Benvenuti in Ungheria!
At last, the Giro has left its borders and embarked on the pre-vacation, or Pr-acation if you will, to this almost-neighboring country where the race will kick off in style. I have to admit, I know pretty much nothing about Hungary, or Budapest, or their cycling traditions prior to Attila Valter. Which makes the following (admittedly Wikipedia-heavy) exercise all the more gratifying.
For the duration of the Giro, we will put out stage previews in blocks, because each day may be a race, but races have phases too, where one day’s race is affected by the stage that came before or after, or both. Today, we make the easy choice to start with the Hungarian Phase.
Overseas starts are always a phase now. I had thought that the pattern of starting in one country, then taking a day off, then resuming in Italy was a recent invention, but it’s actually something they have done with every start outside Italy, dating back to the 1973 Giro Grande Partenza in Verviers, Belgium (Hi Eddy!). The only exceptions are those Giri which kicked off within a relatively easy ride of the Italian border, such as the 1998 start in Nice or the 1966 kickoff from Monte Carlo. Technically, Hungary isn’t all that far away, but it’s a 7 hour ride from Budapest to Venice, and that just doesn’t work for tired athletes, assuming you wanted to resume the Giro in Venice, which isn’t really great for Week 1. So yes, we have a three day phase, a rest day and flight to Palermo, and then we begin the next chapter.
Here are the three Hungarian stages.
Stage 1: Budapest - Visegrád, 195km
What Is It? Opening Day excitement... with real excitement at the end! Why give away the maglia rosa to the guy who won by a half-inch, when you can try to get riders to actually separate themselves in pursuit of glory?
Detailed Description: A funny thing happened on the way to the bunch finish... This is about as tame a stage as you can find, until the last ten minutes. No climbs, barely any turns, and undoubtedly some very relaxed racing on tap, only with a finale tacked on the end to make things fun.
Budapest and Visegrád are about 50km apart from each other by car, probably less as the
crow Saker falcon flies. So naturally the route has a certain weekend loop feel to it.
As I said, not much to see here, until the outskirts of Visegrád, which appears to be at the end of a gorge of sorts on the Danube River. After flowing along gently from the Slovakian border, the Danube hits a rise, bends south toward Budapest, and in the process bores its way through Visegrád. The race finishes on the run up to the castle on the south bank, but both sides of the river look pretty hilly.
Here is that final climb in detail:
Did You Know? That the Visegrád castle is super old and has lots of history? Whatever, you’ll get overloaded with that during the broadcast. So I will talk about the bird overlooking the Grande Partenza. As the race rolls slowly out of its start area and crosses from Pest to Buda on the west side of the Danube, it will roll by Buda Castle, atop which sits the Turul, a mythological falcon, seen there clutching a sword in its talons. It’s there because it appears to have been a symbol used by the House of Árpád, the founding rulers of Hungary from the late 9th Century, having relocated from Central Russia into the Carpathian Basin, yadda yadda yadda, modern Hungary exists.
Anyway, the Turul is rumored to have dropped its sword on the ground to indicate where the Magyars should make their country, which is a cool story but like most good founding myths, it tends to get coopted by the wrong people. So better to pivot to the actual bird on which the Turul is thought to be based, the Saker falcon. Hungary’s national bird is also the national bird of the UAE (hi Joao Almeida!) and Mongolia, which gives you a good picture of its range. It can reach speeds of 120kph or so, putting it just outside the top ten of world’s fastest. They are around 20 inches in length with wingspans of 40+ inches, and do a nice job of keeping the local rodent and pigeon populations under some control. [Or would if there were more of them, though they are listed as endangered.]
Profiteers: OK, so who will swoop to victory here? Bad analogy, because like Il Falcone himself, former Giro winner Paolo Savoldelli, this implies an attacking descent, not a climb. Anyway, the purpose of the stage is to elevate someone worthy of overall leadership, perhaps for just a day, and it will take a mix of power and audacity to win the day. Which is why everyone thinks it’ll be Mathieu van der Poel. By the time you read this it could be old news., Should be exciting regardless.
Stage 2: Budapest Individual Time Trial, 9.2km
What Is It? The Pest-to-Buda all-out mini-ITT, a very fun, urban time trial with twists and climbs to make for an intriguing, if not terribly decisive, stage.
