Even though the Giro d’Italia organization has been taken over by a new, forward-looking director general, Michele Acquarone, the first race under his management has a distinctly throwback look to it. This applies not only to the 3,505-kilometer course for the 95th edition that starts this Saturday in Herning, Denmark, but also in the wide-open style that the race is likely to play out.
The old-fashioned feel to this year’s Giro can be partly explained by there being no clear favorite to win, even though the start list includes former race winners Ivan Basso, Damiano Cunego and Michele Scarponi, along with podium finishers from the Giro (Marzio Bruseghin, John Gadret and José Rujano), Tour de France (Fränk Schleck) and Vuelta a España (Joaquim Rodriguez). Only two of these riders, Cunego and Rodriguez, have won races this year, and none has shown the form needed by a prospective overall winner.
Of the eight riders listed above, only the Italian veteran Bruseghin can be ruled out of contending—and the enigmatic Cunego, 30, is ready to step in should his Lampre-ISD teammate Scarponi, 32, falter in his quest for the maglia rosa. The other home favorite, two-time Giro winner Basso, 34, of Liquigas-Cannondale, is showing signs of good form and he has tireless workers such as Sylvester Szmyd and Valerio Agnoli to help him in the climbing stages.
The two men most likely to challenge Scarponi and Basso are Schleck and Rodriguez. RadioShack-Nissan-Trek’s Schleck, 32, has the all-round ability and experience to win the Giro; and the fact that he wasn’t scheduled to ride the Giro and had taken a week’s rest after the classics could work in his favor on a course that gets progressively harder through the three weeks. Katusha Team’s Rodriguez, 33 next week, is the most explosive climber in the field and he showed at last month’s Tour of the Basque Country (two stage wins and second overall) that he continues to mature.
As for the other pretenders, Frenchman Gadret, 33, of Ag2r-La Mondiale is unlikely to repeat his 2011 third-place finish (after Alberto Contador lost his victory to his back-dated doping suspension), but a prestigious stage win would please his French sponsors; and Androni-Giocattoli’s Venezuelan climber Rujano, 30, could also win one of the toughest mountain stages, which would leave his team’s GC leadership to Italian teammate Emanuele Sella, 30, or the solid Colombian José Serpa, 33.
Of the riders who haven’t placed on the podium of a Grand Tour, the hottest prospect for the pink jersey is Astana’s talented Czech all-rounder Roman Kreuziger, 26 this Sunday, who looked to be hitting strong form at last week’s Tour de Romandie. And he has the 100-percent support of an under-estimated Astana team that includes Kazakh climber Alexsandr Dyachenko, who was runner-up at the recent Tour of Turkey thanks to placing second in the decisive mountain stage.
Other team leaders hoping to cause an upset are Italians Marco Pinotti (BMC Racing) and Domenico Pozzovivo (Colnago-CSF); Spain’s Mikel Nieve (Euskaltel-Euskadi), who placed 10th and won stages in both of his two Grand Tours last year; Canadian Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Barracuda), who can rely on the support of American teammates Peter Stetina and Christian Vande Velde; the Colombians Nairo Quintana (Movistar), and Rigoberto Uran and Sergio Henao (both Team Sky); and the solid Czech Jan Barta (Team NetApp).
A Deceptively Difficult Course
A Giro is never easy because of the always-hilly Italian terrain. This year, besides the opening three stages in Denmark this opening weekend, there are only four truly flat road stages: stage 5 along the Po Valley to Fano, stage 9 on the rolling roads inland of Rome to Frosinone, stage 13 on the plains of Piedmont to Cervere, and stage 18, mostly downhill to the Po Valley at Vedelago. These flatter Italian stages will be seen by the main contenders as nice breaks between the climbing days, especially in a Giro that has only one true rest day—not the first one this coming Tuesday, which is devoted to travel from Denmark to Verona in Italy, which is followed by 12 consecutive stages before the second and final rest day on Lake Garda.
However, with strong westerly crosswinds forecast for the opening road stages on the flat Danish coast this coming Sunday and Monday, several of the lightly built climbers, such as Henao, Pozzovivo, Quintana and Rujano, could finish on the wrong side of decisive splits in the peloton. They and the other favorites, including Rodriguez, could also concede a minute or more in Saturday’s 8.7-kilometer time trial in the streets of Herning—where BMC’s American TT specialist Taylor Phinney is hoping to get his career in Grand Tours off to a winning start.
There are no serious climbs in this Giro until stage 6 next Friday, and those hills are more suited to strong classics riders like Schleck than the true climbers. Even the first summit finish to Rocca di Cambio the following day has gentle, 4-percent grades, with just a steep 10-percent pitch in the final kilometer that will most suit a Rodriguez. The Spaniard will also like the stage 8 finish to Lago Laceno because the last uphill, the Colle Molella, features a two-mile stretch at around 10 percent, only 4 kilometers from the plateau finish.
Two days’ later comes what should be one of the most beautiful finishes of the whole Giro. After a day traversing the rolling roads of Umbria, stage 10 ends with two short, vicious hills: the 1.5-kilometer Wall of San Damiano with some 15-percent grades, followed by a nasty 11-percent climb into the narrow, stone-paved streets of Assisi, the iconic hilltop town known as the gentle soul of Italy. The Giro’s longest stage of 255 kilometers comes next, heading across the breadth of Tuscany to a hilly 14.4-kilometer circuit finish in Montecatini Terme. This one looks made for breakaways.
