This comes, of al things, out of a Twitter interaction with Daniel Friebe, of Mountain High and Eddy Merckx: The Cannibal fame. Friebe posted:
Italian teams in 1997 Giro d’Italia: 16*
Italian teams in 2017 Giro d’Italia: 2
San Marino, for purposes of my argument, you’re Italy.
— Daniel Friebe (@friebos) 18 January 2017
Italian teams have of course been in the news in recent years, firstly for the fact that, with the incoming Lampre Merida becoming an Abu Dhabi team, there is not one team in the top tier of the sport registered in Italy.
Secondly, this meant it was widely expected that RCS Sport, the organisers of the 2017 Giro Italia, (the centenary edition no less – the second after 2009, thanks to years lost to World Wars) would account for this by using the wildcard system to invite as many Italian teams as possible. We were guaranteed at least one Italian squad – Bardiani CSF had a place thanks to their victory in the 2016 Copa Italia competition. There were three places up for grabs, and three more Italian teams in contention: Wilier-Selle Italia, Nippo-Vini Fantini and Androni Giocattoli. Surely they would be in?
No. RCS chose Gazprom-Rusvelo, who, in fairness to them, did win a stage through Aleksandr Foliforov in 2016, CCC Sprandi, a team mostly known for riding in orange and keeping Davide Rebellin in employment, and Willier-Selle Italia, who have Filippo Pozzato.
This leaves the Giro with just two Italian registered teams – the lowest, well, ever (at least if my hastily assembled graph from 1980 onwards, following Friebe’s convention that San Marino counts as Italy)
RCS have argued that teams are too reliant on the Giro for their exposure, and point out that they have been given entry some of their portfolio of other races. But with a sense of Italian cycling being in crisis, and the year being the centenary of a race that has oft been sentimental in its patriotism, surely this was the year to ignore commercial interests such as Poland perhaps being the Grande Potenza destination in 2018 (CCC are Polish) and go with home teams?
A question for another day perhaps, but the data certainly suggests that Italian cycling is in deep trouble. Vincenzo Nibali has applied a veneer of respectability to them recently, taking their first Monument win in seven years when he won in Lombardy in 2016, and has topped up their Grand Tour wins. But at the Giro, there are issues.
As the teams graph shows, the drop off in Italian teams since 2005 has been severe – having previously never been under 50% (admittedly including San Marino as Italy allows this stat to work), it plummetted to below 30%, with the newly inaugurated ProTour (now the WorldTour) requiring the invitation of teams outside the Italian peninsula. So, as always, blame the WorldTour for cycling’s woes.
With fewer teams in the Giro, the pipeline for success has been closed down. Subsequently, the number of Italian GC contenders has also seemingly collapsed, hidden behind the successes of Nibali and Aru. Diego Rosa has been talked up as a potential successor, but there is little to suggest there is any major talent pool behind the incumbents. This was exemplified in 2016 – Italy had just one man in the top ten of the Giro, the winner no less, but this hid the derth behind. Internationalisation has taken its toll of course, but still, the drop off from just ten years ago is startling.
At least the percentage of the race Italians have spent in the lead looks healthy, but Nibali’s decimation of the 2013 race skews results somewhat.Without that, there has been quite a drop off since 2011.
Italy always used to be guaranteed a good chunk of the lead thanks to the fact they basically always won the first or second stage of the Giro. But recent years have seen that trend slip back, with Italians having to wait until deeper into the first week, or even the second, as in 2010, to see an Italian victory.
Even stage wins, long the banker of being Italian, are beginning to dry up. Italy holds the record for stage wins at Grand Tours with 1,714, double the total of France and Belgium, the next best two nations. But its numbers have been dwindling in recent years.
No longer are the Italians able to count on a Cipollini or a Petacchi, guaranteed to bring in the sprint wins. Italian sprinting is at a bit of a nadir – Elia Viviani is the only man to have won a sprint in the first week of a Grand Tour since Alessandro Petacchi at the 2011 Giro, and he has won precisely on (Matteo Trentin’s stage seven win at the 2014 Tour wasn’t a bunch sprint). Daniele Bennati has won at the Vuelta, but he’s no spring chicken anymore.
So, a dwindling pool of teams, fewer capable grand tour riders, less days in the lead and fewer stage wins. Of course, if Nibali and Aru trounce the ever growing pool of talent signing up to race the Giro, then this will all be forgotten. But the evidence suggests that Italian cycling, especially at its flagship event, could do with all the help it can get.