As the 2021 Giro d’Italia rests up for its final act and Egan Bernal looks like a near-certain winner of the overall title, the question is, what’s left to fight for? Plenty, of course — this is cycling, there’s always another fight starting. Even if we assume pink and white are gone, here’s a short list of major prizes remaining.
Points Jersey: Peter Sagan leads Davide Cimolai with 135 points to the Italian’s 113. Sagan is a favorite to hang on over Cimolai (and Fernando Gaviria at 110). The climbers could creep up on these guys, but Bernal is the best with a mere 55 points, despite his exploits. So with one more sprint stage I’d guess these three are the riders to watch.
Mountains Jersey: Geoffrey Bouchard is in control with 136 points to Bernal’s 107, and Bernal focusing on other things. Bauke Mollema leads the bunch at 55, so unless he gets super interested, Bouchard may run away with this one.
Stages: Self-explanatory, although to win a stage in the Alps is something extra. Look for guys in the break with real climbing chops. Also if any of the GC guys can hang with Bernal to the finish, a stage win and lesser GC place might be nice consolation. So far Bernal looks pretty greedy though. Sin regalos senores!
Time trial: The Great Game Within the Game of Cycling is the year-long time trial championship, settled amid the longer stage races and occasionally at national team comps. Obviously Filippo Ganna is the world champ and is expected to win here on home soil, so maybe the battle for second is where the real action is at. But even if Ganna holds serve, his title will be on the line for real at the Tour, Olympics (maybe) and Worlds. So this is an opening salvo.
Podium Places: Sadly, Damiano Caruso has frittered away most of his career riding the Tour de France, and has only two appearances in the last six years (8th on GC in 2015) on his record. But he is set to right the wrongs with a Giro podium place that he will cherish, no doubt, for his many years to come. Hugh Carthy currently sits third, and after taking third at the Vuelta he has a chance to cement himself into a real contender’s role for years to come (he’s 26). Alexander Vlasov and Giulio Ciccone have different reps to cement or enhance with a podium here, and Simon Yates could stand to save some face after yesterday’s bummer.
Breakout performances: The kids climbing up on GC, in addition to Vlasov, include Dani Martinez, 8th overall despite working for Bernal, plus Tobias Foss (9th) and Joao Almeida (10th). Almeida in particular is succeeding despite the somewhat chaotic experience inside his team — is he riding for himself or isn’t he? — and for a 22 year old, this might do more for him than last year’s dream ride around Italy in pink. Remco Evenepoel and Atilla Valter are still hanging in there. Also watch some of the other kids sitting further back on GC who might have a point left to prove about their future, including Alessandro Covi, Einer Rubio, Jefferson Cepeda, and the Astana trio of Tejada, Sobrero and Pronsky.
Stage 17: Canazei — Sega di Ala, 193km
What Is It? An odd trip seemingly out of the Dolomite mountains, only to circle back and hit a couple major climbs anyway. It’s a bit lower down in elevation from Monday’s (original) stage, so it might not seem as dramatic, but the battle for pink will definitely rage on at the first of three final week MTFs.
Detailed Description: This stage departs from the resort town of Canazei, deep in the northeastern Italian Dolomites we know and love so well. The peloton can look back at the Pordoi, wave to the Marmolada, Monte Bondone, and countless other passes mercifully excluded from this stage. But it’s not all sweetness and light, as they eventually encounter two hefty climbs in succession to finish the stage. And they take fully 193km to do so albeit some 85km of descending/false flat.
The final climb to Sega di Ala is nasty, brutish, and not all that short, coming in at 11+km and averaging nearly 10%, with long double-digit gradients. This is an odd stage, so many easy km with such a bitter ending.
Giro-ness Factor: I want to circle back on borders for a brief moment. In my last set of previews, I went a little easy on the Gorizia story. I have now come to understand that Gorizia was the scene of many bloody battles and even ethnic cleansing, with a wall in the center of town to boot. [Actually it was more like a double fence with razor wire, but you get the point.] Yes, these borders are not contested anymore, but multiculturalism is rampant,, which is great but also probably sometimes a bit delicate, particularly for anyone who remembers the history.
So this area. Along with Gorizia, the Alto Adige region was part of, I don’t even know, medieval counties of some sort, but then the Habsburgs took over in 1803. By then the area was fairly German culturally and linguistically. Only in 1805 Napoleon won the Battle of Austerlitz and gave the area to Bavaria, his ally. Then after the Treaty of Paris in 1810 he ceded the area to the Kingdom of Italy, only for it to revert to Austria after Napoleon’s defeat in 1815.
