the heroic efforts of visionary winegrowers that saved them for us all to enjoy. Arneis had traditionally been grown here and there in Roero and used to blend with Nebbiolo to make a lighter style of red. Bruno Ceretto saw its potential to create a high quality white in its own right and the fabulous Arneis Blangè, with its elegant bottle and cut-out label, brought it to the world’s attention in the 1980s. Arneis has gone from strength to strength ever since, now producing one of Piedmont’s most popular dry still wine. I love Arneis, Blangé certainly and also the wines produced by Malvirà, amongst other producers. Never high in acid, it displays clean, pure fruit (pears, white peaches), and has structure, intensity, purity, that texture in the mouth that is such an important feature of Italian whites. Arneis is a wine that is beautiful to drink on its own and which also goes so well with the foods of the region. We’re in Roero, so what to eat? I fancy a primo of tajarin pasta – made only with flour and egg yolks, nothing else, hand rolled and cut, as is done here in restaurants and homes, either served with a simple sugo pomodoro, or else bathed in just sweet unsalted butter and lots of grana padano. For secondo, a plate of grigio di Carmagnola – a particularly succulent local breed of rabbit, delicious braised in Arneis wine (the Osteria di Boccondivino in Bra often has this on the menu) with a contorno of cardi gobbi di Nizza Monferrato, the tender cardoons boiled then baked with more grana padano. And, why not, since calories aren’t a problem when you are cycling more than a hundred and fifty kilometres a day – even in my mind – to finish another favourite I can never resist, wobbly, chocolately, sweet bunet. I guess that should just about set me up for tomorrow’s ride. For the Giro continues relentlessly as it will over the next three weeks: as we leave Piemonte tomorrow and head into Emilia-Romagna!

a domani

Tappa 4 tomorrow – Piacenza to Sestola

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Tappa 4 – Tuesday 11 May 2021 – Piacenza to Sestola 187km

Stage win – Taco van der Hoorn
Maglia Rosa – Filippo Ganna
Maglia Ciclamino – Tim Merlier
Maglia Azzurra – Vicenzo Albanese
Maglia Bianca – Filippo Ganna

Sometimes in cycling, as in life, fortune favours the brave. Usually not, but yesterday showed that in the Giro dreams really can come true. When rookie rider Taco van der Hoorn, of the debutant team Intermarché-Wanty Gobert, decided to embark on a breakaway almost at the very start of a rainy, long and arduous stage that included some significant and steep climbs before a flat sprint finish, it seemed just another heroic gesture that was doomed to fail. Bravo, all the same. Heroic gestures are always appreciated and valued in the Giro. Taco’s aim, he said afterwards, was just to ride aggressively and try to stay out front as long as he could. Seven others joined him and the peloton seemed happy to let them build a lead that was never more than could be reeled in. Other teams had their own strategies. Bora-Hansgrohe, for example, wanted to set a high tempo on the steep climbs in order to punish or drop rivals to their team leader Peter Sagan, one of a rare breed who can both sprint as well as climb. After the final ascent in the Roero wine hills, with only 10km left until what should have been a sprint finish for the power riders, van der Hoorn was still out front, working together with Simon Pellaud to somehow keep ahead of the chasing bunch. But their lead had been whittled down to a mere 45 seconds, surely never enough against the might and energy of a determined peloton. Van der Hoorn then made an audacious move: he dumped his partner with whom he had worked so hard all day in what seemed surely an ill-fated final dash to glory. Amazingly, the bunch, with powerful teams like Cofidis joining in to help Bora-Hansgrohe, could not collectively catch him and he managed to hold out, rolling into the finish line a mere 4 seconds ahead of the chasers, hand over mouth in shock, hardly believing that he had actually won a stage in a grand tour at his first attempt. Indeed, on the winner’s podium, when presented with a magnum of Astoria Prosecco, he lifted the large bottle in triumph and drank deeply again and again. How sweet, how invigorating the taste of victory must have been! Meanwhile, the sprinters and their teams were left kicking themselves for their miscalculation, disappointed that the huge efforts that they had made on the climbs had come to no avail. No matter. Today is another day . . . but not one for the sprinters. Rather, it is the first stage with a significant mountain top finish when the real contenders to wear the Maglia Rosa in Milan will be expected to stretch their legs and make an effort.

Stage 4 begins in Emilia-Romagna, in Piacenza, an ancient city in the Po Valley that is the start of a famous Roman road, the Via Emilia which broadly follows the Po to reach the Adriatic at Rimini. Where the Romans were, the wine was usually good, and the wine hills of the Colli Piacenza are no exception. Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, father-in-law to Julius Caesar, grew grapes in these same wine hills, and indeed the name of one of the zone’s best known wines, Gutturnio, comes from a Roman drinking vessel known as a gutturnium, a round jug with a narrow neck. Today an extensive range of grapes is grown here on vineyards that are contiguous with those of Lombardy’s Oltrepò Pavese. Indeed, some producers have vineyards across both regions. Grapes include Barbera, Croatina (known locally as Bonarda), Pinot Nero, Cabernet Sauvignon for reds and Malvasia, Chardonnay, Ortrugo, Pinot Grigio, Trebbiano and Sauvignon Blanc for whites. After the surfeit of riches that is Piedmont, notably the Nebbiolo aristocrats that we have been enjoying over the past few days, what I like best about the wines from Colli Piacentini is that they come in so many different styles, dry, medium, sweet, lightly frizzante, frizzante and fully sparkling. Gutturnio is produced from Barbera blended with Croatina, usually around 60%/40% – Barbera provides the structure and balances Croatina’s sometimes rustic tannins while Croatina smooths out the high acidity of Barbera. It can be made in both frizzante and still versions. The latter is probably the more serious wine, but I’m going to go with the frizzante today as a picnic wine to go into my imagined saddlebag to accompany me on today’s sojourn, not least because Gutturnio frizzante goes so well with the salumi – the cured pork products – for which Emilia-Romagna is so rightly famous. Each town or area has its own speciality: coppa piacentina, salame di Felino, culatello di Zibello, prosciutto di Parma, mortadella di Bologna, prosciutto di Modena and more. So the plan for my virtual cycle today is first go to a good gastronomia in Piacenza to purchase a simple picnic of affettati – sliced meats – a loaf of good bread, a bottle of Gutturnio, perhaps from Castello di Luzzano, where the Fugazza sisters have long made excellent wines from both Colli Piacentini as well as Oltrepò Pavese. I’ll pause by the roadside at some point to enjoy this moveable feast: the rather fatty meats will taste so good with a chunk of bread and washed down with the Gutturnio, just slightly sparkly, raspingly dry, still high in acidity, and stainingly dark in colour, as I cycle in my mind along first the ancient Via Emilia through lovely Parma, then up and into the northern flanks of the Appenines for the testing mountain top finish at Sestola. An exciting and exhausting day ahead!

Tappa 5 tomorrow – Modena to Cattolica

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Tappa 5 – Wednesday 12 May 2021 – Modena to Cattolica – 177km

Stage win – Joseph Lloyd Dombroswki
Maglia Rosa – Alessandro De Marchi
Maglia Ciclamino – Tim Merlier
Maglia Azzurra – Joseph Lloyd Dombroswki
Maglia Bianca – Attila Valter

Suffering comes in many forms on a bike. Horrible, filthy, wet weather like yesterday’s can make a day in the saddle simply miserable. When there are hills thrown it makes it even worse. Descending fast down steep and slippery wet roads where the smallest slick of petrol or diesel can bring you, and those around you, crashing down on the tarmac isn’t much fun either. And when you reach the bottom of that descent, freezing cold, and your muscles don’t want to go again, it hurts. Then there are the attacks from those in front of you (the bastards!) – you try to keep up, but your legs have gone. Eventually you just lose the will almost to live . . . All of this and more happened to many riders on yesterday’s stage that took this year’s Giro into the mountains for the first time. Filippo Ganna relinquished the Maglia Rosa, as was expected. The new recipient in pink this morning is the veteran Alessandro De Marchi, riding for Israel Start-Up Nation, while Joseph Lloyd Dombrowski, from Delaware, USA, riding for UAE, attacked at just the right moment on the final Colle Passerino to outpace De Marchi by 13 seconds and claim the stage win as well as the Maglia Azzurra as best climber. There were losers, too: João Almeida of Deceunick-Quickstep, tipped as one of the GC favourites, dropped back a full 5 minutes on his rivals, an amount that will be hard to recover. Meanwhile, the battle amongst the team leaders exploded into life, with those who are expected to fight it out for GC over the next 2 and a half weeks finally rousing themselves for the first time: Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers), Mikel Landa (Bahrain Victorious), Aleksandr Vlasov (Astana-Premier Tech), Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafreddo), and English rider Hugh Carthy (EF Education-Nippo) all attacked on that savage final climb gaining small amounts of time over Simon Yates, Romain Bardet, Remco Evenepoel, and Vicenzo Nibali.

Today, they will line up to go again in Modena as the Giro returns to the Po Valley for a straight, pretty well dead-flat stage along the old Via Emilia to Cattolica, a resort on the Adriatic coast. For the GC contenders, indeed for most of the bunch, it will be a day to recover, keep out of danger and avoid crashes (riders are beginning to get fatigued by now and mishaps are always easy to happen on a bike). For the sprinters, it is another chance (and there are very few for them in this year’s Giro) for their teams to deliver them to that final moment of truth at the end when their explosive power will be put to the test on the streets of Cattolica.

We stay in Emilia-Romagna today, passing through Bologa (La Grassa, ‘the Fat’, one of Italy’s great gastronomic destinations), Imola, Forlì, Forlimpopoli, before reaching the coast at Rimini and heading down through Riccione to Cattolica, the latter three resorts all hoping that the tourists will be able to return this summer. For most of the ride, the wine hills of Romagna will be in view, foothills that lead up to the high Appennines, covered both with castles as well as vineyards. I’m going to pause today, on my virtual giro, in Forlimpopoli to give a nod to an unlikely Italian hero, Pellegrino Artusi, who is considered the father of domestic Italian cooking and who is credited as bringing the young Italian nation together when, at the age of 70, he published in 1891 his cookbook ‘Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well’. For many women across Italy, it was the first book they had owned. It was written in Tuscan Italian, the language of Dante, and included recipes as well as amusing anecdotes and common sense gathered from throughout Italy. The book was a massive success and in future volumes Artusi continued to include recipes that readers sent him from throughout the country. Even today, ‘Science in the Kitchen’ is a book that many Italians still consult as a point of reference.

Artusi attended school in Bertinoro, a wine town just outside of Forlimpopoli that is the source of some of Romagna’s best wines. So I’m looking forward to tucking into a lunchtime plate of tagliatelle al ragù – the sfoglia of pasta expertly hand-rolled and cut by a ‘Marietta’ at Casa Artusi – accompanied by Sangiovese di Romagna Vigna delle Lepre from Fattoria Paradiso, a wine demonstrates that Sangiovese from Romagna, though different from its manifestations in Tuscany, can achieve structure, tannin, complexity, indeed true greatness. Just a glass though, then it’s back on my bike to pedal on to the sea. It’s a tough life but someone’s got to do it.

