Ciao a tutti, benvenuti in montagne. Welcome to our 2019 Giro d’Italia Mountains Preview.
I would not call it the toughest route I’ve ever seen. We’ll have to wait until Piemonte and stage 12 to see the first challenging climb (Montoso). But from here on there is lots of fun for mountain fans. Colle del Nivolet makes its Giro debut. It’s my favourite road climb in the entire Alps (although they won’t go all the way to the summit). The Valle d’Aosta region will host a monster stage on climbs you probably don’t know. The legendary Passo Gavia is the Cima Coppi as the highest climb in the race (2618 metres). We’ll get to talk old Pantani stories with the ultra-steep Mortirolo making an appearance. And the final real stage of the race (stage 20) is an absolute monster in the Dolomites - woohoo!
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.
- Review the toughest mountain stages.
- Vote to decide the Queen stage.
And along the way Conor will chime in to give some much needed race perspective. Because I know absolutely nothing about pro racing, I only turn on the TV to see beautiful climbs.
Conor: And I also know absolutely nothing about pro racing, I only turn on the TV so I have something to rant about.
The Mountains by the Numbers
- Five stages (vs 7 last year) are officially rated Alta Difficoltà (high difficulty) - Stages 13, 14*, 15, 16, and 20*. * = MTF
- Seven stages (vs 5 last year) are officially rated Media Difficoltà (medium difficulty).
- There are five Arrivo in Salita (mountain-top finishes), versus eight in 2018, four in 2017, and six in 2016. Is this a tough Giro? Well, there were ten mountain-top finishes in 2014.
- There are also two Time-Trials that finish at the top of categorised climbs (stage 1 and 9). We’ll briefly glance at both
Thirty-Eight Categorised Climbs
By my (probably incorrect) count, there are thirty eight categorised climbs in the 2019 Giro, versus thirty-nine in 2018, 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 (9 in 2018, 11 in 2017)
Category 2: 12 climbs (9 in 2018, 12 in 2017)
Category 3: 8 climbs (9 in 2018, 9 in 2017)
Category 4: 9 climbs (12 in 2018, 9 in 2017)
LET’S RANK THE CLIMBS
Below are the statistics for the twenty-nine 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. I’ve tried to use official climb data provided by the Giro - eg. they decide when a climb “starts” as often the route will already have been climbing for some time.
”Rating” in the chart below = the difficulty of the climb according to the formula. So Mortirolo with a difficulty rating of 182 is calculated to be the hardest climb in the 2019 Giro. For perspective, that compares with the 2018 Giro: 204 difficulty for Colle delle Finestre. 2017 Giro: 164 difficulty rating for Passo dello Stelvio, 2016 Giro: 159 difficulty rating for Colle della Lombarda, and the 2015 Giro with 204 again for Colle delle Finestre. (for all you Alpe d’Huez fanboys, it has a 124 rating).
The second toughest climb in this Giro, is Passo Manghen in the possibly decisive final “meaningful” stage 20. Passo Gavia is the third most difficult climb.
As we’re hipsters here at Podium Cafe, could we please call Mortirolo by its far better name Passo della Foppa. Its tornante (hairpin) #11 features a Pantani monument:
The Giro will climb the steeper, narrower south side of Passo Gavia:
Note, Lago Serrù, the 5th toughest climb, is the finish point of the partial Colle del Nivolet climb. It’s the far lake/dam in the photo below. It’s still a brilliant road, and higher (2247 metres) than last year’s Cima Coppi (Colle delle Finestre; 2178 metres). But sadly the Giro will not climb the jaw-dropping hairpins above the lake.
HOW THE GIRO KOM POINTS WORK
Will: I understand the Giro has changed how they will award KOM points. Could you please explain?
Conor: Absolutely: now the Giro mountains classification hasn’t always been the hardest-fought competition in cycling over the last few years with one of two things happening: one guy decides he wants it and goes on to win it pretty easily (Arredondo, Landa) or a GC guy gets it by accident (Froome). These two collided in 2015 where Visconti narrowly avoided an accidental Landa win. Anyway, the organisers have decided to shake up the competition by biasing the mountains points towards the first rider over the summit. So for example, the first person to summit a category one climb such as the Mortirolo gets forty points, while the second person only gets eighteen. In general, the first person will get just over double the second. This isn’t such a big shift - last year the first person received slightly less than double the second - but it will push the mountains classification further towards riders with a kick and of course the genuine grimpeurs who are not just hanging on towards the top of a climb, but are instead the ones forging ahead. So if we get another performance like that of Mikel Landa in 2017, where the genuine strongest climber in the race is going for the jersey it’s even more likely he’ll get it, and by a larger margin. A grafter (think Thomas De Gendt) who just gets in a lot of breakaways and takes a lot of placings on mountains will be adversely affected. Whether GC riders or breakaway riders are more likely to win the jersey shouldn’t be decided by this so much as tactics throughout the race. I’m going to say that I don’t like the changes as they make it more likely that one guy will dominate the classification. However, it’s unlikely to greatly affect our enjoyment of the Giro.
THE TOUGHEST MOUNTAIN STAGES
Below, I’ve grouped the biggest climbs by stage instead of listing 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 1 - Time Trial
A short Time Trial to the Santuario di San Luca above Bologna. It’s a Category 3 climb and rated the 27th toughest climb in the race.
Will: The Giro KOM jersey is the Maglia Azzurra (blue jersey) - see here. Disappointingly, it has not a single polka dot. Conor, the winner of stage one will be wearing the Maglia Azzurra possibly for several stages, although I suppose he’ll be in pink after stage 1 too. Who are the main KOM contenders in this Giro?
Conor: Well Will, I actually think there’s a chance someone could wear blue after stage one and stage twenty-one, but I hope not as that will mean a GC contender winning, automatically making this competition much less competitive. Lopez and Yates would be the obvious picks if that did occur. Personally I’d rather see a couple of stage-hunters fight it out. Obviously it’s impossible to identify every potential winner butI have a small list: Ivan Sosa is first — he might not be experienced enough to go for the GC but getting in breakaways and taking points is something he can certainly do. That’s also true of Andrew’s favourite Fausto Masnada. Then there’s Amaro Antunes, bringing his climbing talents from Portugal to...not Portugal. My other two picks are Rafał Majka out of tradition and Giulio Ciccone out of more recent tradition.
Stage 9 - Time Trial
Another uphill Time Trial of a categorized climb. This time to San Marino. Yes, the Giro will leave Italy to visit one of the smallest countries in the world. Not the most taxing climb (ha ha, get it?).
Conor: This is a mountains piece so I’ll go into the importance of this time-trial at another time but suffice to say I think it’s vital.
Finally, a big climb. We’re in Piedmont, literally “foot of the mountain” and there will be high Alps views to the west of this entire stage.
Will: Montoso is only 9 kilometres long, but it’s steep. Is it tough enough and close enough to the finish for a mountain-goat to take the stage?
Conor: Will, I think this stage and my perception of it are a hint at how cycling has changed in the last few years. My instinct is to say that this is one for the break and that the peloton won’t bother itself over a climb that peaks thirty kilometres out but then I have to stop myself and say that that hasn’t been the trend. I think we can expect some GC attacking especially since they’ll all have been dying to have a go and yes, a good climber to win. There’s a good chance someone could lose out on Maglia Rosa hopes too.
Italian unification, finally completed in 1871, was led be the Piemontese. The key figures included Garibaldi the revolutionary warrior, Victor Emmanuel II the King, and Count Cavour the politician. Fifteen kilometres from the stage finish the peloton will pass by the town of Cavour and its castle.
Conor: So you’re saying they’ll be cavourting around the place?
The first must-watch mountain stage includes the 5th, 8th, and 10th toughest climbs. Still in Piedmont, the climb to Lago Serrù is definitely one of the highlights of the Giro.
Lago Serrù is a hydroelectric dam/lake. The stage finish is named Ceresole Reale but that is the scenic village perhaps 12 kms below the finish - itself situated beside a larger dam/lake.
Jens in his Podium Cafe kit:
There was considerable opposition to a stage being hosted here. This is the heart of the Parco Nazionale Gran Paradiso, one of the most beautiful protected regions in Europe. A compromise led to the stage finishing well below the high point of the road, Colle del Nivolet (2641 metres).
The Giro calls this a 20 kilometre climb, but as the profile shows, they’ll be going uphill for 45 kilometres. But it gets steeper and more beautiful above Ceresole Reale.
The road continues upwards for 7 kilometres beyond the stage finish for what I call the most beautiful paved climb in the Alps. Lago Serrù is the lighter blue lake in the distance below. As you can see, above the lake is paradise.
Over the next few weeks, you’ll hear people reference the bus scene in the original Italian Job film. Michael Caine’s escape plan had a major flaw besides hiring a bad driver: Nivolet is a dead end a few kms beyond the Colle. But the bus was hanging off a cliff at roughly the same spot as my bike below:
Mountain Pass Trivia
Lago Serrù is only 9 kilometres as-the-crow-flies from Col de l’Iseran (France), the highest paved mountain pass in Europe (2764 metres) - and appearing in the 2019 Tour de France. But it would take several hours to get there by car as nothing but huge mountains between the two. The French and Italians together manage the rare Ibex herds. For beautiful photos (often of Ibex), the official Parco Gran Paradiso twitter feed is terrific.
