Grand tours share certain basic qualities: the strain of three long weeks, a mix of particular challenges to the overall contenders, and almost always a tendency to backload the parcours so as to keep fans in suspense as long as possible. Backloading, by necessity, means that you're not front-loading, which leaves the grand tours searching for ways to make the first ten or so days entertaining in some way while the GC suspense incubates.
All three grand tours have employed the grand départ tactic, picking a place of note, often on foreign soil, to give the first 2-3 days a theme. Using a foreign country can inject a large shot of fan enthusiasm that lasts as long as the carnival is in town -- witness the huge crowds turning out in Utrecht and Amsterdam over the first few days this week. And just imagine what that will look like in eight weeks when it's the Tour's turn.
But after the grand départ fades away, the riders settle in for a long grind, so what's in it for the fans? Join me on the flip to explore...
Typically every media outlet is shouting at us that nothing will happen til the last week of every three week race. So how does the race keep us engaged? This is where the Giro distinguishes itself. The Tour de France will sometimes try to mix up flat and transitional stages, such as the bumpy start in 2008 which saw the GC leaders slugging it out in Brittany for a few days, but thanks to the international significance of the maillot vert the Tour is (rightly) content most years to yield the spotlight to the sprinters for a solid week.
Neither the Vuelta a Espana or the Giro enjoys that luxury, so it takes some creativity to generate cool stages without spoiling the ending. The Vuelta often falls down in that endeavor, in my opinion, leaving fans a bit bored, though geography and the post-Tour hangover are major hurdles to overcome. [Honestly, maybe the Vuelta does great early stages and I don't pick up on it... being on vacation or something.] The Giro, meanwhile, smartly recognizes that with a little planning, they can find alternate ways to keep us all pretty well glued to the TV from start to finish. This is, in my mind, the beauty of the race.
This year's race is actually somewhat muted -- after today's Festa Fausto, the Giro hits the first real climbs tomorrow, which may or may not shake up the stage. Saturday's stage to Montalcino is ripe for trickery, with a succession of small climbs right to the end. And Sunday's stage to the Terminillo is an early GC preview. Next week there's a real Appenino stage to L'Aquila, where you can expect an unpredictable finish and big crowds. Otherwise this may not be a memorable week.
Last year the Giro got right down to business with stages 4, 5, 6 and 8 drawing out the climbers, plus the Milano Show 100 on stage 9 (or that was the plan anyway), followed by the Alps. 2008 was more like my idea of the perfect Giro, starting in the Mezzogiorno (south) and employing the region's quiet, crumbling beauty to enliven numerous stages. Stage 2 to ancient Agrigento was gorgeous and fun; stages 5, 6 and 8 shook up the peloton significantly, and stage 7 was an uphill finish/GC preview. 2007 featured the incredible beauty of Amalfi and the climb to Montevergine on stage 4, breaking up an otherwise less notable first week. 2006 Spent the first four stages in Belgium, then a TTT and two medium mountain stages among the first four days back in Italy. And so on.
The costs to such an ambitious schedule are worth noting. For one, the points competition might mean more to the international sprinters' guild if they weren't forever handing over the prize to GC guys who don't necessarily even want it. Also, while you don't have to travel too far to find a climb in Italy, you do sometimes have to travel a bit to find the right one... and the Giro is notorious for transfers between stages. In 2008 there were 15 transfers, including some hefty ones. Today's transfer is the third megatransfer (including Monday's international flight) this week, with ten more transfers on tap. By comparison, the 2009 Vuelta had 8 acknowledged transfers and only three of significance once the peloton got back from the Low Countries. The Tour only acknowledges six transfers (shrugging off another half-dozen or so small shifts) in 2009, with only three of any real distance.
In order to put on a good show, it seems, the Giro has to take this pound of flesh out of the riders. The Giro seems to rather clearly prioritize a good show over the needs of the teams. Up to a point, this is understandable: cycling needs a second grand tour to draw in crowds and keep people interested in the sport outside April and July... which in turn is good for investments... which pay for the teams. Cycling is a bit like a democracy in this way, with leadership forever agonizing over giving the people what they want (Montevergine!) versus what they need (transitional stage to the next day's start). The Giro indulges us more, and while it would be wrong not to acknowledge the sacrifice involved, it's hard to suppress a smile.
In the end these early stages are pure entertainment. Rarely do they have any impact on the GC battle, the meaningful end of the race where the heroes of the sport battle for minutes, not seconds. I couldn't have told you who won that stage to Montevergine or Agrigento without looking it up (DiLuca and Ricco...oops). Occasionally the organizers tame the parcours and hand out bonuses like lollipops, to give hope to the endless stream of Italian semi-climbers who can sprint, like that 2007 course tailored to DiLuca or the 1984 race set up for Francesco Moser. In such years those first ten days actually matter for the overall. But this time around it's a week of amuse bouche, tasty little appetizers of no great consequence and which you might not even remember afterwards. But if someone asks you if you enjoyed it, you'll reply with a hearty certo!