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21 May 2016

The Giro and the Glow Worms

Italy is a nation of a vast number of different languages. Mutually incomprehensible tongues are spoken in villages sometimes just a few kilometres apart. Modern Italian was partly defined by two books: one was Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy in the early fourteenth century, the second was Alessandro Manzoni I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed), which is becoming quite a theme of these pieces. Written in Italian with a rather Milanese flavour, the author, to quote the Preface to the 1840 edition, later rinsed the text in the waters of the Arno.

Modern Italians routinely call the national tongue a language and all the rest dialects, although ‘vernaculars’ or even ‘minority languages’ might be more meaningful terms. No strictly linguistic definition has been found to distinguish languages from dialect. As the Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich once said, ‘A language is just a dialect with an army and navy.’

The Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger compiled by UNESCO’s Endangered Languages Programme defines Ladin, a minority language in South Tyrol, Trentino and Belluno, as vulnerable. Not in today’s finish town of Corvara, 90% of whose 1,320 inhabitants speak the language. Throughout the regions of Trentino-Alto Adige and Südtirol, German enjoys the same status as Italian, while Ladin, Cimbrian and Mòcheno are unofficial but recognised.

For the first time, and perhaps not the last, the majority language in the post-stage press conference yesterday was Spanish. The stage winner Mikel Nieve said, ‘Today was physically very hard, but riding in the gruppetto the other day after Landa’s abandon was emotionally even harder.’

The overnight Maglia Rosa Andrey Amador remembered the 2011 Tour de France, which he finished with astonishing tenacity after a nasty crash in the first 30km of stage 1. He rode the entire Tour with a serious ankle injury, and finished the race last but one. “Life isn’t always rose-tinted, like today. This jersey makes me feel that all the sacrifices are being paid back.”

Pier Paolo Pasolini, who learned the Friulan language “as a mystic act of love,” described the end of the innocence and joie de vivre of pre-industrial culture as la scomparsa delle lucciole (“the disappearance of the glow-worms”). There have been plenty of Friulan riders, but no Ladin-speaking riders, to the best of my knowledge. The Moser family – the brothers Aldo, Francesco, Enzo and Diego – and, their sons and nephews Leonardo, Ignazio and Moreno, are not from the deep Ladin countryside but from very close to the city of Trento. It is a reminder that cycling is not, historically speaking, a rural sport but the sport of second-generation farming families now resident in urban areas. Yet, re-read those comments by Nieve and Amador: cycling carries with it the inforgiving memory of pre-industrial, rural labour. For all the comparisons between cycling and Formula One, cycling belongs to another era. It is, in Pasolini’s words, lo sport delle lucciole.