Conor: This will be a huge stage. The previous fortnight will all be building up to it in a crescendo from hilly stage to time trial to medium mountain to this, a huge summit finish, the first of those finishes and indeed the first proper mountain stage. This is the latest in a race that they’ve hit the real mountains in my memory. One of the GC contenders will be in pink by this point but we are not going to know who is on the best climbing form until this stage. Someone will try to lay down a marker and not everyone is going to make it to Lago Serrù with their GC hopes intact.
A gigantic mountain stage in the Valle d’Aosta region with a finish directly below Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe.
Wikipedia: Valle d’Aosta - Italian and French are the official languages, though much of the native population also speak Valdôtain, a dialect of Arpitan (Franco-Provençal). About half of the population can speak all three languages.
Since we’re talking languages, the first Cat 1 climb is called Vergogne which means “shame” in Italian. I am too nervous to investigate why. Regardless, it’s a tough climb.
Edit: I have bad eyesight, and (clearly) I am not a professional writer. The town is not named Vergogne but Verrogne. My apologies to the fine citizens there.
But the real fun of this stage is Colle San Carlo. This is a hyper-steep little road that is an alternate traffic-avoiding route towards Col du Petit St. Bernard and France.
The finish is just above the ski station of Courmayeur, beside the entrance to the Mont Blanc Tunnel (12 kms through the tunnel to France). It’s a short but uphill climb to the finish after a tough day. Hope for sun and the helicopter shots of the glaciers will be breathtaking.
Courmayeur was a stop on my 3-day mountain bike loop of Mont Blanc last year. Beautiful unpaved cycling here.
Conor: I have two words for this stage: total war. Everyone is going to recognise that they have limited time to win this race and no team is going to be able to control such a short stage, especially in Italy. Here, the Giro goes crazy.
Stage 15 -
Will: Hey Conor, why did the Giro give this mid-mountain stage a four out of five star difficulty rating? It does feature Madonna del Ghisallo of Il Lombardia fame though. If you’re there make sure to visit the cycling museum.
Conor: Well Will, three of the stars were for the difficulty and one was placed for prestige, because we all know the first thing a winner says in his post-stage interview is “I’m so glad to win a stage that was arbitrarily ranked as being harder than a narrow majority of other stages.” No, in reality I can only assume the 232 kilometre length played a role because that’s what the riders love before a rest day.
Beware Author Daniel Friebe and the Dolomite police. Passo Gavia is in Lombardy. At 2618 metres, it is the Cima Coppi as the highest point of the 2019 Giro. It’s something like the 8th highest paved road in the Alps.
If Passo Gavia is beautiful, Passo della Foppa (Mortirolo) is steep. This will be a great stage.
Mean-hearted people may be hoping for snow. An old Gavia video made by Giro organisers:
Conor: Oh yeah, from that time Andy Hampsten won on the Gavia!
The route climbs the harder, more interesting south side of Passo Gavia, narrow with long 14% and 16% stretches through the trees, before rising above the tree line for some glorious views.
The Giro will sadly pass through the modern tunnel a few kilometres before the summit. An old tweet of mine:
If you only follow ONE piece of cycling advice from me, this is it: When climbing the more spectacular south side of Passo Gavia, skip the modern tunnel and take the old cliff road. #cycling pic.twitter.com/95eSQbPttD— cyclingchallenge (@cyclingalps) September 5, 2018
The Legends of Passo Gavia
I once wrote a very long article about the history and legends of Passo Gavia. See here.
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). A beautiful orphan falls in love with a young shepherd only to have their love thwarted by an evil uncle and the Devil himself. They escape but are turned into lakes separated by the Passo Gavia for all eternity. Nice views at least.
The Battle of San Matteo – formerly known as the highest battle in history occurred at and above Gavia during World War 1. A monument to the battle:
There are several variants up Passo della Foppa, but this Giro will climb the version that made it famous. It’s a narrow little road. And steep. Old Giro graffiti:
After descending Passo della Foppa, the stage profile might make the final few kilometres seem like a climb. It’s roughly 10kms at 2% average. So nothing crazy but certainly uphill.
Conor: I think I expressed my pretty clear enthusiasm for the previous mountain stages but I don’t like this one. When it comes to attacking, passes like the Gavia never get the attention especially when there are greater challenges to come. Basically, no one will attack on the Gavia because they’re (rightfully) too scared of the Mortirolo. And nobody will attack on the Mortirolo because it’s impossible to attack on the Mortirolo. To accelerate on that gradient is a very bad idea if you’re not planning to bonk like, five minutes later. The stage will be good and we’ll see guy after guy drop off the back but if you want attacking racing, look elsewhere. By this point we’ll have a good idea of the GC battle and I can picture the top guys whittling the peloton apart until only they remain with a run into Ponte di Legno to come. The guy who will win will be a team mate of a podium contender. I don’t think the race will be won outright here.
