Welcome to Week 3 of our Giro del Millennio, my attempt to cobble together an entire Giro d’Italia route from actual stages that occurred in the last 20 years. If you’re new to this thread, you might want to go back to Week 1 or Week 2 before proceeding.
This here, the third week, is truly the business end of the Giro d’Italia. But I swear I am not going to go crazy here. This remains a project to put together a rideable Giro from recent actual stages, and like last week, when we skirted a bunch of great Alps stages, here too there are a few precious cuts. The Gavia and Mortirolo aren’t run together on the same stage. The Plan de Corones is out, as are the Cime of Lavaredo. The fortress rocks of the Passo Pordoi and Passo Giau aren’t in. It’s the nature of the beast: you can’t have everything.
But what you can have... I think you’ll like. Andiamo!
Stage 15: Cantu - Bergamo (2007)
Course: A transitional stage, sure, but with a few things to its credit. First, the course is moderately challenging and of a type which is sure to bring out some competition among the better riders, albeit with the true GC contenders biding their time — as they should. Secondly, it traipses along the shores of Lago di Como, maybe not entirely mimicking the Giro di Lombardia but certainly paying its respects. The climbing isn’t anything to sneeze at, although for the Bigs it won’t diminish their strength over the coming days. Not much anyway.
It’s a lovely day out, one free of logistical complications or other diminishing returns. Bergamo and Cantu are both short drives from Milan and each other, so teams can start and end the day at the same hotel, with the race moving only another 50km the next morning to the partenza in Brescia.
Result in 2007: Stefano Garzelli took the sprint win in Bergamo from a small group of climbers who decided not to play nice on the day, putting overall leader Danilo Di Luca in trouble on the Passo di San Marco. Di Luca limited his losses and hung on to Milan for an improbable win, given his limited history with three week races. Gilberto Simoni seemed to profit the most from the move, though he was still behind Marzio Bruseghin, Andy Schleck and Damiano Cunego on the standings. All of those guys seemed likely to fade away — who was this young Schleck kid anyway? — and this stage made one wonder if Simoni could bag the overall. But Di Luca held it together, a triumph of modern medicine if nothing else, and Schleck was about a year or two away from the class he would be known for, which is too bad because he was more than up to the job of beating a classics guy like Di Luca, and he’s pretty much the only person in the race who wasn’t popped for doping. Garzelli is maybe the least suspicious of the contenders on this day, since he was only caught once for a masking agent at the 2002 parade of dopers — one that people have some suspicions about him maybe being set up, and one which is generally remembered as the reason Giorgio Squinzi pulled out his Mapei sponsorship, ending that team’s legendary run.
Giro Qualities: Lake views, churches, and a few major towns along the way, including Bergamo, a cyclist’s paradise. Speaking of which...
Second Rest Day: Bergamo
I don’t have a lot to say about Bergamo. Probably there are hundreds of cyclists who came from there. I seem to remember someone from this century being referred to as “il Bergamasco,” one particularly unimaginative line of Italian nicknames where you just call someone by their hometown. Paolo Savoldelli is from nearby, so maybe it was him, although his other nickname is way better. Anyway Bergamo almost has to be a great place to live, right? A medium-sized Italian city tucked into the lowermost slopes of the Dolomites, where they meet the Po Valley. An easy day’s ride from the Gavia and Mortirolo. An even easier ride to Lake Garda on a hot day when a swim sounds inviting. Even the airport is cool: Caravaggio International. I do hope they’ve done the right thing with this, with either massive reproductions of his work on the wall or maybe people acting out the seven acts of mercy. Probably there are drunken fights breaking out for seemingly no reason. This has to be true.
Anyway, we only had a rest day four stages ago but sometimes that’s how it goes at the Giro. Every bit of energy saved right now will be desperately needed over the next three days. Use it wisely.
Stage 16: Brescia - Aprica (2010)
Course: Following a slow crawl up the valley from Brescia, this is a simplified 1.5x loop course from Sonico proceeding clockwise up a power climb to Aprica (13km at 3.5%), over the Trivignio (11km at 7+%), then to the Mortirolo, and back up to Aprica. The Mortirolo is the main event, and is commonly regarded as one of the hardest climbs in Europe to feature in grand tours. Some call it the hardest. Climbbybike.com, who bring us the graphic below, call it the 17th hardest climb in Italy, and of the ones ahead of it only the Finestre and the Blockhaus are Giro-quality. This is a painful, painful climb averaging 10.5% with a max of 18 and barely a meter below 7.
