Every time I try to write about the Giro d’Italia I think it makes me ever so slightly weirder. Yes, I have a lot of personal connection to and interest in the peninsula that my ancestors came from and exported to the US, so it’s always exciting to throw myself into exploring the race. And in cycling terms, its ceiling is “best race of the year,” though its floor is still “forgettable non-Tour-guys smashup.” But I have to confess, every year I go looking for some meaning in the race route, and the message I am supposed to be receiving from RCS. And the results are... mixed.
Some years the message is overt, like in 2018 when they started the race in Jerusalem and finished in Rome, as some sort of homage to western religion or Roman history, as if Israelis are fond of traveling to Rome and posing next to the Arch of Titus? Anyway, it was weird, and everyone really knew that Israel had just tried to buy some good press, something the Netanyahu government wasn’t going to get for free. So, sure, great images, but it’s wildly understated to say the vibe didn’t work for everyone.
The race has had a number of other overseas starts in northern Europe, and it’s presumably a good marketing exercise, if a bit odd. Were people in Belfast jazzed for the Giro? Did they know what it is? The Giro does some things better than the Tour de France, but just going wherever and people getting amped, that’s definitely more of a Tour thing.
Then there are the in-country overseas starts. About once a decade the Giro starts in Sicily and causes a certain brand of overly enthusiastic Giro fans (hi!) to recall the 1949 course and its apparent celebration (according to famed writer Dino Buzzati) of the campaign of Garibadi, the famous Uniter of Italy, who brought his Expedition of the Thousand to western Sicily and proceeded to sweep through the Mezzogiorno, evicting the Bourbons and clearing a path to what we now think of as “Italy.” It’s a cool story, but telling it every ten years is maybe a bit much, and anyway the Giro folks would probably just admit that they like starting in Sicily for the warm weather and seafood. Sardinia, when they start there, at least you know it’s all about the beaches.
More often than not, the race courses through the areas of southern Italy that whisper the names of my ancestors in my ear. I can’t help but marvel at the landscapes and architecture and other little details that look oddly familiar to me — my great grandmother’s yard was the spitting image of an Abruzzese garden. It’s exciting, but then it’s also a place where the crude existences offered to my people were enough for them to ship out at the first chance they got. “Wait, you don’t just want to stand around watching sheep all day for no money?” Yeah, that Italy.
I’m not from that Italy, nor am I from the modern version of it which has a lot more to offer tourists, after a century of exporting their culture around the globe, slathered in tomato sauce, tucked into the trunk of a Ferrari next to a set of Campagnolo shifters, and driven to your doorstep by a guy who’s had far too much espresso and won’t stop singing bad opera. In short, it’s a great place, and I wish I knew what to make of it all, but the truth is I have no Earthly idea.
This year, I have caught a bit of a break, as the Giro isn’t trying to send me any messages, even as it passes mere km from the village of Fontecchio. COVID has knocked RCS, the race organizer, off its game a bit, scuppering last year’s trip to Hungary and forcing them to think simply about this year’s course. The route is a figure-8-shaped circuit from the industrial north, out to the Adriatic, back up the spine of the Appennines, clipping the fun parts of Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna, before concluding its business in the Dolomites and the Alps.
I don’t have a ton of insight into how they planned the race, but it seems a bit conspicuous that so many starts and finishes are in larger towns: Torino, Modena, Foggia, L’Aquila, Perugia, Siena, Ravenna, Verona — all host stages in the first two weeks. As previously discussed, be careful divining messages from the course, but if you were to go looking for one here, it would be pure practicality. I can only guess that smaller towns might not be able to focus on hosting a Giro stage right now. We are slowly creeping back to normal, I think, so we should adjust our expectations accordingly. I, for one, am just glad the Giro is coming, whether it is carrying any extra messages or not.
Beyond that, I think what RCS came up with is a classic Giro course, low on gimmicks and high on balanced but challenging stages. Let’s take a quick look at the phases of the 2021 Giro. I will probably get out a few more detailed stage previews as we go along.
And of course we will liken it to a fine meal, because it makes total sense to do so. A nice ristorante experience, the real sit-down family dinner, has three distinct phases to it, plus a few additional courses to help things move along. So too does the Giro shift gears distinctively along the way, more than once, often on rest days (although I’m breaking the race into 7-stage phases, rest day placement be damned). It builds to a clear conclusion, like a great meal builds to a main course, only to be completed with a bit of sweet something and even a dessert wine just to cap things off. Yes, we are all the way into Italy now.
Settimana 1: Antipasti
Forgettably delicious, the first week of the Giro is a relatively light-hearted portion of stages that will be high on taste and low on substance. This year’s Giro, with no particular theme or foreign holiday to celebrate, spends its first three days enjoying the sights of Piedmont, starting with a short ITT in Torino and a couple provincial romps where the sprinters will steal the show. Celebrating Piedmont without going to the Alps is a nice olive and cheese course, maybe with some dry white wine. Nobody is complaining.
But the competition should get interesting on stage 4, which heads calmly down the Po Valley to Parma before dropping south to the very northern gates of the Apennines, winding around on some narrow, hilly roads to the ski resort at Sestola. It will be a stage hunter’s delight, at a minimum. And two days later, we should see the Heads of State move to the front as the peloton climbs three major peaks, the double-summit of Forca di Gualdo and Forca di Presta, around 1500 meters, then the stage finish at San Giacomo, a 15km upward grind to a ski resort on the border of Le Marche and Abruzzo.
Sandwiched around these meaty morsels are two beach days, first a board-flat run from Modena to the coast, crossing the Rubicon, and ending at Cattolica. Then, capping week 1, a mostly mellow ride down the Adriatic coast of Abruzzo to the fortified seaside town of Termoli in Molise. This is a very nicely balanced first week, stretching some legs out but not getting out of hand.
Settimana 2: Primi Piatti
Yes, let’s not get out of hand in week one, because... Madonna, this second week is a holy terror. Your main objective is to not get full before the final course, but it won’t be easy. The pasta phase starts by veering inland to the heart of the Apennine chain, first a stage from Foggia in Apulia, gently soaring to the higher hills of Campania, followed next by a somewhat familiar(ly hellish) stage in the heart of Abruzzo spent almost entirely either on long climbs or long descents, before a 6km stab upward — the last 1.6km on gravel — to Campo Felice.
Following a sprint stage to Foligno, things get spicy with a tour of the punchy Tuscan hills and the more walloping Romagnan climbs, two wildly unpredictable days of racing which could see minor fame and fortune being won and lost repeatedly. The Consuma and Calla passes on stage 12 are both of a length (15+km) and height (1000+m) that will break up the race considerably. The week ends with a dignified procession, presumably at a gentle piano pace, to Verona, and then, good lord, Monte fucking Zoncolan.
Settimana 3: Secondi e Dolci
The final Giro phase is always the main course, and it is what you would expect, a mix of major mountain stages with some occasional sanity breaks, because you can’t just plough through a meat dish without pausing to digest a bit. After Zoncolan is a fascinating route across the Marano Lagoon to Gorizia on the
Croatian Slovenian border, just enough time to catch one’s breath for stage 16, a cumulative 5700-meter mega-stage featuring the classic Dolomite triptych of the Passi Fedaia, Pordoi and Giau — two brutes sandwiched around the Cima Coppi — before plummeting to the glitzy ski town of Cortina d’Ampezzo.
Heading west, the race drops down to the lower mountains around the north shores of Lake Garda, but don’t mistake this change in locale for some sort of break, because the climb to Sega di Ala averages close to 10% for 11km, topping out at 17% and spending long stretches over double digit gradients. After a transitional run past Milan, the race reaches the Alps for two final servings of pain: the steep Alpe di Mera MTF and the penultimate day’s loop through Switzerland to Alpe Motta, taking in all 24km of the Passo San Bernardino before two last cat-1 climbs on each side of Monte Spluga.
And then the Giro will be decided by a 30km time trial to Milan. Because after cheese, olives, bread, salami, pasta, steak and veggies, you need a panna cotta and an espresso to wash it down.
Rating the Course
I would say this is the hardest Giro in a couple years, lacking in distance but climbing a total of 47,000 meters over the three weeks. The longest stage is 231 km (stage 18) but one of only four topping 200km, none of which happen before stage 12. The race also includes a relatively light 39km against the watch, and only on the first and last days. All of which clears the way for some punchy, spiky racing over numerous high peaks and steep ramps. With some weather luck this should be a gorgeous and exciting race, with some nice cultural detours but mostly a meat-and-potatoes affair, low on gimmicks and high on classic grand tour racing.