Me and Jen are in the seating area by the finish of the World Championship road race, surrounded by hundreds of bellowing Italians. It’s the final lap of the 16.6km circuit, and they are chanting one name: “VIN-CEN-ZO! VIN-CEN-ZO!” Determined Nibali, with the hopes of the host nation resting upon him, has refused to allow Joaquim Rodriguez to escape on the descent of the Fiesole. Earlier, there were long, deep groans followed by much emphatic gesturing towards the video screens when the Giro d’Italia champion slipped on the tarmac, as if the rain’s treachery had caused a deep, personal offence to each and every one of the tifosi here in Florence. “If Nibali wins,” Jen says, stifling a laugh at the very un-British outpouring of emotion, “we’re going to have to run for cover.” I get the feeling we may have to do the same even if he doesn’t…
Such passion is a contrast to four days earlier when polite applause greeted the competitors as they turned into the corner of the time trial circuit that took them north away from the bank of the Arno. Marco Pinotti got a big cheer, as did podium boys Cancellara, Wiggins and Martin, but that was about it. A bewildered Japanese lady got Jen to explain to her how a time trial works after enquiring in broken English if the event was “a European match”; a British woman who had probably wandered down the road from the Uffizi asked two men if they could move out of the way so she could take a picture (the tabards should have been a giveaway: they were press photographers, dear). It’s fair to say these were not big cycling fans.
But seated here at the incongruously named Nelson Mandela forum, it’s clear we are among those who know their Fabians from their Nairos. When Mark Cavendish slows down at the 150m sign moments before becoming one of the 146 riders to abandon, the Italian crowd instantly give the former world champ a rapturous round of applause; some even stand up for him. (A side note on Cav: I would love to know what an annoyed-looking Geraint Thomas said to the Manxman around half an hour into the race as Great Britain needlessly wasted their energy leading the peloton on the 100km-run to the finishing circuit.) One fan who gets to his feet is a testy blond fella in the front row who is not at all pleased that some of those in the crowd from the seats behind him are now politely jostling for space by the barrier. At one point he has a loud argument with one of the attendants. I’d like to tell him he should cool it: he’s in the one sheltered area of the circuit, unlike the poor wet sods on the other side of the road who have to endure diluvial conditions for hours. But I don’t speak Italian, and he’s got a Vinokourov-like pugnacity about him, so I don’t.
Each time the race rushes towards us, I experience a measure of what it must have been like when the first cinema audiences saw the Lumiere brothers’ locomotive seemingly burst out of the screen. One second they are televisual images, the next they are right in front of us, like Morten Harket stepping out of his rectangular, one-dimensional prison into the real world. By the time poor Purito becomes flesh and blood for the last time, it’s clear he is about to lose. The Italians yell and cheer, but they’ve stopped banging on the barriers. There’s a sullen silence moments after Rui Costa raises his arms in victory and then everyone begins to shuffle off, except for the Italian Vinokourov. He’s staring into the distance, making a quintessentially Italian hand gesture: thumb, index finger and middle finger pinched together, tapping the side of his head. The azzuri: what were they thinking? Minutes later, as Jen and I trudge with the crowd under the finishing gate, I want to know what the tifosi are thinking too.