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The 2016 Giro d'Italia Mountains Preview

The Dolomites
The Dolomites

Ciao a tutti!  Benvenuti in montagna. Welcome to our 2016 Giro d'Italia Mountain Preview. Or should I say Bonjour. Because many of the toughest and highest climbs in this Italian race will actually be in France.  But don't worry, there are plenty of Italian mountains too, including an absolute dream stage in the heart of the Dolomites.

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 review the high mountain stages.  And finally you'll vote to decide the Queen stage (spoiler alert:  there are three great candidates).

Hope for sunshine, and beautiful snow lined routes, because the 2016 route has seven climbs higher than the 2015 Cima Coppi: Colle delle Finestre (2178 metres).  The 2016 Cima Coppi (highest climb in the Giro) will be on the Italy/France border.  Colle dell'Agnello - the third highest paved mountain pass in Europe at 2744 metres - only slightly lower than Iseran (2764m) and Stelvio (2757m).  The 4th highest, Col de la Bonette (2715m), will also appear in this Giro.

Below:  So the Cima Coppi is in which country?  Colle dell'Agnello.  Welcome to France.

Col de la Bonette, Colle della Lombarda, and especially Colle dell'Agnello, are being cleared of snow early for the Giro.  They are often not open until well into June.  Without a doubt, the Giro is taking a risk with stage 19, and 20 both being at the top of Europe.  If there is hail or snow, there is no way obvious to go "around" these super high border-crossing cols. But I predict sun.

There are so many potentially fun mountain stages this year that frankly it's difficult to know where to start.  So before we get into any detail here's a quick overview:

Eight Mountain Stages

Six of the 8 mountain stages have a categorised summit finish.

  • 7 Mountain stages, 5* with a summit finish  - Stages 6*,10*, 13,14,16*, 19*,20*
  • 1 Up-a-Mountain Individual Time Trial - Stage 15

Thirty-Six Categorised Climbs

By my (probably incorrect) count, there are thirty-six categorised climbs in the 2016 Giro, versus thirty-nine in 2015, and forty in 2014. Remember, unlike the Tour de France, the Giro does not use the hors-categorie classification.

More big climbs in 2016 vs 2015, but certainly nothing as challenging as 2015's Colle delle Finestre or Mortirolo.

Category 1:  12 climbs (10 in 2015)
Category 2:  11 climbs (8 in 2015)
Category 3:  10 climbs (13 in 2015)
Category 4:    3 climbs (8 in 2015)


Below are the statistics for the thirty-three category 1,2, and 3 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.

Rating = the difficulty of the climb according to the formula.  So Colle della Lombarda with a difficulty rating of 159 is calculated to be the hardest climb in the 2016 Giro.  For perspective, that compares with the 2015 Giro: 201 difficulty rating for Colle delle Finestre, and 183 for Mortirolo (or 124 for Jens and the other Alpe d'Huez fan boys).

Four of the seven most difficult Giro climbs will be in France:  Colle della Lombarda (Col de la Lombarde in French), Col de la Bonette, Col de Vars, and Risoul.  And a 5th, Colle dell'Agnello (Col Agnel in French), will descend into France.  Mon Dieu.

Probably the easiest way to discuss the climbs is by looking at the mountain stages one at a time.  So first, here are the same climbs as above, but instead of being ranked by difficulty, they are grouped by stage. So in the chart climbs in the same stage are the same colour. ** = a mountain top finish.

I'll breeze through the easier stages, and spend some more time on the special stages.

Stage 6

The first big mountain stage of the 2016 Giro with a summit finish at the ski station of Roccaraso - keep repeating it out loud, it's a lot of fun.  Rocca-Raso! The last time the Giro finished here Moreno Argentin took the stage (1987).  They have skiing near Napoli?

Stage 10

We're still not in the Alps, but a very hilly stage in the Apennines featuring the first Category One climb of the Giro.  Not tooooo far from Firenza (Florence) for the artsy cycling fans.

