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Giro del Millennio Week 2: Ascending to Greatness

My hypothetical, based-on-reality course of Giro stages from the last 20 years heats up as it heads to the Alps

Cycling: 99th Tour of Italy 2016 / Stage 19 Photo by Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

Welcome to Phase 2 of our Giro del Millennio! [Phase 1 can be enjoyed here.]

As I write this, the riders of our hypothetical 2020 Giro d’Italia cobbled together from the best stages of the 2000s are sleeping soundly in their hotels in the greater Pescara region, conserving every ounce of strength for tomorrow’s ride to the Blockhaus, an early test for the GC contenders who, til now, have tried to stay out of trouble more than anything else. The Rome prologue was a show for the fans and for the flat-backed stallions of the cronometro; the overall contenders focused more on staying upright on city streets and tricky corners. Then to Sicilia, Calabria, Basilicata and Puglia, where the challenges were there for those who would take them, but that list was limited to fools and stage hunters. For guys eyeing the big prize, there was little profit and much ruin in blasting up the short climbs through the lemon groves. Five seconds here, ten seconds there... what will that mean in the Dolomites? Nothing, and any such rider’s chances of making such gains without someone countering this silliness was equally minute. All you can do on such days is needlessly make enemies.

With the Blockhaus forcing the Bigs to come out of their shells, we will see who is serious, if only in a limited viewing. There too lies ruin for the rider who goes too deep at the seventh day of 21 (plus rest days). And the Blockhaus, while very hard, is a steady grind where the top riders should be able to keep each other in view. The maglia rosa is up for grabs, but not in any permanent way. No, that will start to happen at the end of this week’s phase.

From the center of the Mezzogiorno, the decision was made to veer west and see Tuscany, rather than the more easterly swing through Le Marche, Emilia, Romagna and so forth. Not that it stopped us from zig-zagging up the Po Valley; at some point I’ll have to count up the number of regions this course will touch. It might be all of the mainland ones. Anyway, to go to Tuscany on a north-bound course means one important thing: that this Giro must proceed to the Alps in Week 2, followed by the Dolomites in Week 3.

Brambilla maglia rosa
Brambilla dreams his way into pink in Arezzo

Personally, I don’t really care. I do prefer the Alps to the Pyrenees at the end of the Tour de France, though I suppose you could talk me down from there. In Italy, the altitudes are limited in any case by snow — the one big advantage of the Alps — so the trickier and more legendary climbs to the east probably make for a more exciting showdown. But we have had plenty of dramatic finishes in both regions.

Logistically speaking, planning this phase of the Giro map was not easy. There are plenty of stages going from south to north as the race transitions to its high mountains phase, but as luck would have it several of my favorite stages of the last 20 years through central Italy, particularly Tuscany, faced the other way. A HUGE miss here is Cadel Evans’ legendary 2010 win from Carrara to Montalcino, which ran almost the entire length of the Tuscan region in the wrong direction. Almost everything notable in this era from Liguria, a/k/a the Riviera, seemed headed away from the mountains, and on roads that might be hard to double back on. So beware, this remains an attempt to forge a legitimate Giro course, occasionally at the expense of some of the race’s greatest chapters.

OK, on to the stages. We will pick up Stage 8, scheduled for Saturday.

Stage 8: Foligno - Arezzo (2016)

Course: An oddly shark-shaped profile of a transitional stage through Perugia and into Tuscany, with a fun finish on the dirt trail of the Alpe di Poti and a short climb to the line in downtown Arezzo — Tuscan towns tending to be perched on hilltops of some sort at least. Otherwise there is little to say about this stage except that it’s in Italy and most of these places are kinda interesting if you want to go down a million rabbit holes.

