With four stages in the books, we can already say that we will have a unique and unpredictable Giro d’Italia, for a little while anyway. The twists and turns on display today will continue until the first rest day, and beyond. Let’s dive right in!
Stage 5: Modena — Cattolica, 177km
What Is It? Flat, transitional day to give the climbers a breather (let’s not go overboard just yet) and bring the sprinters back onto the stage before their nightmares begin.
Detailed Description: A straight shot down a secondary highway, the SS9, until the race reaches the Adriatic shore in Rimini. Then things get ever so slightly more entertaining as the peloton rolls along the water to Cattolica for the final 20km, before a rather circular and maybe slightly tricky wind-up to the final sprint.
All simple enough, and it should be mostly calm, but — I cannot stress this enough — the final km look borderline insane. Here is the turn from Via Francesco Petrarca to Via Verdi, a “roundabout” that occurs at the 2.2km mark:
And here is the slight left-hand bend onto the straightaway at 1km:
This is narrow, littered with road furniture (that will probably be fenced off, but still), and seems like kind of a bad idea. Funneling sprints into tight spaces like this is a recipe for crashes. Fingers crossed that it all turns out OK. It won’t be news to the riders, so presumably they will try to somehow stay upright.
Giro-ness Factor: The run to the sea is an old route, probably for any number of reasons, though it shows up on the trail network for the Camino de Santiago and at least partly overlaps with the Via Francigena. Cattolica boasted a number of taverns for people traveling the Bologna-Ancona-Rome route. So these are well-worn paths.
There is also a bit of recent Giro history, of the inescapable variety, whereby the race proceeds through or around Cesena and into Rimini, tracing another kind of pilgrimage, the Via Marco Pantani Conspiracies. Every year, thousands of Italian fans trace the route Marco took from his long-time home in Cesenatico to the hotel in Rimini where he died, supposedly from a cocaine overdose, but to the pilgrims there were clearly more sinister forces at work. Thankfully the Giro keeps going and we can focus on the finish without having to dwell in that dismal place.
Pofiteers: The sprinters, almost certainly. This straight, flat route will discourage too much chicanery, though someone will always try something? The weather looks slightly wet and with a light SE breeze, which I can never tell if that’s from the southeast (headwind) or to it (tailwind). Anyway, breakaways seem like a waste of time, and it’ll just be a matter of who can make it to the sprint in position and safety. Merlier, the cyclocrosser, looks not only super fast but has tolerated far worse problems than tight street corners, so I like his chances again.
Stage 6: Grotte di Frasassi — Ascoli Piceno, 160km
What Is It? Every Giro features a week one stage that the general classification hopefuls can’t ignore, and this is it. With three peaks, two of which coming after fairly long ascents, and 3400 meters in cumulative climbing, this is for the mountain goats.
Detailed Description: This is the Giro’s major tour of the region of Le Marche, finally reaching the main spine of the Apennines in this rugged corner of Italy littered with verdant parks and peaks.
The character of this stage will be a lot like today’s fourth stage in Emilia-Romagna, winding up and down and around tight, narrow roads until the race ends or madness sets in, whichever comes first. The peloton should break up fairly early on, which will keep things small enough and reduce the risk of crashes. The forecast is iffy but suggests that maybe things will start to dry out by the time this stage gets going. That would make for a lovely, much less miserable march, and way fewer concerns about the technical descents.
Competitively speaking, this will also be a big stage, as the main contenders are sure to see the mountain-top finish at San Giacomo as a huge challenge/opportunity. Given that we saw guys go seconds-hunting today in Emilia-Romagna, there is no mistaking the lure of this stage. That said, a different group of climbers might like these relatively mellow gradients, as the final climb averages a mere six percent. I can get up this thing, so we might see something of a hammer-fest, though it does get a bit stiffer at the end. Also averages can be deceiving — this climb consists of a couple dozen turns, several of the hairpin variety, so it might not be the kind of tempo climb preferred by the cronoscalatisti.
Giro-ness Factor: The race ends somewhere on or close to the border of the Gran Sasso e Monte delli Laghi National Park, Italy’s second-largest national park and part of a chain of parks in the Apennines that takes up a rather huge land mass. This one in particular marks the Laga Formation, which I think means it was once a giant lake? Or at least a basin enclosed on all sides by some low faulting along the Adriatic coast, the Gran Sasso to the south, and the mountain chain along the western border of Lazio and Le Marche. The race takes place along the latter formation, heading to the Gran Sasso area, and features both the harsh climbs of the Monti della Laga as well as the smoother formations of Abruzzo.
Almost but not quite connected to this park are the Abruzzo, Lazio & Molise, Majella, and Monte Sibillini National Parks, covering parts of four provinces and separated geographically and politically by narrow, populated valleys. Italy has a total of 25 national parks and scores of regional parks, a fact that might be lost to us Americans (though not so much to Europeans). America, being a self-centered place by nature, is known for its national park system, one of the rare things (almost) everyone here agrees on. Having taken over the land mass from the original occupants, rather recently as things go, and thanks to those earlier occupants having an unusually enlightened attitude toward nature, the national parks of the US are notable for their truly wild character, to the point that there are a few places I wouldn’t be brave enough to go on my own. Grizzly bears don’t fuck around, they say.
But as great as those parks are, it is important for us Yanks to understand that there is a world full of national parks — one of our all-time best ideas has been successfully exported all over the world. The Vuelta a Espana has done a particularly good job of showing off Spain’s many parks and protected areas. The Giro has made its share of efforts to bring attention to Italy’s protected splendor as well.