The Mortirolo is also known as the Passo di Foppa but acquired its new name, with “morti” in there, to honor the brutal fighting of both the first World War, which bestowed the new name and left behind a few trenches still visible, as well as two notorious battles of partisans versus German troops near the end of WWII. The Giro never came up these military tracks until 1990, when it climbed from Edolo on the south-east side, a much gentler approach. That meant the race descended the now-famous Mazzo di Valtellina side, and it was a complete, crash-filled disaster. Since then the Giro has gone over 13 more times, with 11 of those being what’s now considered the classic Mortirolo north side “Mazzo” approach. The Giro has changed it up a bit, once daring the Edolo version again in 2017, and once climbing from Sant’Agata on a route which joins the Mazzo ascent in progress after a few hairy km of up to 23%. But the north side wears the brand.
The Mortirolo is often paired with the Gavia Pass for a leg-busting day, but here it’s the main course with the power-climb to Aprica finishing off the day. That puts it squarely in the action, but with room to maneuver after too.
Result in 2010: One of the five most memorable Giro stages of the new millennium, as far as I am concerned. Unfortunately the real winner on the day was Ivan Basso, a holdover from the bad old Puerto days who managed to get back and regain his place in the sport, for good or ill. Anyway, the stage played out in high drama and put a fitting final chapter on the end of a crazy Giro. It started with the stage to L’Aquila, featured as stage 6 in our course, where a 54-man break got away on a rainy, miserable day and put the lead in the hands of first neo-pro Richie Porte, then a few stages later David Arroyo, a more polished rider who had been 8th and 10th in his last two Giro rides. The net result was a 10-minute gift to the Caisse d’Epargne man, and while the Bigs (Evans, Scarponi, Basso, Sastre, Vinokourov) had chipped away at it, Arroyo still held a 2.27 advantage over Basso, 3.09 over Evans, and 4.41 or more on everyone else with two major climbing events left. He just might hang on, it appeared. The name Walkowiak started getting tossed around as a cautionary tale.
Basso knew he had to move, and had the team to do it. Superdomestique Sylvester Szmyd hammered the field at the start of the Mortirolo and Arroyo soon fell off. Basso and his teammate Vincenzo Nibali, riding his third Giro and entering his prime, took over and shredded the peloton, dropping Evans, Vino, Sastre and the rest, everyone but Michele Scarponi. At the top of the Mortirolo the trio had just under two minutes on Arroyo. But the Spaniard descended like a fiend on the damp road and closed to within 46 seconds as the road tilted up to Aprica. His hold on pink wasn’t loosed yet. But the Liquigassers were strong, and with Scarponi the three Italians worked cooperatively to push the lead out to a devastating 3.05, taking the jersey for Basso and putting Nibali into third, while Scarponi got the stage as a gift. The climb of the north side has since been renamed the Salita Scarponi for this day, to honor the late rider who was tragically killed in training a few years ago.
Giro Qualities: Cycling memories and grand tour pedigree are the only items on the menu here. The Mortirolo is a bit of a stadium at the top, a thrilling scene every time the race passes by. And of course it’s one of the great challenges, for both the pros and the numerous amateurs tackling the climb all spring and summer.
Stage 17: Ponte di Legno - Val Martello (2014)
Course: A true Queen Stage, with three massive climbs all exceeding 2000 meters. For reference, the fearsome Mortirolo tops out at 1850 meters, some 800 meters lower than the Gavia Pass. Next up, the Stelvio is the second-highest paved road in the Alps after the Col d’Iseran (and with the Col de la Bonette muscling its way into the convo, but whatever, you get the point). These are high mountains, and their inclusion in the Giro is always the subject of some concern... whether they’ll be open.
The Gavia is the scene of some of the race’s most chaotic history, best known for the 1988 edition where Dutch climber Erik Breukink led a small contingent of souls brave enough to finish the snowy stage over the top. Breukink went on to win the Giro d’Italia I think, not sure. But this was merely the most infamous incident. The Gavia first appeared in 1960 where Imerio Massignan won the stage, but when they scheduled it again in 1961 it got snowed out. After the ‘88 stage, they brought it back for ‘89 only to have it snowed out again. From 1996-2010 there were seven inclusions of the Gavia, all successful, but the 2013 stage got snowed out once more. 2014 worked out, barely (see below), and then last year it got canceled again. That’s 14 inclusions attempted, with four of those canceled.
