“If this was in England,” said our friend Dale, “they’d have charged you a fiver for parking; two-fifty to stand and watch; and you’d have been stuck behind a barrier fifty yards away.”
As it was, we’d driven up the quiet country road leading from San Domenico to the main Castel Frentano – Guardiagrele route in southern Abruzzo along which the 7th stage of the Giro d’Italia was due to pass; left the car about 40m from the road junction; and joined about a hundred other people standing around chatting and waiting for the big moment.
And this being Italy, where there’s either massive regimentation or none at all, the one seemingly ‘official’ steward in charge of this stretch of road was more concerned with ensuring that nobody got flattened by the big vans stuffed with Giro merchandise that screeched up every few minutes, rather than watching that everyone kept an orderly and respectful distance from the route.
The chance of seeing a couple of genuine Brit sports superstars like Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish had proved an irresistible lure for many of the local Abruzzo expats. The resulting oasis of Union Jacks was too-good-to-miss for the Sky photographer, who lined us up and snapped away at us flying the flags.
“Can’t promise to us these,” he warned, “but if I do, they’ll be on the Sky Cycling website.”
They weren’t. I ended-up on the cutting room floor. Again.
Like any big cycle race, the Giro d’Italia isn’t just about a bunch of blokes on bikes swishing by wearing startling pastel-coloured cycling kits. (Aside from the black-clad Team Sky, who look like a squad of hired assassins).
There are many sponsors and consequently many sponsors’ vehicles, all tricked out to look like wedges of cheese or bottles of wine.
This cavalcade screamed past, horns blaring, drivers and hordes of sales promotion girls all waving cheerily.
Then the official ‘Radio Giro’ mobile studio. More waves. More girls.
Then the local police, cars specially washed’n’waxed for the big day. Blue lights flashing, sirens at top volume. They crawled by, ostentatiously waving people back to the side of the road.
Dutifully, we all dropped back and then resumed out original positions as soon as they’d disappeared round the next corner.
Suddenly, the first bit of genuine excitement – the commentary car, announcing the imminent arrival of a breakaway group of six riders, with the main field about four minutes adrift.
We could see the TV helicopter hovering over the road about half-a-km away, edging towards us – and then a small gasp of excitement as the leading riders swept into view about a hundred metres away.
Surrounded by a little posse of TV and photo-camera motorbikes, they were past in a rainbow-coloured flash, to a ripple of polite applause.
And here was the main peloton ! Tried to coordinate waving the flag; taking photos; and cheering.
“GO BRAD!!” I boomed. “C’MON CAV!!”. But from the watching Italians came just another gentle waft of applause.
Now I can’t claim to be too well-up on cycling spectator etiquette, but having watched fans on TV reduced to gibbering excitement as some poor gasping bloke grinds his way up a vertical gradient on a mountain stage, I’d have expected…well…just a touch more vocal enthusiasm.
Not that my encouragement did much good though. Sir Bradley fell off his bike and Mark Cavendish decided this wasn’t the day to unleash one of his rocket-fuelled sprints and instead nipped into a bar for a swift pint and a packet of crisps.
Actually he didn’t. But he might’ve got more TV time if he had.
We went home and watched the end of the stage on TV. Which was nowhere near as exciting as being alongside the real thing.
Next year, I’m bringing an airhorn. That’ll get them going.