Speeding things up now. The 2021 Giro d’Italia is rolling toward its mountainous conclusion as the race finally reaches the northernmost provinces and the major mountain challenges that they always bring. We start with a couple more famous cities, head east all the way to the Slovenian border, and get very much down to business.
Stage 13: Ravenna — Verona, 198km
What Is It? A dignified promenade to the north. A transitional stage of great meaning, as the Giro clearly shifts from its southern shenanigans to shit getting really real.
Detailed Description: Flat and relatively uncomplicated, though not exactly arrow-straight, the Giro meanders around the Po Valley in a northerly progression, past several of its more interesting medium-sized cities. The race proceeds on secondary highways, making for low danger and no real reason to chase anything down, but for the sprinters’ teams still hunting stage wins.
Even the finish is without a whiff of complication. The race’s final few km run straight toward the Verona city center, stopping just short, and only jog slightly left and right a bit before coming to a stop. Easy peasy.
Giro-ness Factor: I said in my initial overview that this race was notable for the number of prominent Italian cities visited by the peloton. Historically, city centers are not worth the headaches and riders complain bitterly at the sight of tram tracks and complex road furnishings. But the Giro has learned how to navigate these old problems, and for some unexplained reason has chosen this year to maximize their city access. Maybe it’s about COVID and people not being able to go out into the country to watch the race go by, but in the city they can watch from their windows? I don’t know. But just about every last Italian city is dripping with old world charm, so whatever the reason is for going to them, I am for the end result.
They start in Ravenna, a not overly huge city of 150,000 people more or less, but one with a history of being the center of things. It was where Julius Caesar parked his troops while contemplating crossing the Rubicon (spoiler alert: they did). It was the capital of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, when they were outsourcing the administration of Spain, France etc. Then it was the capital of the Ostrogothic kingdom. I looked it up: the Ostrogoths were basically Goths, only more Ostro. Then it was occupied by the Byzantines, the Lombards, the Byzantines again, then the Franks, then the Pope. If you or one of your ancestors was not at some point the occupier of Ravenna, I don’t know what to tell you.
Next, they go to Ferrara, a similarly sized city of distinction — nearly all of which is a UNESCO world heritage site. It’s also home to one of the longest standing Jewish communities in Italy, dating back to the 14th century. A lot of the centuries that came next weren’t great for Jews in Europe, so this is no small thing. Did you know? A lot of Italian Jews are Sephardic Jews, whose lineage starts in the old country and then disperses around southern Europe and North Africa. While I have developed an appreciation, through my in-laws, for Ashkenazi-lineage (northern/eastern Europe) and their cuisine, I have to say that the few Sephardic recipes I know are totally amazing. Related: I have a giant artichoke plant and am mastering carciofi alla Giudia right now.
Anyway, next it’s on to Mantova, which is a bit smaller and even more precious than Ferrara, and enjoys the military protections associated with the UNESCO Military Alliance of Cool Places to Also Visit. It has very little history of artistic expression, unless you count opera, architecture, poetry and painting as art. Which makes all kinds of sense now that I think about it. Anyway, Mantova also shares a history with Ferrara of hosting some very interesting research projects into human physiology and athletic performance, which is why there are intermediate sprints in both places to usher the peloton out of town before people can start asking impertinent questions.
And then on to Verona. Did you know that Two Gentlemen of Verona is probably Shakespeare’s first-ever play to be performed live, and probably his worst surviving work? Also that Shakespeare seemingly picked Verona as the location for the drama out of a hat? He never so much as set foot on Italian soil, possibly the last Brit ever to be able to make this claim. And yet, the play continues to spur tourism to the city? Life is weird.
Pofiteers: The sprinters, unless this becomes a total piano stage and the peloton just taps out a soft rhythm while some less prominent riders vie for a stage win.
Stage 14: Citadella — Monte Zoncolan, 205km
What Is It? The moment when the Giro hit the fan. Oh, you thought those were real climbs?!? I got your real climbs right here!
Detailed Description: This horrible stage includes not just one of Italy’s iconic ascents, but a full 205km to make sure you are properly warmed up? I don’t know. And also there’s an earlier climb, since there are few ways to get to the foot of Monte Zoncolan that don’t first involve some climbing. But the first 130km are fairly uneventful, so I guess it could be worse.
Important note: this is not THE Monte Zoncolan climb. That one rises from Ovaro, west of the mountain, whereas this one comes via Sutrio to the east. The Ovaro approach is one of the very hardest climbs in all of Cycling, and possibly the hardest in Italy (apart from maybe the Mortirolo) for climbs that appear in the Giro. That one averages a brutalizing 11.5%, spends several long stretches above 15% including some 800 meters over 19%, and reduces professional athletes to tears.
This one, as depicted above, is 3km longer, which drops the average to 8.9% and stays continuously below double digits before doing unspeakable things to the race at the very top. I don’t know what 27% actually looks like, even for a few meters, and I don’t want to know.
Oh, and apparently there is a third climb from Priola on something of a nonexistent road. This is not something any mortal needs to know. The Giro has gone to Monte Zoncolan six times before, and five of them have been the Ovaro route, only starting from Sutrio on the first Zoncolan inclusion (2003, won by Gilberto Simoni), and this year.
Giro-ness Factor: Do you know how many subdivisions of the Alps there are? The answer is... a lot. Like, are you fucking kidding me? That many.
The main groupings of the Alps are the Main Chain — the most charismatic stuff — along with the Eastern Alps and the Western Alps. The Western Alps feature a lot in the Tour de France, although they catch parts of Italy and Switzerland too. The Eastern Alps are where we are on this stage.