A century later, the region was the scene of ferocious fighting during WWI between the Austro-Hungarians and the Italian Alpini, famous for their feathered caps and their exploits which are probably the subject of several excellent books (and yes, I am totally fishing for recommendations here). No doubt the Austrian side has its own alpine legends associated with military battles fought on skis. Long story short, Italy won and the region went back into Italian hands where it has mostly stayed. The Italianization of the region is apparently more of a 20th century phenomenon than any previous era.
A lot of this has to do with Mussolini, who rose to power in 1922 and who went around regions like this and Gorizia insisting on a program of Italianization — rather than letting the natural interplay of cultures just settle in, this story is one of ethnic expulsion, or worse. Although unlike the Slovenian border areas, Mussolini couldn’t just kill off people without repercussion, and later he and Hitler more peacefully moved people back to the German side. Germany reoccupied the area after Mussolini’s downfall but by the end of WWII the area was officially part of Italy, where it remains. German-speaking citizens who had been moved out were left to find their way back over the border to return home, and I’m sure many did, but the matter was hardly settled.
Post-war Italy agreed with Austria to the Gruber-DeGasperi Agreement, which made the area officially bilingual and rather autonomous within the Italian Republic. It didn’t go great, and a fresh set of negotiations resulted in a new treaty in 1971, thanks to complaints from Austria and German-speakers in Italy, some of whom waged a campaign of sabotage and bombings to make their point. The new agreement allowed for greater autonomy, and the hostilities ended, becoming even less an issue after the EU’s creation in 1995 minimized the significance of European borders. There was a separatist political campaign in 2006 whereby people could have voted to move their region to Austria, but it was voted down. Alles schläft; einsam wacht. [For some reason my Dad taught us the German version of Silent Night.]
Pofiteers: Everyone who can climb. The descent should have already caused every breakaway stage hopeful to circle this one, and the weather should be vastly improved, so there will be no holds barred. Also the riders hoping to put some pressure on the podium places will see this quick 1-2 set of major climbs as a chance to maybe go long and do something special. Although the final climb is so hard that everyone might just save themselves for the last hour. Excellent stage design here by the Giro, they are mixing up the climbing stages brilliantly in terms of the type and shape of the climbs, which is especially important after the Queen Stage got chopped up by bad weather Monday.
Stage 18: Rovereto — Stradella, 231km
What Is It? Flat exit from the Dolomites as the race moves west toward the Alps. One for the sprinters, although maybe not all of them.
Detailed Description: From the valley east of Lake Garda, the Giro starts off at low altitude and stays there, entering the Po Valley once more, whisking past the area where stage 13 ended, and circling south of Milan to line up for the race’s final mountain phase.
With three small climbs close to the finish, it’s possible the sprint teams won’t be able to hold the pack in place for a bunch gallop, although the climbers will offer no resistance to whatever Bora and UAE feel like doing here. The end of the race is flat and straight for nearly 3km, so the possibility of a sprint is there.
Giro-ness Factor: You’ve heard of the Major Leagues. The Premier League, La Liga, the National Hockey League. How about the Lombard League?
Northern Italian history is complex AF. Basically, after the Romans came the Byzantines, the Ostrogoths, and finally the Lombards, who migrated (rather authoritatively) from Scandinavia before settling in the Po Valley and instituting their own kingdom, the Regnum Italicum, in the 8th Century. But the Holy Roman Empire came to prominence after the start of the Crusades, or maybe at the same time? Anyway, this powerful state was centered in France and Germany, I think (topic for another post) and extended down into modern day northern Italy.
But the Lombards didn’t roll over for anyone, apparently, and their resistance to the encroachment of the Holy Roman Empire was carried out by the Lombard League, an alliance of all the jurisdictions we have been talking about — the Po cities, Emilia-Romagna, Bergamo, Brescia, Milan, etc.
The basic takeaway, as far as I can tell, is that the Holy Roman Empire had thrived by attacking smaller cities and sacking them. But when the Lombard League united forces to stop the incursion, it was a game changer. The cities had previously been played off each other, but this time they banded together in one of the world’s first successful confederations. So the Lombard League was both a military and political benchmark.
Stradella was part of Pavia, which in the 14th century was home to battles in the War of the Guelphs and Ghibellines. The Ghibellines were basically the empire and the Guelphs were the name given the Lombard League partisans. The Guelfi can probably be traced all over the region, I’d guess. Once again, we are wandering innocently into graduate-level course work here...
Pofiteers: The sprinters, I think. Since UAE and Bora have no other objectives to save themselves for, I would think they would go all in for points and a stage sprint here. Sagan and a few others won’t be troubled by the short climbs that lead to the long straight sprint.
