The Giro d'Italia races inexorably toward Milano. The end is in sight, but still two difficult mountain stages remain. These high mountains are race-makers, and the next stages will overturn expectations and remake the general classification.
For the moment, Joaquím Rodríguez holds the maglia rosa of race leader by 30 seconds over Ryder Hesjedal, 1:22 over Ivan Basso, and 1:36 over Michele Scarponi. Those time gaps could change significantly over the next two days in the high mountains. The question isn't whether a favorite will lose time; it's which favorite will lose time.
The top four riders in the general classification have so far remained locked together with only small time gaps among them. Hesjedal has ridden steadily and shown no sign of cracking any time soon. Though he is known for having at least one bad day in the grand tours, Rodríguez has kept a tight hold of the maglia rosa. He lost it to Hesjedal, then snatched it back.
For Basso, meanwhile, these next two stages are do or die. These long passes are Basso's best territory and he has the advantage of massive team support. Agnoli and Szmyd will make the race hard, but Basso will have to finish it off. His first chance comes tomorrow with the summit finish on the Alpe di Pampeago.
Friday's stage 19 runs from Treviso to the Alpe di Pampeago. The Giro enters Gilberto Simoni territory tomorrow, and the two-time Giro winner lives not far from the final climb of the day. In 2003, he won a Giro stage there. Friday's stage climbs the Alpe di Pampeago twice. Because once is just not enough.
The stage rolls out from Treviso over mostly flat terrain. It's a false flat climb for the first 60 kilometers. The first climb of the day, the Sella di Roa, is fourteen kilomters. The first half is a bit of a teaser, though, and the real climb begins at kilometer seven. From there, the gradient is a steady 7% with a section of 11% thrown in for good measure. It's a nice warm-up for the longer mountains to come.
With the Passo Manghen, things begin to get serious. At 20 kilometers in length, the Passo Manghen does not mess around. The first 14 kilometers are relatively gentle with gradients in the 5-6% range. This is the climb of climb the Italians call pedalabile. Then, things turn a bit ugly. There's a section of 17%. Bam! That, my friends, is not going to tickle. The remaining 6 kilometers are in the 10-11% range. The Passo Manghen probably won't split the favorites, but it'll ensure a selection when the race gets closer to the finish.
A bumpy 10 kilometers or so separates the descent off the Passo Manghen from the next climb of the day, the first trip up the Alpe di Pampeago. On this first pass on the finishing climb, the Giro races an additional five kilometers beyond the finish line to the summit before descending to Novale.
The Passo di Pampeago Reiterjoch, as the climb is called on the first trip up, runs 10.4 kilometers. As mountain passes go, this one is relatively short. It's also relatively steep throughout with gradients in the 9-11% range. The hardest section comes around kilometer 7, where the gradient hits 16%. That'll leave a mark. This one is for the climbers.
From the summit of the Passo Pampeago, the Giro descends 8 kilometers to Novale. Another round of climbing awaits the riders in Novale. Without wasting any time at all, the Giro heads to the Passo Lavazè. The Lavazè is short and sweet at just under 7 kilometers. There's a section of 13% about midway through the Lavazè. On its own, the Lavazè is not especially difficult. After the Passo Manghen and the Passo Pampeago, it will smart. Any gaps that opened on the first ascent of the Pampeago will likely widen further on the Lavazè.
About ten kilometers of descending follows the Lavazè. The Giro plunges back down to Tesero on the way to the final ascent of the Alpe di Pampeago. On this second trip up the Pampeago, the finish line comes at kilometer 7.7. Though shorter than the complete climb to Reiterjoch, the finishing climb includes that nasty 16% section. Only the best climbers will be smiling at the thought of that.
The Alpe di Pampeago was first made famous during the 1999 Giro d'Italia. Marco Pantani won on the climb, but two days later, he was ejected from the race for an overly exuberant hematocrit. Gilberto Simoni finished second to Pantani on the Pampeago that year, and Ivan Gotti went on to win the overall. Simoni eventually won the climb four years later.
Tomorrow should cause some reshuffling of the general classification, though with the Passo di Mortirolo and Passo di Stelvio looming on Saturday, the Alpe di Pampeago probably will not decide this Giro d'Italia. Still, the two ascents of the Pampeago may well end someone's hopes of wearing the maglia rosa in Milano.