If the Gavia is the Giro’s signature climb and the Mortirolo the most daunting, then the Stelvio is the most majestic. Its 48 switchbacks are legend and the road has a place in history dating back about 200 years to the Austrian Empire, and I’m sure others here can talk about its cultural significance, which is great. As far as the Giro is concerned, it’s been around long enough to have a Coppi palmare (1953), and twelve other inclusions, with just one cancellation in 2013 (and a close call the next year). Its cycling lore is mostly just the fans gasping at the photos of endless switchbacks, and there’s a Stelvio Day for amateurs to swarm all over the climb, though IIRC on a regular day it’s a bit too busy to be inviting to cyclotourists. Anyway, to the greats, it’s not that hard, just a grind.
And then after all that you have Val Martello, the longest climb of the day at 22.3km, although of moderate difficulty. Not that anything feels moderately difficult at this point.
Result in 2014: There was a fair amount of tut-tutting after the snowy cancellations in 2013 when the Giro came right back to this route the next year, and it all looked like it was about to blow up on them as the stage got started amid rumors of another cancellation. But this time the call was made to proceed.
What happened from there was Colombian cycling history. While Colombians had been famous for their cycling feats in the past, particularly the 1980s, they had only a Vuelta win to their collective credits. But young Nairo Quintana had come close at the Tour in 2013, surprisingly, and eschewed another Tour attempt for clear leadership at the Giro. With a parcours suited to his high mountain prowess, it was all there for the taking, including a GC lineup that won’t go down in memory. Robinson Chalapud, another Colombian, got things started by going first over the snowy Gavia, while Quintana and the Bigs summited the Stelvio in sight of each other, mostly (Cadel Evans cramped and fell back). There were flakes in the air and if the temps had dropped a few degrees, trouble awaited, but it never stuck to the road. That didn’t stop rumors of a neutralised descent from making the rounds, but Quintana and three others weren’t aware of them, and I think they weren’t true anyway? Apparently the Giro tweeted about a neutralisation, but then deleted the tweet (swish!). No matter, he got to the Martello with Ryder Hesjedal and Pierre Rolland and eventually dropped them for the solo win, going into the pink jersey which he would hold to the end in Trieste.
On the day there was much hand-wringing about who did or didn’t attack down the Stelvio, though personally I don’t see anyone up to holding Quintana’s wheel or in any way changing the outcome. Mostly it seems cool that Quintana, known for not covering all the details all the time, won largely by bossing a descent. Really, it was just cool that Colombian cycling had broken through in Italy. Rigoberto Uran finished second, just to hammer the point home.
Giro Qualities: This part feels entirely redundant. If I have to explain why the Gavia fits with the Giro d’Italia, then we’ve all lost the plot. And as to the Stelvio, there are entire books dedicated to its history. The Stelvio belongs to all of Europe.
Stage 18: San Dona di Piave - Monte Zoncolan (2003)
Course: One of those days that just gets worse and worse to the bitter end, this stage utilizes the so-called “easier” way up Monte Zoncolan, but that’s misleading because it’s maybe worse at the end and none of it is even remotely easy. In 2003 stage winner Gilberto Simoni complained that the climb was a bit too difficult for a Giro stage, and he wasn’t wrong. The fact that the Giro has responded by climbing the supposedly harder west slope goes to show you how much pull Gibo has with the race, I guess.
This route fits our Giro selection perfectly, though. We have been steadily moving eastward the last couple days, and the stage start near Venice doubles as a Giro Centro for a couple days, albeit after a couple hours’ transit after Val di Martello. With the Mortirolo and Gavia slogs over the highest peaks out of the way, this race will seem relatively tame until the final hour. Then the hardest part of the Zoncolan kicks in, with the last 3.5km all topping 13% and a ramp of 23%. Those numbers are completely insane. And this is the tame approach (the Ovaro climb is 10.1km averaging 11.9%). The Giro hadn’t used either of these, or any other portion of Monte Zoncolan, until the 2003 stage. Since then they’ve returned five times, all from Ovaro.