Stage 19: Abbiategrasso — Alpe di Mera, 166km (Altered)
What Is It? Another MTF, but it has been altered from its original form, due to a horrible tragedy that happened Sunday when a car on the Stresa-Mottarone cable line broke free and killed 14 people. This incident happened right where the Giro was supposed to pass on the north/western slopes of the Mottarone, following the ascent from the south. Due to the accident and the need to avoid ongoing investigations, the Giro has moved around the area and swapped in a shorter climb.
Detailed Description: I’ve included both the original maps and profiles plus the updated ones below so you can see how the Giro has changed the stage. It’s not that big of a deal for the race.
This is the Mottarone climb which has now been removed.
The two remaining climbs are:
And there is an earlier climb called Alpe Agogna which is a cat-4 of little consequence. Alpe di Mera is really the whole show now. And while I wouldn’t hardly scoff at it, it’s not likely to be an overly hard stage for the GC guys. A 9% climb for almost 10k is hard, but the stage is only 166km now with some long breaks between efforts.
Giro-ness Factor: Well Verbania is on the course and is bound to get some attention since it’s Filippo Ganna’s hometown, but the real sight is Lake Maggiore, the westernmost of Italy’s three Great Lakes, the subalpine lakes of Garda, Maggiore and Como. It’s also partly in Ticino, the southern Canton of Switzerland with Italian roots, and is one of a few lakes up there including Lake Lugano.
I’m always a little dubious of these long, thin lakes, but as far as I can tell none of them are man-made. It was formed by glaciers, which carved out a valley that reached 193 meters below sea level before melting and forming the lake. More recently, the lake has been a mass grave for Jews from Italy and Greece murdered by the German Army in 1943, and the dumping spot for a Bugatti that seems to have its own interesting tale. Here’s the cut-and-paste from Wikipedia:
In 1936, a Bugatti Type 22 Brescia Roadster, built 1925, was sunk in the lake by employees of Zürich architect Marco Schmucklerski, when Swiss customs officials investigated whether he had paid taxes on the car. The Bugatti was attached to an iron chain making it possible to recover it once the investigation was over, yet that never happened. When the chain corroded, the car sunk to the lake bed, where it was rediscovered on 18 August 1967 by local diver Ugo Pillon and became a favourite target for divers thereafter. When one of the divers, Damiano Tamagni, was killed in a hold-up on 1 February 2008, his friends from the Ascona divers’ club decided to lift and sell the car wreck to raise funds for a yet to be created foundation named after the victim. The remains of the Bugatti were recovered on 12 July 2009. The sale took place at the Retro Mobile classic car exhibition in Paris on 23 January 2010. It was sold for €260,500.
Pofiteers: The climbers will climb, but the ease of the stage and the threat looming on the next day should put this in the hands of the breakaway.
Stage 20: Verbania — Valle Spluga, 164km
What Is It? A glorious day in the Swiss Alps, at least if the weather cooperates, in which case it will be 1) a miracle and 2) the Queen Stage of the Giro.
Detailed Description: Let’s get right down to business: this is a Tour de France style day in the Alps, with soaring majestic peaks and wide green meadows, and roads that the Tour would agree to use, as far as I can tell, as opposed to some of the other surfaces you find at the Giro.
The Passo San Bernardino (which is nowhere near the Grand Saint Bernard and Little Saint Bernard passes) is just a long, middling grind of a pass that will wear out the riders but not the viewers, who can drink in the glory of the Swiss countryside for a couple hours. The last two climbs around the Spluga valley take us back into Italy and then up one more slope for the finish. They might feel like the main events if they are raced that way, but the San Bernardino will have done much of the heavy lifting.
Giro-ness Factor: I think I have hit the wall here. It’s the Giro, it’s Switzerland, there is too much to say. Just delight in the natural beauty of Switzerland’s Ticino Canton.
Pofiteers: The last great climbers’ stage, probably to be won by a great climber. Whoever is leading, probably Bernal, will not hesitate to put their final stamp on the race and take the last day ITT out of the works. Or face the consequences.
Stage 21: Senago — Milano ITT, 30.3km
What Is It? A final-day ITT to Milan. Sound familiar?
Detailed Description: Barely anything to say that isn’t painfully obvious. This one has its share of corners early on, but the final 10+km are arrow-straight, a pure power course intended to benefit, oh, I dunno... Filippo Ganna?
Giro-ness Factor: Final time trials are a Giro specialty. The Tour de France shied away from them after 1989’s drama overload, but not the Giro, and they have been rewarded with their share of memorable conclusions. In 2012, Ryder Hesjedal overturned his deficit to Purito Rodriguez, while in 2017 it was Tom Dumoulin turning the tables on Nairo Quintana. Then, just last year, Tao Hart took the pink off Jai Hindley, although technically they were tied on GC, so it doesn’t count as a reversal of standings. Still, that’s a lot of drama in Milan in a short time.
Pofiteers: Filippo Ganna, and people who like Filippo Ganna.