Obviously the outcome of every Grand Tour is affected by its route, at least when Lance isn't around. But this year more than most, the story surrounding the Giro is the onslaught of epic climbs, particularly in the final week. Frankly, I find it a bit misleading: it's not like they didn't have the Stelvio and its 48 hairpins just last year, and the cancellation of the final hill-climb time trial just reduced this year's major selection stages by one. Still, the 89th Corsa Rosa is truly grand, and will make for an intense battle. Unless Basso gets a 10-minute lead in the first climb.
Let's break it down, on the flip:
Typically a grand tour will have three weeks broken up by two rest days, leading people like me to think of the race as three distinct stage groupings. Let's proceed accordingly...
Act I: Belgium
I'm sure you've heard plenty of commentary as to how the start in Walloon Belgium is largely to celebrate the Italian immigrant communities that grew up around the coal mines sixty years ago. It's hard to think of life in Italy being worse than working in a Belgian coal mine, but hunger will do that to you I guess.
Roads: Anyway, following a bumpy 6.2km prologue in Seraing, outside Liege in the East, the course winds around an east-west axis across the center of Belgium, from Mons near the French border, eastward to Charleroi, Namur and Hotton. A few climbs from the Ardennes classics will dot the map, though without shaking up the race.
Where this gets us: The points race will start to shape up, day 1 being a pure sprinters ride, and day 3 offering the sprinters' teams hope too. Day 2 has a short finishing climb, for anyone who still thinks it's April in Belgium.
Aside: Among the many oddities of this year's Giro parcours is that the first rest day occurs after a mere three road stages and 600km. This is one of three items on the menu that the riders' union wouldn't be pleased with. I haven't followed the labor news religiously, but I know they killed the split stage set up for the final day, which would have started with an 11km uphill time trial, before a downhill road stage of middlin' distance. Split stages are historically exhibit A of how the race organizers abuse the riders, and after years of unrest the peloton got rid of most of them. No doubt this was a hot button at the Giro announcement last fall. Exhibit B would be overly long stages... like the 7-plus-hour climbfest that still passes for Stage 20. Bad rest days... well, maybe they'd qualify as Exhibit C, not sure, but in a race with so much pressure, wasting one of the two precious rest days on a long plane transfer after a few easy days of racing... I doubt this is sitting very well.
Act II: Down the Adriatic
Roads: First stop back in Italy is a team time trial, the first for the Giro since 1989, and at a gentle 38km, maybe this will be the rest day the riders didn't get during the long transfer. Mixed in are two sprinters' stages to keep the Petacchis of the world happy, two stages where the plotone veers inward from the coast for some climbing, and one last flat stage with an unpredictable little twisty climb at the end.
Where this gets us: No doubt the points race will have fully formed by this point, although the final selection will depend on who among the sprinters can survive the last week. As for GC, the best climber on the strongest team will probably have the jersey, since the TTT will give Discovery and CSC an edge, and the 12km climb up Passo Lanciano at the end of stage 8 will briefly call out the contenders.
Act III: The Hell of the North
Since the second rest day occurs following stage 10, that leaves the riders heading north on the final transfer for eleven straight days of racing. Stages 15 and 21 are probably the two easiest days, but the anxiety of the sprinters' teams will undoubtedly prevent the former from offering any respite. Rather than summarize this bloc, let's look and see where the race will be decided:
- Stage 11: Pontadera 50km ITT... Flat, but 50km is very long for a time trial, and since it's the last one, the time trialists will be driving hard.
- Stage 13: La Thuile... the race hits the Alpes with the 10km Colle San Carlo, a 9.8% beast before a descent and short uphill finish.
- Stage 16: Monte Bondone... Into the Dolomites with a legendary finishing climb up the 17km Bondone, 8% average grade with some 13% grades.
- Stage 17: Plan de Corones... Probably the signature stage of this year's race, with an unbelievable final 17km climb that eventually leaves the pavement and hits an ungodly 24% in spots. By dinner time, only the strongest will still be within earshot of the maglia rosa.
- Stage 19: Passo di San Pellegrino... Considered the hardest day, going over the Forcella Staulanza (12km, 6.8%), Fedaia (13km, 8%) and Pordoi (12km 6.6%) before the finish above San Pellegrino, an 18km brute with an average of 6% that belies stretches of 15%.
- Stage 20: Aprica... For anyone who isn't dead yet, there's another seven hours to navigate the Giro's highest point on the Passo di Gavia (16km, 8% avg, 16% max), along with the Passo del Tonale (15km, 6%) and the penultimate climb of the Mortirolo (13km, 10% average, 18% max), before a downhill finish in Aprica.
And you wonder why the riders wanted to kill the mountain time trial planned for Stage 21? Anyway, here are a few places to look at maps and course profiles: