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The 2018 Giro d’Italia Mountains Preview

Colle delle Finestre
© Will

Ciao a tutti, benvenuti in montagne. Welcome to our 2018 Giro d’Italia Mountains Preview. This year’s Giro route begins in Israel for three stages. It returns to Italy with three stages in Sicily - including a volcano visit before hopping onto the toe of the boot-shaped mainland, then climbing up the leg eventually finishing in the very north in the Alps.

I would not call it the toughest route I’ve ever seen. But there are two absolute monster climbs: Monte Zoncolan and Colle delle Finestre. It’s also not the highest Giro. Last year we saw Stelvio at 2757 metres. This year the Cima Coppi (highest summit) is Finestre at “only” 2178 metres. But don’t worry, this is the Giro, so there are plenty of very fun mountains.

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.

The Mountains by the Numbers

  • Seven stages are officially rated Alta Difficoltà (high difficulty) - Stages 6*, 9*, 14*, 15, 18,*, 19*, and 20*. * = MTF
  • Five stages are officially rated Media Difficoltà (medium difficulty).
  • There are eight Arrivo in Salita (mountain-top finishes), versus four in 2018, and six in 2016. Is this a tougher Giro? Well, there were ten mountain-top finishes in 2014.

Thirty-Nine Categorised Climbs

By my (probably incorrect) count, there are thirty-nine categorised climbs in the 2018 Giro, versus forty-one in 2017, 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: 9 climbs (11 in 2017)

Category 2: 9 climbs (12 in 2017)

Category 3: 9 climbs (9 in 2017)

Category 4: 12 climbs (9 in 2017)


Below are the statistics for the twenty-seven 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" in the chart below = the difficulty of the climb according to the formula. So Colle delle Finestre with a difficulty rating of 204 is calculated to be the hardest climb in the 2018 Giro. For perspective, that compares with the 2017 Giro: 164 difficulty rating for Passo dello Stelvio, 2016 Giro: 159 difficulty rating for Colle della Lombarda, and the 2015 Giro with 204 for Colle delle Finestre, and 183 for Mortirolo. (for all you Alpe d'Huez fanboys, it has a 124 rating).

The second toughest climb in this Giro, Monte Zoncolan, would have been the toughest in any if the last several Giros. And the third, fourth, and eighth toughest climbs (Col Tsecore, Col St. Pantaléon, and Cervinia) are all in the possibly decisive final “meaningful” stage 20 that finishes in the shadows of Monte Cervino (the Matterhorn). Fun!

The top half of Colle delle Finestre is gravel
© Will

Cervinia - nearing summit of the final climb of the entire Giro
© Will

Below, I’ve grouped the same climbs by stage instead of by difficulty as a way of highlighting the toughest mountain days. We’ll then look at a few of the stages of Alta Difficoltà to help you vote on the Queen stage.

Stage 6 - Etna

Israel has a few hills but we will have to wait until the Giro arrives in Sicily for the first big climb and the first mountain-top finish.

Mont Etna, at 3329 metres, is the highest active volcano in Europe. Its Sicilian name is much more fun: Mungibeddu. There are a few ways to cycle its slopes. This year, the Giro will climb from the west finishing at the Osservatorio Astrofisico (Observatory).

The climb, while averaging 6.5% for 15 kilometres, has some very steep stretches in the teens. The general classification will likely erupt here.

Mount Etna
© Will’s friend Markus

Stage 9 - Gran Sasso d’Italia

Gran Sasso d’Italia (Big Rock of Italy) is in the Apennine mountains in central Italy. Expect to be hearing stories of famous bald Italians on this stage: It was at Campo Imperatore that Mussolini was dramatically “rescued” by Nazi commandos in 1943. And in 1999, another bald Italian visited here. Marco Pantani would win on a very chilly day, one of four stage victories before being expelled from the race (while in Pink) after failing a blood test.

(Daniel Friebe’s Mountain High book has a fun and detailed history of Gran Sasso).

Averaging less than 4%, Gran Sasso is not remotely steep, but it’s 26 kilometres long, and the third big climb of the day. Perhaps not for the mountain-goats, I predict a bald rider will win.

Stage 14 - Monte Zoncolan

The super-steep Zoncolan, in the north-east edge of Italy, first appeared in the Giro in 2003 (Gilberto Simoni).

Here we can perhaps debate my difficulty formula. What sounds tougher to you: Zoncolan’s 10 kms at 11.9% or Colle delle Finestre’s 18.5 kms at 9.2% (plus a small bonus for higher altitude). My formula says Finestre. But I would wager that many in the Peloton will disagree.

Ouch!!! And with 5 categorised climbs, this stage should be carnage.

2010 Zoncolan - Alpini protecting riders
Susie Hartigan (Podium Cafe)

Stage 19 - Jafferau

Ignore the official finish name: Bardonecchia is the town at the base of the final climb. But the finish itself is well above at the small ski station of Jafferau.

Colle delle Finestre is rated the most difficult climb in the 2018 Giro. It is also the Cima Coppi, the highest point of the race at 2178 metres. I will spend a little more time on this special road.

It’s a climb of two parts: First, after a couple of steep kilometres from Susa, the old S172 military road begins – 17 more kms to the summit. The bottom half is a narrow, but adequately paved surface that hairpins up through shaded woods. At one point there are roughly 30 hairpins in 3 kms. Wow. Just before the paved road ends there is a cliff stretch with views of the valley below. Here, you can either marvel at the views or curse the fact that you are only half way up.

One of the many lower hairpins
© Will

The top half, the final 8 kilometres, are gravel. The forest gradually thins out. And while there are fewer hairpins, they are far more dramatic. The top few kilometres are fantastic.

© Will
© Will

Colle delle Finestre is part of a larger network of high, unpaved military roads built primarily in the late 1800s. Look at the stage profile above. Between Finestre and Sestrière it’s possible to take these roads - Strada dell’Assietta and/or Strada Militare delle Finestre/Gran Serin - instead of the lower paved route that the Giro will follow. It passes roughly a dozen passes, ALL FAR HIGHER than Finestre or Sestrière. Some of the best gravel biking in the entire Alps. A detailed article on this network is here.

Steady, steep, and top half of gravel.

At the col are two Danilo Di Luca steles. The convicted doper was first over Finestre in the 2005 Giro - its first inclusion. Just above is also a little statue garden of “9 coli più epici” (9 most epic cols) of cycling, in addition to Finestre (Mortirolo, Stelvio, Fauniera, Gavia, Tourmalet, Galibier, Izoard, Ventoux, and Alpe d’Huez). Higher, dominating the Col is a 19th century Fort. Fans will be lining the ridge here going crazy as the peloton approaches.

Colle delle Finestre
View from just above the Fort
© Will

From the summit of Finestre, the Giro will skip various gravel options and return to tarmac descending and climbing through a beautiful valley to the ski station of Sestrière. It played host to several events during the Turin/Torino winter Olympics in 2006. Also, the most handsome man in Italy lives here. He runs the hotel Jens and I stayed at. Jens called him Adonis (he is a gentleman as well).

This region of Italy is in fact not the best road biking. But beyond the gravel network I described above, from Bardonecchia are several unpaved roads that reach mouth-watering altitudes including Colle del Sommeiller (2993 metres) and perhaps more relevantly Forte Jafferau. It’s the second highest fort in the Alps perched at 2805 metres far above the Giro’s summit finish at the base. Perfectly rideable on a bike. Oh well. Maybe next year.

PS - in 2011, two days before the Giro, this low budget Moo Production video was filmed:

Stage 20 - Cervinia

The final mountain stage takes place in the Aosta Valley (Valle d’Aosta), the smallest and least populated region in Italy. Many of the names are of French origin and both French and Italian are official languages. The Mont Blanc tunnel links Chamonix (France) to Aosta.

Col Tsecore (also spelled Tzecore - see here) is the 3rd toughest climb in this Giro. It is beside the perhaps better known Col de Joux (Colle di Joux).

It’s quiet, beautiful, and has some very steep ramps higher up.

Col Tzecore
© Will

The final two climbs, Col Saint Pantaléon, and Cervinia were the final two climbs of stage 19 of the 2015 Giro (Fabio Aru). Cervinia is a huge ski resort with Monte Cervino dominating. The ski station is linked with Zermatt, Switzerland. The Swiss call Monte Cervino ..... the Matterhorn. When I rode there I had no clue until I saw this view:

© Will

The lower part of the road to Cervinia is busy and dull. Col Saint Pantaléon basically provides a quieter, tougher alternative to this. It’s peaceful, and challenging but beware of cows:

After reaching Col Saint Pantaléon the route joins the main road to Cervinia. As usual, the final couple of stages of the Giro are challenging. But here, it’s also a truly beautiful way to end the race.

© Will


The 2018 Giro d’Italia Queen Stage is:

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    Stage 6: A Volcano!
    (0 votes)
  • 0%
    Stage 9: Gran Sasso.
    (0 votes)
  • 18%
    Stage 14: Zonc, Zonc, Zoncolan.
    (24 votes)
  • 63%
    Stage 19: Gravel and Colle delle Finestre.
    (81 votes)
  • 17%
    Stage 20: The Matterhorn!
    (22 votes)
  • 0%
    Other: Please mention in comments.
    (0 votes)
127 votes total Vote Now

Final Thoughts

I have tried to give you a brief flavour of the biggest mountain climbs. But there are plenty of other fun stages. Don’t forget to look at the various Podium Cafe articles by the gang listing their three favourite stages.

Please vote in the poll so we can all agree on the important issue of naming the Queen Stage. And finally some advice. I sometimes get asked where the best place to view a stage in a particular race. For this Giro, I think there are two obvious answers: either of the two toughest climbs. Finestre and Zoncolan both have great amphitheatre-like landscape to perch yourself and enjoy the suffering of others.

Grazie mille e arriverderci a tutti!

© Will