Tappa 6 tomorrow – Grotto di Frasassi to Ascoli Piceno

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Tappa 6 – Thursday 13 May 2021 – Grotto di Frasassi to Ascoli Piceno 160km

Stage win – Caleb Ewen
Maglia Rosa – Alessandro De Marchi
Maglia Ciclamino – Giacomo Nizzolo
Maglia Azzurra – Joseph Lloyd Dombroswki
Maglia Bianca – Attila Valter

Sometimes your only goal on a bike is staying upright, avoiding trouble and mishap, riding anonymously in the bunch, and keeping your powder dry for another day. Yesterday was never one for the GC (General Classification based on accumulated overall time)  contenders to do anything more than just that. Sadly, for some key riders even that basic goal proved beyond them. And yet, it had seemed on paper the most straightforward of days, the route from Modena to Cattolica dead-flat and almost unerringly straight for just about all of the way. Unlike the day before, the roads were dry and the weather was fine. A couple of riders managed to pull ahead of the bunch but they were never going to be a threat. The peloton, controlled today by the sprinters’ teams, just let them dangle out there, knowing full well that whenever they wanted to they could easily click their collective fingers, up the gas, and just pull them back into the fold, like errant children who had been allowed to wander off while being kept under a watchful eye. The only tricky bits were when the bunch began to enter towns along the Adriatic coast towards the finish, Rimini, Riccione and, finally Cattolica. There are always sharp bends in towns and cities and today was no exception, a number of acute turns that saw riders pushed against the boards or come off their bikes, bringing others down with them. Pavel Sivakov, co-team leader of Ineos Grenadiers, was the first GC contender to go down, and he is now out of the race. Yesterday’s stage winner, Joe Dombrowski, the proud wearer of the Maglia Azzurra and in second place on GC, also went down, though at least he managed to get back on his bike and limp to the finish, holding his left arm. Will he start today? Mikel Landa, of Bahrain-Victorious and a genuine contender for GC, was involved in the same collision that involved a marshall and a central traffic island (there was only ever going to be one winner in that tussle). Though his teammates waiting loyally by his side while he was being treated on the ground, they eventually limped forlornly in to the finish without their team leader, who was carted away in an ambulance and has now abandoned the race, a blow both to him and to his team which must regroup and find another point of focus. It could have been worse. The finish was technically very demanding with the peloton travelling at frighteningly high speed around a number of 90 degree bends before the final 900 metre straight to the finish line. All of the main contenders, looking to snatch both a coveted Stage win as well as to accumulate more points for the Maglia Ciclamino, were there, jockying for position, sticking to a wheel, ready to dash out and make their move. It started well for Giacomo Nizzolo and it looked like he would nab his first win after a Sisyphean number of disappointing second place finishes. But, coming from way back, Caleb Ewen, the powerful Australian who rides for UAE, somehow managed to weave his way through the traffic to turbo-power past two of his main rivals, Elia Viviani, who finished third, and the hapless Nizzolo who was left banging his handlebars in frustration as he had to settle for yet another second.

Today’s stage is an aperitivo to the high mountains that will later be encountered, crossing into Le Marche, one of Italy’s still undiscovered regions, at least for international tourists. Yes, the beach resorts of the Adriatic are hugely popular, especially in Ferragosto. But inland is another world, stunning hill country leading up to the high Apennines such as today’s route that traverses the starkly beautiful Parco Nazionale dei Monti Sibbilini. These two faces of Le Marche – coastal sea and inland mountains – are reflected in the region’s wines as well as foods. Take the characterful Verdicchio grape. There are countless light, zesty, lemony versions (some maybe even still bottled in the ‘anfora’ that was such a successful marketing feature as far back as the 70s, a reminder that Ancona was a Greek city). These lighter styles go perfectly with a simple piadina, or with the seafood and shellfish enjoyed in coastal resorts when it is hot and you need something refreshing and quenching. Yet Verdicchio from both Castelli di Jesi and Matelica has the capacity to produce great white wine, too, with structure, alcohol, persistence, wines that are capable of ageing in the bottle. Such fuller Verdicchios go well with the more robust foods of inland Le Marche, such as coniglio in porchetta – rabbit, boned and stuffed with wild fennel and garlic then cooked in a wood-oven. The reds are serious, too, both Rosso Cònero and Rosso Piceno, made with reverse proportions of Montepulciano and Sangiovese, wines again that go well with the heartier foods of the hinterland.

Today’s tappa begins in Grotto di Frasassi, named for one of the largest cave complexes in Europe, vast underground caverns filled with shimmering lakes and stalagmites and stalagtites dangling down and pushing up out of the karst limestone. This subterranean world gives a glimpse into the geology of the region and reminds, too, that it is an area, like much of Italy, that is always prone to earthquakes, as happened most recently and devastatingly in 2016. Grotto di Frasassi lies near both Verdicchio zones and this is a good place to explore it in all its variety: light and zesty, fuller and more structured, barrique-fermented and -aged, and even good sparkling as well as passito versions.

Today’s route stays in the mountains for the whole way, with three categorized climbs and a testing mini-mountain-top finish just outside of Ascoli Piceno. Ascoli Piceno is a delightful and still undiscovered small city. After the rigours of today’s ride, I’m going to make my way first to the main Piazza del Popolo to visit the historic Caffè Meletti. If the weather is fine, I’ll sit at an outdoor table and watch the world go by, enjoying a local product, anisetta, the dry version, with just a little water to make it go cloudy, served with an olive ascolane or two – a unique antipasto of this part of Le Marche, the large local olives stoned then filled with a savoury meat mixture, breaded and deep-fried, a more than substantial drinking nibble. Then a glass of wine, Pecorino from the cru Colle Vecchio vineyard of Tenuta Cocci Grifoni. It was here, in the wine hills of Offida, that the Pecorino grape was rediscovered in the 1980s, growing high up in the Sibillini, where shepherds took their flocks, hence the name. Colle Vecchio, produced from those original indigenous clones discovered by Guido Cocci Grifoni, is a concentrated, massive white wine, indeed a white for lovers of red wines, as well as for all those who love the mountains from which it came.

Tappa 7 tomorrow – Notaresco to Termoli

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Tappa 7 – Friday 14 May 2021 – Notaresco to Termoli 181 km

Stage win – Gino Mäder
Maglia Rosa – Attila Valter
Maglia Ciclamino – Giacomo Nizzolo
Maglia Azzurra – Gino Mäder
Maglia Bianca – Attila Valter

Every team in the Giro has its team leader and every team has its squad of domestiques. Domestiques are the workhorses of the peloton, selfless riders whose role is to toil in the service of their team leader. If a team leader punctures, a domestique will give him his bike and wait for the support vehicle to arrive. A domestique gathers the musettes at the feed stations and collects water bottles for the team leader. If the team leader has to stop for a call of nature, a couple of domestiques will wait and then marshall him back into the peloton. But most of all, the role of the domestique is to pace and protect, ensuring that the team leader expends as little energy as possible and has support on the road at those times when he needs it most.

Every now and then a domestique can rise above his station and have his day in the sun. In last year’s Giro, when Ineos Grenadiers team leader Geraint Thomas crashed on the foothills of Mount Etna on only Stage 3, fracturing his pelvis and pulling out of the race, it was an opportunity for one of his domestiques, Tao Geoghegan Hart, to pinch the most unlikely overall Grand Tour victory on the final day’s time trial in Milan. When Mikel Landa crashed at the end of yesterday’s stage, fracturing his collarbone and ribs, it gave his domestique teammate Gino Mäder the freedom to set out on a breakaway from the very start of the stage and to ultimately ride to victory at the summit of Colle San Marco, high above Ascoli Piceno.

Following the withdrawal yesterday of co-team leader Pavel Sivakov, the Ineos Grenadiers put their domestiques to hard toil in the service of now sole team leader Egan Bernal. It was impressive to see them at the front of the peloton, riding as if in a team time trial, in and off the front to share the work, while all the time sheltering the diminutive climbing specialist Bernal. Then, on the slopes of that final climb, they took it in turns to share the load, first Filippo Ganna, winner of stage 1 and a former proud bearer of the Maglia Rosa but now back to his day job as domestique, working hard to set a high pace; then, Castroviejo took over, Bernal calmly on his wheel; then Gianni Moscon, all great riders themselves, working together for their team leader.  Finally with just a kilometre left, Bernal accelerated away and left them. Gino Mäder, the breakaway, still held out to win the stage, but, thanks to the unsung toil of his domestique teammates, Bernal finished second and was able to steal vital seconds off of some of his main GC rivals. At the same time, Ineos Grenadiers had laid down a marker, shown their collective depth, strength and determination to the other teams.

It occurs to me that there are domestiques in the world of Italian wine, too, those unsung grape varieties that are used in blends (and in those varietals that allow the addition of a small percentage of auxiliary grapes) to make a wine better than it would be if it were vinified ‘in purezza’. Molinara and Rondinella, for example, exist primarily to blend with Corvina for wines such as Bardolino, Valpolicella and Amarone della Valpolicella, but they are rarely used to make wines on their own (or at least I haven’t encountered them). Similarly, Canaiolo Nero is used to soften Sangiovese’s sometimes harsh tannins but I’ve never tasted a Canaiolo Nero wine. Their purpose, like that of a cycling domestique, is to assist and improve. Sometimes grapes play the role of domestique in a blend while also being able to stand on their own two feet: I’m thinking of Barbera with Croatina, the latter softening the rather aggressive acidity of the former, but also capable, as Bonarda, of producing a deeply coloured dry red in its own right. Vini da taglio – cutting wines from the deep south – used to be used to beef up more insipid wines from the north, but today stand proudly on their own such as Negroamaro and Nero d’Avola.

In cycling there are ‘super domestiques’, riders of great talent and the ability to win Grand Tours themselves but who sometimes ride in the service of their team leader: Chris Froome for Bradley Wiggins, Geraint Thomas for Chris Froome, for examples. Cabernet Sauvignon in the service of Sangiovese in Carmignano is just such an example, historically allowed in the blend since the Medici had brought French grapes into Tuscany centuries ago and because Carmignano was mentioned in Cosimo III’s Granducal decree ‘Il Bando’. Yet the creation of Sassicaia demonstrated that this foreign interloper was far more than just a useful domestique and a whole generation of Cabernet-based ‘super Tuscan’ wines was born.

But I digress from today’s business. The Giro today enters into Abruzzo, passing through the important wine zone of Terre di Chieti, to finish along the coast in tiny Molise, one of the smallest, youngest and least visited of Italy’s 20 regions. Though there are a few lumps along the way, the final half of the ride is mainly flat to the finish at Termoli, a fishing town on the Adriatic coast. So it’s a day when the sprinters and their teams of domestiques will be licking their lips again. I’m licking my lips, too, at the prospect of sampling some new foods and wines. There is plenty of good seafood to be had at Termoli but Molise, like Abruzzo, is a land of shepherds who traditionally still take their flocks to high mountain pastures during the summer months. So I’m looking forward to tucking into a big plate of ragù di agnello, braised lamb and peppers served over short pasta, washed down with Tintillia from Di Majo Norante, Molise’s leading producer. Tintillia is a variety that was possibly brought to the region during the long period of Spanish occupation and was primarily used as a blending wine due to its good acidity and tannin. But now it is being produced as a wine in its own right, a former domestique given its chance to shine in the southern sun.

