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Il Giro del Millennio: Week 1

Cobbling together a perfect Giro course for today, recycling the stages of the 2000s

Cycling: 101st Tour of Italy 2018 / Stage 21 Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

The fact that the Giro d’Italia is not gathering in Hungary today to prepare for the Grande Partenza is another one of those moments that drives home the strangeness of 2020. But for those of you who are willing to spend the Giro’s anointed calendar bloc dreaming of what was and what will hopefully be again, let’s celebrate the beauty of the Giro not so much through this year’s planned route, but through something more awesome: plucking a stage from every Giro edition since 2000 and cobbling together a route for the ages!

Here’s the drill: I am going to make a weekly post with seven stages per post, a week’s worth of fun. Each stage will talk about the route and the cultural connectivity that every Giro is supposed to promote. The route itself should more or less hang together logistically and not just zigzag across the map in ways that could never actually happen. Finally, each stage is based on one that actually occurred since we survived Y2K (whew!), and is maybe worth remembering. I’ll try to grab truly memorable stages, but the whole memory thing is not my strong suit so forgive me if I bypass an exciting day for something more mundane. Also “memorable” might be more in the moment since... uh, a lot of Giro results from this time period haven’t aged that well.

Week 1 is below, and is the southern portion, followed by weeks 2 and 3 which will make their way north to the Alps and Dolomites in some as-yet-undetermined order. My route is not a true Garibaldi, starting in Sicily and following the Quarte dei Mille, but it’s not that far off. I’m not really sure what it is just yet; maybe a theme will emerge as we go along. Except one thing I know is that it would be a phenomenal course if it happened. Let’s go!

Stage 1: Rome Prologue (2000)

Course: This one was a 4.6km circuit from the Vatican to the Campidoglio, twisting and turning its way past the Colosseum and Forums along the way. I think it finished on the south side of the Capitoline museum, where there is a wide boulevard. Details are scant from 2000. Personally, if I were lining out all the details, I would alter the route to make it more like the 2009 closing stage, all of 14km and including a nice wrinkle where you have to do some work getting up along the edge of the Villa Borghese, then descend some narrow switchbacks to the Piazza del Popolo. This would make it first technical, then a power course as the riders bomb their way south to the Colosseum. I would prefer to start at the Vatican though, swing just north of the Popolo on the Viale del Muro Torto, rejoin the course at the point where you can see a time check on the Via Vittorio Veneto, then double back to the Popolo and hammer south to the ancient sites, hooking around to the Colossal finish. Maybe 9 or 10km. This... would not suck! Here’s the 2009 map:

2009 Rome ITT map

Result in 2000: Jan Hruska was given the win by fractions of a second over Paolo Savoldelli, and a second ahead of Bradley McGee and Mario Cipollini. Cipo was decked out in all white with some purple accents, not as flamboyant as his Julius Caesar garb that he wore to the start of a Tour de France stage the previous summer. This time he was all business, hunting for the maglia rosa. But the honors went to the Czech Hruska, who surely must count this as the highlight of his career. A couple months later he got popped for doping before the Olympics so yeah, it was downhill from there.

Giro Qualities: A flex? Maybe, but the point is to make this course memorable and distinctive. Including Rome is a slightly difficult choice, especially since there’s a long transfer from there, but if I keep the transfers under control I can justify this one extravagance.

The Eternal City is, of course, like no place on Earth, and as a new world type who’s been there twice I still can’t believe it’s real. It is, at once, Italian, very Italian, and not Italian at all. It’s old, the food is sensational, and the actual Pope lives there. It’s chaotic and crumbling in a way that puts it kinda sorta in the Mezzogiorno and in modern Italy at the same time. And of course the monuments of the city belong to all of humanity. If you want to make a big splash at the Grande Partenza, the only other famous urban choices in the south are Napoli and Palermo and, well, Napoli has worse roads and a smaller airport. Palermo, that’s been done enough.

And to the obvious point about logistics, you could even run this stage on Friday evening, spend Saturday morning in transit to Catania (a very short flight), and kick off the road phase with a seconda partenza from the Duomo Sunday. Presumably most of the support vehicles and equipment could skip Rome entirely and get to Sicily in advance, with just a couple cars and the TT bikes staying behind for the short prologue. To me, going from Rome to Fiumicino for a half-hour direct flight to Catania seems acceptable as a same-day stage transfer, but the Friday happy hour plan might be even more delicious.

