Cheers to Azaleas, Mint Juleps, and the Most Beautiful Trophy in Sports

The trofeo senza fine: the most beautiful trophy in sports! (photo: Velo News)

Last year was a tough one for sports fans, with COVID forcing the delay or cancellation of events across the board. As an avowed sports junkie, it hit me doubly hard. Social distancing morphed into social isolation; televised sports dwindled to replays, offering only one must-see program to break up the tedium. The Last Dance, about the life of superstar Michael Jordan was a rare bright spot. Even if you weren’t a Chicago Bulls fan, the series gave you a fix of all the things you were missing from the sports world.

It kept us from starving but was hardly satisfying.

Apr 29, 2021; Louisville, Kentucky, USA; An exercise rider works out Kentucky Derby entry Essential Quality at Churchill Downs.
Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

I grew up in a sports-loving household. As a kid I went with my dad to the racetrack, learned how to read the Racing Form and place a bet. The Kentucky Derby prompted a family betting pool, with each of us posting our wagers on a sheet of paper in the kitchen. My mom always bet the grey horses regardless of the odds. My dad followed an elaborate but ineffective handicapping formula known only to him. My sister was the luckiest of the bunch, almost always winning the pot. It was a spring ritual for us.

Every major golf tournament was must-see TV, with my dad providing background on the rules and the players. He patiently explained his favorite sport, pointing out that it was a game of honor, first and foremost. My sister and I became familiar with the top players but, much to my father’s chagrin, never wanted to emulate them. His dream was for us to become pro golfers on the LPGA, a vision doomed from the start. Poor dad!

Not me! (photo: Ken Runyon; Indonesian Expat)

As you might imagine, last spring found my spirits flagging just as I most needed something to bolster them. The Masters, which usually happens in April, had been postponed until the fall. Same with the Kentucky Derby. Even the Giro d’Italia, the first of cycling’s grand tours, was pushed to the bottom of the calendar – if it would happen at all.

I started this blog in 2015, commenting on each stage of the Tour de France cycling race. Wherever the peloton was pedaling, I’d come up with a wine that was made there, talk a bit about it, and suggest a food pairing. Over the years I added the other grand tours: the Vuelta a España (Tour of Spain) and the Giro d’Italia (Tour of Italy.) Paris-Nice, aka the Race to the Sun, became a favorite, as did the one-day classic races from Belgium and Northern France.

2020 provided some relief toward the end: the Run for the Roses happened in September, as did the Tour de France. November brought the Masters. I was simultaneously elated and disappointed. Yes, the competitions got underway, but without fans or any of the back-slapping camaraderie we so love about sports.

And nothing looked the same. When I think about the Masters, I picture lush greenery flecked with neon-bright azaleas in full bloom. If I imagine strolling the grandstand at Churchill Downs, I see nothing but fancy hats and mint juleps.

Amen Corner at Augusta National (photo: Along the Gradyent)

This year, we’re celebrating the return of live sports. Thanks to the availability of vaccines, many events are back on track, happening at their normal times, fans included. I’ve never been so grateful for the quiet whispers of golf: the polite clapping of the gallery, the whoosh of a tee shot, the muted tones of the commentators. And the azaleas were back in fine form! Looking at Amen Corner framed by pink and purple flowers almost brought a tear to my eye.

Derby hats are back! (photo: Alton Strupp; Courier-Journal)

Watching the Derby, on a picture-perfect day, made me sigh with contentment. The ridiculously beautiful hats, the magnificent thoroughbreds and, yes, those mint julep cups, left me feeling restored after a horrible year of forced isolation.

But the best is yet to come. Saturday, May 8th marks stage 1 of the Giro d’Italia, a three-week romp through Italy, beginning in Torino. There will be chilly mountain rides in the Alps and Apennines, glimpses of the Adriatic Sea, and charming towns galore as the route courses back to Milano for the final stage.

Richard Carapaz, winner of the 2019 Giro and his prize. (photo: Getty Images)

After 21 days of racing, the trofeo senza fine (trophy without end) will be presented to the rider with the lowest overall time. A rose gold ribbon of glory, it is the most beautiful trophy in sports. I can’t wait to see who claims it at the end.

And I’m looking forward to every climb and death-defying descent along the way!

Sipping Suggestion for Stage 1: Ceretto Rossana Dolcetto d’Alba

If you’re a fan of cherry-fruited wines with grippy tannins, Dolcetto is for you. An early-ripener, it can be grown on sites that are too cool for the esteemed Nebbiolo (as in Barolo, Barbaresco). Most have little to no oak influence, giving you a mouthful of fruit, a little tannic bite, and moderate acidity. I’m a big fan of Dolcetto and always have some on hand. It’s usually mid-priced, making it an affordable wine for everyday.

Alba, home to this wine, is located southeast of Torino, starting point for this year’s Giro. There are so many wonderful wines from the Piemontese region, I’d suggest starting with Dolcetto and moving on to Barbera, Arneis and, of course, Nebbiolo. For a sparkling option, don’t forget about Moscato d’Asti.

Who’s Favored for Stage 1?

Filippo Ganna is always a threat on the sprint stages.

We’re starting out with an individual time trial (ITT) where every rider races alone against the clock. Only 8.6 kms in length, the course runs along the banks of the Po River, navigating both sides on a circuit around central Torino. My pick is a local favorite: Filippo Ganna of Team Ineos. He starred in last year’s Giro, stomping the other sprinters along the way. And, let’s face it it’s really fun to hear the Italian commentators announce his name!

Central Torino and the Po River (photo: Free Walking Tours Torino)

Cheers to Stage 1. Hope you enjoy it!

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