Tappa 8 tomorrow Foggia-Guardia Sanframondi 170 km

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Tappa 8 – Saturday 15 May  2021 – Foggia-Guardia Sanframondi 170 km

Stage win – Caleb Ewen
Maglia Rosa – Attila Valter
Maglia Ciclamino – Caleb Ewen
Maglia Azzurra – Gino Mäder
Maglia Bianca – Attila Valter

At last, a straightforward stage that went pretty well by the textbook. Yesterday’s Stage 7 was another long day that took the peloton across Abruzzo and into Molise. Though there were a few bumps along the way, mainly in the wine country of Chieti, the sprinter and GC teams controlled the race well and everyone seemed mainly content just to pedal at high pace to get to Termoli where the action started. A sharp right turn, then a brief but fairly savage climb to the finish were the last obstacles, and on this final rise the powerful young Australian Caleb Ewen of Lotto Soudal muscled himself once again to the stage win. With two top podium results under his belt, he now wears the Maglia Ciclamino and is steadily accumulating the points to give himself a real chance of still having it in his possession when this year’s Giro ends in Milan on Sunday 30 May.

Today’s stage starts at Foggia, in Puglia, then crosses the Apennines, passing back into Molise and through Campobasso, before heading into the Matese Mountains to climb the 20km Bocca della Selva. Then the long descent into Campania’s province of Benevento, before a nasty kick to the finish. I’m hoping that Peter Sagan, who has been there or thereabouts on some of the sprint stages, might be able to survive the big climb in the bunch, and then distance his rivals at the finish, which I think could suit him. That wish is probably unlikely, and it could be another day for an opportunistic breakaway. But I hope he will get his chance. Sagan is a rider of such talent, courage and heart that I’d like to see him get a stage win, if not this one, then perhaps another in the days to come.

From a wine point of view, Stage 8 presents another embarrassment of riches. Grapes are grown on Puglia’s Gargano peninsula in the province of Foggia to produce good San Severo wines, white, rosato and red, the best reds and rosatos from Nero di Troia. The unusually named Cacc’e Mmitte di Lucera is another wine worth seeking out, and not only for its curious name which in local dialect means ‘take out and pour in’, an indication, perhaps, that this is a wine to enjoy with abandon. Molise’s Campobasso province is the source of Biferno, produced mainly from Montepulciano with the addition of Aglianico, a wine that is becoming more widely available (our local Coop even stocks a good version). It’ is interesting to compare this blend of Montepulciano/Aglianico with Rosso Cònero’s Montepulciano/Sangiovese from up the eastern seaboard in Le Marche.

The final destination of today’s stage brings the riders into the heart of yet another important wine zone in Campania’s Benevento, with the finish at Guardia Sanframondi, a small town of Lombard origin. Guardia’s importance at the centre of the wine zone of Sannio (the name comes from the ancient Samnites) was given valuable international validation when it, together with Castelvenere, Sant’Agata de’Goti, Solopaca, Torrecuso were chosen as the collective European Wine City 2019. The best reds come primarily from Aglianico. Whites are also noteworthy, from old vines of Falanghina, Greco and Fiano. As is still the case throughout much of Italy, many of the small growers here belong to an important cooperative winery, La Guardiense, which has 1000 winegrowing ‘soci’ or members, owning and working vineyards all along the 40km valley. The cellar is extremely well-equipped and super-star winemaker Riccardo Cottarella oversees production. So I’m going to raise a glass of Falanghina del Sannio ‘Guardiense’ both to the winegrowers of Benevento as well as to today’s victor, whoever it may be.

Tappa 9 Castel di Sangro to Campo Felice

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Tappa 9 – Sunday 16 May 2021 – Castel di Sangro to Campo Felice 158 km

Stage win – Victor LeFay
Maglia Rosa – Attila Valter
Maglia Ciclamino – Tim Melier
Maglia Azzurra – Gino Mäder
Maglia Bianca – Attila Valter

The first week of this year’s Giro has passed by in something of a blur (might it be all that virtual wine I’m drinking, I wonder?). The riders who are still in the race have now cycled 1252.6 kilometres across Piedmont, Emilia-Romagna, Le Marche, Abruzzo, Molise, Puglia and Campania on roads that have varied from pancake flat to vertiginous, and from inland mountains to the Adriatic. Today’s stage takes to the highest mountains of Abruzzo, with four categorised climbs, including a savage finish on unpaved roads. It’s exhausting just thinking about it, and there are still another two weeks to go.

This first week of the Giro has also reminded why this annual event captures the imagination of so many not only across Italy but around the world. Those of us who are passionate about cycling come for the sport of course, to see the talent, courage, power and to feel something of the joy and the suffering. But the Giro is so much more than just a sporting event: it is a celebration of Italy in all its magnificent glory and variety. There is history all along the way. This year’s Stage 1 began in Turin to mark the 160th anniversary of the modern Italian nation and to commemorate that Turin was the first capital of unified Italy. We travelled down an important Roman road, the Via Emilia, from Piacenza to the Adriatic at Rimini. Over the past few days, the cylists have gone through remote towns in the deep southern regions of Molise, Abruzzo and Campania that trace their origins back to the Lombards, who climbed over the Julian Alps into Italy in AD 568 after the fall of the Roman Empire. This was by no means just a ‘dark age’ – the cultural brilliance of the Lombards in Italy was recognised when UNESCO granted world cultural protected status to seven Lombard sites across the country, including in deepest Benevento, yesterday’s final destination. The Giro is a celebration of Italian culture too. 2021 marks 700 years since the passing of Dante Alighieri, the poet who is considered the Father of the Italian language since he wrote his capolavoro ‘The Divine Comedy’ in the vernacular, in Tuscan dialect rather than in Latin. The Giro will pay homage to him on a stage from Ravenna to Verona. The Giro brings immense pride to the whole nation, to every single town and city that it passes through, and especially to those towns or cities which are graced with being able to host either the start or the finish of a stage. And of course there is food and wine in all its glorious regional and local abundance and variety. For these reasons and more, the Giro is loved by just about anyone who loves Italy, not just for tifosi of cycling.

Yesterday a breakaway group managed to slip away again, in spite of the close attention and high tempo that Ineos Grenadiers put on at the front of the peloton (was it the high tempo that saw the previous day’s stage winner and wearer of the Maglia Ciclamino, Caleb Ewen, choose to abandon the race for good or was he injured?). None of the breakaways who were eventually allowed to escape were a threat to GC and this gave the opportunity for another debutant Grand Tour stage winner, Victor LeFay of Cofidis who rode to glory up the steep finish to Campo San Felice. Bravo Victor, bravo for the breakaways! They are making this year’s Giro super exciting, and who doesn’t love an underdog?

Today is the first of seven seriously hard days in the mountains, a day that will be spent entirely in Abruzzo, one of the most majestic and beautiful regions in Italy. There will be four categorized climbs with a mountain top finish that will test the riders’ legs and their hearts and minds as they endure a savagely steep 14% final rise on strada bianca or unpaved road. It’s almost certain that by the end of the day young Attila Valter may have to relinquish the Maglia Rosa that he has worn with such pride over the past two days. But who will be in pink this evening?

The high mountains of Abruzzo have traditionally been the domain of shepherds who each spring bring their flocks up to mountain pastures following old, timeless tracks or tratturi for the transumanza, living with their animals through the summer months, grazing them on unpolluted pasture fragrant with wildflowers, milking the sheep to make delicious pecorino cheese. The mountains of Gran Sasso are truly majestic and today’s cycling will also be hard and majestic. I need a majestic wine to go with a hunk of that good, aged pecorino. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is just the sort of wine I am looking for. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo at best – from producers such as Emidio Pepe, Valentini, Dino Illuminati, Masciarelli and others – ranks with Italy’s greatest reds – and attracts elevated price tags to match . I’m looking for something humbler today, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo ‘biologico’ from Cantina Tollo, a cooperative winery that has brought prosperity to an otherwise impoverished land. The wine is good, with pure, bright, organically-cultivated fruit, deep in colour, rich in tannin yet never harsh or aggressive. It is a wine to go with a plate of spaghetti alla chitarra or with lamb cooked over a wood fire. Or else just with that hunk of good mountain pecorino, a bite of bread.

Then, it’s back on my bike for this virtual journey to continue.

Tappa 10 tomorrow L’Aquila to Foligno

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Tappa 10 – Monday 17 May 2021 – L’Aquila to Foligno 139 km

Stage win – Egan Bernal
Maglia Rosa – Egan Bernal
Maglia Ciclamino – Tim Melier
Maglia Azzurra – Geoffrey Bouchard
Maglia Bianca – Egan Bernal

This year’s Giro exploded into life yesterday on the bare, unpaved track leading to the summit of Campo Felice. In cold drizzle and wind, with snow on the high mountain tops and even the sheep taking shelter, and where the gravel track reared to an eye-watering 14%, Egan Bernal, the gifted and still young Colombian team leader for Ineos Grenadiers, left behind his loyal lieutenants who had marshalled him up four categorised climbs to accelerate to a famous victory. What was most astonishing was how quickly the diminutive Bernal distanced himself from his main GC rivals, dancing on the pedals with apparent ease, an awesome demonstration of power, balance, grace and majesty. In so doing, he not only won the stage, he took over the Maglia Rosa as race leader, and also inherited the Maglia Bianca as the best young rider (it’s hard to believe that Bernal, already the winner of the Tour de France in 2019, is only 24 years old). We are 9 days into a 21-day stage race, and there is still so much work to be done and so many factors that will ultimately decide the victor in Milan. Weather, injury, sickness, crashes will all give the race many twists and turns in the coming days. But for now, Bernal is the man to beat and it will be up to his Ineos Grenadiers teammates to help him to defend the Maglia Rosa.

Today’s route crosses the Apennines once more, from L’Aquila, capital of Abruzzo, situated at 714 metres above sea level, to descend first into Lazio and then finally into Umbria for a long and flat run to Foligno, a town strategically located along another important Roman road, the Via Flaminia that once connected Rome with the Adriatic.

I don’t expect too much to happen today, certainly not the fireworks of yeterday. There will be a breakaway; the sprinters’ teams will try and bring the escapees back in order to be able to contest the sprint finish on the streets of Foligno; and Ineos Grenadiers will demonstrate the team’s collective strength and determination to protect the Maglia Rosa and bring their leader Bernal safely to the finish.

Then, at last, a rare luxury: after 10 days of hard racing, a rest day tomorrow. The cyclists will have the chance to put their feet up, switch off mentally from the rigours they have endured, recuperate, refuel, and rejuvenate, physically as well as mentally. Comfort food, I feel, is in order: for me that would be a big bowl of something simple, perhaps zuppa di lenticchie, lentil soup made with lentils from nearby Casteluccio di Norcia which are special enough to have their own protected DOP status. Simple, warmng and delicious, accompanied not with a simple wine but with something rather more special, because after the days of toil we’ve earned the right to savour a wine that will soothe and inspire: one of Umbria’s greatest, Rubesco Riserva ‘Vigna Monticchio’ from nearby Torgiano, produced by the Lungarotti family from old Sangiovese vines on the cru Monticchio single vineyard. It’s a special wine that brings back many fond memories, a wine, like Bernal on that final steep rise, that combines power, balance, grace and majesty.

A rest for me tomorrow, too. See you on Wednesday for the ‘wine stage’. It’s going to be a corker!

