Italians go crazy for Le Tour
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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Italians go crazy for Le Tour

by Agence France-Presse at 8:18 PM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling, Tour de France
Towns decked in yellow, and even dogs and their owners decked out in symbols of the race's famous jersey. That was Italy's welcome to the Tour de France here Sunday.

The 15th stage of the race began in Embrun at the foot of the French Alps, with the peloton racing into atrocious conditions towards the summit of the Col Agnel after a steady 20.5km climb.

But once over the summit of the climb, which had never before been raced on the Tour de France, the rain gave way to rays of sunshine - and thousands of enthusiastic Italians lining the road.

It was an almost symbolic change of atmosphere, although the dry conditions would not last. In a bid to welcome the world's biggest bike race for its only stop in Italy, a relatively rare occurrence, the towns dotting the route linking two chains of the French and Italian Alps pulled out all the stops.

Lamposts, and even buildings, were bedecked with yellow ribbons and balloons and thousands of locals lined up wearing yellow T-shirts and caps, and waving yellow flags. There was even one or two lookalikes of the revered, but late, Marco Pantani. Shaven head, goatee beard and a Giro d'Italia pink jersey was the order of the day.

Despite their historic footballing rivalry, which peaked with Italy's victory over France in the 2006 World Cup, it seemed every effort was made to assure this stage would end in victory for both sides.

Although used to enjoying the gifts thrown to them from the publicity caravan of the Giro d'Italia, the one on the Tour is about twice the size. Hence the Italians' joy at picking up the thousands of trinkets, caps, sweets and free samples thrown off the 20 or so publicity floats by the ever-smiling hostesses.

France's national 'gendarmerie' are also part of the publicity caravan which snakes its way through each stage before the peloton, in an effort to promote career opportunities with the top echelon of the nation's police force.

On Sunday, their calls went out in Italian - complete with one occupant of the car wowing the locals with a tricolour flag - in green, white and red.

Further on, on the lower slopes of the day's second and final climb to the summit finish of the Italian ski station, one fan was seen walking her black labrador, complete with a yellow jersey. The dog gave no clues as to whether it was a supporter of race leader Cadel Evans of Australia.

Even further up the 11.1km climb to the summit, two of the thousands of cyclotourists who clamber up the race's ascents in a bid to emulate their heroes, stood out from the rest.

As tourists and bike fans partied on from both sides of the road, they were humbled by a rather special sight - a girl of around nine years old doing her best to reach the top on her miniature sized racing bike. Invariably, she was wearing a yellow jersey. And she was grateful for the occasional push in her back by her accompanying father.

The only sad part of the day for the hosts was watching the peloton pass without the man they hoped would hand them a famous victory on the race's third summit finish. Riccardo Ricco, one of Italy's biggest cycling stars, won two stages on this year's race. The 24-year-old, however, was thrown off, then sacked by his Saunier Duval team, after testing positive for banned substances.

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