The Eastern Alps features four main subdivisions, based on rock formations. The one in play here is the Southern Limestone Alps, named for its southern direction and its... wait for it... limestone. Within the Southern Limestone Alps, covering parts of Austria, Solvenia and Italy, are... 16 different sub-sub-(sub?) regions, and today’s area is called the Carnic Alps, named for Carnia, an ancient Roman province. You can make a lot of money as a geographer in this part of the world.
Pofiteers: Obviously this is a general classification climber stage. Look up the standings of the race and the first 20 or so guys listed will contain the winner of this stage. Probably followed by a bunch of other guys from the top 20. There may be the odd climber-supreme who has been relegated to domestique duty and slipped out of GC range, but who may still end up in contention here. Maybe? Anyway, you get the point.
Stage 15: Grado — Gorizia, 147km
What Is It? A very curious stage, plunked down in the middle of major mountain madness. It starts by the water, traverses more water, then eventually goes inland and leaves Italy for the first time in this Giro.
Detailed Description: This show pony of a stage will take in the beaches of Grado, just across from Trieste, before riding over a causeway (screen-capped above) and hitting land again in Udine. Then the race trundles over to the Slovenian border, passing in and out of their neighboring nation several times, as if they thought that if they passed by enough “Welcome to Slovenia” signs, they might tempt Primoz Roglic or Tadej Pogacar into riding the Giro. Alas, that plan didn’t work. But we will have an amusing circuit race along the borderlands, defined by the climb of the Gornje Cerovo, a beefy little ascent that hits 15%.
Climb(s) (they repeat the same one three times)
The finish is a winding and maybe tricky route into the center of Gorizia, back on the Italy side of the border. I don’t expect a big bunch sprint, so hopefully nobody will get into trouble.
Giro-ness Factor: In the US, we are raised to think of borders as clear and undisputed lines between two obviously different nations (I’m looking at YOU Canada, with your gravy on fries). Then we grow up and start studying the world, and realize that things become murky in places. Africa is a case study in not letting the wrong people draw your borders for you, thousands of years after humans have inhabited a place. Europe too has lots of border stories. Most of them are happy enough little cultural wrinkles that nobody has a problem with. Some of them have a long, bloody history.
Gorizia is probably somewhere in between. My quick review of Wikipedia says it was long a cultural crossroads, small and charming enough to be noticed and incorporated into this empire or that, but retaining its niche status as a pleasant place for people of various backgrounds to find themselves. As of the early 1900s, it was similar to Trieste in having somewhat more Italian spoken in town while surrounded by smaller ethnically Slovenian villages. After WWI Italy, Slovenia and Austria all took an interest in absorbing the area, and eventually Italy annexed it once its troops occupied the city in 1918. Then fascism yadda yadda World War II, and finally the partition of Italy and Yugoslavia happened, with the city and the county split roughly in half. There was more to the city on the Italian side, but Yugoslavia developed Nova Gorica as a sister city. The two countries (Yugoslavia then giving way to current-day Slovenia) have been on good terms over Gorizia, and so while it’s kind of a messy story, it’s not an especially bitter one, as these things go.
Pofiteers: Someone who can sprint from a small group after climbing a punchy slope. I fully expect them to come from a breakaway, so it’s hard to predict who that might be.
Stage 16: Sacile — Cortina d’Ampezzo, 212km
What Is It? The Queen Stage. It’s also a Dolomite Classic, featuring three climbs we talk about a lot: the Fedaia, Pordoi and Giau. Hope for sun over the Dolomites, because if we can see the mountains, this will be a stunningly beautiful day... unless you have to ride it.
Detailed Description: Tied for the second-longest with the Bagno di Romagna semi-climber event, and shorter only than a transitional route in the final week, this will be the single hardest day in the saddle. The obvious statistic of note is meters climbed... a nice, clean 5700 — how does the Giro keep landing on multiples of 100? Are they this dialed in? Or... are they just making up these estimates?!?
Pretty cruel of the Giro to toss in La Crosetta right off the bat, not because it is especially terrifying but because it’s completely unnecessary to leave Sacile by way of a major climb. Guess there is no point in the riders fooling themselves as to what sort of day this will be.
The trio of major Dolomitian climbs are all different. The Fedaia, long and grinding, the Pordoi relatively non-terrible but actually this year’s Cima Coppi (highest point in the Giro), which is a nice little prize. And then to the Giau, as in Ow. Shorter and steeper than the rest, a nasty way to finish up. Except then you aren’t done, you have to drop down into the resort town of Cortina d’Ampezzo for a sprint in front of the jewelry shops on the Corso Italia. Oh, and don’t be fooled by the mention of “pave” on the course. The streets of Cortina have some nice polite little brickwork the likes of which you might find at a public garden. The Belgians left in the race will have a good laugh at the mention of “pave.”
Giro-ness Factor: The Dolomites are another of the sub-sub-subdivisions of the Southern Limestone Alps, just to the west of the Carnic Alps. And if that sounds tidy enough, well, there are 26 subdivisions of the Dolomites. I’m telling you, there is real money to be made in geography here.
Cortina is kind of a big deal, thanks to having hosted both the Winter Olympics as well as James Bond, whose antics in Cortina comprized much of For Your Eyes Only, one of the worst films ever made. Hopefully Cortina will finally recover by hosting the 2026 Winter Olympics, in tandem with Milan, which is actually not very close by, but nobody will care by then.
Pofiteers: Not much to say, really. Whoever survives this will be in line for Giro glory.