Tappa 11 Wednesday Perugia to Montalcino ‘Brunello di Montalcino Wine Stage’ 162 km

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We are now more than halfway through this year’s Giro d’Italia. There has been drama, spills, attacks, glory and both glorious and ignominious failure. And there is more, so much more still to come!

Stage 11 – Wednesday 19th May 2021 – Perugia to Montalcino ‘Brunello di Montalcino Wine Stage’ 162 km

Stage 10 winner – Peter Sagan
Maglia Rosa – Egan Bernal
Maglia Ciclamino – Peter Sagan
Maglia Azzurra – Geoffrey Bouchard
Maglia Bianca – Egan Bernal

Teamwork. That is what it takes to win the Giro. That is what it takes to win just a single stage. And there was a masterclass on display on Tuesday, the day before yesterday’s well earned rest day, when every member of Team Bora-Hansgrohe worked incredibly hard to help Peter Sagan to a famous victory on Stage 11. Bora-Hansgrohe took control on the rolling hills of Lazio leading up to the only categorized climb of the day, relentlessly setting an uncomfortable pace that some of the bigger and more powerful sprinting specialists simply found too hard to maintain: Tim Merlier, the Maglia Ciclamino, fell back; Giacomo Nizzolo struggled to stay in touch; Dylan Groenewegen and others who were favoured to contest the stage if allowed to reach the final kilometres still in touch all dropped away. Sagan was at his limit, too, but his teammates knew just how hard he could be pushed and still have enough left in the tank to contest the final sprint. Bora-Hansgrohe continued to work tirelessly and drove the peloton on to Foligno at a tempo that was far too high for anyone else to contemplate breaking away. It was the perfect strategy. As the bunch entered the streets of Foligno, negotiated roundabouts and then a sharp righthander, Sagan was in pretty much the perfect position to launch his final attack. But having been delivered to the start of the final sprint by your team is one thing: he still had to deliver the goods and he did so in real style, exploding into an extraordinary display of power to outpace Fernando Gaviria and Davide Cimolai not only to take the stage win but also to ride himself into the Maglia Ciclamino. A very impressive day’s work and teamwork. Bravo Peter Sagan, Bravo Team Bora-Hansgrohe.

Today the Giro resumes and it is a reminder of why it is the greatest cycling race in the world. For a start, for those of us who love both cycling and wine, it is this year’s designated ‘wine stage’ in honour of Brunello di Montalcino. The ‘wine stage’ has been a regular feature of the Giro for some years now, a reminder that wine lies at the heart of Italian life and landscape alike. Stage routes are rarely far from the hills and as we have already seen, the Giro spends much of its time cycling through beautiful wine country. This of course gives us all the excuse, at the end of an exhausting armchair day, to relax over an appropriate glass or two. Today’s stage, which runs from Perugia to Montalcino, is no exception but with a dastardly twist: there will be four sections totalling 35 kilometres that will be over strade bianche – unpaved roads and farm tracks up and down some of the steepest hills in the Crete Senesi and the wine hills of Montalcino. The last time the Giro came to Montalcino and its white roads was in 2010, a stage that has gone down in Giro legend. It had been pouring rain for days, and the roads, riders and bicycles arrived at the finish unrecognisable, almost completely covered in the fine clay mud of the Crete. Riding in such rugged and testing conditions demands other skills than normally required on the road. And it requires a different sort of teamwork, too. Should a team leader puncture, as will no doubt happen to someone today, a domestique might have to lend him his wheel or his bike until the support vehicle can arrive. The support vehicles will need to try and stay as close to their riders as they can, adding to the dust or mud and overall chaos of it all. As always, teamwork as well as individual skill and heart will be what wins the day.

But at the end of it all, there will be wine, glorious wine, and not any old wine: Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, one of the great wines of Italy and the world. I’m certainly looking forward to relaxing over a large calice of this prestigious vintage. But which Brunello? I’m going to opt for a special wine made by a good friend, Donatella Cinelli Colombini, Brunello di Montalcino ‘Prime Donne’. Donatella’s winery Casato Prime Donne is staffed entirely by women and is a flagship for equal opportunities for women in the world of wine. The wine itself is created and assembled by a team of selected female tasters including international experts and MWs who help with decisions such as how long to age it in barrel. Donatella’s aim is to create an ‘old style’ Brunello, elegant in style with a strong territorial imprint, a wine that can be cellared for a long time. The whole team at Casato Prime Donne work tirelessly to achieve this end.

Teamwork in cycling, teamwork in winemaking are often the keys to success. Let’s enjoy today’s ‘wine stage’, the courage, skill and determination of the cyclists, the beauty and splendour of the Montalcino countryside, ranging from lush vineyards to the bare, white hills of the Crete Senesi. At the end of it all, we’ll raise a glass to the cyclists whose efforts are bringing us to such wonderful places, and also to the winemakers who are refreshing and astonishing us all along the way. Bravi e salute!

Tappa 12  Siena to Bagno di Romagna 212 km

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Stage 12 – Thursday 20 May 2021 – Siena to Bagno di Romagna 212 km

Stage 11 winner – Mauro Schmid
Maglia Rosa – Egan Bernal
Maglia Ciclamino – Peter Sagan
Maglia Azzurra – Geoffrey Bouchard
Maglia Bianca – Egan Bernal

Stage 11, the Brunello di Montalcino wine stage, presented the cyclists with an extreme test of man, machine and team. On the bare, dusty, gravel stretches of strade bianche that passed through Montalcino’s wine country, a small group managed to build a decent lead and Mauro Schmid, just 21 years old, of Team Qhubeka Assos eventually powered away from his fellow escapee Alessandro Corvi to ride to a debut Giro d’Italia stage win on the narrow streets of Montalcino, a notable achievement to add to his cycling palmarès, one that he will certainly always remember and cherish. Meanwhile the real race was taking place amongst the GC contenders some five minutes back. Once again, Team Ineos Grenadiers showed its strength, confidence and aggression by riding not just to protect the Maglia Rosa, Egan Bernal, but to make his rivals suffer, setting a fast and uncomfortable tempo on the loose and dry roads. Lost in a cloud of choking white dust behind, some just couldn’t keep up. The biggest loser on the day was Remco Evenepoel of Team Deceuninck-Quickstep, who clearly didn’t relish riding in the dirt at pace – and especially descending on the loose and dangerous gravel. His head dropped, he argued with his team car, and to add insult to injury his former co-leader and now domestique João Alameida inexplicably went on ahead, rather then dropping back to assist his team leader, leaving young Evenepoel all alone, in a world of utter pain and misery. Having started the day just 14 seconds behind Bernal, he eventually rolled in some 2 minutes 22 behind the Maglia Rosa. Not an insurmountable deficit by any means and the young Belgian will have better days to come, just as Bernal will surely have his bad moments. But for now, Bernal is the man to beat. He was simply majestic and in a total class of his own, blowing away his rivals on the final climb and in the process gaining precious time on them all. Another very satisfying day’s work. There is still a very long way to go, but I hope that Bernal and his Ineos teammates were able to enjoy victory in the Brunello di Montalcino wine stage with perhaps at least a sip or two of this great wine. They certainly deserved it.

Stage 12, at 212 km and with 3700 metres of climbing, will be another long and very hard day as the Giro moves on relentlessly, leaving Tuscany after just a day – but what a day! – to cross the Apennines and back into the high mountains of Romagna. Starting in Siena, the route passes directly through the very heart of Chianti Classico, visiting along the way the important wine communes of Castellina in Chianti, Panzano in Chianti, Greve in Chianti, Strada in Chianti. As we travel along the Via Chiantigiana, on a bike or in our minds, feeling the undulations of the terrain and enjoying vistas of vine-covered slopes all around us, it’s hard to believe that this single-minded vinescape was not always like this. The riders then pass through Florence, the great city of the Renaissance which became the second capital of Italy between 1865 and 1870. Then, it’s to the north and east towards the mountains, first passing through Pontassieve, always an important centre for Chianti wine, and then by two more important wine zones, Chianti Rufina and the tiny wine enclave of Pomino. The latter, together with Chianti and Carmignano, was cited in 1716 when it was included in Cosimo III de Medici’s granducal decree, Il Bando.

My wine choice for today, therefore, is Pomino Rosso produced at the Castello Pomino by the Marchese de’ Frescobaldi, aristocratic winegrowers since 1300. Though this wine used to be made from Sangiovese blended with Pinot Nero and Merlot, for some years now it has been made entirely from Pinot Nero in purezza. Vinified in oak conical trunk vats and then aged for 15 months in French oak barrique, the wine that results is elegant, rather soft, delicate, and beautifully balanced. French grape varieties were first brought back to Pomino in 1855 by a Frescobaldi ancestor and they have clearly adapted well to their home in these high wine hills.

Another reason for choosing this wine is that Castello Pomino is a part of the social history of Tuscany. For centuries, the wine farms of Tuscany as well as other parts of central Italy, were worked by mezzadri, sharecropping tenant farmers who would give half their produce to the padrone, the aristocratic landowner, and keep half for themselves. It is incredible to think that this medieval system of farming was only outlawed in 1964 and not abolished completely until 1982. At Pomino, you can still see how the mezzadria worked in practice, for the old sharecroppers’ open-topped fermentation vats are still in place together with the small wooden barrels called barile that were used to measure out the wine, once it was made, in order to distribute the shares to the tenant farmers. Today as we pass through the beautiful, manicured vineyards of Chianti Classico, Chianti Rufina and Pomino, perhaps stopping to visit a modern, architect-designed wine cellar, we are reminded of how recent the renaissance of Italian wine really is. Only 50 years ago, intensive monoculture hardly existed, and the landscape itself, cultivated by the so-called promiscuous method of mixed agriculture, looked profoundly different to what it does today. The demise of the mezzadria was a watershed moment in the development of modern Italian wine, certainly, and the wines are without doubt infinitely better for it. But there were losses, too, changes to livelihoods, to relationships with the land, ways of working and living that had existed for centuries. And there were immense changes to a beautiful landscape that until relatively recently was not dissimilar to the background of a Renaissance painting.

Once again I digress. We ride on, into the high mountains, with four testing categorised climbs (surely another day for an opportunistic breakaway?), before the finish in Bagno di Romagna, just inside the border between Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna. Bagno di Romagna, a spa town in the high hills, has been famous for the healing properties of its thermal waters since Roman times. Those warm, sulphrous, healing waters will certainly be welcome this evening to soothe both tired legs and tired minds. That, and of course a glass of wine, the best medicine of all.