[Oh, I’ve looked up the Ovaro profile. It’s worse. Much worse.]
Result in 2003: Simoni all aloni. This was the finest moment for one of the finest riders Italy knew back in the dark days. Simoni had initially won the Giro in 2001 against a weak field, and this marked his second and final Giro victory, though he came close again in 2004 when Cunego gave him the slip, and finished second, third and fourth the next three times before fading to stage-hunting status from about 2008. Better still, the 2003 dominance, an all-around master class where he led from the end of stage 10 to the finish, wiped away the disappointment of missing out in 2002 when he was excluded for traces of cocaine in his blood, later traced back to some candy his aunt brought back from Peru.
Simoni and doping are a sore subject: it’s not clear that he ever participated, or if he did, he might have kept it to a level far below just about everyone around him. It’s hard to call him clean considering he was so good at a time when everyone else was so dirty, but with no evidence otherwise and plenty of signs that, come July he simply wasn’t on “that level,” then maybe he deserves some extra credit. Certainly he doesn’t deserve to be lumped in with the long, long line of obvious cheaters bounced off the 2002 race, not for tainted sweets, and his 2003 win was
sweet redemption for him. He wasn’t afraid to call his competitors out, like when he called Ivan Basso an “extra terrestrial” in the 2006 Giro, code for doper, which all ended up being 100% true. Not that Simoni ever held back on speaking his mind. But he rode like an angel in the mountains at a time when the country was obsessed with a, well, not gonna say angel except in the most Catholic dogma sense of the word, meaning the departed Marco Pantani. Right up to the 2003 Giro, Pantani’s final grand tour, the country was obsessed with il Pirata, proving that “cheaters never prosper” is more of a wish than a real maxim. For Simoni, either playing by the rules or closer to them than most, this had to be galling.
Anyway, whatever you want to make of the man or his career, the 2003 Giro was truly the best of times, and his win alone on Monte Zoncolan confirmed that he was one of the great climbers of his generation, no matter how you factor in all the weirdness. He is completely deserving of a tribute along our route, so here you go Gibo.
Giro Qualities: Zoncolan is just a spectacle, almost a freak show of a climb, with no Giro history to speak of. I think it even had gravel roads back in the early days, though I’m not seeing anything about that. Still, it’s a way to move the race east to the Veneto, which makes for a truly inclusive tour of the Italian Alps, and it’s an absolute stadium at the top, as you can see from the photo up above this chapter.
Stage 19: Jesolo - Trieste (2009)
Course: Mostly a flat run from the beach town of Jesolo across the tidal flats from Venice to the thoroughly ancient and intriguing city of Trieste. Just to make things interesting, the route ends in a circuit that is passed three times, each with a small climb called Montebello, which is about as generic a name for a hill in Italy as you’ll find. The main point of this stage is to wind things down while taking in a few final sights before we’re done. For racing purposes, it’s nice to keep the sprinters engaged this late in the Giro. Of course, in 2009 this was only the second stage, and there’s a big risk of putting this at the end that no sprinters will remain in the Giro long enough. But in my hypothetical where this is the 2020 Giro, or some time in the future, the depth of talent probably means a fun finish. Sprinters today are numerous enough to be in the Giro to the end, not packing up early and saving themselves for Tour de France duty. And if they aren’t sufficiently committed to this stage, well, Montebello could be a launching point for a winning attack, and maybe not such a generic feature after all.
Result in 2009: Alessandro Petacchi, shown above, took the win. Good old Adverse Analytical Alessandro, a twice-dinged sprinter who might have been amazing, and certainly dominated the sport in the wake of Cipollini and Zabel fading from prominence. Petacchi got caught with too much salbutamol in his system and had a full five Giro stage wins scrubbed from his record, got excluded from the 2008 Tour, and got fired by Milram. For a guy who was sort of considered “innocent” by virtue of accidental overuse of the inhaler, the people around him seemed pretty set on punishing him.
