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Giro d'Italia Stage 17: Many mountains and a downhill finish

Giro-main_medium The Giro d'Italia heads into the high mountains and hurtles toward its decisive finale. Wednesday's stage 17 runs from Falzes/Pfalzen to Cortina d'Ampezzo.It is a hilly affair with a twisting, fast, technical descent to the finish in Cortina. If the weather is bad, this finish could be quite hair-raising. Today's forecast calls for rain and a high of 21C/60F in Cortina tomorrow.

There is no transfer, at least, and the stage departs from Tuesday's finishing town in Falzes, the Tirol region of Italy. The course begins with an early wake-up call — it starts on a climb. That just seems cruel, really, but better to start as you plan to go on. After the first speedbump, it's a long false flat grind up to the start of the first of four major climbs on day's menu.

It's a climb to get to the climb, and the profile shows around 30 kilometers of uphill riding to the summit of the Passo Valparola. The Valporola officially begins in La Villa, and 154.5 kilometers. The first half? Not so hard, except for that one spot where for a couple hundred meters, the gradient hits 12%. Oh Italy. The final seven kilometers of the Passo Valparolo are steady in the 7% range. That's hard, but not ridiculous as Italian climbing goes.

From the summit of the Passo Valparolo, the riders descend for around 30 kilometers to Agorda. Then, it's time to climb again. On to the Passo Duran, a beautifully paved switchbacking climb. It's 13 kilometers to the summit, and the gradients are steady, but not especially friendly. The averages are in the 7-9% range and there's a nasty biter around kilometer five that hits 14%. As is typical of these Dolomiti passes, the descent is fast, technical and not for the faint of heart. The Passo Duran appeared in the 2005 Giro d'Italia. Paolo Savoldelli won the stage while Ivan Basso took over the race lead.

The riders have around nine kilometers to recover before the next climb begins. Two down, two to go. The Forcella Staulanza climbs for 12 kilometers and it's almost twin to the Passo Duran. The gradients hold steady in the 7-8% range, though the riders do get a nice break right in the middle. There is a random kilometer of relatively flat riding right in the middle of this one. No one will really have time to enjoy it, though, as the final five kilometers are all over the 7% mark. These are the classic climbs that we imagine when we talk about the Giro. They're much steeper than the Alps, and can open up significant time gaps among even the top riders.

Another short descent, and it's time for the final climb of the day. The Passo di Giau is a Giro favorite. In fact, they used it just last year during stage 15. It rained. Stefano Garzelli crossed the summit of the Giau first, while Mikel Nieve won the stage solo after a long day out in the break.

The Passo di Giau climbs for just short of 10 kilometers. That all sounds easy enough until we look a little closer. The Passo di Giau is bringing the steep. For the middle four kilometers, the gradient is nearly 10%. When it comes to the high mountains, the Giro does not mess around. The final three kilometers average 8.9%. There is nothing easy about this final climb of the day.

The stage descend from the summit of the Passo di Giau to the finish in Cortina d'Ampezzo in around 18 kilometers. The top section of the Giau is curvaceous, and the descent begins with a series of off-camber switchbacks. If these corners are wet from rain or snowmelt, it will make for a thoroughly treacherous descent.

In the Giro postrace show, Paolo Savoldelli called this descent molto technico. Very technical. Savoldelli was known for his stellar descending during his racing career. His descent off the Colle delle Finestre during the 2005 Giro d'Italia is a classic. If Savoldelli says a descent is difficult, it most certainly will be.

The way these grand tours have been going lately, I'd expect to see the race blow to bits on this stage under the inexorable pressure of the repeated climbs. It should be a small group at the start of the Passo Giau, a group that includes the race favorites and a few teammates for help. I'm not sure they can really take it easy enough over these opening passes to keep a big group together.

The uncertain descenders will not like this finish. Ivan Basso will have to limit his losses and wait for the uphill finishes on the Alpe di Pampeago and Passo di Stelvio to make his moves. For the other riders in the general classification, this finish might be an opportunity to go on the attack, but it'll take some mad skillz to reach Cortina with time in hand.

Here is the current general classification. At the end of tomorrow, I doubt very much it will look the same.