Tappa 13 tomorrow Ravenna to Verona 198 km

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Stage 13 – Friday 21 May 2021 – Ravenna to Verona 198 km

Stage 12 winner – Andrea Vendrame
Maglia Rosa – Egan Bernal
Maglia Ciclamino – Peter Sagan
Maglia Azzurra – Geoffrey Bouchard
Maglia Bianca – Egan Bernal

Yesterday was a good day for the Italians. On one of the longest stages – there are only four in this edition that top 200 km – an Italian breakaway Andrea Vendrame peddled through the wine hills of the Chianti Classico, Rufina, and Pomino, then climbed four whopping categorised mountains and descended like a madman to shake off his rivals and claim a fabulous stage victory in Bagno di Romagna. Meanwhile, some 12 minutes back, the peloton was being controlled imperiously by the might of the Ineos Grenadiers, all riding around Egan Bernal, the Maglia Rosa, like a team of thuggish, protective bodyguards. No one dared to upset the order or challenge them, or so it seemed. But then, on the final shorter but painfully steep climb of the day, a brilliant surprise attack was launched by two Italians on the Trek-Segafredo team! First Giulio Ciccone put in a powerful dig, accellerating quickly away from the peloton. Ciccone, only 2:24 down on GC was not someone who could be ignored so the Ineos boys prepared to step it up. But before they could fully react, Vincenzo Nibali, Lo Squalo, the ‘Shark of Messina’, who has won the Giro d’Italia twice – 2013 and  2016 – as well as the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España, and a revered national hero, set off after his compatriot, outpacing the whole Ineos Grenadiers to bridge to Ciccone and then go past him. Nibali managed to stay ahead of the chasing pack all the way to the summit of the climb. Then, on the dangerous descent, he showed his world class bicycle handling skills by speeding down at the utter limit of safety, taking immense risks along the way. Gianni Moscon, one of the stalwart workhorses of Ineos Grenadiers, trying to follow Nibali’s wheel, crashed at about 50 km per hour, hitting the road hard, skidding out, and bouncing around like a rag doll (he somehow managed to jump back on his apparently undamaged bike to complete the stage). Nibali’s attack brought Stage 12 to life, the mainly Italian crowds in Bagno di Romagna going crazy, cheering their hero as he held out against the chasing peloton to, in the end, gain what, just a mere 7 seconds on the Maglia Rosa? It doesn’t sound like much for all that risk and effort, and Nibali is still more than 4 minutes back on GC. But it was a stern reminder that this race is far from over, a statement of intent from Lo Squalo and the Trek-Segafredo team, and encouragement to other teams that Ineos Grenadiers might not have it all their way in the testing days to come before the Giro winds up on the streets of Milan.

Today’s ride from Ravenna to Verona looks on paper an altogether more straightforward affair. For a start, it is one of the few flat stages remaining, an opportunity for most of the riders to stay safely in the bunch and to leave the finish to the sprinting teams to fight it out. This stage was devised in part to pay homage to Dante Alighieri, who passed away 700 years ago. Dante, a Florentine, became embroiled in the bitter conflict that was a dominant feature of Italy in the Middle Ages between Guelphs (supporters of the Papacy) and Ghibellines (supporters of the Holy Roman Empire). Dante’s family were staunch Guelphs and they eventually triumphed in the city. But then the in-fighting became even more arcane as the Guelphs split into Blacks and Whites. Dante found himself on the losing side, had all his property and goods confiscated, and was sent into perpetual exile on pain of death if he were ever to return. He was just 37 years old and never set foot in his native city again. Thus began a peripatetic life, moving from city to city and taking hospitality with the noble families who would welcome and protect him. He eventually settled in Ravenna under the protection of the ruling Da Polenta family where he completed the Divine Comedy. Dante died in Ravenna in 1321 and his tomb there has become a site of national piligrimage. During his wanderings, Dante came to Verona on a number of occasions and always received the warm hospitality of the powerful Della Scala family so the people of Verona also still feel an affectionate and direct connection with Italy’s Supreme Poet.

I expect today’s stage across the broad Po Valley from Ravenna to Verona to be fast and furious, crossing the Adige into Verona and then a straight finish down Corso Porta Nuova, a stage that will definitely suit the powerhouses of the peloton. Watch out, those of you who are there, this will be a display of unbridled, testosterone-fuelled might like the gladiatorial contests that once took place in the Roman Arena just beyond the finish line.

My wine for today is Possessione Rosso, made at the Casal dei Ronchi estate of the Serègo-Alighieri family at Gargagnago in the wine hills of Valpolicella. After Dante’s death, his son Pietro purchased this estate outside of Verona in 1353. Since that time, for more than 650 years and twenty-one generations, Casal dei Ronchi has remained in the hands of the direct descendants of Dante Alighieri. Vines as well as cherries, two vital products in the Valpolicella, have been cultivated here ever since. The Serègo Alighieri estate’s most famous and prestigious wnes are Vaio Armaron (possibly the first Amarone della Valpolicella?) and Casal dei Ronchi Recioto della Valpolicella, a gently sweet vino da meditazione – meditation wine – that is perhaps the perfect partner to sip while reading the disturbing and hellish passages from The Inferno. Possessione Rosso is a humbler wine that honours the family’s Tuscan roots for it is made from a blend of Corvina, the great grape of Verona, and Sangiovese, the great grape of Tuscany. After fermentation, the wine ages in barrels made from the cherry wood of the estate. The wine itself displays an intense aromas of cherries, finishing with a characteristic almond aftertaste, a bittersweet reminder of Dante’s enforced exile from his beloved Florence. Let’s raise a glass of Possessione Rosso to today’s gladiators as they go mano-a-mano on the streets of Verona this afternoon, and to Dante Alighieri, the Father of the Italian language and literature.

Tappa 14 tomorrow Cittadella to Monte Zoncolan 205 km

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Stage 14 – Saturday 22 May 2021 – Cittadella to Monte Zoncolan 205 km

Stage 13 winner – Giacomo Nizzolo
Maglia Rosa – Egan Bernal
Maglia Ciclamino – Peter Sagan
Maglia Azzurra – Geoffrey Bouchard
Maglia Bianca – Egan Bernal

Hope: it’s what drives us all on; it’s what makes us get up in the morning. Hope is what gets professional cyclists out of bed in the dead of winter to put in the hard kilometres to prepare themselves even just to be able to take part in a ‘grand tour’ like the Giro d’Italia. It’s what makes them keep riding every day over three weeks when every muscle, sinew and bone in their body must be aching and in utter agony.

Yesterday’s route from Ravenna to Verona, passing through Ferrara and Mantua in homage to Dante Alighieri, was a day for most riders just to recuperate and try to recover before the arduous days in the mountains. It could not have been flatter or straighter. It was a day when there was absolutely no hope for a breakaway, a small group of riders, to try get ahead and hold out to the finish. And yet, a trio, led by the indefatigable Simon Pellaud, who is proving to be this year’s most combative rider, tried all the same. Even when the full might of the peloton was bearing down on them in the final 5 kilometres, when it is was clearly hopeless to hang out any longer, they still made a final acceleration to try and prolong their moment in the sun for just a little longer. Why? What drove them on when there was absolutely no point whatsoever? Why did they expend precious energy and fatigue their already aching muscles when there was absolutely no benefit to be gained? It seems that hope becomes a habit, a state of mind: so they just drove themselves on, hopefully.

Giacomo Nizzolo, the Italian and European champion, knows about hope as much as anyone. One of the most popular riders in the peloton, he is an immensely talented sprinter who has so far been unable to win a stage in his home grand tour, finishing second on countless disappointing occasions. What must have gone through his mind, then, at the very end of the stage when, having been delivered to the final 2 kilometres in perfect position  by his hardworking Qhubeka Assos team, he saw Edoardo Affini of Jumbo-Visna accelerate at such an astonishing pace for a final dash to glory along the straight Corso Porta Nuova of Verona? It was an audacious move and Affini was powerful enough to open up a sizeable gap that looked almost hopeless to reel in. Did Nizzolo at that moment think that he might have to settle for another second? No, he believed himself because he had hope in his heart. Gradually, then more quickly, almost super-humanly, he pounded after his countryman, got on to his back wheel, slipstreamed for just a moment, then powered past him, arms aloft as he crossed the line in immense relief to take his first stage win in the Giro d’Italia.

Today we enter a new phase of this three-week Grand Tour. The start line might as well have a banner written above it :“Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate”, the phrase carved over the portal when Dante’s protagnoist and his guide the poet Virgil begin their descent into Hell. If their journey took them down into the deepest bowels of the earth to discover the terrifying circles of Inferno, our journey goes ever upwards: five of the next eight stages will take the cyclists to some of the highest and most inhospitable mountain-top summits in all of Italy. Dante’s words might as well be chalked on the high mountain roads alongside the famous names of cyclists past and present: Abandon all hope, ye who enter here!

Mountains are for many of us what the Giro d’Italia is all about. Mountains will decide the victor. Mountains will crush the losers. In the mountains, a rider on a bad day can lose 10 minutes, 15 minutes, 20 minutes or more on GC, this in a race whose outcome is often decided by mere seconds. There will be courageous and repeated attacks on the Maglia Rosa, riders will have to dig their deepest, teams will have to be at their strongest in support, and many will lose the will to live, might abandon all hope. This is where we will get to know those riders who are great of heart, those riders who never lose hope, even when everything around them seems hopeless.

So then, a fatiguingly long day with two major climbs, including one of the steepest and most shockingly fiercesome of all, Monte Zoncolan, located in the Carnic Alps of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. The climb is a leg-numbing 14 kilometres and it is steep all the way up. I drove up the road to just below the summit of Monte Zoncolan two summers ago to seek out the Malga Pozof in search of mountain cheese. Every summer the Gortani family undertake the transumanza, walking their herd of cattle up old mountain tracks to this remote summit outpost where they can live and enjoy the fresh and ethereal mountain air. The cows graze happily on the fragrant grass of the high alpeggio and the Gortanis milk them to make a range of mountain cheeses. My plan today is to position myself somewhere just below the malga on my virtual imagined armchair journey to cheer on the cyclists, maybe somewhere around where the road rears to a leg-numbing 27% incline. There they will be going through their own private hell and moving slowly enough to look in their eyes to see who still has hope or who has abandoned it (us armchair cyclists like nothing more than to see someone else suffering – we’ve all been there).

It is far too high here for vineyards, so I’ll take a bottle in my backpack to enjoy with a hunk of the malga’s fragrant mountain cheese. But what bottle? The vineyards on the foothills leading up to the high mountains, as well as on the plain, and on the limestone plateau of the Carso, collectively make up one of Italy’s most exciting wine regions: Friuli-Venezia Giulia, source of both outstanding whites as well as great reds. I’m tempted to stash a bottle of Isonzo Cabernet in my backpack. In World War I no less than eleven battles took place along the Isonzo, Italy’s bloody frontline against the Austrians. It would be an apt choice for there are still many battles to come in this year’s Giro d’Italia. Friuli suffered in World War II, as well, and in centuries of skirmishes and battles before then, a sad history. Much as I enjoy and relish the combat on the road, I’m going to go with a wine that instead of conflict and competition seeks harmony and brotherhood: Vino della Pace from the Cantina Produttori di Cormòns. When this cave cooperative was formed after the war, the winegrowers decided to commemorate peace by planting the Vigna del Mondo with vines brought in from every winegrowing continent on earth. Today the Vigna del Mondo comprises more than 800 different grape varieties. Every year they are harvested and vinified to make the Vino della Pace, a bottle of which is sent to every civil and religious head of state in the world. It is a symbolic wine, certainly, but it is also a wine to drink, gently sweet, soft, not in the least aggressive or bellicose. Surely even in the midst of a combative stage race such as the Giro d’Italia there is time to take a moment to enjoy this wine of peace, perhaps sampled with a slice of gubana, a snail-shaped pastry filled with nuts, and candied fruit and raisins soaked in grappa. The Vino della Pace is a unique wine of human solidarity and brotherhood. In this year more than ever, we all need to take a deep breath, drink deeply, and hold on to our hope.

