Grand Depart news isn’t always worthy of a hurried post, but this one is, and not because I just came back from a vacation in both places. The Jerusalem Post and other sources are reporting today that the 2018 Giro d’Italia is set to depart from Jerusalem, which is stunning enough, but it also plans to finish in Rome.
And that’s pretty much all we know, but I can think of a few conversations worth having right away. I will endeavor to do so with restraint, because restraint will be required to prevent me from recounting the entire Siege of Jerusalem after wading into this fascinating subject over vacation. And nobody wants to read about my vacations. But as a history buff this is an exceptional moment for cycling.
It’s the History, Stupid
The Jerusalem start for the Giro could have a variety of messages — broadening the cycling horizons, taking some vacation promo money, etc. -- but the finish in Rome sends a crystal-clear signal: the Giro plans to
reenact the first century exploit the shared ancient history between the two nations.
You probably already know some of that history, and on the off-chance you don’t have the details down, I’ll probably assaul... offer them to you when we get down to detailed stages once the race begins. But basically Judea was a very troublesome Roman state in the first century, with the Jewish population having a strong non-Roman identity (like most areas under Roman control, e.g. France), as well as religious beliefs that were interpreted by some Jews as commanding them to drive out the foreign influence. Eventually those more hard-line forces gained control, weakening the High Priests and ruling classes that were too cozy with Rome and eventually rebelling outright.
This led to the First Jewish-Roman War which started with General Titus commanding a large army that captured Jerusalem, smashed the Temple, and made off with the Torah, Menorah, and other sacred items, all depicted on the Arch of Titus in Rome. It ended with the overwhelmed rebel forces trapped in a mountaintop castle at Masada, where 960 rebels committed suicide before being captured. By the middle of the next century, Rome had stomped out a few more embers of that rebellion, and the Jews had been driven from Israel.
So yeah, the choice of a finish in Rome is a LOT different than a Jerusalem kickoff that ends in Milan.
The Start Should Be Dramatic
Obviously the Giro trades in images and storylines, the result of which you are tolerating right now by reading this. I am sure the race will take off from somewhere near the Old City in Jerusalem, one of the most fascinating places on Earth. I’m sure there will be lots of politics involved with how the race interacts with the locals — if they start at the Gate of Damascus, are they showing support for the Palestinians? Way too much will be made of such things, I’m sure, if only because making anything political of the Giro will probably exceed the capacity of a sporting event to wade into that subject.
But apart from conversation pieces, the racing itself should be quite good. Jerusalem is surrounded by steep hills in the immediate vicinity. It’s also close to a thousand places of interest that could constitute suitable stage finish areas -- also with (or without) hills. Israel is a tiny country, particularly once you eliminate the Negev Desert from the race map (too sparsely populated), and you could cover dozens of Giro-like places of intense interest in a single 200km route.
A sensible version would be an opening prologue that starts and ends in Jerusalem, with both the southern and northern old city gates featured as a balanced nod to the city’s populations. Then a second stage that meanders around the country with a minor uphill finish (by Giro standards) in maybe Haifa or Akko, assuming choices like Nazareth or Tiberias can’t afford such a thing. And finally a third stage with a big sprint in Tel Aviv, the most obvious part of this phase since it’s Israel’s biggest city, it’s close to the airport, and the locals have been investing in cycling with both ad campaigns aimed at tourists and the sponsorship of the Israel Cycling Academy team. The Jerusalem Post is already hinting at an opening TT in Jerusalem and a stage 3 sprint in Tel Aviv, presumably with some inside info to that effect in hand. The only truly open questions will involve everything about stage 2 and the remaining details for the other two stages.
The Finish Will Shake Up the Map
From the ending in Rome we can derive a couple clues: that the Colosseum will be involved and that the last week of the race will be unusual for the Giro.
The Colosseum was featured in 2009, last time the Giro ended in Rome or even came near the place, for two simple reasons: it is the city’s most poignant visual, as well as the only major monument from Ancient Rome which is accessible by roads on which you can stage a professional bike race. The briefly beloved Roma Maxima race did the same thing, making use of the arterial roads that come in from the south and only hit the skids right outside the Colosseum. So yeah, that’s where the race will end.
But what happens leading up to that is more of an open question. The foreign start and southern end means that the race will have to jam the Dolomites and Alps into the middle/late phase of the race with limited time to linger in other areas of Italy. I think you can rule out any stages south of Napoli, or maybe Bari, if the race transships from Israel to that Adriatic port city and juts straight north for the traditional parts of the Giro.
The latest you could do the Alps would be with at least three stages remaining, which means we could see a Vuelta-like rhythm of the race where the mountain phases are done by the end of week 2 or early in week 3. From the Alps you could head down through Tuscany and Rome for the finish, if you wanted to preserve the late effect of the Alps.
But the Giro could get creative, along the lines of the 2009 race. Then, the Alps were in Week 1 and Dolomites grazed in Week 2, which I’m sure we won’t see coming from Israel — they’ll hit the mountains in earnest in week 2, as late as possible. But the final week then might resemble what they do next year, where instead of trying to linger up north they instead staged dramatic mountain finishes at the Block Haus in Abruzzo and on Mount Vesuvius near Napoli. If I had to guess, I’d say the latter is the front runner, since the Block Haus just got its turn this year, making a Vesuvian finish a much fresher idea. Plus Napoli has a ton to offer the Giro, from a continuation of the ancient history themes to the splendors of the Amalfi Coast (great cycling roads if you clear out the cars), as well as an up-and-coming tourist industry to support. And they know how to pull off a Vesuvius finish already too. As much as I love Abruzzo and the possibility of them riding through Fontecchio, the Neapolitan idea would gain them five times as much public acclaim as a ride through the quiet areas of my great grandparents.
I suspect the Giro will go with something like this last idea. Once you decide to end in Rome, you’ve already chucked out the usual blueprint, so you might as well go for it in as dramatic a way as possible. Nothing near Rome would be anything like a stage to Vesuvius in terms of impact to the maglia rosa competition.
The Giro will announce something in August and do its official rollout in November. Stay tuned.