By Jen See | Photos by Kristof Ramon
I sit in a coffee shop and read the Garibaldi. And I’m not talking about gold fish. Is that obscure? Maybe for you, but the Garibaldi is the state fish in California. It’s big and orange. This really has nothing to do with the Giro except for a coincidence of name. But it’s the kind of coincidence that plays tricks on the mind and blurs the boundaries between disparate things.
The road book for the Giro d’Italia is called the Garibaldi and that is the book I read sitting here, drinking an espresso from a paper cup in a coffee shop that feels a long way from anywhere. The American Southwest has a vastness that defies description and invites the kind of gluttony of adjectives we reserve in the normal way of things for the Ronde van Vlaanderen.
You drive for hours across the desert whose colors of sand and scrub-green shift and shine under an unfiltered sun. It’s a surprise to come to a town, you stumble upon them as if by accident. Peel back the debris of history and discover how each one came to be. Because there’s always a reason: A convenient river, a mountain pass, plentiful land, gold in the hills.
A series of highways running straight to the horizon link this fragile archipelago. Look out the window, and picture mule trains and covered wagons and men driving steer and women clutching babies, all somehow transiting this inhospitable landscape.
Bike racing will take you unusual places if you let it.
The Giro is more than a bike race in Italy, in the same way that the Tour has a deeper significance in France than the simple matter of who has won it at the end of its three week trip. This year’s Giro begins in Napoli and runs south before finishing in northern Italy. The race stitches together, if only temporarily, Italy’s disparate regions.
The building that houses the coffee shop where I read the Garibaldi was built in the nineteenth century. It’s another coincidence, one of time rather than name. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, a multiplicity of kingdoms ruled over what is now unified Italy. Around the time when white settlers from America’s east coast set out across the desert in search of land and gold, a series of wars forged a unified state out of Italy’s warring kingdoms.
The part about the fish, when is she going to get to the part about the fish? This is the part about the fish, the part about Garibaldi.
Giuseppe Garibaldi was an Italian general. Garibaldi, and his horde of dudes in red shirts, was one of the fathers of unified Italy. The Italian map where we trace out the Giro’s path, Garibaldi helped to invent it. Watch an Italian television broadcast of the Giro, and nearly every year, there is a segment retelling the story of Garibaldi. It’s a wonder the race leader’s jersey isn’t red to match the shirts of Garibaldi’s forces.
The Giro self-consciously summons up history at every turn. There is the Cima Coppi and the Montagna Pantani. And there is constantly the invocation of unity. Garibaldi’s creation has not survived without challenges. The Second World War, in particular, strained the ties of Italian identity. As it travels the length of the Italian peninsula, the Giro traces the boundaries of the national community.
You can never see the entirety of a bike race and any more than you can meet every person who shares your citizenship. Watching a bike race requires an act of imagination. There are tangible things, television feeds and road books and race numbers and time checks. But there is a vast space between those things that only imagination can fill.
It is much the same with citizenship. Carry a passport, speak the local language, read the newspaper: These are all the tangible markers of identity. You can never meet all the people who share those makers. And so, you must imagine them, summon them up from the air and water, invoke them rites and rituals.
As it passes by, the Giro draws Italians to their window sills, the public squares, the roadsides, and the corner cafes. It connects together the archipelago of towns that populate Italy. And as it rolls the peninsula, the Giro, if only for a moment, resembles Garibaldi’s act of creation.
I watched the Giro race along the Napolitan coast on a tiny screen, sent across the world thought the air to my phone, here on my island cast adrift in the desert’s dry sea. It’s a fragile, flickering link, but the water gleamed and the wheels turned and I saw someone win. The boundaries blur and the map’s distances feel less real than that moment of recognition and connection when the winner crosses the line.
We are all the Giro.