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Giro d'Italia: How Awesome! Will It Be?

Giro-main_small_mediumLike any grand tour, the Giro d'Italia varies considerably on the matter of whether we get a nailbiter or a blowout. So for today's exercise, I thought it might be fun to look into a few factors that determine whether or not we have a close competition. The ones that come immediately to mind are the quality of the peloton and the parcours.

The latter is simple enough, as grand tour parcourses come in a limited number of flavors. Some are "easy" (relatively --there is no such thing, literally speaking), others crono-heavy, still others climb-heavy, and the occasional course with heaping helpings of both.

As to the peloton, the key is to focus on the top contenders, in two groups: the home side and everyone else. Any Italian who can get to the start line is going to be there, but that's not a guarantee of real quality. As for the visitors, in most years you get some big names, but only occasionally do you see a foreign grand tour champion going for the win in the Giro.

Looking at those factors, let's see if a pattern develops from 2002 onward (my Giro knowledge drops like a stone going back any further):

2009 Giro

Parcours assessment: Crono Heavy
Sure, there were only two ITTs, but the 60km Riomaggiore stage more or less stole the show. And the opening TTT put this Giro close to the 100km mark. Climbs were notable on occasion, but the Alpine show was canceled (still bitter) and the toughest climbs were down closer to sea level.

Home Side Quality: Medium
A handful of former Giro winners were around -- Cunego, Simoni, Garzelli, Basso, DiLuca -- but only DiLuca mounted any sort of real challenge. Franco Pellizotti rounded out the challengers slate but was never very close.

Away Side Quality: Medium
Obviously Denis Menchov was the standard bearer, winning the thing and adding to his pair of Vuelta trophies on the Grand Tour shelf. Lance Armstrong and Carlos Sastre represented the Tour winners category, though Lance was in training and Sastre struggled early on, while Levi Leipheimer, former Tour podium guy, played his part well.

Result: Highly competitive!
Results are scrubbed but DiLuca finished like 41" down. Pellizotti was next at 2'.

2008 Giro

Parcours assessment: Climb Heavy
There were 60km of ITT on the flats, but I would stop short of calling it a cronoman's Giro. Another 28km were in team time trials, while the signature event was the Plan de Corones ITT. Throw that one in the climbers' hopper, add in the Pampeago stage, a killer Stage 15 (Pordoi, Giau, Marmolada, San Pellegrino, Fedaia) plus the Gavia-Mortirolo loop on Stage 20 and you have a climbers' course.

Home Side Quality: medium
The usual suspects (Simoni, DiLuca, Garzelli, Bruseghin, Pellizotti) plus surprising "performances" by Emanuele Sella and Ricardo Ricco. At the time it seemed competitive.

Away Side Quality: High
Alberto Contador. Game over. Rare appearance of a reigning Tour champion racing to win, albeit under the most unusual circumstances -- news of the team's Tour exclusion caused Astana to change plans on the fly. Menchov was also a top contestant.

Result: Moderately competitive
Ricco kept things vaguely interesting, but you get the sense that if Contador had any sort of normal preparation, this would have been a complete blowout. As it was, it didn't feel as close as the final 1.57. 

2007 Giro

Parcours assessment: Easy
The Monte Zoncolan stage put the hurt on the peloton early in week three, but until then the course seemed rigged for either DiLuca or Cunego to put their finishing skills to work, without being dragged too far down by their limited climbing and time trialing. Even stages like the Alpine jaunt into France were tempered by downhill finishes. DiLuca delivered.

Home Side Quality: Medium
The usual suspects: DiLuca, Cunego, Simoni, Savoldelli, Pellizotti, and a new kid on the block named Ricco.

Away Side Quality: Poor
Andy Schleck made his name for his young self in this race with a second placing, but the only other foreigners in the top ten were forgettable efforts by Petrov and Arroyo.

Result: Highly competitive!
DiLuca hung on by his fingernails over the last week for a "well earned win." Ah, cycling. Nothing is ever satisfying for long...

2006 Giro

Parcours assessment: Crono Heavy?
This course was somewhat balanced with fairly stiff (but not legendary) doses of both disciplines. I'll go with crono-heavy, just because a 50km event at the Giro is scarce and somewhat decisive, but the last week would have been deadly had they got the Plan de Corones paved in time. As it was, the Gavia-Mortirolo loop was the queen stage. Nothing dramatic about that, by Giro standards.

Home Side Quality: High
Ivan Basso in his "prime." Arguably the course was made for him to win, after he'd threatened in the Tour and had only really lost the 2005 Giro due to stomach problems. He promised his mom he'd win the Giro, and all of Italy loves that kind of story. Simoni was second among Italians at over 11 minutes back. Cunego and Savoldelli simply couldn't keep up.