Tappa 15 tomorrow Grado to Gorizia 147 km

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Stage 15 – Sunday 23 May 2021 – Grado to Gorizia 147 km

Stage 14 winner – Lorenzo Fortunato
Maglia Rosa – Egan Bernal
Maglia Ciclamino – Peter Sagan
Maglia Azzurra – Geoffrey Bouchard
Maglia Bianca – Egan Bernal

After yesterday’s engagement on the high and mighty slopes of Monte Zoncolan, today hostilities in the Giro d’Italia continue over the rolling hills and altopiano of Friuli-Venezia Giulia and across the border into the Bainsizza of neighbouring Slovenia. During World War I some of the fiercest and most intense fighting took place over the succession of steep limestone hills that ripple to the north of Gorizia and Nova Gorica, the same hills over which today’s combatants will fight it out for Stage 15. After World War II, the area was subject to a further territorial dispute between Italy and Yugoslavia that resulted in an arbitrary border being drawn that was shut with an iron curtain that divided families and communities. Three times, the cyclists will go around a circuit that crosses that border in a Europe today that is truly sans frontières; three times they will climb Slovenia’s Gornje Cerovo, only 2 kilometres, but painfully steep, then endure a successsion of challenging descents and sharp rises, passing through former battlefields that today, across both sides of the border, are covered in manicured vines.

There were no vines on the slopes of Monte Zoncolan yesterday, and we couldn’t see much of the alpine pastures that herdsmen and their cows so appreciate for their fresh and fragrant grasses that make such sweet milk and cheese. Snow still covered the high slopes, and it was foggy, misty and miserable at the summit. Lorenzo Fortunato didn’t allow either the thin, rarified air or the cold and inhospitable conditions to dampen his spirits, though, as he spun powerful up the steepest final section to claim a debut Giro stage win both for himself and for the newly formed Eolo Kometa Cycling Team, yet another victory for an Italian! Jan Tratnik of Bahrain Victorious was happy to finish second; a Slovenian, he is also looking forward to today’s stage that will take him into his home country. If he’s not too exhausted from his exertions yesterday, I expect him to be on the attack again. What then of the others, the GC contenders? It looked for much of the final 14 kilometre climb that Monte Zoncolan itself would be the victor, that its challenging slopes were just too steep and long for anyone to contemplate an aggressive breakaway and risk blowing up on the highest and steepest slopes, losing their legs and the will to live, and so dropping back minutes or more. Only on the final, brutally steep section towards the finish did British rider Simon Yates finally make a move, steadily riding away from the bunch that had been led first by the Astana team and then by Ineos Grenadiers and the Maglia Rosa, Egan Bernal. Only Bernal could go with him; all the others were dropped. It was great to see Yates, who came into the race as one of the hot and in-form favourites, at last show his class .But in the end he could not match Bernal, who imperiously danced on his pedals to breakaway from Yates and gain further time on all his GC rivals.

Stage 15 starts in Grado, an island town on an Adriatic lagoon. When, after the disintegration of the Roman Empire, mauraders came over the Alps into Italy – first the Vandals, then the Goths and the Lombards – the people of these fertile lands had to take refuge to escape rape and pillage. Grado, a Roman island port on a lagoon in the Adriatic, became just such a place of safety, as also happened on the islands to the south within the Venetian lagoon, which is how Venice came to be created and settled. From Grado, Stage 15 soon passes Aquileia, today a small town on the alluvial plain of the Natisone river. It’s hard to imagine that this was once one of the largest and most beautiful of all Roman cities, with a population of over 100,000 due to its strategic location for roads leading to and from the eastern Mediterranean, Pannonia and northern Europe. When Attila, Scourge of God and King of the Huns, passed through in AD 452, he sacked the city and destroyed it so utterly that it was impossible afterwards even to recognise the original site! No battles will take place here today; conflict will only be fully engaged once the riders have passed along the Isonzo and into the wine hills of Collio and its Brda counterpart across the border in Slovenia.

After the devastation that the region suffered in the aftermath of two world wars, a collective decision was taken to rebuild the Friuli-Venezia Giulia wine country by concentrating on quality through the replantation of its most important native grapes, notably for whites Friulano, Ribolla Gialla, Pinot Grigio, Malvasia Istriana and for reds Refosco del Peduncolo Rosso, Schiopettino, and Pignolo, as well as through the introduction of international varieties such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. Today Friuli-Venezia Giulia is without doubt one of Italy’s most exciting wine regions, primarily for its robust, firm and clean whites but also for some outstanding reds.

The three-times circuit today will thrice pass through Oslavia, a small wine commune virtually on the Slovenian border. Today there is no border and people can pass back and forth freely and unchallenged. Above the town stands a monument that is a reminder to the sad past: the Ossario di Oslavia, constructed on Monte Calvario to house the mortal remains of some 57000 Italian soldiers who perished during the numerous World War I battles of the Isonzo that took place over these peaceful lands. Today, the hills of Oslavia that were once a killing field are covered in vines, most notably Ribolla Gialla which finds a particularly propitious habitat here. My wine choice for today is Josko Gravner’s iconic Anfora, a Ribolla Gialla fermented in earthenware amphorae buried underground, a method of winemaking that dates back to antiquity and the origins of wine 8000 years ago. The grapes are macerated on the skins for 30 days, so the result is an ‘orange’ wine that has structure, tannin, and deeply rich and warm flavours. ‘Anfora’ is a wine that reminds us all that for centuries and across millennia wine has always remained a civilising force for good, indeed a cornerstone of our civilisation itself, la civiltà del bere.

The American novelist Ernest Hemingway, a great wine lover himself, was stationed on the Isonzo front during World War I where he served as an ambulance driver, an experience that found its way into one of his most famous novels. For our warriors on two-wheels, there will be no ‘farewell to arms’ until exactly a week today when the Giro will finally arrive on the streets of Milan. In the meantime, we continue to ride on – and to journey through Italy, wineglass in hand.

Tappa 16 tomorrow Sacile to Cortina d’Ampezzo 212 km

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Stage 16 – Monday 24 May 2021 – Sacile to Cortina d’Ampezzo 212 km

Stage 15 winner – Victor Campenaerts
Maglia Rosa – Egan Bernal
Maglia Ciclamino – Peter Sagan
Maglia Azzurra – Geoffrey Bouchard
Maglia Bianca – Egan Bernal

Today is the day that many tifosi of the Giro d’Italia have all been waiting for: the tappone, the ‘Queen Stage’, the Cima Coppi! Without doubt this is the hardest stage of an already grueling 3-week grand tour that still has many more mountains to climb. Over a lengthy 212 kilometres, the riders will have to ascend an incredible 5700 metres over four first category (the hardest) mountain tops, three of which soar to more than 2000 metres above sea level. The Passo Pordoi is this year’s Cima Coppi, awarded to the highest peak on each Giro, named after the legendary post-war Italian cycling hero Fausto Coppi who won the Giro d’Italia no less than five times and who was called ‘Il Campionissimo’ – the Champion of Champions. Today will be a hellish stage, requiring super-powers just to get around it, let alone race to victory. It is a day to strike fear into the hearts and legs of every cycliist who will arrive at the start line this morning. For us lesser mortals who have experienced the suffering and agony that repeated climbs in high mountains brings, our legs are trembling in anticipation!

Perhaps because of today, something of a truce was called in yesterday’s stage through the battlefields of Friuli. A large group of breakaways was allowed to build up a substantial lead that could not be reeled back in and in the end Victor Campenaerts, a workhorse domestique usually in the service of others, was given the freedom to be able to ride to a stage victory. It was Team Qhubeka Assos’s third stage win in five days, an absolutely incredible achievement for Africa’s first UCI world tour team. “Ubuntu,” said Campenaerts at the finish, “I am because we are,” a Nguni Bantu term that signifies humanity towards others. The team’s string of unexpected stage wins are all the more heart-lifting because they ride in support of a South African charity that aims to help young people by supplying them with bicycles: “Bicycles change lives,” is their motto.

The peloton eventually rolled in some 17 minutes behind Campenaerts and the other breakaways, a situation that Egan Bernal, the Maglia Rosa, was more than happy with. “It was a good day for us, we were in control, able to rest and begin to think about the Queen Stage,” he said quietly at the finish.

Starting in Sacile, an old and stylish Venetian town just inside Friuli, today’s route passes through lands that were once part of the Republic of Venice’s terrafirma mainland. The difficulty begins almost from the start with a testing first category climb up La Crosetta. It will be interesting to see if any of the teams attempt to attack early on to put pressure on the Maglia Rosa and Ineos Grenadiers or whether breakaways will be allowed to escape once again. Certainly the Italians will be vying to take the considerable honour and prestige of cresting the Cima Coppi first, as well as those contenders for the Maglia Azzurra ‘king of the mountains’. After La Crosetta come the trio of immense mountains that must be tackled and descended in succession, Passo Fedaia at 2057 m.a.s.l., Passo Pordoi at 2239 m.a.s.l, and Passo Giau at 2233 m.a.s.l. Then, a frightening fast, dangerous (especially if the weather is wet) descent to the finish at the ski resort of Cortzina d’Ampezzo.

Last year, at the end of February 2020, we were cross-country skiing in Toblach, just over the other side of Cortina d’Ampezzo in the Südtirol, Italy’s German-speaking autonomous region. We intended to ski up the mountain pass and down the other side into Cortina but the trails on the Veneto side, exposed to more sun, were closed because of lack of snow. That all seems an absolute lifetime ago, for we were there at precisely the moment when a handful of small towns in Veneto and Lombardia were compelled to go into Europe’s first lockdown over an obscure and novel type of virus that no one had ever heard of until then. Though we were concerned at what was happening so close to us, we were still able to enjoy a fabulous week in the high Dolomites, skiing through the most magnificent countryside under the dominating and distinctive peaks of the Tre Cime. In the evenings we soothed our aching limbs in the spa, enjoyed feasts of Austrian-inspired foods with an Italian accent, and drank deeply from a list of sensational Südtirolese wines made from grapes such as Kerner, Traminer, Weißburgunder, Vernatsch, and Lagrein.

Today’s stage takes place just on the other side of those very same mountains in Veneto, one of Italy’s greatest wine regions, both in terms of quality as well as in volume produced. Mountain streams tumble down from the high mountains and feed into mighty rivers. Their rich alluvial soils are a propitious habitat for the vine, most notably on today’s stage that crosses the Piave Valley. So before the giant climbs start, I’m going to first make a detour to the vineyards of Asolo to snatch a bottle or two of a wine that I don’t often have the chance to sample, Recantina. In 1809, Franco-Italian forces under Napoleon conquered these lands from the Austro-Hungarians. French rule was briefly imposed and one consequence was that the local winegrowers were compelled to grub up their native vines and replant with French grapes like Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon, varieties that have indeed transplanted well and still thrive on the vineyards of Piave, Montello and Asolo today. Some autochtonous varieties inevitably were lost, how many, no one can say. Recantina is one that somehow managed to survive but which had almost gone extinct after the damage and devastation of the last world war. Through the efforts of a handful of winegrowers it is now producing a high quality red wine that deserves to be better known and sampled. I visit Asolo every few years and had brought a bottle from the Pat del Colmel winery back with me and we had it just the other night: intense deep purple, blackberries and plums on the nose, rich in acidity, high in tannin and alcohol, with a bitter finish, a wine with a certain savage character that I like very much. A bowl of pasta e fagioli or a plate of duck ragù and polenta – the favoured staple here – and a glass or two of this Recantina: these are foods, this is the wine to add fortitude to the legs and mind before a fearsome tappa like today’s Queen Stage (even those of us following from the comfort of our armchairs will need such sustenance!). Forza, avanti, e salute!

