Ciao a tutti. Dai, Dai! Benvenuti in montagna. Welcome to our 2017 Giro d'Italia Mountains Preview. This year’s Giro route begins in the Mediterranean visiting both Sardinia and Sicily before hopping onto the toe of the boot-shaped mainland, cycling to the heel, then climbing up the leg eventually reaching the Alps.
So we’re going to talk about mountains across Italy, not just the Alps.
For several years I’ve objected to knee-jerk pundits declaring that the Italian Alps (or the Pyrénées) are steeper than the French Alps. My response: France just hasn’t used their steep roads to the degree the Giro has. But this year (also 2016) it will be the Tour de France catching our attention with crazy steep little roads. The 2017 Giro does have a few climbs famous for their difficulty, but this year they will visit easier sides (eg. Mortirolo, Monte Grappa), or a shorter version finishing below the summit (eg. Blockhaus).
Net, it’s not the toughest Giro we’ve seen in recent years, but it does feature several iconic mountains (Passo dello Stelvio, Passo Pordoi, Blockhaus, Monte Etna, Monte Grappa, etc), plus the highest paved road in Switzerland. It’s a year to learn that climbs have "other" sides: There’s an "easy" way up Mortirolo? Stelvio has three routes? But don’t worry, there is a jaw-droppingly beautiful stage in the heart of the Dolomites.
I know you're excited, but hang in there, we've got a lot to get through. As usual, we're going to rank all the climbs by difficulty. Then we'll review the toughest mountain stages. Finally, you'll vote to decide the Queen stage (spoiler alert: this vote may be a landslide).
The Mountains by the Numbers
- Five stages are officially rated Alta Difficoltà (high difficulty) - Stages 4*, 16, 18, 19*, and 20. * = MTF
- Eight stages are officially rated Media Difficoltà (medium difficulty) - but stage 9* and 11 look quite tough to me.
- There are four Arrivo in Salita (mountain-top finishes), versus six in 2016. Is this an easier Giro? Well, there were ten mountain-top finishes in 2014.
- Two of the four mountain-top stages are only rated medium difficulty: 9*, 14*
Forty-One Categorised Climbs
By my (probably incorrect) count, there are forty-one categorised climbs in the 2017 Giro, versus thirty-six in 2016, thirty-nine in 2015, and forty in 2014. Remember, unlike the Tour de France, the Giro does not use the hors-categorie classification.
Category 1: 11 climbs (12 in 2016)
Category 2: 12 climbs (11 in 2016)
Category 3: 9 climbs (10 in 2016)
Category 4: 9 climbs (3 in 2016)
LET'S RANK THE CLIMBS
Below are the statistics for the thirty-two category 1, 2, and 3 climbs, including a difficulty rating.
DIFFICULTY RATING METHODOLOGY
To rate the climbs I have used the difficulty index from www.climbbybike.com 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" in the chart below = the difficulty of the climb according to the formula. So Passo dello Stelvio with a difficulty rating of 164 is calculated to be the hardest climb in the 2017 Giro. For perspective, that compares with the 2016 Giro: 159 difficulty rating for Colle della Lombarda, and the 2015 Giro with 201 rating for Colle delle Finestre, and 183 for Mortirolo (for all you Alpe d'Huez fanboys, it has a 124 rating).
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 below, climbs in the same stage are the same colour.
Now that you’re sick of looking at numbers, let’s take a quick look at the key mountain stages.
Stage 4 - A Sicilian Volcano
I lava good Volcano stage! Stage 4, on the island of Sicily, has the 4th and 6th toughest climbs in the 2017 Giro d’Italia. In 2011, Mont Etna erupted just days before stage 9 of the Giro (also finishing at the Rifugio Sapienza). The stage was not canceled and Alberto Contador would cycle up the side of the volcano to victory.