With more than half the Giro over, the days start to become more difficult with stage 12, which crosses four stiff climbs adjoining the spectacular cliff-lined coast of the Cinque Terra. Then, after the sprinters’ shortest stage of 121 kilometers, comes the first true mountaintop finish at Cervinia. After about three hours of racing on perfectly flat roads, the final 63 kilometers of stage 14 includes two giant climbs with a total of 49.4 kilometers of uphill work. Neither climb is particularly steep, but legs will be straining hard when the leaders hit a 3-kilometer stretch of 8- and 9-percent gradients through the village of Valtournanche, about 8 kilometers from the finish in Cervinia, at the foot of the world-renowned peak of the Matterhorn.
That high-altitude climbing in the Alps will suit Basso’s steady climbing style if he has reached his best form by then, while the next day’s finale of four steeper, shorter Tour of Lombardy vintage climbs above Lake Como will better suit Scarponi. That day’s summit finish to Piani dei Resinelli has 15 switchbacks in its 8 kilometers, opening with the sharpest grades of up to 12 percent before “leveling off” to 8- and 6-percent grades at the top. It’s a climb that would have perfectly suited last year’s disqualified winner of the Giro, Contador. It’s hard to predict which climber can best impersonate Il Pistolero this month.
There’s a tiring three-hour transfer that night to reach the rest-day venue of Limone sul Garda, where the following stage begins. That stage 16 is fairly straightforward, following an uphill valley, which will encourage breakaways, especially as the short final climb to Falzes has just a 2-kilometer kick to challenge them. The maglia rosa contenders will save themselves for stage 17, a rugged four-climb day through the heart of the Dolomites to Cortina d’Ampezzo. The hardest climb is the last one, the 10-kilomer. 9.3-percent-graded Passo Giau, which is followed by a rapid 17-kilometer descent to the finish.
A final day for the sprinters to Vedelago precedes what in most grand tours would be considered the tappa regina, or the most prestigious stage of the race: The likely six-hour, 197-kilmeter stage 19 heads over the Sella di Roa (7km at 7 percent) and Passo Manghen (20.5km at 7.4 percent) before descending to Cavalese, where the race joins a 41-kilometer loop that contains two major climbs: the Passo Pampeago (10.5km at 9.7 percent) and Passo Lavazè (6.3km at 8.6 percent) before heading uphill to the finish in Alpe di Pampeago (7.7km at 9.8 percent with a 16-percent pitch halfway up). An idea of the severity of this finish can be gauged from the two stage wins here by über-climber Marco Pantani in the 1990s, and the more recent Pampeago successes by Gilberto Simoni and Emanuele Sella.
Perhaps Sella will again be among the leading contenders at this point, though his Androni teammates Rujano and Serpa are equally strong climbers and better time trialists—in case the Giro comes down to the final 30-kilometer race against the clock in Milan on May 27. But before that finale comes the stage the organizers consider the toughest of all, stage 20, which features this race’s steepest climb (the Mortirolo averages 10.5 percent for 11.4km) before a finish on its highest peak (the Stelvio).
Should the weather cooperate (snow in May is not uncommon at the Stelvio’s 9,000-foot elevation), then the Mortirolo-Stelvio combination could almost wipe the leader board clean, recognizing that the contenders will be at the end of three grueling weeks of racing (and transfers!) and climbing in likely near-freezing temperatures to a peak where the air is at its thinnest. And whoever stamps their name into the Giro history books on the Stelvio (and the final day’s time trial), that rider will have earned the right to be called a true champion. It’s an exciting prospect!
2012 Giro d'Italia
Stage 1 - May 5: Herning (Denmark) - Herning (8.7 km, time trial)
Stage 2 - May 6: Herning - Herning (206 km)
Stage 3 - May 7: Horsens (Denmark) - Horsens (190 km)
Rest Day - May 8
Stage 4 - May 9: Verona - Verona (33.2 km team time trial)
Stage 5 - May 10: Modena - Fano (209 km)
Stage 6 - May 11: Urbino - Porto Sant'Elpidio (210 km)
Stage 7 - May 12: Recanati - Rocca di Cambio (205 km)
Stage 8 - May 13: Sulmona - Lago Laceno (229 km)
Stage 9 - May 14: San Giorgio del Sannio - Frosinone (166 km)
Stage 10 - May 15: Civitavecchia - Assisi (186 km)
Stage 11 - May 16: Assisi - Montecatini Terme (255 km)
Stage 12 - May 17: Seravezza - Sestri Levante (155 km)
Stage 13 - May 18: Savona - Cervere (121 km)
Stage 14 - May 19: Cherasco - Cervinia (206 km)
Stage 15 - May 20: Busto Arsizio - Lecco/Piani dei Resinelli (169 km)
Rest Day - May 21
Stage 16 - May 22: Limone sul Garda - Falzes (173 km)
Stage 17 - May 23: Falzes - Cortina d'Ampezzo (186 km)
Stage 18 - May 24: San Vito di Cadore - Vedelago (149 km)
Stage 19 - May 25: Treviso - Alpe di Pampeago (198 km)
Stage 20 - May 26: Caldes/Val di Sole - Passo dello Stelvio (219 km)
Stage 21 - May 27: Milan - Milan (30 km time trial)
Total Distance: 3,503.9km
You can follow John at twitter.com/johnwilcockson