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The Giro d'Italia Mountains Preview

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Stelvio in July
Stelvio in July
by Will

So far the Giro has been wet and flat.  But mountain lovers rejoice.  The Giro is about to get much hillier.

I know you're excited, but hang in there, we've got a lot to get through:  We're going to rank the top climbs by difficulty.   Then we'll decide which dates to cement in our calendar as "Out Sick"  or "Busy Watching Giro."  And finally you'll vote to decide the Queen stage (spoiler alert:  there are three great candidates).

But first, there are so many potentially great mountain stages this year that frankly it's difficult to even know where to start.  So before we get into any detail here's a quick overview:

Ten Uphill Finishes!

There are eleven mountain stages in this Giro, ten with summit finishes.  (wow)

One Mountain stage without summit finish  - Stage 11.
Four Medium Mountain stages with summit finish - Stages 5, 6, 8, 9.
One HUGE Uphill Time Trial - Stage 19.
Five High Mountain Stages with summit finish - Stages 14, 15, 16, 18, 20.

So after a flat start to the Giro, we get a few fun medium mountain stages, then a few more sprint stages after which Herr Kittel flies the remaining sprinters fly home. And then things get absolutely crazy for the final week.

Forty Categorised Climbs

By my (probably incorrect) count, there are forty categorised climbs in the 2014 Giro. Remember, unlike the Tour de France, the Giro does NOT use the Hors Categorie classification.

Category 1:  Thirteen climbs (including La Cima Coppi)
Category 2:  Eight climbs
Category 3:  Four climbs
Category 4:  Fifteen climbs


Below are the statistics for the twenty-one Category 1 and 2 climbs including a difficulty rating.


To rate the climbs I have used the difficulty index from that we have used previously. I know, I know, it's a slightly flawed formula. But it's easy to calculate and useful as a starting point of discussion. See this link for more on the difficulty index.

You guys are smart.  Please take a second to understand the chart below.  I decided to group climbs by stage instead of by the order of difficulty because I think it paints a very clear picture.

So in the chart climbs in the same stage are the same colour.  MTF = mountain top finish. Cat = Category classification.  Rating = the difficulty of the climb according to the formula.  So Monte Zoncolan with a difficulty rating of 184 is ranked as the hardest climb in the Giro. Passo del Pura is ranked the 9th hardest,  and is in the same stage as Zoncolan, etc.

The chart illustrates that there are six big days.  Four with multiple big climbs:  Stages 14 (purple), stage 16 (blue), stage 18 (yellow), and stage 20 (red).  Stage 15 (green) has only one climb but it's a monster. And the Stage 19 (orange) Monte Grappa ITT is the third hardest climb in the entire race.


Let's discuss the six biggest stages.

Some of the mid-mountain stages will be fantastic spectacles.  I am sure someone will write separately about the historic Montecassino finish (stage 6), or the fantastically named Naso di Gatto (cat's nose) above Savona (stage 11).  But to avoid writing a novel, I will focus on the five High Mountain stages plus the uphill Time Trial.

Stage 14 - Oropa

This is the first "High Mountain" stage of the Giro -- finishing at the Santuario di Oropa.


A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Santuario di Oropa is the biggest sanctuary dedicated to the Virgin Mary in the Alps. It is a series of religious buildings, monuments, religious trails, etc. beautifully situated at 1159 metres surrounded by high mountains. Official Site.


Above: The main courtyard and the Basilica behind.

But in the coming week Oropa will be remembered for Pantani.  In 1999, despite a mechanical at the start of the climb, Il-Pirata-in-pink crushed all competition here, taking stage 15.  Just a few days later, after Stage 20, Pantani - still in pink - was disqualified after failing a doping test.

While there may be some talk of doping during this stage, I'd rather focus on the miraculous waters available in the fountains there:


For the tourists: From the Santuario you can still go higher.  There is a long tunnel high above Oropa connecting fantastic little cliff roads on either side of the mountain.  Really fun.

The climb to Oropa is the fourteenth most difficult in the Giro.  It has a few kilometres averaging 8.5% but isn't too crazy.  The interesting part of the stage may be the 30 kilometre descent from Bielmonte ski station before the final climb.  It will be hair-raisingly fast.  Not too technical, and not too steep.  Local knowledge may be useful as a lot of the turns are far less sharp than they seem on approach.  Beware the little village 2/3's of the way down with a bumpy cobble stretch.  At 80 km/h let's hope the road is dry.

Looking down from Bielmonte:


Stage 15 - Montecampione

Montecampione is a small ski station in Lombardy and will be the fifth hardest climb in the Giro.  This seems to be the least interesting of the High Mountain stages.  Nothing but flat until the final climb.  Again expect to hear lots of Pantani stories.  Montecampione has appeared twice in the Giro: 1982, and 1998 when Pantani took stage 19 here while wearing pink on his way to the Giro title.  Here's a youtube link. Insanely fast.


Stage 16 - Val Martello

There are only three climbs above 2,000 metres in this Giro and they all appear in stage 16.   This is perhaps the most difficult day of the race with the 2nd (Stelvio), 4th (Gavia), and 7th (Val Martello) hardest climbs. It will certainly be the "whitest."

This is pretty much the same route as stage 19 in 2013.  However, recall that due to bad weather, the entire stage was cancelled.  Let's hope for sun this year, so we can see the giant snow walls on two of the greatest cycling climbs in Europe.

