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Giro d’Italia Stage Previews: Six Days in Mezzogiorno

The Giro goes home and gets down to serious business

103rd Giro d’Italia 2020 - Stage Three Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

The Hungarian phase of the 2022 Giro d’Italia is behind us now, and we can clearly declare it a success on a couple levels. One is that it appears that the stages came off well, crowds turned out, and people had a good time.

The other is that this overseas Grande Partenza set up the rest of the Giro very well. These were three relatively low-stress stages, happening at a relatively low-stress transfer distance from Italy. Is there a plane change from Budapest to Catania? Probably, but we aren’t talking long distances.

My fantasy of a start in New York doesn’t work like this does as far as the rest of the Giro is concerned. Even if the stages on American soil were not too challenging, it’s hard to picture such a dramatic event not taking a toll on the riders. And the transfer... not good. So, could you come back across the Atlantic and resume the Giro in some peaceful way? Not without several days of easy riding while the peloton recovered.

Here, though, zipping down from Budapest, you can throw the race at Etna on the first re-start stage. You can rip up through rugged Calabria and Campania and Abruzzo, emphasizing the competition and not the recovery from a long ostentatious start in a place like New York. This was a good plan for the Giro, and they should probably continue not listening to people like me.

Tonnara. Avola Marina. Noto Gulf. Sicily. Italy Photo by: Riccardo Lombardo/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Stage 4: Avola - Etna, 172km

What Is It? Oh, just a stage to a massive, highly active shield volcano in Sicily.

Detailed Description: No gimmicks, the Giro is on home soil and it’s ready to get down to business.

Mappa:

Giro ‘22 stage 4 map

The Giro skips the lovely Ionian coastline, for now, and heads inland over small hills lined with olive and lemon trees, among other things. This part of Sicily is the peaceful backdrop to the tourist areas along the coastline, and should make for a lovely approach to the old volcano.

Profile:

Giro ‘22 stage 4 profile

Etna is the only rated climb, and if the rest of it looks demanding, well, Sicily doesn’t have too many meters of flat outside of the Catania airport. As I mentioned in the overall course preview, this approach to Etna appears to be unique, at least as far as the 21st century assaults are concerned. I cannot find any indication that the Giro has gone via Biancavilla before climbing up to the Rifugio Sapienza. Compared to the standard approach, which is 19km at 6.2%, this approach is 22km and slightly calmer at 5.9%, although I really don’t think that 0.3% is a meaningful difference. The Nicolosi version is a nice steady gradient; this one appears to bounce around more, and I bet you the roads are narrower. Looking forward to seeing.

Giro ‘22 stage 4 Etna
Giro stage 5 Etna from Biancavilla

Etna has featured six times in the Giro d’Italia, but the Giant of Sicily has not been very welcoming to its native sons. Of course, Sicilians have rarely had success in grand tours before Vincenzo Nibali, but the only Italian to ever win a Giro stage on the flanks of frozen lava was Franco Bitossi, a Florentine, in 1967. Subsequent winners were Acácio da Silva, of Portugal, in 1989; Spaniard Alberto Contador in 2011; Slovenian Jan Polanc in 2017; Colombian Esteban Chaves in 2018; and Ecuadorian Jonathan Caicedo in 2020. Contador’s victory was actually expunged later and given to Jose Rujano, a Venezuelan, making it three South American triumphs in six editions.

Etna Torre del Filosofo

Etna seems like such an inviting climb, it’s a little hard to understand why they went up it only twice in the 20th century. My hunch, after poking around a bit, is that they simply didn’t have good routes until recently? The Italian economic miracle of the 1960s probably didn’t reach the slopes of the Sicilian giant, or Sicily at all, for some extra interval of time. [In my only visit in 2002, the road to the Rifugio looked very new, and also under recent repair.] And even if the country were set on building a great road to Rifugio Sapienza, well, lava flows and winter storms have a way of undoing humankind’s best ideas.

Apparently for recreationalists, there is a dirt road that continues to a height of 2900 meters, which makes for one of the greatest net altitude climbs in Europe, rivaling the Pico del Veleta in Spain, some 2400 meters of continuous climbing.

Did You Know? The start town of Avola is more famous than you might think. If you know your southern Italian wines, then you might have been prompted to think of Nero d’Avola, the most distinct wine style of Sicily. Otherwise, you might have thought back to 1969, when a terrible massacre of police in Avola firing on striking day workers was part of the violent politics rocking Italy back then. Or maybe you’re a WWII buff and you know that the Allied invasion began on the town’s beaches. Or you’re an ancient history geek who knows that the area has been settled since about 1300 BC. The layers of history are thick in this part of the world.

Profiteers: The GC contenders will be side-eyeing each other all day, for sure, but the stage isn’t all that likely to do much more than weed out the pretenders. In 1967, Bitossi’s win propelled him to finish 15th overall, putting a mere half minute into the contenders on Etna. In ‘89 the climbers finished in a bunch, as they did in 2017. In 2011 and 2018, Contador and Simon Yates both made significant moves — Contador won the stage, while Yates escaped with Chaves — and in Contador’s case it propelled him to the victory, in part... only to have it stripped later. Yates was looking pretty firmly ensconced in pink in 2018, only to fall short in the final week. Basically, only Contador’s Etna stage performance had significance in the end. Not coincidentally, that year’s Etna inclusion, the race’s ninth stage, is the latest Etna has ever appeared in the Giro. Stage 4 may simply be too early for anyone to show their cards.

103rd Giro d’Italia 2020 - Stage Four Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Stage 5: Catania - Messina, 174km

What Is It? A city-center sprint stage... for sprinters who can get over the cat-2 climb in the middle of the stage with their hopes intact.

Detailed Description: Finally, a look at the Ionian Sea — the Giro will have plenty more coastline on its itinerary in the Mezzogiorno — before tuning inland a few km short of Taormina. I guess it’s too expensive to go through there now? Actually I’m sure it’s logistics; before Taormina there are two motorways along the coast, so they can keep one open while the Giro uses the other. But they merge just north of Taormina, so it gets more complicated.

Anyway, by going inland, they will go up — past the gorge of the Alcantara River, along a lovely country road to the summit of the Portella Mandrazzi. Then they drop down to the Tyrrhenian Sea and hook around the northeastern corner of the Island into downtown Messina.

Mappa:

Giro ‘22 stage 5 mappa

Profile:

Giro ‘22 stage 5 profile

The rare city-to-city route, linking the 10th and 13th-largest cities in Italy.

Did You Know? Catania has appeared in the Giro d’Italia nine times prior to this year, one more than Messina. That tenth appearance for Catania will put it approximately 30th on the list of cities with the most stage starts or finishes. Of the nine past appearances, it shared a stage with Messina on six occasions. By my count, this will be the Giro’s 14th or 15th visit to the Island.

If you’re a 21st century Giro fan, you already know about Sicilians Giovanni Visconti (not here this year) and Vincenzo Nibali, the former with two stage wins and the latter with two maglie rose to his famous name. But do you know... Guido Messina? Born in Monreale near Palermo in 1931, Messina lived until 2020 and was a highly accomplished cyclist... on the track. He only raced the Giro twice, winning the opening stage of the 1955 edition (and presumably becoming the first Sicilian to hold the maglia rosa?), and finished 47th overall. He started the 1958 edition but departed after three stages. He never competed in the Giro d’Italia in Sicily.

Not much, but on the track, he was a true star. He won the Olympic gold medal in Helsinki in 1952 for the team pursuit event, but his true greatness was in the individual pursuit, where he was a five-time world champion in an event which would not be included in the Olympics until 1964.

Profiteers: Sprinters, for sure, though it will be interesting to see how many of them make the finale. Ewan and Girmay seem like good bets and Cavendish not so much, but I’m not convinced the peloton will scale the Portella Mandrazzi all that quickly.

Stage 6: Palmi - Scalea, 192km

What Is It? A sprint stage designed by the Chamber of Commerce. If miles of nearly empty beaches by sparkling blue water don’t send the people of northern Europe scrambling to their online booking websites, I don’t know what will.

Detailed Description: This is about as certain a sprint stage as we have. I can’t say whether the cyclists tend to take in the scenery as they roll along the coast, but there would be no reason not to. the Violet Coast of Calabria is not especially rugged, and the peloton will probably be able to spot the breakaway just up the road. This stage is exactly what the map and profile say it is.