Pofiteers: The actual general classification contenders. Sure, maybe a breakaway survives, but it will be tough to defend a 16km ascent with the heads of state breathing down their necks. Every team’s top rider will have to show at least a bit of initiative on this stage, since they can count on someone testing them like Landa and Bernal did today.
Stage 7: Notaresco — Termoli, 181km
What Is It? A recovery day for the climbers, as the peloton stays low to the ground and mostly straight along the Adriatic. Look for the sprinters and their teams to take charge in the final hour.
Detailed Description: From Notaresco in Abruzzo, the race winds inland for a bit before heading straight out to the coast and move gently south along a coastal highway, before engaging in a rather long detour around Pescara (deftly avoiding Danilo Di Luca’s house), making a cat-4 ascent to Chieti, then heading back to the coast for a mostly easy ride to Termoli.
The short ascent to Chieti should launch some breakaways, but otherwise things look very straightforward. Even the sprint in Termoli, while making a few twisting turns, happens on what look like nice, wide boulevards, which should bring the race to a fast but not terribly furious conclusion.
Giro-ness Factor: Termoli is a resort town of relative recent vintage, but also serves an important function, as do several points along the route: giving Italians a place to lounge around without being surrounded by foreign tourists. I haven’t exactly been everywhere, but everywhere I’ve been in Italy has seemed like it has a pretty heavy foreign influence, from the Australians who set up a surfing village outside Agrigento to places like Taormina, Ischia and so forth, which tourists discovered ages ago.
Here, though, the simple math of Italian coastline eventually becoming too extensive for outsiders to fully discover takes hold. Ortona and Vasto are hardly unknown places, though far down the list from Italy’s glitzier seaside resorts. In between them and stretching to Termoli, though, are numerous quiet stretches of beach where you’ll hear far more Italian than English. Well, “Italian” anyway, as the regional dialects kick in. So if you are looking to beat the crowds... wait, forget I said anything and just go to Sorrento.
Pofiteers: Like I said, this is a bunch gallop stage, and with wider roads you can expect the more Tour-like sprinters to show their faces. Yes, maybe Giacomo Nizzolo finds his way to the front again, but if you were to finally see Caleb Ewan, Elia Viviani, Dylan Groenewegen and Peter Sagan show themselves, it’s probably here.
Stage 8: Foggia — Guarda Sanframondi, 170km
What Is It? Another slog of a day through the narrow, undulating roads of the Mezzogiorno, with enough of an uphill finish to expect an interesting finale.
Detailed Description: So far, the Giro seems to be sticking to an every-other-day nightmare stage for the non-climbers, which for the Giro is a bit restrained. [Programming note: stage 9 is actually much worse... so much for restraint.] Somehow this stage has 3400 meters of climbing, the exact same nice round number as stages 6 and 9. Is this mathematically possible? Are we sure they haven’t rounded up from 3399? I don’t know. Maybe there is some numerology at work here. Southern Italians are not at all shy about delving into mysticism.
The climbs start early, although the ascent at the 30k mark isn’t rated... are we getting bored with climbs already? The Bocca della Selva will seem like a long slog, although to these guys a 4.6% average gradient is barely more than a false flat. Same for the final ascent to Guardia Sanframondi.
Giro-ness Factor: The race passes through some rather anonymous stretches of the Mezzogiorno, but I noticed the name Campobasso for some reason: low field. One of the castle towns on the way to their destination in Campania — the Giro covers three southern provinces on its winding route — Campobasso is the capital of Molise. Its knives and scissors are apparently famous. Maybe that’s why I know the name.
But its famous sons and daughters include former professional wrestler Dino Bravo. Born Adolfo Bresciano, he became Dino during his early amateur years after his parents had emigrated to Montreal. Eventually he had a successful career in the absurd theater of WWE pro wrestling. He had married a woman who’s family was the top mafia presence in Quebec, however, and an offshoot of the Bonanno family in New York. Dino didn’t want to go into the business, but he wasn’t terribly successful as a wrestler, had expensive tastes, and eventually gave in to his temptations, overcoming his sense that he wasn’t cut out for that sort of work. He was a nice guy. Dino had some small jobs, but became a bigger deal as cigarette smuggling became a money maker, and his fame in wrestling made people want to work with him. Eventually cigarettes led to more sinister things, and he was murdered in his home by the mob.
Sad story, but pro wrestling and southern Italy have their share of connections. Certainly the Italian-American world I knew was mostly very blue collar, and wresling was very much a blue collar sport. Its top hero in the 70s was Bruno Sammartino, of Pizzoferrato, just over the border of Molise and Abruzzo, not far from the start of stage 9. The Captain, Lou Albano, was born in Rome. There are several others from further north, like Dominic DeNucci, of Venice, and a slew of Italian-Americans of note, like Iron Mike DiBiase (father of Ted, another wrestler), or Gino Morella, known in the ring as Gorilla Monsoon.
For some reason they were mostly billed as being from Pittsburgh, even though they came from Italy or New York. I guess Pittsburgh seems like a good place for a large, slightly violent dude with a nice smile or scowl to be from. But their rugged roots in the old country undoubtedly helped them along too. Wrestling has its roots all over Europe and in the blue collar towns of America too, but this is a pretty solid contribution from the Mezzogiorno.
Pofiteers: Another one for the breakaway riders? The final climb will probably feature some skirmishing among the Bigs, though they will be getting into that early second week with two days left before the rest, and might be carefully watching their efforts. It’s funny to think that there was a time when intermediate sprints came with one-minute bonuses. Nowadays the Giro is decided by such small margins that every second will be counted, and today is a day when someone might see a few available. Depends on how the individual racers are feeling. Anyway, with a bigger prize looming on stage 9, this one gets left to the break, I think.