Still, his record says he won a full 183 races in his 18-year career, including his incredible run in 2004 where he won nine, nine... NINE!! total Giro stages. His sprinting record was actually 9-2 in that race, as Robbie McEwen and Fred Rodriguez each took a stage off him. Imagine a Giro where you could have 11 sprints? Yeah, no. Petacchi was your classic temperamental sprinter, or so we said back in the day, in that he needed his train to wind things up and to protect him in the first place. But he also took the points classifications in each grand tour, once, showing his high level consistency. He also once finished a stage of the 2006 Giro after riding 50km solo with a broken kneecap. So you see, even the so-called “temperamental sprinters” are unfathomable hardmen the likes of which we mortals can never relate to. Anyway, he was the best of his day, and although last year he was rung up in Operation Aderlass for having kept some blood bags around, well, we don’t totally know what to make of him, but he was probably quite good, and was certainly synonymous with the Giro sprints for a solid decade.
Giro Qualities: Trieste, site of many a stage and even a Giro ending in 2014, had a couple wild days in its Giro history, which stem from its entire history of lying at the intersection of the Slavic, Germanic and Italianate worlds. After World War II, following years of occupation by the Fascists and then the Germans and then Tito’s Yugoslavian forces, the Allies took control of the city and trying to decide where to draw the new borders of Italy and Yugoslavia. Liberated Italy was desperately trying to come back to life in 1946 when the Giro insisted on running around the country, heedless of the many obstacles, calling itself the “Giro of Rebirth.” One place they chose to visit was Trieste, which had more than its share of Italians living there, but the surrounding countryside was predominantly Slovenian. It was all a bit premature, although as it happened, the very next day after the Giro’s planned visit Trieste would be declared a free state by the United Nations. But on the day of the race Yugoslavian partisans resisting Italian control of Trieste threatened to interfere with the stage and prevent it from reaching the city. The organizers knew about the threat but didn’t want to just roll over and symbolically abandon the city’s Italian population, so they started the stage at 6:30am to maybe sneak by before the opposition forces could muster. It didn’t work, and the mobs met the riders at Pieris, some 30km before Trieste, shooting guns in the air (not at the riders) and throwing rocks on the course, before police moved in and the whole thing devolved into a mess. The race stopped and the riders huddled with officials, eventually annulling the stage. But many of the riders proceeded onward to the city regardless, determined to reconnect with their fellow Italians. It was a pretty clever bit of face-saving all around, preventing further violence but still allowing Trieste to welcome the unofficial race, including hometown boy Giordano Cottur.
Three years later the Giro came back again, covered so beautifully in Dino Buzzati’s Giro d’Italia memoir, and this time the scene was dramatically different. The race only passed through, as a grand tour does in seemingly mere seconds, but the city, now peacefully incorporated into a still-recovering Italian state, turned out in a massive demonstration of joy at the sight of their brethren linking them to the homeland. [That’s the version from Italy anyway.] Here’s a snippet of Buzzati’s observation of a friend in the caravan who, the previous evening, declared that he was above such sentimental partisanship and was merely a citizen of Europe.
So I asked him if, for example, he would be sorry to see Italy wronged. He shook his head and asserted that in all fairness he was distressed whenever an injustice was done to any nation whatsoever, Italy or Sweden, or England, or even Persia. He maintained that he had freed himself from the old style patriotism as if it were a petty encumbrance, and in exchange had acquired a new patriotism, much nobler, that embraced all of humanity. A highly gifted man, then, one must admit. But today, as we were passing through jubilant Trieste, I became engrossed in observing him closely. His car was right behind ours, so I was able to keep an eye on him. Oh, the citizen of the world, the philosopher soaring high above humanity’s old, so naive fundamentals. His lips were pursed up oddly in a way that I had never seen before. He put on large black glasses, which he usually did not wear. This citizen of the world, full of shame, did not want to be seen. He was weeping. I swear that he was weeping.
Moving right along...
Stage 20: Rovereto - Brescia (2002)
Course: At this point it’s stage 20 and we are just trying to get home. Coming from Trieste means we need a long-ranging transitional stage headed due west to Milan. Rovereto is more than three hours from Trieste with no traffic, a brutish transfer, but Verona is close by and a good overnight spot, maybe 2:45 from Trieste. Not perfect, but it’ll do. Certainly finishing in Brescia, short hour from the final stage start in Milan, gets it done.
So too does the route itself. There is only one rated climb, early on, of no real import. It brushes past Lake Garda but stays low in the valleys before emerging in the Po River plain for the sprint in Brescia. Done and dusted.