I can’t find the origin for the name of the first climb, Portella Femmina Morta (Dead Female Pass), but it doesn’t sound promising. Portella Femmina Morta is very long almost 33 kilometres at a modest and very steady 4-5% - starting almost at sea level. The profile is here. It may seem crazy to mere mortal cyclists like you and me, but pros climb fast enough to make drafting worthwhile, and an easy, long, steady climb like this means breaking away may be tough.
The final climb to Rifugio Sapienza (Wisdom Refuge!) is wide and somewhat steeper (avg. 6.6%). Nothing brutal but it’s 18 kilometres long, so we should get our first indication of the serious GC contenders.
Contador wins Etna (2011):
Stage 9 - Blockhaus
The first of four mountain-top finishes, Blockhaus is half-way up the Italian boot in Abbruzzo, in the Majella Massif, the second highest in the Appenine mountains. It is the third most difficult climb in the 2017 Giro. On a clear day, you can see the Adriatic. Not bad.
In one of my cycling climb "Bibles" Mountain High, Author Daniel Friebe calls Blockhuas "the greatest climb in the Italian peninsula." There are three routes to the summit: the 2017 Giro will take the most difficult and interesting option starting from Roccamorice. Friebe: "by comparison (with the other 2 sides), the Roccamorice road seems rustic, romantic and turbulent - an impression borne out by the profile that shows frequent changes of gradient." He goes on to lovingly list similarities with Mont Ventoux. Fun.
EDIT: OK, I was drooling over this stage and then realised that it finishes at 1665 metres, while the road extends to 2,142 metres. Note, the "full" Blockhaus has a difficulty rating of 176 vs 133 here. Boo. While this is the 7th Giro visit to Blockhaus (‘67, ‘68, ‘72, ‘84, ‘06, ‘09), the previous three also did not reach the summit. But if you are visiting with your bike, don’t you dare stop climbing at 1665m.
Still, it’s the 3rd toughest climb in the entire Giro.
Blockhaus? The strange German-sounding name "Blockhaus" stems from a stone garrison near the summit built in the 1860’s to fight local banditry. It was commanded and named by an Austrian. According to Friebe, when the Giro made its debut here in 1967 (Merckx), Giro boss Vincenzo Torriani decided that Blockhaus was more evocative and intimidating than Majella, and the name stuck.
Brief thread hijack, by Chris
Did you know! Majella and the use of the letter “j” is due to the Slavomolisano dialect of this corner of Abruzzo/Molise? Basically there were a bunch of Croats around and the language kind of merges. OK back to Will.
Will: Chris, thanks, that sounds like local knowledge from someone whose ancestors may have been
bandits from the region. #Fontecchio_is_nearby
Stage 11 - The Appenines
Only classified as medium difficulty, the official Giro web site calls this the "Queen-Stage of the Appenines." It starts in beautiful Firenze (Florence) and ends in Bagno di Romagna - you guessed it - renowned for its thermal baths, with various natural springs that supply water at 47°C, rich in sodium-carbonate-sulphur micro-elements. Who wouldn’t want a nice soak after 161 kms of almost nothing but up and down.
On the final climb, Mount Fumaiolo, is the source of the great Tiber river that flows all the way to Rome.
I don’t know the climbs but this region/stage looks wonderful to ride. With a sort of Romandie-Queen-Stage difficulty, with none too steep, high, or long.
Stage 14 - Oropa
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Santuario di Oropa is the largest sanctuary dedicated to the Virgin Mary in the Alps. It is a series of religious buildings, monuments, religious trails, etc. beautifully situated at 1,159 metres surrounded by higher mountains. Official Site. This will be the 6th Giro stage finish at Oropa. It last appeared in 2014 (Enrico Battaglin).
It’s a dead flat stage and then not that tough a climb. But it’s one of the four mountain-top finishes of this Giro d’Italia.
My tip: If you are visiting, for better cycling: there is a superb little road behind and above the Santuario that goes much higher, eventually to a terrifying old galleria (tunnel) that crosses through the mountain to the other side for a very fun "secret" descent. See here.