Tomorrow is a rest day (for the cyclists and for me).

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OK everyone, the final push, just five days left of this year’s fabulous edition of the Giro d’Italia. So far it’s given huge thrills as it has passed through 13 of Italy’s 20 regions. There have been breakaways and unexpected stage winners, many of whom have been Italian! There has been incredible teamwork as domestiques have toiled for their team leaders. There has been drama and heroics in the high mountains (with more to come). We have enjoyed stunning countryside, history and culture, too. And all along the way there has been a wealth of fabulous wines that demonstrate the incredible variety of grape varieties, styles and types that Italy has to offer. Thanks for sticking with me and let’s enjoy these final days.

Stage 17 – Wednesday 26 May 2021 – Canazei to Sega d’Ala 193 km

Stage 16 winner -Egan Bernal
Maglia Rosa – Egan Bernal
Maglia Ciclamino – Peter Sagan
Maglia Azzurra – Geoffrey Bouchard
Maglia Bianca – Egan Bernal

Just five days remain in this year’s Giro d’Italia before the victors will be proclaimed on the podium in Milan. Sixteen stages have now been completed, from the far north of Italy to the south, from east to west, and back up the highest mountains of the north once more. There is still much work and many more mountains yet to be climbed. Though young Egan Bernal of Ineos Grenadiers has further extended his hold on the Maglia Rosa, past experience shows that nothing is ever certain in the Giro d’Italia!

Yet whatever happens, on Monday Bernal rode himself into Giro history and into the hearts of all tifosi on the inhospitable, snow-covered peaks of Passo Giua. The nature of a grand tour, with so many races going on within the race itself, means that it is quite possible to win one without ever even winning a single stage. Bernal has now won two and he showed the nature of his heart and desire under the most testing conditions on this year’s Cima Coppi. He toiled, he suffered, and he risked all, which is what the tifosi want to see in their cycling heroes. High up at over 2230 metres, in horrific cold and freezing rain, he attacked ruthlessly and cold-bloodedly, crested the summit, then descended in slippery and dangerous conditions that risked losing everything with the slightest mistake. As he approached the finish, he even had the time and the thought to take his hands off the bars and with supreme bike handling skills take off his rain jacket before he rolled over the finish line, arms aloft. “When I attacked I wanted to do something special,” he said quietly when interviewed. “The team believed in me. It was hard because of the weather and when it is like this you need to be hard in mentality. It was a day to suffer and we did it. I wanted to cross the line showing the Maglia Rosa – it is not everyday you can win a stage in the Giro while wearing the Maglia Rosa and I wanted to show my respect.”

After Tuesday’s well-earned rest day, the cyclists will take to the high mountains again as they move across Trentino, which together with Alto Adige/Südtirol makes up an autonomous region that is another unstinting source of outstanding wines. From Ladin-speaking Canazei, the route races south, mainly downhill for some 90 kilometres before reaching Trento itself and the Adige Valley. There will certainly be a chance for opportunistic breakaways to make their dash for glory today. However, the sting of Stage 17 is most definitely in the tail, for two mighty mountains must be climbed, both of first category difficulty, Passo di San Valentino first, and then the fearsomely steep Sega di Ala for a mountain-top finish.

Such cycling makes huge demands on the body. The number of calories burned by the riders each day is immense and they must do their best to eat both while riding as well as each evening in order to recover, put fuel back in the tank, and have something in their legs for the following day. They need to rehydrate, too, and so do we. So as we travel down through Trentino, I’m going to make a quick detour above Trento to visit a pair of inspirational and innovative winemakers who I first met three decades ago, Fiorentino Sandri and Mario Pojer at the Pojer e Sandri winery in Faedo, near San Michele all’Adige. Their enthusiasm and desire to try new things, think outside of the box, follow new techniques and create new wines will not have waned at all since we last met all those years ago.They produce a fascinating and creative range of wine, though today I just want something simple, clean, razor-sharp to keep me on my toes for these final days of the Giro. Pojer e Sandri Nosiola is just the ticket: delicate, pure and clean fruit, green apple acidity, and a slightly bitter hazlenut finish. This will be invigorating with a steaming bowl of canerdlì, bread dumplings flavoured with speck and cheese, served in a rich and tasty broth. Then it’s back on my virtual bike as the Giro d’Italia moves relentlesly towards its conclusion.

Tappa 18 tomorrow Rovereto to Stradella 231 kilometres

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Stage 18 – Thursday 27th May 2021 – Rovereto to Stradella 231 km

Stage 17 winner – Dan Martin
Maglia Rosa – Egan Bernal
Maglia Ciclamino – Peter Sagan
Maglia Azzurra – Geoffrey Bouchard
Maglia Bianca – Egan Bernal

It’s not over until it’s over, that’s what everyone always says about the Giro d’Italia. Just when it looked like this year’s edition was turning into a procession for the all-conquering Ineos Grenadiers, team leader Egan Bernal, the Maglia Rosa, faltered to show a chink of weakness in the high mountains. Dan Martin, of new team Israel Start-Up Nation, managed to get himself in the breakaway and the Irishman just about managed to hold out for a famous stage win in the sun on the high and remote peak of Sega di Ala. Meanwhile, towards the top of the mountain, when gutsy Simon Yates attacked and Bernal followed, it looked like the Colombian would gain further time on most of his GC rivals. No one expected him to suddenly lose his legs and nearly a minute to the rider from Team Bike Exchange, Yates, with even Damiano Caruso and Diego Ulissi gaining a few seconds on the Maglia Rosa at the finish. Yesterday was by no means the upset of world order. Bernal still has a decent hold on the Maglia Rosa, and even if he wasn’t firing on all cylinders, he was still stronger than most of the other GC contenders, notably gaining time on Alexandr Vlasov and Hugh Carthy, both of whom had started the morning on the GC podium but who have now fallen way back in time. Yesterday was good for the Giro. The tifosi like to see their heros suffer, to have ‘bad legs’, to have doubts in the mind. Will Bernal be able overcome his difficulties, his doubts? We will see when the Giro returns to the high mountains again on Friday and Saturday. Should he not, should a new hero emerge in the few days still remaining – I would love to see Simon Yates who knows the bitter taste of failure – then we will hail their achievement and toast the victor with good Italian wine.

Stage 18 commences in Rovereto, surrounded by vine-covered hills where Marzemino grapes are cultivated for this popular Trentino red. “Versa il vino! Eccellente Marzemino,” commands the libertine Don Giovane in Mozart’s opera. Towards today’s stage conclusion, the route passes through Roncole, birthplace of the composer Giuseppe Verdi, who himself owned a farm that produced the wines as well as salume that il Maestro always took with him on his travels across Europe. So there will be plenty to keep us well hydrated as we continue our race across Italy. But whose praises will we be singing at the finish?

On paper, today looks like an altogether more straightforward, dare I say, even somewhat relaxing stage: from Rovereto along the shores of Lake Garda, then below Verona and across the flat Po Valley to the wine hills of the Oltrepò Pavese. But believe me, it won’t be stroll in the park by any means. We’re in the final days of the Giro and there is still so much as stake. If the GC won’t be altered by today’s stage (barring, heaven forbid, a crash), the Maglia Ciclamino competition is still far from decided. With a nasty fourth category climb thrown in just before the finish in Stradella, in the heart of the Oltrepò Pavese wine country, it is a day that Team Bora-Hansgrohe will want to control, not least to keep their main man Peter Sagan in cyclamen. I expect them to keep as high pace as they can on the climb to soften up those few remaining top sprinters who have somehow managed to endure and get through the mountain stages. Sagan will definitely be going for the stage win and I hope he will achieve it.

Whatever happens and whoever wins, at the finish I’m planning to be toasting the day’s victors with a flûte or two of one of my favourite sparkling wines. The La Versa cantina cooperative was founded in 1905 and almost from the outset decided collectively to concentrate on the cultivation of Pinot Nero, one of the world’s greatest if most temperamental varieties. It grows well here in the mainly clay and sandstone hills, maintaining fragrance as well as acidity, and is utilised to produce an outstanding range of wines made sparkling by metodo classico secondary fermentation in the bottle. Testarossa is the cooperative’s flagship, a vintage wine produced entirely from Pinot Nero with bottle ageing on the lees for no less than three years prior to dégorgement. It demonstrates the richer style of sparkling wine that comes from Oltrepò’s wine hills where vineyards have been cultivated since antiquity. The bubbles are fine and persistent, and it is a sparkler with real elegance and finesse, yet one that also has the structure to be more than capable of accompanying food, too. Today’s stage passes near the great rice growing area of Veneto, around Isola della Scala, below Verona, which specialises in the cultivation of Vialone Nano. I fancy something rather elegant, not too heavy, so I’m going to ask my private – and virtual – chef to rustle up for me a plate of risotto al metodo classico, a glass or two of the Testarossa added to the cooking pot after the tostatura of the rice. Yes, bubbles that have been painstakingly coaxed into the bottle get lost the moment the wine hits the pan, but the gorgeous, winey flavour of the cuvée will enter into the creamy rice, cooked perfectly ‘all’onda’, perhaps topped with some chopped wild fennel fronds, some grilled scampi or gamberoni. A bit good, maybe even a bit refined for sweaty, odiferous and ravenous cyclists, admittedly, but I feel in need of a treat tonight, simply for having managed to make it this far with my daily reportage. It’s been almost – but not quite – as exhausting as the cycling!

Tappa 19 tomorrow Abbiategrasso to Alpe di Mera 166 kilometres

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Stage 19 – Friday 28th May 2021 – Abbiategrasso to Alpe di Mera 166 km

Stage 17 winner – Alberto Bettiol
Maglia Rosa – Egan Bernal
Maglia Ciclamino – Peter Sagan
Maglia Azzurra – Geoffrey Bouchard
Maglia Bianca – Egan Bernal

Just two more stages in the high mountains, before the final cronometro – time trial – that finishes in Milan’s Piazza del Duomo on Sunday. From Lombardy, we head back into Piedmont today, passing through Novara, where Day 2 finished. How long ago that seems; imagine how long ago that feels to the cyclists!

Yesterday’s long stage from the wine hills of Rovereto in Trentino, to the wine hills of the Oltrepò Pavese via the flat and fast Po Valley turned out to be mainly a transitional stage, a speedy movement of men and machines across the country in readiness for the rigours to come over the final days. As such, it provided another ideal opportunity –  perhaps the last opportunity in this year’s Giro – for a breakaway. The Maglia Rosa GC contenders, as well as those vying for the Maglia Ciclamino and Maglia Azzurro were content to leave the day to those riders who weren’t a threat to any of them, and thus a large group of 23 managed to buiild up a substantial time lead, so creating virtually a separate race within the race. To the delight of the crowds lining the streets in  Stradella, yet another Italian rode to a famous solo victory, Alberto Bettiol of EF Education-Nippo. The main peloton, meanwhile, trailed in a laggardly 23:30 behind with the standings unchanged. Most significantly, Peter Sagan of Bora-Hansgrohe remains in the Maglia Ciclamino. He and his strong teammates should be able to control the remaining intermediate points sprints in the days to come, so, barring incident, my hope is that Sagan will win the points competition and so wear the cyclamen jersey on the podium in Milan, a notable achievement to add to his more than impressive cycling palmarès – he’s already won the Green Jersey in the Tour de France (the equivalent of the Maglia Ciclamino) an incredible seven times, and the Rainbow Jersey awarded to World Champions. A first points victory in the Giro will cement Sagan’s position as truly one of the greatest cyclists of his generation.