Result in 2002: Mario Cipollini nips Alessandro Petacchi for the win. I’m going to resist the temptation to do a long spiel about Cipo; there’s not much to say that hasn’t been said a lot. He was a true Patron of the peloton on the bike, breaking Binda’s stage record at the Giro, and kind of a disaster off the bike, as far as I can tell a troubled soul. You could argue 2002 was Super Mario at his best, although his Tour de France salad days were over thanks to his insistence on not ever making it to Paris. But he was still in top form, holding off Petacchi from the start of his own reign, and topped off the year, if not his career, with a world title at Zolder that September. Good times, whether they were gonna last or not.
Giro Qualities: Just turning over the pedals, culturally or otherwise.
Stage 21: Milan - Milan ITT (2012)
Course: One last injection of pace, of drama, of glory. A flat but technical time trial through the bumpy city streets of Milan. A full 28km, long enough to make a difference if the race leader doesn’t sew it up in the mountains.
Result in 2016: And that’s just what happened in 2012. The GC was running a bit thin, with Ivan Basso the favorite, Alberto Contador sidelined, and the Schlecks and Cadel Evans skipping to focus on the Tour. By the second week Basso was slipping and Ryder Hesjedal was hot, swapping the overall lead with Joaquim Rodriguez. The all-rounder from British Columbia versus the pure Spanish climber. Rodriguez was in his second season with Katusha, having escaped the crowded roster at Caisse d’Epargne (now Movistar) to ride for himself. He earned the right and cashed in for his team with a number of classic wins and grand tour stages. But overall victory proved elusive. Rodriguez would finish second here and at the Vuelta, third at the Tour. It seemed like he would have his day, but it never happened. And this was as close as it got.
Hesjedal snatched the jersey back on the first mountain stage, but surrendered it a day later at the Plan dei Resinelli. From there the pair shadowed each other, Purito holding a 30 second lead, probably not enough to survive the final ITT. It got worse on the 19th stage to Alpe di Pampeago when Hesjedal chopped 13 seconds from his deficit, only to give back 14 the next day on the Stelvio. The two were separated by 31” as they rolled out in Milan, and it wasn’t clear whether Hesjedal had anything left in the tank.
Marco Pinotti set the fastest time and would hold it for the stage win. Hesjedal looked recovered and put 47 seconds into Rodriguez, who became the second rider to arrive at the end of the Giro in the pink jersey, only to climb off his bike and hand it to someone else. People write songs about LeMond’s victory over Laurent Fignon. This was pretty much as bad, and the script looked almost identical. This was the B-list 1989 Tour.
Giro Qualities: Milan is the classic place to finish, and this was as memorable an arrival as we’ve seen there in a while. The 2009 Giro ended with a majestic ITT to the Roman Colosseum; final stage ITTs are always pretty cool. Not much more to say here.
Done and dusted.
Let’s see, did I catch most of the regions of Italy? Obviously we didn’t make it to Sardinia. We also skirted past Liguria and Aosta. And with some sadness I must admit that we missed Campania, my maternal grandfather’s home region. It turns out, with a bit of reading, I have found that the Giro has spent a lot of time around Naples, something I would have thought would be difficult given the cramped space, but I guess you only need a few smooth roads to make it work, and lord knows they like their sports down that way. Vesuvio is one of the most amazing sights and makes for a fine Giro stage, but it’s not that selective (volcanos tend not to be), and unless you are pounding the southern stages, you can’t realistically have them ride here, and Etna, and the Blockhaus, and so forth. Hard choices must be made. Anyway we also missed Le Marche, just north of Abruzzo, and while I am unfairly biased toward Abruzzo, if I were trying to be more fair it would have been easy to extend a stage past L’Aquila and into its northern neighbor where the Apennines don’t let up.
So the final tally is 15 of the 20 regions visited. Not too shabby.
I hope you enjoyed this exercise. I do think it’s a balanced and exciting Giro course, maybe a bit too hot to be realistic but maybe not. It’s been fun to revisit the last 20 Giri, which have been dogged by scandals to start the millennium but things have gotten better and better as the years roll on. The Giro is an endless tour of fun and fantasy, across a beautiful landscape with endless history on and off the bike. Colorful characters abound everywhere and legions of fans go crazy by the side of the road. May is truly one of my favorite months. Hope you agree with me. And READ THAT BUZZATI BOOK!