Not the toughest looking profile but perhaps perfect for interesting racing. If some of the town names seem more German than Italian, that’s because much of this stage is in South Tyrol where German will be the first language for many.
Brunico is where our Jens received stitches after crashing on his face on a cycling trip here. I am trying to get photos .......
Jens: The finish is inside the biathlon arena in Antholtz. They should totally make the riders have to shoot 5 hits before they can sprint to the finish.
Will: This could be a true innovation! There are biathlon ranges all through the Alps.
Conor: Breakaway breakaway breakaway. This last week is intense enough and I can see an informal truce being called here. Nobody’s getting shot.
Passo di San Boldo is well known for it’s crazy tunneled hairpins. I’ve never visited as tunnels terrify me, so I have no photos. But it’s very popular among motorcyclists, so here’s a motorcyclist’s Youtube video.
Watch the first 30 seconds at least to see the photos, then it’s up to you. :)
Not the steepest climb to a mountain top finish. San Marrtino di Cartrozza is a ski station in the ........ Dolomites! Woohoo!
Will: Stage 20 is a gigantic mountain stage. Maybe the GC leaders take a rest here on stage 19 and we’ll see a surprise break-away? What do you expect?
Conor: I’m not predicting a rest but the final climb won’t be steep enough to cause any real separation. Team mates will pull the group up to a point where no great time gaps can be opened, leaving the stage set for...
A gigantic Dolomites stage with 5 climbs including the second toughest in the entire Giro: Passo Manghen, and a mountain top finish.
Full disclosure: I don’t know these climbs. For me, this is the stage I drool at hoping to one day visit. But Podium Cafe member Papyrus has ridden the route several times. He says:
Cima Campo: a nice leg-softening 1100 m climb mostly in the forest.Manghen: looong climb, over 20 km on tiny roads. Many hairpins in the higher parts around a ‘natural amphitheatre’ – you can see the road hundreds of metres above you. The last 5 km is steep, 10% average, which is somehow mostly 12%. The descent is also fun, very long, on a tiny single lane road of fairly good quality. But there will be no attacks as there is 20 km flattish valley coming up. Rolle: very easy climb to 2000 metres, 5% average with a flat part in the middle. A fast descent on a big main road. Scary tunnels. Going in at 60 kph in a group, with sunglasses… I don’t know how I made it. Croce d’Aune: tough little climb, uneven, very steep at places (especially the end). And after a short descent they have another, slightly easier climb, so the Croce is perfect for a last attack.
Conor: Now this I like. There’s scope to attack from a long way out and terrain that’s harder to control than a conventional mountain-top finish. The race can certainly be won here.
Top Class Giro Trivia
The second to last climb, Croce d’Aune, is where Tullio Campagnolo was racing in 1927 when he lost a race because he was unable to remove a wingnut to change gears. This motivated him to invent the quick-release wheel locking mechanism. That’s even better than stage 12 finishing in Pinerolo!
By the way, the official Giro web site has all sorts of fancy graphics (like the stage profiles we’ve been using) and information about every stage. I love the stage finish maps:
Ok Conor, it’s prediction time. Who is going to win the Maglia Azzurra in this Giro? And do you think the GC winner will also be the KOM?
Conor: Given the amount of time-trials in this Giro I don’t think anyone will be heading home with Pink and Blue, but there’s still a big possibility it could be a consolation prize for a high finisher. As for my prediction, at 100/1 I’m picking Amaro Antunes to win the comp. Long odds, can’t lose.
Touring the Alps / Dolomites
The Dolomites is arguably the most beautiful cycling region in the Alps. It’s one major drawback? It can have tourist traffic in summer on some roads .... like motorcyclists. See this post where I list almost a 100 bike-only days in the Alps including a couple in the Dolomites and a bunch in (nearby, but not Dolomites) Stelvio National Park with days on Stelvio, Gavia Pass, and Passo della Foppa.
Conor: The highest mountain in my whole country is 1038 metres tall.
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.
Please vote in the poll so we can all agree on the important issue of naming the Queen Stage.
The 2019 Giro d’Italia Queen Stage is:
This poll is closed
Stage 13: A partial Colle del Nivolet is still great
Stage 14: Mont Blanc, Baby!
Stage 16: It’s Gavia, just ask Andy
Stage 20: Dolomites, call the Police
Other: Please mention in comments
Happy Giro to everyone.