Detailed Description: With only 9.2km to travel, the race heads somewhat straight for the Danube, albeit with a bit of detour built in, before arriving at the river, proceeding up the right bank, crossing the Margit Híd (Margaret Bridge), proceeding down the left bank, and then climbing up a bit behind Buda Castle. The Promenade of the Danube is apparently one of the city’s signature places, and castles are castles, so presumably the local Chamber of Commerce approves of this route design.
The final climb rises 64 meters over 1.3km, a grade of just under 5%, so this is a tasty little morsel of a Strava segment for the Heroes of the Road. But it will definitely create a few seconds of separation among even the top guys.
Did You Know? You’ve probably heard that Budapest is the unification of Buda and Pest, a mere 149 years ago, when Alejandro Valverde was just emerging from Juniors. Apparently, and I say that because I am just reading the internet, which is not a substitution for scholarly research, the city was created from Buda, Obuda, and Pest, and was previously called Pest-Buda, in the same way that my local airport is called Sea-Tac. Except Seattle and Tacoma haven’t been merged into a single city, and probably won’t be anytime soon.
Anyway, it looks like the Buda side of town is a bit hillier, and these same low hills stretch on up to Visegrád via Duna-Ipoly National Park, making for some lovely riding I would have to assume. Buda is thought (but not known) to maybe come from the name Bleda, one of the first rulers of the Huns and the founder of Buda — and brother of Attila the Hun. Who might have killed Bleda, though supposedly not til after Bleda tried to kill Attila first. Anyway, let’s not quibble over who killed who.
Profiteers: I mean, is there any way we can will Attila Valter to victory here? Probably not, as the startlist has its share of ITT specialists and powerful riders who can manage a 9km effort. Again, this will be a fine way to separate out the wearers of the various jerseys — each of the first two stages end with cat-4 climbs, so even the KOM jersey will have a rightful owner.
Stage 3: Kaposvár — Balatonfüred, 201km
What Is It? A glorious, glorious sprinters’ stage, one of ... checks notes... I dunno, four legit sprint stages that don’t just drop in a major mountain climb? It’s also a relaxing way to start the long transfer back to Italy. And take in a lovely resort area in spring time.
Detailed Description: Starting in Kaposvár, the race swings clockwise toward the largest freshwater body in Central Europe, Lake Balaton, where the peloton will hug the occasionally undulating lakeside before thundering to a sprint finish in the resort town of Balatonfüred. The lake itself is an important resort and recreational center for the entire region, some 230 square miles, roughly akin to Lake Mead in Nevada, although it’s fairly shallow (being a naturally occurring water body), averaging only 10 feet deep.
It looks like a pretty quiet route with picturesque small towns along the way, particularly Kaposvár, but otherwise the competitive aspects of this race are few. And the combatants, facing a long ride to Palermo, will like it that way.
Low stress all the way.
Did You Know? Kaposvár looks like an interesting place for any number of reasons, with some history around the formation of the Austro-Hungarian empire, a history of wine cultivation, and a lovely town square. And like most of Hungary, the second-largest ethnic group of people found there are the Roma.
Europeans are probably far better schooled on their ethnic identities and patterns of movement than Americans ever will be, but since we Yanks almost all come from somewhere else (or literally all do, if you count the Bering Sea Land Bridge), we should be better about understanding where other people moved to and from.
Hungary’s 10 million people are some 83% ethnic Hungarians — who came from the Urals 1100 years ago — and the rest are smaller groups of varying origin, the largest of which, the Romani (estimated anywhere from 3-8% of Hungary’s population), came from Punjab and Rajasthan originally, but have migrated all over the world. I guess their presence is notable in places like Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania, where they number maybe 4-9%, in countries with few cultural minority groups. But the largest populations of Romani people are in... yep, the US, followed by Brazil. Anyway, it will be interesting to see if the Giro celebrates Hungary’s ethnic diversity, even if numerically speaking it’s not as diverse as a lot of western nations.
Profiteers: The sprinters. Cavendish is back for another helping of Giro glory, but a new crop of sprinters, led by Gent-Wevelgem winner Biniam Ghirmay, aren’t going to just roll over for the old Manxman.