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Giro d'Italia: A ride as tough as the Tour de France, as Italian as pasta

It always pleased the purist – now general fans are catching up

The Giro d'Italia may not be quite as prestigious as the Tour de France, but Sir Bradley Wiggins and the rest of the favourites waiting for today's start in Naples know that the Italian Grand Tour is a challenge that is no less gruelling.

Second only to football in Italy in terms of popularity, for three weeks every May the Giro will have a hefty chunk of the country's fans glued to their armchairs for the two or three hours' daily live TV coverage the race receives. Italy's No 1 sports newspaper, La Gazzetta dello Sport, will dedicate up to a dozen pages purely to the Giro. And from today's start to the finish in Brescia on 26 May, thousands of fans will pack the roadsides of every town and village the race passes through.

As the clothing and banking tycoon Alessandro Benetton, a big cycling fan, told La Gazzetta on Thursday: "I lost count of the times my grandfather would tell me about the exploits of [Giro heroes Fausto] Coppi and [Gino] Bartali."

Asked to compare the Giro to the Tour, Wiggins has described it as "less pompous" and more of a race for cycling aficionados. And if the Tour is the one bike race that most general sports fans know, the Giro's history is just as full of great exploits – at just five years younger than the Tour, it has had plenty of time for that.

If Wiggins wins the Giro, it will not just be a first for Britain: he will be adding his name to a list of victors just as prestigious as that of the Tour de France, ranging from cycling's all-time great Eddy Merckx (who won it five times) to Miguel Indurain, Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault.

It has started in Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands in the past, and will start in Belfast in 2014, but the Giro is very Italian in feel. No other sporting event, for example, has its leader's jersey – pink to match the pages of the sponsoring Gazzetta – blessed by the Pope. At the route presentation last October in Milan, leading riders were invited on stage to take part in a pasta-cooking session. Two years ago, to mark the centenary of composer Giuseppe Verdi's death, each stage was dedicated to a different opera. And yesterday the race director, Michele Acquarone, and Luigi de Magistris, the Mayor of Naples, presided over a lecture for Giro media entitled "Naples, home of the pizza".

Such is the passion that the 105-year-old Giro produces in Italy that the fans, as well as the riders, can try to influence the race result to ensure a local favourite wins.

In 1987, when Ireland's Stephen Roche was en route to dislodging his team-mate Roberto Visentini as race leader, he was spat at, jostled and even had raw steaks waved in his face by fans lining the mountain routes. In 1984, Tour de France champion (and future Giro winner) Laurent Fignon was slowed in the crucial time trial by the backdraught from helicopters hovering overhead – and Italian contender Francesco Moser was speeded up by the blast from helicopters behind, on his way to finally claiming the race victory.

As for the climbs for which the race is famous, Robert Millar – second in the 1987 Giro and winner of the King of the Mountains title, Britain's one podium finish and one classification title in the Giro to date – says: "They are a trickier proposition than you find at the Tour de France."

Millar told cyclingnews.com this week: "There are more of them, the road surfaces are better and they are raced up faster as a result. Add to that, the Italians throw themselves at any obstacles and you are having to deal with more attacks and more accelerations... I can understand why Wiggins has been working on his explosive abilities – he'll need them."

Other Giro specialities, as Millar points out, are the challenging hilltop finishes at the top of climbs 4km long. Added difficulties tend to be the chaotic, bunch sprint finishes – even wilder than those of the Tour de France – and more unpredictable spring weather, including snow in the Dolomites, than the July event.

Mark Cavendish, with 10 Giro stage wins and two spells in the lead, in 2009 and 2011, is by far the most prolific British rider in the race to date. But Wiggins has the chance of becoming the first UK rider to take the "double" of Giro and Tour de France. It is far from easy: only seven riders have won both in one year, the most recent being Marco Pantani, Italy's most gifted climber, in 1998.

But there is also what Wiggins represents for the Giro to consider. Thanks first to Cavendish and now to Wiggins, Britain's non-specialist sports fans are discovering that there is more to road-racing than the Tour de France and the World Championships. Regardless of Sir Bradley's finishing position in Brescia on 26 May, that can only be beneficial for his sport.