It's being called the most difficult Grand Tour in recent memory. Five-time Grand Tour winner, Alberto Contador, says it's the hardest Grand Tour route he has ever seen. There's no question - this year's Giro d'Italia, which begins Saturday with a team time trial on the outskirts of Torino, will require a special rider, namely, a true angel of the mountains.
In two crucial back to back stages, 14 and 15, riders will ascend over 11,000 meters - that's 36,300 feet for those keeping track in the US. Sure, there are other important stages in this year's Giro, lots of them in fact, but these two stages will utterly demolish the poor contenders heading into the third week of racing.
Riders will be subjected to 5,000 meters of climbing in Stage 14's utterly demoralizing extravaganza, which includes ascents of both the Monte Crostis and the Monte Zoncolan in the final 60 kilometers. Those two climbs combine to form 24 kilometers of uphill, for 2600 meters of vertical ascent…at over 10% average. To top that all off, the Crostis includes a lovely dirt section and a descent that left Contador wondering if he might not be better on a mountain bike.
Say what you want about riders making a race hard, this stage, coupled with the next day's 230 kilometer, 6,300 vertical meter death march through the Dolomiti will beat the living crap out of riders. It won't so much be raced as it will be survived. The strongest rider will win. With a course like this, chance will be a mystical sidenote - there will be no faking it or just getting through it.
Combine these two colossal stages with five more mountaintop finishes, and you have a race that would make Marco Pantani weep for joy.
Time trials? Sure, the Giro has them, but they should be a parlor sideshow next to the ardors of the mountains. The race will open with a team time trial tomorrow, but the time gaps should be slim, something akin to what a rider can lose in 200 meters of the Zoncolan. The second time trial is of the uphill variety and follows on the heels of the Zoncolan/Dolomiti combo. The Belluno to Nevegal time trial will be important, but it's uphill, so the climbers can take solace in the fact that they can gorge themselves some more at the grand buffet of uphill at this year's Giro.
The only piece of time trialing that will favor the pure specialists won't come until the final day, and it measures in at 31.5 kilometers. It will be tough, but if the race isn't decided by then, I don't know what needs to happen to separate the wheat from the chaff.
I could use up the space in a medium sized book to discuss the difficulties the riders in the Giro will have to face over the next three weeks, but let's break it down into some stars…I like stars, and those always seem to work nicely.
Five star importance - get thee to a TV and enjoy the carnage:
Stage 14: Monte Crostis/Monte Zoncolan - this is what happens when you try to one up the Zoncolan, Giro organizers add a second Zoncolan-esque climb right before it and make sure the descent is a holy terror as well. I feel for the riders on this day.
Stage 15: Dolomiti oblivion - how else can you follow up a day like Stage 14? With more, lots more of course. The final three climbs of the Giau, Fedaia, and Gardeccia will make grown men cry.
Four stars - still better than the Tour de France:
Stage 9: Mount Etna - it'll be a tough one for sure, and it will also be the first truly important day. With Giro contender, Vincenzo Nibali, racing at home, his motivation alone will make this a day of fireworks. With that said, I can't imagine the 6%-ish ascents of Etna will play out like the days in northern Italy.
Stage 20: Colle delle Finestre/Sestriere - in any normal Giro, this would be THE day, but with Stages 14 and 15 hogging all the spotlight, climbing meters, and the crux of the race, I think the dirt climb of the Finestre will be entertaining, but nowhere near as decisive as it was a few years back when it crowned Paolo Savoldelli as the Giro champion for a second time.
With that said, if the race stays close as Grand Tour general classifications have been want to do in these recent years of at least cleaner racing, the race could be decided on the dirt of the Finestre. I would be amenable to that.
Can we all take a moment and imagine the scene if it rains on the penultimate day of the Giro on the dirt climb of the mighty Finestre? Oh, the spectacle!
Three stars - traditional Grand Tour defining stages:
Stage 16: Belluno to Nevegal uphill time trial - tough, varied, important, and coming the day following the race's final rest day, we could see riders in varying sorts of disarray, especially considering the three stages leading up to that final rest day: Grossglockner, Zoncolan, Dolomiti... That won't leave much of a rest day to be had by the riders, as they can't afford to come into the Nevegal time trial firing at anything less than 100%.
Stage 13: Grossglockner - Like the Finestre, if this were a normal Giro or the Tour de France, the finish on Austria's tallest mountain, Grossglockner, would be a five star day, but unfortunately for the Grossglockner, it will merely serve as the first course in a three part meal that really gets going the next day with the Zoncolan. No worries, I like antipasti.
Stage 21: Milano TT - I know the Giro loves its final stage time trials, but it seems like this could have been a good year for the ceremonial sprint finish in the country's northern capital. Do we really need another 'decisive' stage? Come on, Mr. Zomegnan, give the sprinters a little motivation to finish the race. I can't imagine a sprinter who has any respect for his body would finish this mountainous nonsense. It's not like they'll have much of a chance at the points jersey any way considering the eight million meters of climbing.
Two stars - something will end up important out of these stages:
Stage 5: Return to the Strade Bianche! It can't possibly be as stunning as last year's insanity, which finished with Cadel Evans actually lifting his arms off his handlebars in triumph, but it will be worth watching, that's for sure.
Stage 7: Montevergine - The serpentine ascent of the classic Giro climb has been dismissed by many, but it looks a lot like the climb of Etna. What do you think? 17.1 kilometers at 5% average for the Montevergine, 19.4 kilometers at 6.2% for Etna. If you think the Etna stage will be important, don't neglect the Montevergine.
Stage 19: Macugnaga. It's not much, but it's a helluva long climb: 28.2 kilometers at 3.9% following one of Italy's most famous climbs, the Mottarone. Could be interesting.
Talk about making sure we don't all take a collective nap for a week or so of a Grand Tour. The Giro never goes more than a stage or two before it hits an important date for the Grand Tour hopefuls.
It's possible that a rider could lose significant time early on and recoup every bit of it in the momentous final week...and vice versa. It's possible for a break that goes early on in the Giro to get more than half an hour and still not have a chance on the overall. Hell, the break could get an hour or two. I don't think it'll make one bit of a difference.
I'd expect a break to gain big time at some point, and then we'll see the heads of state chip slowly away at the lucky aggressors' time gap, only to see the minutes melt away entirely on Stages 14 and 15.
A lesser, aggressive Italian in Pink early on would ensure some control and a lot of saved energy for the major teams. It's by no means a guarantee, but considering the insanely difficult route, it would make sense.
The race will be decided in the third week.
There's no question.
There's no hiding.
There are only a tens of thousands of meters of climbing that need to be conquered.
Nothing too crazy.