Mountain troops descend on city for annual reunion, but there are strong links to cycling too

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the start of the 2011 Giro d’Italia is the biggest thing happening in Italy today. Incredibly, it’s not even the main event in Turin. This weekend, the city is in the throes of a massive party, but cycling fans are in the minority, most revellers being former soldiers from Italy’s Alpini regiments. Some, of course – our friend in the picture below in the Liquigas top, for instance – are a bit of both.

What’s more, with the Alps featuring in eight of the final nine stages of this year’s Giro, their overwhelming presence here certainly isn’t entirely inappropriate, and serving members of the corps also have their own vital role in to play in the race.

Serving officer Colonel Maurizio Paissan spared a few moments from helping ensure the reunion passes smoothly to talk to road.cc about the Alpini and the parallels between them and the cyclists who in a fortnight’s time will be tackling some of those same peaks the soldiers train on.

“We’re mountain men because of the training we’ve done. So we know the mountains, we know that the mountains mean sacrifice, they mean hard work, but they also mean brotherhood.”

Colonel Paissan uses one of cycling’s – and, indeed, Italian sport’s – most iconic images to illustrate his point. “A very famous example in the Giro d’Italia is the passing of the water bottle between Coppi and Bartali.

“This is a classic sign of the mountain. The mountain is about competition, and arriving at the top, but it’s also something to be taken seriously, knowing when to say no, knowing when to hold back, because the important thing is that in reaching the summit, you risk falling, you risk hurting yourself.

“So anyone who goes into the mountains has to be someone with their head on their shoulders, and the Alpini, even in their missions abroad, have always shown this conscientiousness of moving carefully, approaching things in a serious manner. That’s what the mountains are about.

It’s the same with sport. When cyclists go into the mountains, it’s not the same as cycling on flat terrain, it’s a hard kind of cycling that makes you suffer, but one that brings riders together, and even, in sporting terms, a chivalrous one.”

Later this month, serving members of the Alpini will play their own part in the Giro, staffing key mountain stages to help keep the crowds at bay and help provide safe passage for the riders. Last year, they did so on the Zoncolan and again on the mountain time trial to Plan de Corones.

Many former members of the corps work in the emergency services as well as taking part in volunteering activities such as mountain rescue, and another stage of this year’s race that will have a certain resonance will be stage 10 to Teramo in Abruzzo, where many members of the corps were involved in rescue operations after the 2009 earthquake and are still involved in reconstruction operations today.

At yesterday evening’s presentation of the 207 riders who will contest the 94th edition of the race, the pink placards announcing the name of each team were heavily outnumbered by the tricolore standards of the Alpini. By the time the riders were tucked up in bed, the streets of the Piemontese capital remained thronged with ex-soldiers partying the night away.

Earlier, the riders had themselves added to the party atmosphere by parading through the same streets that they will race through today at a rather quicker pace, and the high spot of the celebrations was a flypast by the Freccie Tricolori, Italy’s version of the Red Arrows, who left a red, white and green plume of smoke in the skies above the city.

The Alpini hold a reunion in a different place every year, but 2011 is special, coinciding with the ongoing celebration of Italy’s 150th anniversary as a unified country which Turin, its first capital, is marking with a series of high profile events, the partenza of the Giro being one.

Accordingly, the former troops, many with family in tow, have descended on the city en masse – some estimates put their combined numbers at half a million. That may be an exaggeration, but it’s certainly in the hundreds of thousands.

In Italy, national service is still compulsory, so while there are plenty of the old and bold on parade, there are also groups of young men in their twenties everywhere you look, good naturedly singing songs as they drink toasts to rekindled friendships.

They’re certainly hard to miss. Each wears their unit’s distinctive hat, complete with a feather, some up to two feet in length. To British eyes, it looks as though the mother of all Robin Hood conventions is taking place, albeit one in which the participants have thankfully been excused having to wear green tights.

At 2 o’clock this morning, with the party in full swing and showing no sign of stopping, and with not so much as a hint of trouble, it was a less a case of merry men than pretty blotto ones. Hangover or not, they’ll be out in their thousands to see the Giro off this afternoon, and once you factor in the local population and cycling fans into the equation, the crowds are going to be huge.

Just how huge remains to be seen, but after yesterday’s presentation we bumped into road.cc user Skippy, who for a number of years has ridden the route of every grand tour several hours ahead of the peloton – this will be his 13th Giro – who reckoned that the throng yesterday beat anything he’d ever seen, even in the Tour de France.

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.