Cycling: 99th Tour of Italy 2016 / Stage 8
Dirt roads of the Alpe di Poti
Photo by KT/Tim De Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

Result in 2016: Gianluca Brambilla, pictured further up, escaped from the group of stage hunters to win alone by over a minute, a predictable scenario (at least) as a large group was let off the leash to figure out the stage honors. But behind them, chaos reigned as Alejandro Valverde blew up the Bigs group at the foot of the Poti and the end result, apart from a complete scrambling of the GC, was Tom Dumoulin chucking away a full minute to his rivals. Brambilla got to live out a lifetime achievement of wearing pink for a couple days, but there were oh so many more cards to be played in this Giro.

Giro Qualities: Straight from the Giro playbook, this one. It’s probably been the case forever and I only started to really notice it around 2005 (hello live video!) but the Giro has mastered the art of the sneaky uphill finish. Not that it’s any great accomplishment to find a hill in Italy to bike up; given the country’s topography, if a Giro stage doesn’t finish with a climb, you can rest assured that the organizers wanted it that way. But it is a tactic that seemed lost on Tour organizers until more recently, when the tendency to drone on and on across regions of France with a succession of sprints has been toned down considerably.

The dirt road is another regular feature. We will get back to this subject shortly.

Stage 9: Forli - Carpi (2008)

Course: A Po Valley Special, straight and flat, and if the Cycling Gods love them enough, the winds will be out of the east. You can draw a straight line from one city to the other using existing highways, two of them in fact, but the 2008 course took a long detour to the northeast from Bologna, then veered back southwest to Modena, before the finale in Carpi.

Cycling : 91E Giro D’Italia / Stage 12
Benna by a cennameter
Photo by Tim De Waele/Getty Images

Result in 2008: Daniele Bennati, then in the points lead, narrowly held on in the final meters to win from a very young and hard-charging Mark Cavendish. Bennati was then maybe the world’s top sprinter, coming off a 2007 Tour de France where he won a pair of stages including the ultra-prestigious Champs-Elysees affair, and might have won more (including the green jersey) if not for a crash early on that set him back for several stages. He then went to the Vuelta and won three more stages including the Madrid gallop, and the points comp. His three Giro stage wins in 2008 made it three consecutive grand tours where he won sprints, and put him in the Maglia Ciclamino to stay (sadly there was an ITT to Milan on the final day, blocking him from extending his run of race-ending wins). And personally I’ll always remember him for the brilliant job he did in setting up his teammate Alessandro Ballan for his 2007 Flanders win by hammering up the Muur to the foot of the Kapelmuur from where Ballan launched his winning move. Not too many sprint champions can do that.

Anyway, Benna’s reign was brief; in hindsight, it was fortuitous for him to have found the peak of his powers in that brief lull after Cipo, McEwen and Petacchi, but before Cavendish figured it out. Benna had his day, and this was definitely one of them.

Giro Qualities: Definitely a day for showing off Italy’s hidden landscapes: flat surfaces! Who knew? Sadly Forli is a few KM north of the Rubicon, so there is no reenactment (in reverse) of that fateful crossing. But the Po Valley — a sprawling plain extending from Torino in the west to the northeastern border with Slovenia and to San Marino in the south — is a sediment-filled trough buffering the Apennine and Alp mountain systems and slowly sinking, creating engineering problems that should keep half of the Netherlands employed over the next century. Anyway, it’s flat. It’s also home to several ancient and interesting cities, chiefly Bologna, Modena, Parma, Milano, Torino ... basically draw a map of Serie A and you can probably trace the Po Valley.

Italian sprinters have always been a thing, so even though I went on about all the climbs a moment ago, there will always be a need to not get too carried away with them at the Giro. This is, after all, the race which once saw a single rider, Petacchi, win nine stages in a single Giro. Thankfully, 2004 was a colorful race for other reasons. Anyway, here’s your palate cleansing sprint day.

Stage 10: Carpi - Novi Ligure (2019)

Course: And here’s another. Not that people will care much about the stage. At this point it’s important for the Giro to give people a break from caring about stages and classifications. It’s all a bit much.

Anyway, this stage was nearly board flat, with only false-flat elevation gains toward the end as it approached Novi Ligure in an arching route that swung west and south. No wrinkles, barely any turns, just get this one over with.

Result in 2019: Caleb Ewan took the win from Pascal Ackerman and Arnaud Demare. Nothing much to add to this. Although... did you know that no Australian has ever won the Giro? Nine riders have pulled on the maglia rosa, most recently Rohan Dennis. Ewan might be in position to do so once they start racing again, assuming the next Giro begins with a sprint stage.

This is probably a good opportunity to talk about the history of Australians at the Giro. It’s not great. For a country with so many accomplished cyclists and historic wins, Oz has not put out much in the way of grand tour champions. Phil Anderson got seventh once at the Giro and won a couple stages. Cadel Evans is the country’s only grand tour winner for his 2011 Tour triumph, although it was at the 2010 Giro where he elevated his game (in my eyes anyway) from overly patient grinder to aggressive champion-level combatant. In an all-time wonderful stage across the white roads of Tuscany, Evans outdueled Alexandre Vinokourov and Damiano Cunego for the stage win, covered in mud, while crash victims Bradley Wiggins, Carlos Sastre and Vincenzo Nibali licked their wounds. Like I said above, the southerly orientation made it impossible to fit this stage into my route, but here it is again for your viewing pleasure.

Giro Qualities: Oh, have we got Giro qualities. Any time the race can change the subject to Fausto Coppi, they are going to do that, and a trip to Novi Ligure is exactly the right time for such a detour. Coppi shacked up there with the “white lady” in his latter years, a sentence which contains the following horrors: that Coppi wasn’t allowed to peacefully divorce and remarry someone he loved; that the object of that love is remembered for wearing a white dress, once, in the vicinity of the media; and that Coppi’s life got cut short just as he entered his retirement from cycling by malaria, or murder, or karma — you can believe just about anything you want. Coppi is best remembered as a guy who rode a bike, but that’s not really important when you can ogle the home he and Giulia Occhini lived in while, ZOMG, he wasn’t married. Shown below at home with his son Faustino.

Fausto Coppi With His Son Angelo
Coppi in Novi Ligure, 1956
Photo by Emilio Ronchini/Mondadori via Getty Images

Stage 11: Novi Ligure - Pontremoli (2004)

Course: Aaand... now I’ve cracked. I couldn’t resist including one wrong-direction stage, for the sake of both a lovely course and a memorable history. Up til now I’ve erred on the side of logistics, and most recently given this Giro three straight days of minimal to no transfers. But here I am choosing to run a southerly stage. Just when the Giro has made it to Piemonte, we are doubling back to Tuscany, if just barely. But it will be worth the cost of a three-hour transfer, I think. There is also a rest day to be reckoned with in here, and I suppose you could have it following this stage — two days later than expected, but who wouldn’t mind 24 hours of rest in Pinerolo?

This course was the second full stage (including a prologue) of the 2004 Giro, which went from north to south and then north again in a long circle. The second stage traversed the mushroom-growing forests of the Val di Taro before reaching the Tuscan town of Pontremoli, with a couple decent climbs along the way before the descent to the line. Stages like this can be just about anything: a breakaway day, a move by the Bigs, or a bunch finish (although not likely a big bunch; the Passo del Bocco won’t let everyone over the top in great shape).

(L to R): Gilberto Simoni (Team Saeco/It
Wait, Simoni isn’t riding a Cannondale?
Photo credit should read DAMIEN MEYER/AFP via Getty Images

Result in 2004: Damiano Cunego took a sprint from Bradley McGee and 41 others in the bunch finish to launch his way into fame, or at least begin the process. Cunego, then all of 22, was coming off a dominant performance at the Giro del Trentino warmup race, taking two stages and the overall, but he was also racing ostensibly for his teammate, defending champion Gilberto Simoni. The Spider (not to be confused with Italian Spiderman) was now a two-time winner who talked a lot about maybe taking on Lance Armstrong at the Tour de France. This set in motion a few important factors that made Cunego the right guy in the right place at the right time. With Cunego bagging stages and putting himself level with Simoni in the hunt for pink, his Saeco team let the Kid off the leash at stage 16, as Simoni played a Quick Step-like card against Yaroslav Popovych, Serhiy Honchar and other contenders, having Cunego attack on the third climb of the day, 60km from the line, to see who would chase. The answer was nobody, and the kid went alone, putting multiple minutes into everyone, including Simoni.

Simoni was wistful about his fate for a while, seemingly content to sacrifice a Giro win and preserve his legs for the Tour, though by the end of the race his demeanor became, well... familiar. First, he flew off the handle at Cunego for sprinting it out for a stage win on the penultimate climbing stage, arguing that grand tour winners shouldn’t win so many stages? Or something. Then the next day he attacked Cunego in a desperate attempt to reverse his deficit and win the Giro. Or anyway move up on the podium. There were a lot of explanations that didn’t exactly make sense. Nonetheless, Cunego held on with over two minutes to spare, and the rift between the teammates was cemented into legend.

Giro Qualities: More middle mountains. Can we get enough middle mountains? No, we cannot.

Rest Day 1: Pinerolo

Having just talked myself into a delayed rest day, let’s make it official and prevent the transfers from stretching the riders too thin right before the mountains. It is standard for the Giro to stop after stage 9, even in years where an overseas start has included a rest/transfer day early on. Twice in this century, however, the Giro has begun in the Netherlands, taken a rest/transfer day to come home, and then not taken another rest day until after week 2. Both times the Giro thundered on for 12 straight days with no break. And in 2001 the race only took one rest day for the entire race, after stage 16. However, replicating the early Aughts is not in the interests of modern, reformed cycling. So while I would take my hypothetical Giro to this point for a rest day, I would also hold the Rome prologue on Friday night and have Saturday for a transit day to Sicily. Maybe. Or just suck it up guys.

Kruijswijk held up after bouncing off a snowbank
Photo credit should read LUK BENIES/AFP via Getty Images

Stage 12: Pinerolo - Risoul (FR) (2016)

Course: This was 162km of racing but really came down to a single feature, the crossing of the Colle del’Agnello into France, a 2700-meter high-altitude affair of the likes that often get scratched from the Giro when the weather rolls in. There was a second climb to Risoul, 12km at 7-8%, which did not help matters for the climbing-challenged. But really, that was just the aftermath of this beast:

agnello profile

Those numbers are no laughing matter. In fact, adding in some 15% ramps on a 9% grade is at least a morose 4 on the Wong-Baker pain face scale.

Result in 2016: I feel like we need some sort of blackout function for Dutch fans. Maybe just look away for a couple minutes? Because this happened:

Steven Kruijswijk seemed to be well on his way to an unexpected and somewhat dominant Giro title, the first in ages for a Dutch rider, but saw all of that put off (for a year) when Kruijswijk misjudged his speed at the summit of the Agnello and sideswiped a snow wall, somersaulting over his bars and damaging his bike. He then scrambled to get going again, stopping a couple times to get his bike right and showing all the signs of a rider in internal crisis (both mentally and in the form of a cracked rib). Cycling is a cruel sport indeed.

Kruijswijk began the day with precisely three minutes over Esteban Chaves and 4.43 on Vincenzo Nibali, but the ace climber and the ace descender both profited hugely from Kruijswijk’s error, with Nibali winning the stage by a minute over the Colombian, who then went into pink by 43” ahead of the Shark. But Nibali had the hotter hand and dropped the inexperienced Chaves again the next day to win the Giro by 52 seconds, his second title (for now).

Giro Qualities: Always nice to go into France, but the real news is, once again, history and Il Campionissimo. Pinerolo has a storied past as a finishing town, in particular the 1949 stage from Cuneo to Pinerolo via several passes in France where Fausto Coppi’s legend went to a whole new level, preserved in the flowery prose of Dino Buzzati. And as if to drive the point home in the relentless Italian style of how beloved those memories are, the Giro has revived the precise route from the 1949 stage three times, with mixed success.

  • In 1964, two-time winner Franco Balmamion stopped before the Col d’Izoard to pee, but for whatever reason it took some extra time. Maybe all those people looking at him? It’s tough to urinate in public when you’re a grand tour winner I guess. Anyway, stage-hunter Franco Bitossi took notice and attacked, and ended up winning the race alone, making this one of the costlier pit stops in Giro history. Distraught, Balmamion shipped over five minutes that day and opened the door for Jacques Anquetil to take the overall win. Maitre Jacques doesn’t pass on such opportunities, ever, and certainly didn’t here.
  • In 1982, Giuseppe Saronni outsprinted Bernard Hinault for the stage win, but the race was a missed opportunity for the Bianchi squad of Prim and Contini who had the Badger isolated but did nothing in the final climbs. Hinault had stretched out his lead from 26” to 1.41 the previous day, and was able to play defense with either his legs or his emanating anger neutralizing all opposition. Neither the first nor last of his rivals to be stunned into inertia.
  • In 2009, the Giro intended to once again mimic the 1949 stage, but chickened out due to the predicted loss of radio contact, and rerouted the stage around the Italian side of the Alps. The result left Danilo DiLuca, soon to get bounced from the official rolls, with an opportunity to take a less exhilarating stage sprint for the win, something that would have been unthinkable if they’d sent the peloton over the Col de Vars, Col d’Izoard and Sestriere. [Do you see what happens when you meet a stranger in the Alps Larry??]

Anyway, this wasn’t that. But any time spent in Pinerolo is going to bring up the legend.

Cycling: Giro D’Italia / Tour Of Italy Stage 19 Photo by Tim De Waele/Getty Images

Stage 13: Savigliano - Sestriere (2005)

Course: This is easily one of my favorite days in recent Giro history, but more importantly (here) one of my favorite courses, save for the mega-classic climbs coming next week. The race featured two climbs of Sestriere, or one and a half really, sandwiched around the Colle delle Finestre, an 18km massif that averages over 9% and is run on gravel at the summit. The course itself uses the Finestre to shape the stage, but offers a descent off the Finestre and a shorter, easier climb up to Sestriere to finish off the matter. This forces teams to make the race on the Finestre, but doesn’t end it there, allowing whoever can’t hold the pace to maybe, somehow, fight back before the day is over.

Result in 2005: And this is precisely what happened in 2005. For whatever you think of the early Aughts and the US Postal Service squad — and I, like many of you, would answer “not much” — there are a few moments in the life of Paolo Savoldelli that make racing worth watching even in the worst of times.

Savoldelli was a somewhat odd Giro champion, having taken the 2002 edition under strange circumstances. Stefano Garzelli, the 2000 winner who was off to a flying start and looking like a strong favorite, was bounced from the race when he tested positive for probenicid. Next, defending winner Simoni looked set to inherit the favorites status, but he too was sent home after testing positive for cocaine (not a cycling drug but not entirely unrelated to PEDs), later determined to have come from some candies his aunt brought home from a trip to Peru. Cadel Evans actually seized the lead after stage 16, but the young mountain biker’s fitness hit the wall the next day. That left Savoldelli in charge and only the likes of Tyler Hamilton anywhere close.

The 2005 Giro seemed like more of the same: Savoldelli was a minor favorite but all eyes were on Ivan Basso, who had made the podium at the 2004 Tour. But Basso “mysteriously” faltered over two days in the Dolomites, when he supposedly drank too much ice water and dropped 45 minutes on the Stelvio (coughdopingissuescough). The competition then defaulted to Simoni, getting on in years but still a lovely climber; Danilo Di Luca, more of a classics guy riding a hot hand from two Ardennes wins; the not terribly convincing defending winner Cunego; and Savoldelli. Cunego melted away when the major climbs started and Savoldelli leapt over Di Luca as well, with Simoni a minute back. Once Basso screwed himself, that was your competition, the two former winners in a chess match heading to the Alps. Savoldelli doubled his lead in the stage 18 time trial, but his team wasn’t strong and his lead was hardly assured heading into the final massive Alpine stage.

Cycling - Giro d’Italia - Stage 19 Photo by Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

This stage was the last before Milan, and Simoni went on the attack with Di Luca over the dramatic slopes of the Finestre, riding to the summit in virtual pink over Savoldelli, reversing his entire two minute deficit plus another 20 seconds or so. For a couple hours the entire Giro hung in the balance. From the top of the gravel road, the Falcon parlayed his legendary descending skills to get himself back into the virtual GC lead by the start of the final climb, or within seconds of it, roughly two minutes behind the front group. And in that trio of leaders Di Luca, who had “heroically” bounced back into form after a couple of poor days in the Dolomites to power this break over the Finestre, suffered cramps at the start of the final climb and let go of his break mates.

That left Simoni and Jose Rujano, one of the Giro’s smallest riders ever, to pace themselves up to Sestriere. But it was a power climb that did not favor them, and Simoni seemed to sense that his majestic attack was coming apart without Di Luca’s pacing. Worse still, the isolated Savoldelli picked up some help from Wim Van Huffel and another rider not his teammate, thanks to some dealmaking back in the team cars, and gained steam as the stage leaders were losing theirs. At the end, Savoldelli recouped enough of his losses to finish 28 seconds up on Simoni on GC, and sauntered into Milan in pink.

Giro Qualities: More gravel roads, which is awesome. The Finestre was first introduced to the Giro in that 2005 epic but has come back three more times. Sestriere, meanwhile, has been a finishing town at the Giro seven times, all since 1991. It has also been a finishing town for the Tour de France four times, although the last such occasion was in 1999 on a day that made Lance Armstrong a champion. So let’s never do that again, I guess.

Dumoulin takes it in Oropa
Dumoulin for the Win
Luk Benies

Stage 14: Castellania - Santuario di Oropa (2017)

Course: A transitional I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-a-Climbing-Stage course that has somehow become a place of interest over recent years. There are lots of ways to get from the Alps to the Dolomites, but one is on the flats, which we did already, and another is in the team bus, which meh. So let’s ride.

The ride itself, as you can see, is fairly flat and is not very technical until the end. Just a straight line across Piemonte to the edge of Aosta. There is a 13% stretch but mostly we are talking about climbing in the 7-8% range. A workout, for sure, but not a leg-drainer.

Result in 2017: Dutch fans can safely start reading again. As terrible as their luck was in 2016, things turned around in a hurry in the 2017 Giro. The race featured Nairo Quintana, winner in 2014, against a stacked field of climbers like Thibaut Pinot, Mikel Landa and Vincenzo Nibali, but the route’s nearly 70km of time trials opened the door for Tom Dumoulin, if he could hang on in the climbs. Dumoulin briefly fell back on the Blockhaus stage where Quintana went into pink, but skunked the field the next (racing) day, putting three minutes into the Colombian and setting everyone else back on their heels. Quintana would strike back in the Dolomites, but not by enough of a margin to save him on the final day’s 29km crono to Milan.

And Oropa is where Dumoulin really found his groove. I can’t really read his mind, but by winning the stage and putting another half minute into Quintana, Dumoulin undoubtedly started to believe in his chances to win. The victory, where he powered ahead of Zakarin, Landa and Quintana in the final minutes to take the stage, put him in a cushion of 2.47 — officially, but with 30km against the watch, the real number was now more like four or five minutes. The pressure was all on Nairoman now, and it was far too much in the end, with Dumoulin sealing the overall victory by 37 seconds.

Giro Qualities: Just the Santuario di Oropa, the sprawling complex that houses a black wooden statue of the Virgin Mary found in Jerusalem in the 4th century, a time when “finding stuff in Jerusalem” was a solid way of moving up the Catholic church hierarchy. Apparently the statue has never rotted, and several other miracles are attributed to it, making it a major pilgrimage destination. Very Giro, or should I say, very Italian.

Oropa Will J

OK, that does it for phase 2. See you in a week for the exciting final entry!