The Giro d'Italia heads to the mountains for its grand finale on Saturday. There is nothing easy about this one. Stage 20 runs from Cales/Val di Sole to the summit of the Passo dello Stelvio.
To reach the finish, the riders must climb five significant passes: Passo del Tonale, the Aprica, Teglio, Passo di Mortirolo, and the massive Passo dello Stelvio. The stage runs 219 kilometers and will be a long day out for even the top riders. Spare a thought for the sprinters' gruppetto, as they will have a hard job of it to make it to the summit of the Stelvio in time.
After Friday's summit finish on the Alpe di Pampeago, Ryder Hesjedal looks very much like the favorite for Saturday's stage. Certainly, he was the class of the field on the steep slopes of the Pampeago. Michele Scarponi did his best to blow the race apart, only to see Hesjedal ride away. Joaquín Rodríguez fought a desperate battle, and managed to hold the maglia rosa, but Hesjedal whittled the Katusha rider's advantage to just 17 seconds.
Further down the mountain, meanwhile, Basso struggled as the climb tilted up, despite the hard work his team did earlier in the stage. Though anything is possible on a stage like Saturday's long march to the Stelvio, Basso may well have ridden himself out of contention on the Pampeago. Basso now sits 1:45 behind Rodríguez with Milano fast approaching. (Here is the full general classification.)
Still, with five significant climbs on the menu, Saturday's stage could still overturn the general classification. A rider on a bad day could lose minutes on the Stelvio alone, never mind the massively steep Passo di Mortirolo. Basso learned that lesson the hard way in 2005, when an illness sent him out the back on the Stelvio and he struggled to the finish well behind the leaders.
The riders climb the Passo del Tonale almost immediately as the stage begins. Just a nice 10 kilometer warm-up with a few 10% ramps. It's a long descent off the Tonale, then the riders climb the Aprica from Edolo. The Aprica is relatively short and often figures in the Giro d'Italia as a finishing climb. This time, the riders are still many, many kilometers from the finish.
Climb, descend, wash, rinse, repeat. The Teglio is short, but includes a section that hits 15%. Really, that's just cruel. Even more cruel is the uncategorized climb on the way to Trano. The riders will be studying the road book for that one, because the uncategorized climbs can often bring surprises.
Through the town of Tirano, and now the real climbing begins. The Passo di Mortirolo is relentlessly steep and stands with the Zoncolan as one of the more difficult climbs used in the Giro d'Italia. Typically, it is the final major climb of the day. Tomorrow, it's the warm-up for the Passo dello Stelvio. At kilometers four and ten, the gradient hits 17%. The maximum gradient is 22% and comes near the summit. Even the top pros ride a compact on the Passo di Mortirolo.
The descent off the Mortirolo is no joke, and a cheeky rider could try an escape there. Too bad it probably won't make much difference with still the 22 kilometers of the Passo dello Stelvio to race. There's a gradual false flat up the valley from the end of the Mortirolo descent to Bormio where the climb to the summit of the Passo dello Stelvio begins.
It's hard to put the Passo dello Stelvio into perspective. Few of cycling's mountains compare to it in length and difficulty. The col du Galibier and the col du Tourmalet in France are perhaps its closest cousins. From the air, the road looks like a bowl of spaghetti poured over the mountain. It bends and curves with infinite variety.
The Passo dello Stelvio runs 22 kilometers from bottom to top. The average gradients are in the 8% range, and there's a short section that hits 12%. The main difficulty is the length, and the unceasing gradient. There's no space to rest here, and a rider on a bad day will find this climb a calvary.
There's been some debate in cycling recently about whether the grand tours have become to difficult. The Giro d'Italia, in particular, has come under criticism for the sheer brutality of its third week mountain stages. There's a fine line. Have the Giro organizers gone too far with this double-up of the Passo di Mortirolo and the Passo dello Stelvio? We'll see tomorrow. With the general classification in play, there will certainly be some hard racing. It's time to play for all the marbles.
Bonus! Some time table information: On the fastest time schedule, the riders will begin the Passo di Mortirolo at 14.52 Italian time. That's 5:52 California/8:52 East Coast/13.52 UK. For the Passo dello Stelvio, the fastest schedule puts the riders in Bormio at 16.12 Italian. That's 7:12 California/10:12 East/15.12 UK. Fastest finish is 16.51 Italian.