The route will start up the harder, more interesting side of Passo Gavianarrow with long 14% and 16% stretches through the trees, before rising above the tree line for some glorious views. 4948737450_9d11d4813b_b_medium

"High in the Italian Alps, if you are very quiet, you might just hear the whispering of two lovers whose spirits live on in the waters of Lago Bianco (White Lake) and Lago Nero (Black Lake) on either side of Passo Gavia."

See here for an old Podium Cafe article on the Legends of Passo Gavia, and a history of this great road including a great photo of the old cliff road, now by-passed by a tunnel.


At the chalet at the summit are lots of photos of the various snow stages that Gavia has hosted over the years:


After Gavia, the peloton will cycle up Passo dello Stelvio, at 2758 metres, the Cima Coppi (highest point) in the 2014 Giro, and the second highest paved mountain pass in Europe.  Yes, they have been busy clearing snow at the summit. Here is a web cam link and a tweet:

Note, they will be climbing the less famous Bormio side of Stelvio.  But don't worry, this side still has 48 signed hairpins.  And during the descent, we'll see the most famous hairpins in cycling - photo below.  This will be fun.

The renowned engineer Carlo Donegani designed and led the building of this engineering marvel. Construction began in 1820, taking five years and more than two thousand builders to complete. The Emperor Ferdinand was on hand at its opening and was so pleased that he would later grant Donegani the title "Nobleman of the Stelvio." - nice!

See here for an old Podium Cafe article on the History of Passo dello Stelvio.



For the tourists:  Don't forget that there is a terrific third way up Stelvio, from Switzerland, via Umbrailpass. Also, Stelvio Bike Day is August 30th:  open to everyone, the roads are closed to cars.  Sweet.

Gavia and Stelvio are huge climbs, but Val Martello is no joke either - the seventh hardest climb of the Giro. Val Martello is not a mountain pass but the end of a valley in Stelvio National Park - I believe this will be its first appearance. Note, the vicious 14% stretch just before the finish line.


Stage 18

Our very own Giro guru Jens has climbed Passo San Pellegrino - the 8th hardest climb -- so I'll let him take over:


The climb from Cencenighe should be fairly well known to riders since San Pellegrino has often been used as base for team camps, at least before the time of Etna and Tenerife altitude camps. It's not a particularly tough climb, the early shallower slopes should be raced at lightning speed especially if the break of the day hasn't formed at km 0. While the bottom part of the climb isn't spectacular it makes for the perfect setting for early attackers. It's when you pass the village of Falcade that the climb starts to get really interesting though.


With some passages such as this one where an 18% gradient sign brings tears to the eyes of the weak (me) the gruppetto guys will know already that they're in for a long day. The whole stretch from Falcade to the pass is a dream-climb for tourists but the peloton has more and worse in store on this typical Dolomite stage though so the thrill will be lost on them.

Thanks Jens!

Yep, this stage has more in store for the riders including what looks like a tough final climb to Rifugio Panarotta (6th toughest overall).

Here is a street view video of it by @cyclingthealps (not me, I am the original @cyclingalps, but he is a nice guy).  It looks like a newly resurfaced typical one lane road of pain.

Stage 19 - Monte Grappa Individual Time Trial.

Man against mountain.  There is no where to hide on this stage.  There are a lot of different ways up this legendary mountain: they will climb from Semonzetto.  This hairpin-filled route is the third hardest climb in the Giro.  Ouch. There will be blood.

I have never cycled Monte Grappa so let's hear from wikipedia (ha!):

"Il Monte Grappa è considerato una delle salite più belle d'Italia la sua lunghezza ed il dislivello ne fanno una salita impegnativa, da qualsiasi versante si affronti." (Monte Grappa is considered one of the most beautiful climbs in Italy.  It's length and height make it a challenging climb as you approach from any side).

From Daniel Friebe's book Mountain High: here is a quote from Filippo Pozzato: "The Grappa has absolutely everything, Between them, its nine climbs offers absolutely every challenge available." Friebe's great book also contains an interesting history of the mountain and details for five ways up.

Monte Grappa was the site of bloody trench warfare during the "The White War"  during WW1.  We may see helicopter shots of the ossuary at the summit with the remains of 23,000 Italian soldiers that died here.

Note, the 14% stretch 3/4's of the way up, yikes.  But if this profile makes you want to visit, May 24th is Monte Grappa bike day:  a non-competitive event for all levels where the roads are closed to cars.


Stage 20 - Monte Zoncolan

This is a stage for a scalatore - mountain goat.  There will be no time to recover from the Monte Grappa time trial and Monte Zoncolan is easily the hardest climb in the Giro.  It is not even close.  12% average for 10 kilometres. Mio Dio!

A tired peloton will likely be all over the road after Passo del Pura, and Sella Razzo, the 9th, and 13th toughest climbs, respectively.  And I don't care how big a lead the Pink Jersey may have here.  This is such a difficult stage that it is easy to imagine a rider dropping huge amounts of time on this decisive stage.

Steep is an understatement:

Podium Cafe Giro Reporter Susie Hartigan has seen the Giro at least twice on Zoncolan.  Some really great photos here from 2010.  Below is her photo of Basso and feathered military mountain guards perhaps 300 metres from top.  A1_jpg_medium

The next time we see the top of Zoncolan we'll know who has won the 2014 Giro-

Don't Forget to Vote

Wow, I am exhausted just writing this.  The next couple of weeks are going to provide us with an awful lot of excitement.  Non vedo l'ora (I can't wait). Don't forget to vote for the Queen stage.  Meanwhile, I am going cycling in Italy with Tourbecco.