CYCLING-ITA-GIRO Photo credit should read LUK BENIES/AFP via Getty Images

Stage 2: Catania - Caltagirone (2018)

Course: A lovely, refreshing 198-km roll through the Sicilian countryside, full of empty farmhouses and lemon groves. The stage ends in Caltagirone, a town famous for its pottery. There is a 13% ramp in the final KM that will make this a stage for the climbers to hunt for one-day glory, but otherwise it should not be terribly taxing. Heck, the race might even benefit from removing the final KM and leaving it to a sprint instead. Check back in a week to see if I’ve failed to balance out the sprint/climb ratio... a distinct possibility.

Result in 2018: Tim Wellens won from a five-rider sprint, with additional groups four and ten seconds back. Basically it was gruppo compatto until the final few minutes.

Giro Qualities: Sicilian countryside stages are a regular Giro staple. This one is less flash and more substance, which should help smooth over the nerves after Rome. I know I’d love to ride my bike in these places, so I’m sure the pros don’t mind too much either.

Stage 3: Cefalù - Agrigento (2008)

Course: Another reason to maybe flatten out stage 2’s finish is that there is no flattening this one. It’s up and down across the Sicilian mountain spines, and a miniature Race of the Two Seas, from the Tyrrhenian port of Cefalù to the Mediterranean villa of Agrigento. Not a killer, more like a good first-week workout, but all told (tolled?) there are some 10,000 feet of climbing to be done before settling the score by the Sicilian Acropolis. Along with its other charms, Agrigento’s place in cycling includes the 1994 World Championships, and this race is a bit of a nod to that spectacular day.

Result in 2008: Weeeellll... Ricardo Ricco beat Danilo DiLuca in a mini-sprint ahead of a bunch of other obvious dopers (Rebellin, Pellizotti, etc.) ... and a young Vincenzo Nibali in 8th place, easing his way into a career that would eventually bring Sicily all the way into the cycling mainstream. That result alone is worth remembering. The rest kinda isn’t.

Giro Qualities: Beauty and culture through the roof. Both cities display the island’s Greek heritage, which I suspect is worn rather proudly down that way, given Sicily’s tenuous relationship with the rest of the Italian peninsula. The coastline of sleepy Cefalù is as spectacular as the Temple of Concordia in Agrigento. This one would be a visual feast worthy of a Michelin star or two.

Trulli in Alberobello
Trulli in Alberobello

Stage 4: Castrovillare - Alberobello (2017)

Course: This was a flat lungomare-style seaside stroll along the Golfo di Taranto, past the city itself, and on to the historic site of Alberobello, home to the Trulli and their easy-to-assemble stone roofs. The terrain of Italy is generally forgiving in this way, as Sicily’s grinding hills give way to the flat areas along the sole of the boot — though you can find topographic trouble if you go looking for it.

Result in 2017: Kind of a broken bunch sprint, taken by Caleb Ewan over Fernando Gaviria, Sam Bennett, a bunch of other sprinters, and... Vincenzo Nibali. That guy.

Giro Qualities: The course itself is perfect for a fourth stage, a gentle, patient affair with more lovely sights to see, from the odd charms of Taranto to the outright bizarre sight of the Trulli. To the viewing public, seeing Italians on the beach in early May is a small promise that summer is on the way, even to Seattle. I love everything about this as a transitional stage... except the transfer from Agrigento. If there were private planes to connect Agrigento with some small airport in Calabria, it is easily doable. Otherwise, the peloton could spend the night in Reggio Calabria, but then still have another 2-hour transfer the next morning. Or bug out of Agrigento, fly from Catania to Taranto for the night, and double back a bit the next morning to the stage start, maybe in Amendolara, a good 40km less racing to the finish. I am sticking with this stage, though in real life you might need to move the start closer to Taranto to make it manageable. From here the transfers get very short, so let’s go with that.

Stage 5: Mola di Bari - Margherita di Savoia (2013)

Course: A real breath-catcher, the kind you find in week one of every Giro. This one is easy on the riders, the support vehicles, the staff — everyone. It’s a 169km flat ride up the Adriatic coast, a perfect piano stage where the race can play some sweet, soft music leading to a bunch gallop.

Result in 2013: The Manx Missile, Mark Cavendish, took out Elia Viviani, Matt Goss and the rest of the “that guy” sprint field from the early teens (I’m looking at you, Giacomo Nizzolo!) (no, not really). Cavendish is of course one of the sport’s most decorated sprinters of the last few decades, and his 15 Giro wins is nothing to sneeze at. Viviani has five of his own now, and most definitely still counting, though he has also joined Cavendish among the riders to win stages in all three grand tours.