Away Side Quality: Poor
Jose Enrique Gutierrez was the star of the foreign contingent, but he's a Puerto guy now. Nobody else worth mentioning.

Result: Blowout!

2005 Giro

Parcours assessment: Climb Heavy?
The word "Stelvio" should tell you all you need to know. Of course the race doesn't finish on the legendary endless climb, and the queen stage was arguably the Finistere/Sestriere stage, tempered by an easy final ascent. Two decent cronos (41 and 31km) so perhaps this was more a balanced route. But the Dolomite period was unrelenting for four days.

Home Side Quality: High
This was a battle royale between some of the usual suspects back in their prime. Cunego was out with his yearlong malaise but Savoldelli came back firing on all cylinders, Simoni was terrific, and DiLuca played the spoiler's role to perfection. And this was only after Basso, the heavy favorite, developed stomach cramps after his Zoldo Alto victory.

Away Side Quality: Poor
Jose Rujano was the sole threat, only late in the game, and never quite ready to win.

Result: Highly competitive!
One of my all-time favorite races, particularly stage 20 when Savoldelli had to let go of the maglia rosa on the road in order to save it. Final margin of victory by the ever-so-sagey Falcon was 28 seconds. 

2004 Giro

Parcours assessment: Easy
Well, there was a 52km ITT, but that was the only crono, and since the battle featured mostly Italians, they could all be mediocre together that one day. I didn't see this race, so my info is third hand, but everyone calls this an easy Giro, in part as a way of explaining how Cunego could possibly have won.

Home Side Quality: High
This was in the pre-Pro Tour days, when foreign teams could stay home with impunity. 11 of the 19 teams were Italian, and that's not counting the "Venezuelan" Selle Italia squad. Simoni was riding high, to say the least, and Garzelli was still a serious threat.

Away Side Quality: Poor
Serguei Honchar and a young Yaroslav Popovych were the only real interlopers in the intra-squadra battle that gripped the peninsula those three weeks.

Result: Moderately Competitive
Cunego's final margin was 2.02 (over Honchar, not Simoni!) but had there been one more monster climb Simoni could have taken things back pretty quickly.

2003 Giro

Parcours assessment: Climb Heavy
Slim details and no memory, but Terminillo, Zoncolan, Pampeago and an Alps stage did much more to define this race than the two 40k time trials.

Home Side Quality: Medium
Simoni and Garzelli were the stars, but Savoldelli was out.

Away Side Quality: Poor
Popovych, Georg Totschnig and a still free Raimondas Rumsas were the only outsiders hanging around.

Result: Blowout.
Simoni owned this race, won by over 7'.

2002 Giro

Parcours assessment: Crono heavy?
More sketchy details, but I don't see any big names. The cronos were 30 and 47km, both late in the race.

Home Side Quality: High
Simoni and Garzelli both got themselves ousted in a frenzy of anti-doping vigilance. Pantani was still trying to gain control of his miserable self. So Savoldelli, an occasional challenger with a great skillset, finally rose up and seized the race.

Away Side Quality: Medium
No headliners, but Tyler Hamilton's second place was memorable, as was Cadel Evans' introduction to the world. The final GC was heavy on foreigners, albeit after the police had cleaned out most of the Italian side.

Result: Highly competitive!
Great, nailbiting race for a while, though Savoldelli salted it away with a 1.41 final advantage.

So, anything learned?

On the parcours side, we had two big blowouts (2003, 2006) and two modestly competitive races (2008, 2004). Three of those were heavy on climbs (including 2006 which had plenty of cronos too). 2004 was an outlier, an easy course that still wasn't very competitive. Of the three highly competitive races, none were especially climb-heavy, although 2005 was no slouch. It's hard to detect a trend, but there is at least a tendency for climbier races to produce less competitive results. Intuitively this makes sense, even if I would stop short of calling this "research" some kind of evidence.

On the field side, the two biggest blowouts featured one major Italian star and little foreign resistance. The two modestly competitive races were won by young Cunego and established Contador... no trend there. The three most competitive races did not feature any major stars, at least not by the end: in 2002 were there grand tour stars in their primes, and both those guys got tossed before the end, while in 2005 Basso faded unexpectedly.

This year features a massive climb-fest, which says blowout, but a thin field, utterly bereft of stars in their prime, which says competitive. The big names are Carlos Sastre (expiration date?), Cadel Evans (FTW?) and Ivan Basso (2.0, the discount version). Will someone rise up and become the next star over this ridiculously selective three weeks, or will the lack of major champions keep us locked in a tight battle all the way to Verona? Prediction: Highly Competitive! Everyone's gonna get hurt this month.