Note, the profile below shows Oropa, as well as the road above to the tunnel (NOT used by the Giro).
Oh, and the "waters" at Oropa are truly miraculous:
Stage 16 - Passo dello Stelvio
Now we’re talking. The two toughest climbs in the 2017 Giro plus Mortirolo? Last week Stelvio apparently received more snow than the entire winter combined. So let’s keep our fingers crossed weather-wise. My first visit here was a snowy day .... in July.
The stage starts with the legendary Mortirolo. But this is not Pantani’s Mortirolo. While this is its 13th Giro appearance all but the first in 1990 have been up the ferociously steep western slopes - six middle kms averaging +12% - and a difficulty rating of 183 (in 2012 they used another variant, but still very steep). But this year they will climb a much easier eastern side with an average grade of 7.6%. And no, this doesn’t mean they’ll descend the steep side with the Pantani monument. They’ll descend another road, tricky but far less difficult.
Pointless Digression: Mortirolo is an interesting name, but I much prefer its other name Passo della Foppa.
After Mortiolo there are 20+ kilometres of gentle uphill to Bormio, then the race heads up the toughest climb of the 2017 Giro. Surprisingly, this is only the 11th Giro appearance for Passo dello Stelvio. Fausto Coppi (who else?) was first over the top in its 1953 debut. And Stelvio is of course designated the Cima Coppi in 2017 - the highest point in the race at 2758 metres.
"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 a brief history of Passo dello Stelvio
Did you know there are three ways up Stelvio? This Giro will first climb from Bormio. This is NOT the iconic side with the never-ending hairpins that you have seen in a million photos. But don’t worry, it’s beautiful and has 40 signed hairpins of its own.
Heading higher. Tornante means hairpin.
Upon reaching the summit, the race will next descend the famous side and its 48 signed hairpins. If the TV broadcast goes to a commercial during this descent I’ll be upset!
Below, a snowy July:
At the bottom of these 48 hairpins, the peloton will traverse into Switzerland and climb a lesser known third side of Stelvio via Umbrailpass - at 2503 metres, the highest paved road in Switzerland. This is a very quiet, superb ascent that until a few years ago had a gravel stretch mid-way, making it less attractive to visiting cyclo-tourists.
View of final few Umbrailpass hairpins.
Just after the pass is the Swiss/Italian border. Here the road joins the Bormio side of Stelvio, approximately 3 kilometres from Stelvio’s summit. But the Giro will turn down and descend back to Bormio, effectively descending most of the side of Stelvio that was climbed earlier. What a stage! Sunshine please.
Pointless Digression: It’s amazing how often maps, races, cycling signs, etc. disagree on altitude. The Giro says Umbrail is 2502m, the sign below says 2503m, and my profile book say 2501m. (The Giro and a sign disagree about Stelvio too).
View of Stelvio summit (top left) from Umbrailpass. Standing in Switzerland.
PS - Remember Passo dello Stelvio is NOT in the Dolomites.
Stage 18 - Heart of the Dolomites
What would a Giro d’Italia be without a beautiful Dolomites day? Stage 18 is not officially classified as a mountain-top finish, But it’s close. The last four kilometres average only 3% - immediately following a relatively tough climb. It’s not unreasonable (is it?) to expect only strong climbers to have a chance at victory here. The stage has 5 classified climbs, the 9th, 12th, 15th, 17th and 29th toughest in this Giro. It’s a big stage, but not brutally so.
The first three passes are all in the well-known cyclo-sportive the Maratona dles Dolomites, but the Giro will climb each of them from a different direction than the amateur event.
There is a great Coppi statue at the summit of Passo Pordoi.
Lots and lots of climbing and descending. Rarely steep, but always scenic.
