Basta with the sprinters! This weekend, the Giro d'Italia heads to the high mountains at last. Five of the next eight stages are mountain stages, and the fun begins with two-straight summit finishes. Now the real Giro begins. It's time for the general classification riders to come out to play.
On the subject of the general classification, the Giro organizers must rubbing their hands gleefully. It's all going according to plan. With the final week's mountain stages looming, the favorites remain enticingly close on time.
Joaquín Rodríguez of Katusha holds the race lead, but not by much. Garmin-Barracuda's Ryder Hesjedal sits just 17 seconds behind Rodríguez. Hesjedal will have help from Pete Stetina who wore the White Jersey during the first week and is currently 21st at 2:03. The Astana pair of Paolo Tiralongo and Roman Kreuziger are both inside a minute to the Pink Jersey and offer the team some intriguing tactical possibilities.
The Liquigas-Cannondale team leader and past Giro winner Ivan Basso trails Rodríguez by :57. Basso also has young team-mate Damiano Caruso, who is ninth at 1:02. We can expect to see lots of lime-green on the front when the Giro hits the final climbs this weekend. Remember what Pete Stetina told us? The race to the final climb is as important as the climb itself. And that's where Liquigas-Cannondale will give Basso a significant advantage in these mountain stages.
Last year's winner Michele Scarponi is also within close reach of the Pink Jersey at 1:11, while Lampre team-mate and past Giro winner Damiano Cunego is 1:37 behind Rodríguez. Fränk Schleck likely deserves a mention here, too. The RadioShack-Nissan rider is 2:11 away from wearing the Pink Jersey.
What about the stages? We're in northwestern Italy now, not far from the French border. Saturday's stage 14 runs south to north from Cherasco to Cervinia. The stage starts in the plains and runs through Torino, which means it's 137 kilometers of racing before the climbing begins. What? More flat racing? Now, now, don't you be worrying.
Saturday's stage finishes with two lengthy climbs — the 22 kilometer Col de Joux and the 27 kilometer climb to Cervinia. They are long, but not especially steep. The Col de Joux is mostly in the 6% range, with a short steep section that hits 12%. The climb to Cervinia is much the same, 6-7% with a short section at 12%. This stage may catch out one or two of the race favorites, but it's probably not going to bring the big time gaps. It's a warm-up mountain stage, if it's possible to consider two long mountains a warm-up.
Sunday's stage 15 brings more climbing, but only the first of the four categorized climbs earns a category 1 rating. Not that the categories ever really tell the whole story, of course. Stage 15 runs from Busto Arsizio to an uphill finish at Lecco Piani dei Resinelle. The Giro is near the Swiss border now, in the neighborhood of Como, host to the Giro di Lombardia, and Varese, home of Ivan Basso.
The most difficult climb on Sunday's stage comes early in the race. The 11.6 kilometer Valico di Valcava summits after 85 kilometers of racing. Still, it'll definitely leave a mark. More than Saturday's long uphill drags, the Valico di Valcava is more like the usual Giro climbing. The gradients are steep — the gradient hangs around 11.5% for several kilometers and there is a section that maxs out at 17%. L'ouch.
It gets easier after that, but there is hardly a flat spot of road in the entirety of Sunday's stage. It's all up an down. The riders face three more climbs before they reach the finish. The final uphill jam to Lecco Piani dei Resinelle is steep and should force a selection, despite it's relatively short 7 kilometer length. The final kilometers are in the 8% range. The time gaps probably will not be huge at the finish, but there should be a reshuffling of the overall by the end of Sunday.
Though they both have uphill finishes, this pair of stage is not the hardest mountains we've ever seen. By the end of Sunday, the overall will certainly reshuffle, but the time gaps among the favorites should not be totally blown apart. The big time gaps will come late next week, when the Giro hits the Alpe di Pampeago, the Passo di Stelvio and the Passo di Mortirolo in rapid succession.