Photographer: Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images
Photographer: Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images

The 100th Running of the World’s Most Beautiful Bike Race

Its big mountains reward climbers, while fast descents and big crowds have created a reputation for danger.

The Giro d’Italia bills itself “the toughest race in the world’s most beautiful place.” While the Tour de France gets all the attention today, the two races once upon a time shared the glory of world attention on cycling. This year's Giro, which started May 5, is the 100th riding across Italy and will cover 3,615.4 kilometers  (2,247 miles) over 21 stages. Racers from Vincenzo Nibali to Geraint Thomas will compete for the leader's famed pink jersey, once worn by cycling legends including Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx. 

An illustration from La Domenica del Corriere in 1909. Former bricklayer Luigi Ganna, the first winner of the Giro d'Italia, reportedly commuted distances up to 100 km.

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Italy's Alfredo Binda, left, is embraced by France's Andre Leducq, right, during the 1935 edition of the race. Outrageously large goggles and wool jerseys are ubiquitous among the peloton.

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An emphatic crowd cheers as riders power along a gravel track, in 1938. That year the race covered 3,645.8 km (2,265 miles) over 18 stages.

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Forming perhaps the greatest rivalry in the sport's history were the legendary Italian figures of cycling, Fausto Coppi, left, and Gino Bartali. Such was the national obsession of their contest, the country split into the Bartaliani, and the Coppiani. Coppi, hired as a helper to the Legnano team in 1940, audaciously went on to win that year's edition of the race, much to the chagrin of the team's star rider, Bartali.

Photographers: AP Photo/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

With the opening stage of the 1974 Giro starting in Vatican City, Pope Paul VI shook the hand of the pre-race favorite, the prolific Belgian rider Eddy Merckx. With four race wins already under his belt from previous years, he would go on to secure the general classification and cement his place in Giro history, with a record five editions.

Photographer: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It would take until 1988 and the 71st Giro d'Italia for the first American winner of the Maglia Rosa to be delivered, in the shape of Andy Hampsten. Launching a daring attack at the base of the snow-covered Gavia Pass in blizzard conditions, he took the race lead and held it until the final stage in Vittorio Veneto. He remains the only American winner of the Giro.

Photographer: S. Penazzo/AP Photo

The palpable elation of winning the Maglia Rosa becomes apparent when riders are awarded the pink jersey of the race leader. Its iconic pink color was chosen to mirror the pink pages of the sports newspaper that created the race, La Gazzetta dello Sport.

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1997 saw the race begin with a flat sprint stage in the city of Venice. Members of the Batik–Del Monte team ride in a gondola ahead of the day's riding.

Photographer: Carlo Fumagalli/AP Photo

Affectionately referred to as "tifosi," fans wait long hours on the roadside for a unique sporting experience. Witnessing professional level sport at such close quarters, unfettered by ticketing or barriers, is the USP of a grand tour. The roads become the arena, with the riders merely a touch away.

Photographer: Franck Fife/AFP/Harry Engels/Getty Images

With the race route changing each year, opportunities are presented to race along new and exciting terrain. In 2010, the parcours of the race headed to the "Strade Bianche" (white roads) of Tuscany, with bad weather enhancing the drama of the stage. Australia's Cadel Evans, left, and Kazakhstan's Alexandre Vinokourov drive an attack despite the conditions.

Photographer: Roberto Bettini/AFP/Getty Images

Known for its love of steep and difficult mountain climbs, each race edition features slopes designed to test the very best climbers in the peloton. Here the Col de Vars provides a stunning backdrop as riders make their way to Sant'Anna di Vinadio during the 20th stage of the 99th Giro d'Italia.

Photographer: Luk BeniesAFP/Getty Images

The peloton cuts through the snowy peaks of the infamous Gavia pass in 2010. First used in the race route in the 1960 edition of the race, the road was merely a dirt track. That stage was won by the enigmatic climber from Luxembourg, Charly Gaul.

Photographer: Alessandro Trovati/AP Images

Italian Ivan Basso climbs the ferocious slopes of the Mortirolo on stage 20 of the 2006 race. The 12.4 km (7.7-mile) climb inflicts a brutal average gradient of 10.5% on the riders, with the steepest parts reaching 18%.

Photographer: Stefano Rellandini/AFP/Getty Images

The picturesque Amalfi Coast provides an impressive passage for the peloton during stage 4 of the 2007 Giro.

Photographer: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images

One irrefutable icon of the Giro d'Italia was the diminutive figure of Marco Pantani. The Italian climbing specialist boasted an aggressive attacking style as the road turned upwards, proving a firm favorite with fans. He remains the last rider to have won both the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France in the same year. Tragically, Pantani died of acute cocaine poisoning in 2004 after a difficult period dogged by doping allegations.

Photographer: Armando & Alessandro Trovati/AP Images

Adorned in the Maglia Rosa, race leader Alberto Contador ascends the Colle delle Finestre, a ferocious pass in the Italian alps. The 18.5 km (11.5 mile) climb ends with 8 kms of precarious gravel roads, reminiscent of the paths used in the Giro editions of past.

Photographer: Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

The Giro is the first of the three Grand Tours, along with the Tour de France and the Vuelta a Espana.

Photographer: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images