Hairpin sign #14 on the climb to Passo Falzarego/Valparola is in the tunnel:
Again, none of the climbs are excessively steep, but it’s a long day of up and down and the final kilometre of the last classified climb has some bite. I’ll watch as much of this stage as possible for its beauty, with the expectation of some fun racing near the end.
Stage 19 - Piancavallo
A relatively straightforward stage finishing with a challenging 15 kilometre climb to Piancavallo, a small ski station in the northern Dolomites. The only other Giro finish here occurred in 1998 in a stage won by none other than Marco Pantani.
My elementary Italian translates Piancavallo as Horse Plain.
The first six kilometres of this final climb average 9.4% with a brief stretch at 14%. While it flattens out towards the finish, this seems like a day for the mountain goats.
Stage 20 - Monte Grappa
I can’t help feeling this would be a much better stage if it finished 15 kilometres sooner, after the Giro’s first ever climb to Foza. But any stage with Monte Grappa should be special.
In 2014, Nairo Quintana won a Time Trial up Monte Grappa, but he climbed a tougher southern road. The 2017 Giro will climb the north side on the easiest of the five principal routes (there are 4 or 5 other variants up this cycling Mecca). The 2017 Giro will skip the final stretch of the climb (a dead-end) as it passes over - thus summiting a 100 metres lower than the 2014 Time Trial. But what a great mountain.
From Daniel Friebe's book Mountain High: a quote from Filippo Pozzato: "The Grappa has absolutely everything, Between them, its nine climbs offer absolutely every challenge available."
Monte Grappa was the site of bloody trench warfare during the "The White War" of WW1. We may see helicopter shots of the ossuary at the summit with the remains of 23,000 Italian and 10,000 Austrian soldiers that died here. It is a moving and impressive place. See below or for a different view see here.
Some more history:
In October 1917, the Italian line collapsed during the battle of Caporetto. 300,000 Italian soldiers were captured, killed, or injured. The Austrians advanced 100 kilometres to the doorstep of Venice and seeming victory. The flooding of the Piave river stopped their advance, and the focus of the war turned to Monte Grappa as a key part of the line across the river. Three major battles were fought up the mountain, with the Italians halting the Austrian offensive in high altitude fighting. The Austrians would retreat soon after the 3rd battle and the war would be over two weeks later. Thus, Monte Grappa (and the Alpini soldiers) hold an honoured place in Italian history – salvaging pride (and glory?) from a terrible war started by the Italian leadership as a cynical land-grab. Monte Grappa Bike day and more history here.
A friendly Alpini:
Although this north side is an "easier" side of Monte Grappa, it’s still a huge climb, over 24 kilometres in length. And while only averaging 5%, all these photos were taken along the route. Ouch.
The final climb of the entire 2017 Giro d’Italia is the tenth hardest in the race, 14 kilometres long, but yet again, rarely very steep. Will it be difficult enough for a climber to hold a gap gained at the summit given the 15 flattish kilometres to the finish? You tell me. Again, I’d prefer the stage to finish at Foza.
Some Final Thoughts:
I’ve tried to give you a brief flavour of what the mountains will bring us this Giro. But there are of course plenty of other fun stages - I am particularly looking forward to the first three stage in Sardinia. And while I’ve highlighted throughout that this is far from the most difficult or steepest Giro route we’ve seen in recent years, there is still a lot to like.
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 the answer is obvious: Cycle up Stelvio to at least Umbrailpass. This will allow you to see two ascents, first from Bormio, then the final climb to Umbrailpass - but dress warmly. Too much fun.
Which stage is the Queen Stage?
This poll is closed
Stage 4: I lava good volcano.
Stage 9: Blockhaus - the best climb on the peninsula?
Stage 16: Stelvio, Umbrail, and an easy Foppa
Stage 18: It’s always the Dolomites.
Stage 20: Hemingway would vote for Monte Grappa.
Stay 11: The Appenine Queen Stage.
Grazie mille et arrivederci a tutto.