Stage 13

This is the day after all the sprinters leave for home.  From now on this is a mountainous Giro.  In the far north-east of Italy, not far from Slovenia, this stage may not have very high mountains, but it has 3400 metres of vertical ascent.

Stage 14

Here we go.  If you watch pro cycling to enjoy the beauty of the route, then this is the absolute must-see stage of the 2016 Giro.  We are in the Alps now.  But even better, we are in the heart of the Dolomites (for all you Podium Café geology geeks:  part of the Southern Limestone Alps).  This route is very similar to the famous amateur cyclosportive La Maratona dles Dolomites, with the exact same set of mountain passes (I believe the last 125 kilometres or so is identical).

Passo Pordoi during the Maratona:

The route starts by climbing Passo Pordoi to join the Sella-Ronda.  This 55 kilometre loop around the stunning Sella Massif goes over four high passes (Pordoi, Sella, Gardena, and Campolongo). Fausto Coppi at summit of Passo Pordoi:

June 19th is the 2016 Sella Ronda Bike day, a non competitive cycling event where the entire Sella Ronda and some of the feeder roads are closed to car traffic.  The loop itself is not crazy tough, but jaw-dropping scenery everywhere, come visit.  Details here.

After circling the Sella, the route heads down the road to the first real feature climb of the entire Giro:  Passo Giau.  It's only 10 kilometres long, but averages 9.5%, and it's simply awesome.  The summit: (could someone please photoshop those damn cars from this photo)?

Next the route climbs the long but far easier Passo Valparola before beginning a fast, not technical, descent towards the finish at the ski station of Corvara.  But don't let the stage profile fool or disappoint you.  There is still a wag in the tail of this stage.

Just four kilometres from the finish is the fabulously named Muro del Gatto - Wall of the Cat (or Mür dl Giat in local dialect).  Think of it as similar to a Belgian berg.  Short, but very steep, with a stretch at 19%.  Then it is ever-so-false-flat but definitely uphill to the finish.  After almost 5000 metres of climbing, this little feline could be very exciting.

Stage 15 - Individual Time Trial

An uphill Time Trial on the 10th toughest climb in the Giro?  Sounds fun to me. Alpe di Siusi is the largest high Alpine meadow in Europe - very popular for hiking and skiing - and biking.  Who knew?   We're in South Tyrol, so  it's perhaps better known by its German name Seiser Alm.

Stage 16

Notice how all the towns in the first part of this stage profile have 2 names?  We're still passing through South-Tyrol, where over 60% of people speak German as their first language - and some towns feel like Bavaria.  It's a beautiful region with plenty of vineyards that due to its Germanic roots often have very different grape varieties than other Italian wine regions.   Maybe Podium Café wine expert Amy can suggest a good vintage for us to drink while savouring this stage.

I like it when this sort of profile is on a short stage -  only 132 kilometres - with the 9th and 12th toughest climbs of the Giro, and an uphill finish.  Expect a few riders to target this stage as a day to attack early.

Passo della Mendola (Mendolapass in German), the early slopes:

Stage 19

If your crossing from Italy to France anywhere except beside the Mediterranean you are going over a high Alpine pass (or through a very, very long tunnel in a car or train).   I think Piemonte is a highly under-rated region for fans of big cycling climbs.  The high Alps separating France and Italy here are full of huge, quiet, spectacular roads.   And Colle dell'Agnello is one of the best (Agnello means lamb).

Before I "ran the numbers" I had assumed that Agnello would be the toughest climb of the Giro. Perhaps the early, easier kilometres lower its difficulty - let's not talk math though.  But look at those last ten kilometres at lung-busting altitude. Ouch.  It's appeared three previous times in the Giro ('94, '00, '07), and twice in the Tour de France ('08, '11).