Today and tomorrow, though, he will have to endure two more days of suffering in the high mountains. Stage 19 departs Lombardy from Abbiategrasso to re-enter Piedmont, passing through the vineyards of Novara and the Alto Piemonte once more, then briefly along the shores of Lago di Maggiore before climbing into the high mountains of Valsesia for a final 10km ascent to a summit finish on Alpe di Mera. Will Bernal have recovered from his momentary weakness that we glimpsed on the high slopes of Sega di Ala? Will Yates, Caruso and the others have the courage and the legs to attack today, as they must if they are to have any hope of wresting the Maglia Rosa from the Colombian? Or will they leave it until tomorrow, an even harder alpine test, hoping that it might be their best moment of opportunity? We shall see.

From the summit of Alpe di Mera there should be stunning views of the Monte Rosa chain today, weather permitting. This is the most magnificent alpine country, in summer or in winter. I love mountains and I love mountain wines, too, that ethereal character that comes only from grapes grown at high altitude. There is no wine more ethereal, more sheer and exhilarating than Blanc de Morgex et de La Salle, made from Prié Blanc grapes cultivated traditionally on low-trellised vineyards planted at up to 1200 metres above sea level, the highest vineyards in Europe, all the better when enjoyed after a day’s skiing, walking, or, best of all, cycling. But today, I’m going choose a mountain wine from Lombardy’s Valtellina instead. I need something more powerful and weighty to fortify and put strength in the legs and mind for the final days to come: Nino Negri’s Valtellina 5 Stelle Sfursat, a dry passito wine produced only in the best years from Chiavennasca grapes, a clone of Nebbiolo, grown at high altitude, harvested and then air-dried in the clean and arid alpine air.

Then, one more day in the mountains tomorrow – but what a day! – before the 30km time trial – a race against the clock – into Milan’s city centre. We’re almost there: keep those legs turning, keep the wine flowing!

Tappa 20 tomorrow Verbania to Valle Spluga – Alpe Motta 164 km (and 4700 metres of altitude!)

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Stage 20 – Saturday 29th May 2021 – Verbania to Valle Spluga – Alpe Motta 164 km (and 4700 metres of altitude!)

Stage 19 winner – Simon Yates
Maglia Rosa – Egan Bernal
Maglia Ciclamino – Peter Sagan
Maglia Azzurra – Geoffrey Bouchard
Maglia Bianca – Egan Bernal

How incredibly exciting: the penultimate stage of this year’s Giro d’Italia sees the competition to wear the Maglia Rosa in Milan on Sunday still very much alive and up for grabs! Today, an absolute brute of an alpine stage with a staggering 4700 metres of climbing, may be decisive. Egan Bernal, the Colombian rider for Team Ineos Grenadiers, who has worn the pink jersey since his stage victory on the bare and high gravel track of Campo Felice in Abruzzo, is suffering and vulnerable. The back injury that has plagued him all season has apparently recurred and he seems unable to rediscover the scintillating form that he showed on the steepest slopes of the Carnic and Julian Alps just a few days ago in Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Twice now, the British rider Simon Yates has attacked the Maglia Rosa and been able to distance him, yesterday most notably on the high slopes of Alpe di Mera to take a famous and popular stage win. Yates has finally found his form and mojo and sniffs blood. All of the other GC contenders sniff blood. Team Ineos Grenadiers had until now seemed invincible, protecting Bernal, marshalling him through difficult and challenging technical sections of the road, pacing the climbs at an uncomfortable tempo that has destroyed the legs and the minds of those unable to keep to its relentless beat. But yesterday Bernal found himself alone on the Alpe di Mera, and having to defend the Maglia Rosa himself. He dug deep, showed his heart and he limited his losses. But will he be able to respond again when Yates and the others attack today, as they must?

I’m delighted to see Simon Yates riding again with such joy and confidence, as will be all neutral tifosi of the Giro d’Italia. Who can forget that only 3 years ago, on Stage 19 of the Giro d’Italia 2018, having worn and bravely defended the pink jersey for the previous two weeks, Yates suffered a truly spectacular meltdown: on the bare strade bianche of Colle delle Finestre and then the climb to Bardonecchio, he cracked completely, losing his legs and the will to live, limping sadly in an astonishing 38 minutes behind the stage winner Chris Froome of Team Sky (now Ineos Grenadiers). Yates learned from that dreadful disappointment and has since won a grand tour, the Vuelta a España, so he has the nous to know just when to attack, just when to turn the knife to try and destroy his opponent. He has the heart and the desire: but will he have the legs? All will be revealed on a stage with two monster climbs to over 2000 metres that will take the riders into and back from Switzerland, with a brutal final climb up Alpe Motta, high above the ski resort of Madesimo.

Stage 20 begins at lake level today at Verbania, following the shores of beautiful Lago di Maggiore before the start of a 23-kilometre-long climb to the San Bernardino pass into Switzerland. I’ll need to keep my wits – and my legs – about me today, so I don’t want a wine that will be heavy or too soporific. Viticulture has been present in these mountains for literally centuries, and there’s an opportunity today to visit an old friend, Edoardo Patrone in the heart of the Lepontine Alps in the Ossola Valley of Domodossola (a place name familiar to any who have ever travelled into Italy by train from northern Europe). Here Edoardo and wife Stella cultivate Prünent grapes, the local name for Nebbiolo, trained on pergole known as topie, supported by stone monoliths from the local quarries. It will be good to see Edoardo, who used to work with my great friend Mario Fontana of Cascina Fontana in Barolo, and it’s an opportunity to taste his wines which have been winning acclaim and awards. I’m going to pick up a bottle of Vigna Vagna, traditionally aged in Slavonian oak botte, to enjoy with a mountaintop picnic with a selection of good Piedmont cheese – maybe some Castelmagno – and perhaps a tranche of Swiss Gruyère. It will be a pleasure to enjoy this by the cool alpine lake at the Passo San Bernardino, for from that mountain top, we should be able to see who has the best legs, and, perhaps more importantly, who is suffering the most.

It’s a long way from Topsham, Devon to Domodossola, so I’d better get going. See you later in the high mountains!

Tappa 21 tomorrow Senago to Milan 30,3 km

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Tappa 21 – Sunday 30th May – Senago to Milan 30,3 km

Stage 20 winner – Damiano Caruso
Maglia Rosa – Egan Bernal
Maglia Ciclamino – Peter Sagan
Maglia Azzurra – Geoffrey Bouchard
Maglia Bianca – Egan Bernal

In the end, yesterday’s showdown in the high mountains didn’t quite happen, snuffed out by the bravery and audacity of Damiano Caruso and by the persistent and unrelenting power of the Ineos Grenadiers train. When, just before the summit of the monster second climb of the day, the Splügenpass, Caruso, teammate Pello Bilbao, and French rider Romain Bardet attacked, they managed to build a slender lead that increased down an audacious 20km descent before the final climb up endless switchbacks to the summit finish of Alpe Motta. The Ineos team was forced to chase Caruso, who had started the day in third place on GC, and they worked tirelessly, first to marshall Bernal down the mountain safely, then to pace him up that final climb. The real hero of the day was Dani Martinez who set such a ferocious pace at the front of the chasing group, which included Simon Yates, the British pretender who threatened to upset the Ineos apple cart, that one by one all of Bernal’s rivals were dropped, including Yates. Caruso maintained his vital lead, and gained precious seconds on Bernal, riding himself into second position above Yates. More importantly, though, for Caruso, a workhorse domestique who had been expected to support team leader Mikel Landa, it was his chance to show the world what a great rider he is and to claim his first stage win in a grand tour.

At last, it is the final day of this year’s Giro d’Italia! The cronometro – time trial – is a completely different discipline to road racing. It involves each rider individually setting off at separate intervals to ride a set course. In their skin suits and with their aerodynamic helmets, and on specially designed time trial bikes on which they will lock themselves into position, trying to generate as much power as they can while keeping efficiently to the course, it will be quite a spectacle of raw power and determination.The route today runs from Senago to Milan, 30,3 km on dead flat roads. A time trial is called ‘the race of truth’ for it is man and machine against the clock, no where to hide, and no teammates to help or protect you. Unusually, there will have been only two time trials on this year’s Giro. The first took place on Stage 1, an eternity ago. Then Filippo Ganna won that short explosive prologue on the streets of Turin. Today, he is favourite to bookend his Giro with another victory.

Egan Bernal will start last. He now leads Caruso by just under 2 minutes. Though the Italian may be the slightly stronger rider when racing against the clock, that time advantage well b surely more than enough to see Colombian on the top podium this afternoon as winner of the Giro d’Italia 2021.

At the finish, there will be great relief and celebration by everyone – riders, their teams, supporters. In this strange year of Covid, it is something of a miracle that this year’s Giro d’Italia even managed to take place, and so far without incident or apparent increased risk to public health. Ineos Grenadiers (formerly Team Sky) may not be the most popular team, but they are definitely the strongest, and true tifosi of the sport will hail Egan Bernal, a brave and worthy winner, who through it all somehow manages to remain humble. Peter Sagan will be crowned the best points rider and can add the Maglia Ciclamino to his already extensive collection of champion’s jerseys. Geoffrey Bouchard has been somewhat forgotten: for his aggression and combativity in the mountains, he has toiled hard to earn the coveted Maglia Azzurro as ‘king of the mountains’. And Bernal, don’t forget, also wins the Maglia Bianca – at just 24 years old, he is set to be winning races for many more years to come.

And so, let’s raise a glass to the victors of the Giro d’Italia, and to all the riders who have suffered and endured this 3-week ordeal. Their bravery, skill, strength and stamina has been simply astounding. They have taken us to beautiful places the length and breadth of Italy and it is has been a real pleasure to travel, even if only virtually, with them day-by-day, sharing their joys and and suffering along the way, and toasting them each evening with such a varied and superb selection of Italian wines, all produced from grapes grown near or along the routes they followed. Today in Milan, it has to be Franciacorta, Italy’s premier sparkling wine produced by the metodo classico secondary fermentation in the bottle. In wine, as in cycling, there are many pretenders and upstarts, those who appear on the scene and sometimes upend the established order. But with sparkling wine, more than with many others, where consistency and quality are the hallmarks of greatness, then class matters. So I’m going to pop open today with the greatest pleasure a bottle of Ca’ del Bosco Cuvée Prestige, a Chardonnay-led wine skilfully blended with reserve wines from the finest vintages, to result in a true classic: always fresh, richly exhilarating, a wine that makes everyone feel like a champion every time you drink it.

Here’s to a special Giro d’Italia and to all of you who have followed it with me.

Bravi tutti e salute!