Italy's Vincenzo Nibali will kick off the defense of his Giro d'Italia title in 2014 with three days of racing in Northern Ireland before a "key" final week of epic racing in the high mountains. Nibali, of the Astana team, claimed his maiden pink jersey after a dramatic 2013 edition that was blighted by torrential rain, cancelled stages and a snow-hit stage to Tre Cime di Lavaredo in the Dolomites.
Next year's edition is set for an equally dramatic end with some key mountain stages, including the 20th and penultimate day to Monte Zoncolan, labelled the 'Welcome to Hell' stage, set to decide overall victory. Before then, however, Nibali and a handful of rivals including Joaquin Rodriguez, Alejandro Valverde, Cadel Evans, Ivan Basso and Andy Schleck will begin the three-week race with three days of mainly flat racing in the north of Ireland.
In a break from tradition, the race will begin in Belfast on a Friday with a team time trial and continue with two mainly flat stages which should suit the sprinters such as Britain's Mark Cavendish. After a stage three finish across the border in Dublin, the peloton will enjoy a rest day on May 12 before resuming the race the next day from Giovinazo to Bari on the 'heel' of Italy. The race makes its way north with a slightly uphill finish on stages five and six and another flat stage which the sprinters and non-climbers will welcome on stage seven.
The first of five stages in the mountains comes on stages eight and nine, from Foligno to Montecopiolo and Lugo to Sestola respectively. After the second of three rest days, the 'punchers' - riders who excel on lumpy finishes - will be given a chance to shine on stage 10 from Modena to Salsomaggiore Terme. The next day has a hilly start, but finishes on the flat.
The battle for the race's pink jersey will move up a gear on stage 12 during a 46.4 km individual time trial which is almost all uphill. From Barbaresco to Barolo, it has been labelled 'the wine stage'. After a flat finish on stage 13, the race only gets harder and harder. Stage 14 features four climbs and an uphill finish at Oropa while the following day's 217 km features a long flat stretch before ending with the climb to Plan di Montecampione.
After the final rest day, three climbs and another uphill finish welcome the peloton on stage 16 to Val Martello. Another uphill finish features on stage 18 to Malga Panarotta, a day before the overall victory contenders tackle a difficult uphill time trial over 26.8 km from Bassano to Cima Grappa. The following day is probably the race's key stage - 167 km ride over three mountain passes including the rarely-raced Monte Zoncolan. The race's 21st and final stage from Gemona to Trieste brings the race to an end on a circuit to be raced eight times.
2014 Giro d'Italia
May 9: stage 1 - Belfast to Belfast (Northern Ireland) 21.7 km (team time trial)
May 10: stage 2 - Belfast to Belfast 218 km
May 11: stage 3 - Armagh to Dublin (Republic of Ireland) 187 km
May 12: rest day
May 13: stage 4 - Giovinazo to Bari 121 km
May 14: stage 5 Taranto to Viggiano 200 km
May 15: stage 6 - Sassano to Montecassino 247 km
May 16: stage 7 - Frosinone to Foligno 214 km
May 17: stage 8 - Foligno to Montecopiolo 174 km
May 18: stage 9 - Lugo to Sestola 174 km
May 19: rest day
May 20: stage 10 - Modena to Salsomaggiore Terme 184 km
May 21: stage 11 - Collecchio to Savona 249 km
May 22: stage 12 - Barbaresco to Barolo (individual time trial) 46.4 km
May 23: stage 13 - Fossano to Rivarolo Canavese 158 km
May 24: stage 14 - Aglie to Oropa 162 km
May 25: stage 15 - Valdengo to Plan di Montecampione 217 km
May 26: rest day
May 27: stage 16 - Ponte di Legno to Val Martello 139
May 28: stage 17 - Sarnonico to Vittorio Veneto 204 km
May 29: stage 18 - Belluno to Malga Panarotta 171 km
May 30: stage 19 - Bassano to Cima Grappa (individual time trial) 26.8 km
May 31: stage 20 - Maniago to Monte Zoncolan 167 km
June 1: stage 21 - Gemona to Trieste 169 km