After a long, lovely descent into France, past the road to Izoard, the stage will finish by climbing to the little French Ski station of Risoul.  It made its debut in the Tour de France in 2014 in a stage won by Rafal Majka.  Note, in 2010, a young Colombian won a Tour de l'Avenir (Tour of the Future) stage here.  His name?  Nairo Quintana!

Below:  the French side of Agnel/Agnello.

Risoul is the 7th toughest climb in the Giro.  I suppose it's like a little brother to Alpe d'Huez.  A winding climb to a ski station at similar altitude, but slightly shorter and easier.   May I call it my least favourite of this year's big Giro climbs?

Risoul is also well known for painting their road:

Stage 20

Wow.  A short but monstrous stage with three of the five toughest climbs in the entire Giro.  And a clever finish.  More below.

It starts with Col de Vars.  On the Route des Grandes Alpes, Col de Vars is thus well known among alpine cyclo-tourists.  It's a common get-from-here-to-there Col in the Tour de France.   Appearing 33 times, I don't think it's ever hosted a summit finish.  Certainly not post WW2.  Vars wouldn't have been on any cyclo-tourist's list of memorable climbs, but they'll look you in the eye and say "it's tougher than you think."

Next is the oft misspelled Col de la Bonette (there is only one "n" in Bonette), for example by the Giro web site when announcing the route).

Let me digress for a moment and explain the difference between Col de la Bonette, and Cime de la Bonette (the highest paved "non dead-end" road in Europe).  Col de la Bonette (2715 metres) is a mountain pass - the road crosses over it from one side to the other.  Above the Col, on one side, is a big ugly mound - Cime (top/summit) de la Bonette. From Col de la Bonette, a road loops up and around this mound - reaching 2802 metres.  But one can cross the col without taking this loop. I can't find confirmation or even a suggestion anywhere, but I KNOW this loop was only built so the road would be higher than Col de l'Iseran.

Photo Below:  Col de la Bonette ahead, down low.  Cime de la Bonette is that ugly mound - you can just barely see the loop road going up either side of mound - high point around back.  The Giro will skip the loop.  Probably to simplify the early season snow removal?  (I hope that digression wasn't too boring). #alps_pedant

PS - Super Ted has a truly great Bonette photo - let's get him to post it in the comments.

Regardless, Bonette is a big, beautiful climb.

So this stage has already climbed two huge mountains, but it now gets even more interesting.  It heads back towards Italy, passing right through and above the Isola 2000 ski station to Colle della Lombarda (2350 metres) - another very high mountain pass exactly on the French/Italian border - and the toughest climb of the entire Giro.

The Italian side of Lombarda is definitely the more fun and beautiful of the two sides, but the top of the French side has a some sexy hairpins too:

Finally, the organisers have designed what I think is a clever and potentially very exciting end to this stage.  The riders will descend into Italy - a very, very fast descent. But while still at altitude they will turn onto a small side road for a steep final couple of kilometres to Sant'Anna di Vinadio - the highest Santuario in the Alps.   Now that's how to design a stage finish.

Let's hope the GC is still undecided going into this great stage.  What a location for a potentially race-deciding finish.

Final Thoughts

I like the mountain stages.  It's not the toughest Giro in recent years, and there are very few crazy steep climbs.  Dare I say we'll see more steep stretches in the Tour de France this year?  Sacrilege! But the stages seem well designed, with several sharp finishes and a couple of huge but short stages to prevent the biggest mountains being nothing but a long battle of attrition.

Please vote in the poll below so we can all agree on the important issue of naming a Queen stage.  And finally some advice. I sometimes get asked where the best place is to view a stage in a particular race.  For this Giro here's my top tip:

Cycle up Colle della Lombarda, drink a beer at the Col itself.  Then before the pros arrive, quickly descend into Italy and climb to Sant'Anna di Vinadio and grab another beverage and a prime viewing spot. Cheers.

Passo Giau cycling fans: