Flashback Friday at the Giro becomes Frustration Friday

20 05 2016

Seven years ago, Princess of Pavement and I were in Florence, Italia. It was the first leg of our Mediterranean dream holiday that would also land us in the Cinqueterre, Nice and Barcelona.

It was also the finish of Stage 13 of the Centennial Giro d’Italia.

That wasn’t a coincidence.

It was a very warm week in Tuscany that spring. We set out early so we could secure a shady spot along the finishing stretch in a giant park just down river from the Ponte Vecchio. We packed a picnic lunch we’d assembled from the outdoor market near our apartment.

As we walked through historic Florence to the park, I remember being a little disappointed there wasn’t more buzz about the Giro being in town. Then again, Florence is a big city teeming with tourists who have no shortage of other distractions and passions to keep them busy.

But we were at the tail end of our week’s stay, and that Friday had been scheduled as our “Giro day.”

When we arrived, the set-up crews were still securing the inflatables. The fan expo wasn’t yet open. But the giant video screen just across the road was showing the race live. So we settled amongst the salamanders skittering out from the bushes and absorbed the growing excitement of a day at Italy’s Grand Tour.

As the afternoon passed, the sprinters’ teams started to get serious, jockeying to position their man for the long, straight shot to the banner. The crowds along the barrier grew; we couldn’t lounge on the curb anymore as we had to claim our place on the barrier.

Soon we were all elbow to elbow. Latecomers perched on the curb behind us where we’d been lounging much of the afternoon.

Cars and motos scooted down the chute, throwing up dust.

Mario Cipollini and his entourage strolled by looking every bit as regal as his nickname, Il Re Leone (The Lion King).

The Jersey girls strutted past. Then teenagers on Segways hawking special promotional copies of La Gazetta, the sports newspaper that is the Giro’s main sponsor and originator.

As the race on the big screen intensifies, the convoy of official and advertising vehicles roll past. It’s not as large, colourful or as generous with tossed trinkets as the similar parade at the Tour de France; but it percolates the anticipation that the race is near.

Then come the police cars and motorcycles, some scattered media vehicles. A helicopter’s rotors whack the sky above. We start leaning out over the top of the barrier, craning to see the pixellated images on the giant monitor across the street become a real-life peloton, single-mindedly charging to the line.

We are at 300-metres from the finish banner; through the blur we can just see Mark Cavendish launch his winning thrust. Back then he was a young, brash sprinter with a fearsome, untamed kick as well as a knack for pissing off the peloton’s patrons and winning Princess of Pavement’s adoration. He didn’t let her down.

Of course, if you’re a Giro fan in Canada in 2016, all of this visceral anticipation and excitement is now lost.

After a modest run of live broadcasts on Sportsnet, as the cable sports channel tried to position itself as the go-to broadcaster for cycling (not like there’s a whole lot of rivals), they let the rights drop. Maybe they spent too much of their money on hockey broadcasts nobody is watching.

Once again Canadian cycling fans are forced to hunt and peck for pirate feeds on the Internet, enduring inopportune drops, annoying pop-up ads and finicky streaming speeds instead of settling in on the couch to enjoy the race in High Def glory on the big TV.

Watching sometimes sketchy pirate feeds of the Giro on the Internet can be frustrating. But the Eurosport presentation and commentary is a joy.

Watching sometimes sketchy pirate feeds of the Giro on the Internet can be frustrating. But the Eurosport presentation and commentary is a joy.

It’s like being thrown back into the Dark Ages.

Australians get to watch the Giro live on TV, even if it is in the middle of the night. Japanese and Chinese fans can also watch live, as well as those in Colombia, the Middle East, North and South Africa. Heck, even cruise ship passengers in the middle of nowhere are able to watch the Giro in their staterooms on something called SNTV. In fact, according to the Giro’s website, the race is being shown on TV in 184 countries on 29 different networks, 24 of them live. Except not in English Canada.

Sure, there’s a paid online option; but being asked to fork over $20 US (oh the irony) to be able to watch a race on a computer monitor I used to watch on my 50-inch plasma as part of my Cable TV subscription feels wrong.

The pirate feeds are out there; some of them are quite good, put up by true fans not trying to infect my computer with perpetually-opening pop-ups. And being exposed to the presentation and commentary on networks such as Eurosport and SBS is a revelation; North American sports broadcasters are stuck in a stick-and-ball rut.

Instead of relaxing on the couch to watch his beloved Giro on the big screen, Little Ring has to fight for play space on my cluttered desk.

Instead of relaxing on the couch to watch his beloved Giro on the big screen, Little Ring has to fight for play space on my cluttered desk.

Even the small efforts to show international programming can’t seem to progress beyond soccer and rugby. Meanwhile, on Eurosport I’m watching promos for the European Diving Championships, MotoGP, Handball, Field Hockey, even Fencing.

Canada prides itself on being a multi-cultural, multi-national country. Surely there is an appetite to view some of those ancestral sporting connections, support a broadcaster and advertisers who could help make that happen?

Sadly, the suits at Roger’s seem to think British Premier League is exotic enough for their Anglo-Saxon chequebooks. It’s time for someone to pitch a Canadian branch of Eurosport.