Giro Qualities: Everything fits here. Bari can play host to the race for a night, showing off its own distinct brand of southern charms. No charming regional capital is getting left behind. Also the Adriatic visit completes a tour of the Italian water bodies, save for the northern gulfs, which we may or may not get to, but for now we’ve hit the Ionian, Tyrrhenian, Mediterranean and Adriatic seas, plus the Gulf of Taranto. Time to head inland for a while.

The pack rides past a village hit by an Photo credit should read Luk Beines/AFP via Getty Images

Stage 6: Lucera - L’Aquila (2010)

Course: This was a 262-km beast up the spine of the country, transitioning from the beaches to the sheep migration paths of the Appennines. There is barely a flat meter of racing to be found here, although few if any km are intended to really split things up. A grit-your-teeth special where the mentally strong succeed and the weaker-spirited can melt away.

Result in 2010: Such a mess. Evgeni Petrov took the win from the breakaway, a large group that saw some 40 riders finish before the GC riders crossed the line 13 minutes later. The gruppetto swelled to 51 riders and finished outside the time limit, a full 46 minutes in arrears, but were allowed to continue with just a 25-point penalty. Which, uh, cut Tyler Farrar’s points lead down from 32 points to just 7. No biggie though, the sprinters weren’t taking this classification no matter what.

Giro Qualities: This is the all-time classic Abruzzo course, a medio-montagne grinder that went on seemingly forever. I could be selfish and insist on the course just to the west, which passed through the village of Fontecchio, but since the last stage to visit our old home in 2005, part of the road fell into a ravine, so that’s out. I could also lobby for the course from 2018 where they turned east up some twisting cat-2-ish climbs up to the Tibetan-like Campo Imperatore. But no, I will stick with the race to L’Aquila, “the Eagle,” which in 2010 was still shattered from the previous year’s deadly earthquake. The race’s arrival was in sympathy for the region’s suffering, but even on a good day this regional capital is an ideal Giro destination.

L’Aquila sits surrounded by peaks on three sides, including the highest spots in the Appennines. It is picturesque, has southern Italy’s most favorable climate, and features enough of its medieval charm to put on a good show. At 70,000 inhabitants (and shrinking?), it’s a lively college town which would appreciate the stage even without the gestures of sympathy. And to top it off, it’s a satisfying waypoint on a Giro map as it can be reached in the middle of the race, promising neither a predictable sprint nor a leg-sapping mountain adventure. It’s just what this course needs at this juncture.


Stage 7: Chieti - Blockhaus (2009)

Course: The first A-list climb, and the only one found south of Emilia-Romagna (Etna? More like Meh-tna), the Blockhaus is a wind-swept peak with a steady gradient in the 8-9% range. The altitude isn’t a major factor, topping out just over 5,000 feet depending on where you stop. As with a lot of climbs in Europe, you can approach it from several directions. But the 2009 course is the classic.

The race begins in Chieti, just inland from the coast and close to sea level, and the first 50km of this 83-km stage are relatively painless, before this starts:

Blockhaus profile

Result in 2009: More Classifications of the Damned here, as Pellizotti took the win from Garzelli, Di Luca, Menchov, and so on. The gaps were 40 seconds to two minutes as far as the GC was concerned, reflecting the tough but not devastating profile of this stage (and the contents of the riders’ blood probably). As they say, you can definitely lose the Giro here, though if you’re a serious contender for pink you probably won’t. Menchov conceded time, but more or less tightened his hold on the race.

Giro Qualities: Time to get serious. You could switch this with stage 6 in terms of sequencing, as that maybe makes more sense geographically, but it’s not much of a difference and I like the impact of the Blockhaus on the race’s first Friday. I won’t quibble with the transfer aspects, if only because I have no idea where we are headed next (Tuscany I guess). I just fucking love hitting the race with this amazing climb at this juncture. You could sub in the 2017 version if the weather is bad — I think that was the truncated one? Anyway, I would favor the full experience, but starting in Chieti to minimize the length of the route and the transfer to get there.

Cycling - 100th Giro d’Italia 2009 - Stage 17 Photo by Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

OK, there you go. This brings us to the second weekend of the race, not the rest day, so we will pick up phase 2 of the course next week. Let me know what you think, what you’d change, and so on.