Mappa:

Giro ‘22 stage 6 mappa

Profile:

Giro ‘22 stage 6 profile

Did You Know? The coastline is only one slice of the nature sandwich formed around this stage. The stage start in Palmi can be viewed from high up above on a hiking trail called the Tracciolino (which I think might be a generic term for trekking route). And Italy’s largest national park, and one of the ten largest parks in Europe, is the Pollino National Park just inland from the latter half of this route. The Pollino Park encompasses 56 towns in Calabria and Basilicata, peaks of over 2000 meters, caves, numerous trails, and spectacular rivers. It sits on a geologic bubble that connects the main part of Italy to the tectonic craziness of Sicily. And it’s been a national park since... 1988.

The young Loricato pine (Pinus heldreichii) in the Pollino...
Emblematic Loricato pine in the Pollino Mountains.
Photo by Alfonso Di Vincenzo/KONTROLAB/LightRocket via Getty Images

National parks over there are very different from the US. Human habitation patterns mean that people were milling around or tending sheep in the Pollino Mountains for centuries before the concept of a “national park” took hold. No doubt there were forested areas reserved by this or that king for his own pleasure, but it’s radically different from the North American version. Here, parks are mostly areas that humans never had much impact on, and the story is that of virgin wilderness. But the other part of the equation, the national part, is that these areas of, say, northwestern Wyoming or southern Utah, were places where the only people you would reserve land for would be “all of them.”

But the practice of overlaying parks on ancient places in Europe is undoubtedly good for tourism, and hopefully not too big a burden on the local folks. There is a long history of parks in the eastern U.S. where, say, the Cape Cod National Seashore or Shenandoah National Park were carved out of settled(ish) areas and bought from local landowners, not always willingly. I will guess that it’s OK in Calabria? This is an area of the South that Mussolini used as his own Siberia, the backdrop to Primo Levi’s famous book in exile Christ Stopped at Eboli. You could just drop people off in these towns, in the 20th century, and they would have no way to go anywhere.

Profiteers: Sprinters, of course. The sprint teams will view this as a precious opportunity for glory, not to be passed up at any cost.

Daily Life In Tropea, Italy Photo by Saverio Marfia/Getty Images

Stage 7: Diamante - Potenza, 196km

What Is It? A bittersweet run from the Cedar Riviera inland to the high mountains of Basilicata, dropping down into the regional capital for a city “sprint”.

Detailed Description: This is a long, hard day in the saddle, winding backwards from Scalea to repeat a few km of coastline from stage 6 while riders warm up their legs, then turning inland into the relatively tame Passo Colla, then dropping to the start of the 1000-meter gain up Monte Sirino, then the steep grind up the Monte Grande di Viggiano, and finally the Sellata climb before what’s left of the combatants takes to the finish line. All of this is at relatively high elevation, with Potenza the highest regional capital in Italy at over 800 meters.

Mappa:

Giro ‘22 stage 7 mappa

Profile:

Giro ‘22 stage 7 profile

And the four rated climbs:

Giro ‘22 stage 7 Passo Colla
Giro ‘22 stage 7 Monte Sirino
Giro ‘22 stage 7 Grande di Viggiano
Giro ‘22 stage 7 Sellata

Clearly the Viggiano is going to hurt, whereas the rest of them are not that big a deal to these guys.

Did You Know? That the peperoncini has its spiritual home in Diamante? The Calabrian chili isn’t terribly diverged from the plant we enjoy worldwide, but the warm, arid slopes of Calabria make for the hottest, tastiest peppers in Italy. Diamante has a museum as well as a festival celebrating the chili. The region has lots of pasta options but one of them is just pasta, salt, oil and chili flakes. Add some anchovies to that and IMO you are getting somewhere.

Profiteers: A breakaway. Every time the Giro heads south, you can look at the map and point to the breakaway stage. It happens between hard efforts which offered more reward to the overall challengers than this one. But it’s a long, hard day that nobody will be looking forward to if there is no great payoff in the end. The more rural, the better — riders feel less compelled to put on a show if they don’t think anyone is watching. This stage checks all of those boxes emphatically.

Monument Waterfront, Fontana Del Gigante In Naples, Italy On January 01 2009 -
Fontana del Gigante, Naples, meters from the finish line of stage 8
Photo by Jean Marc CHARLES/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Stage 8: Napoli — Napoli, 153km

What Is It? A pretty fun stage starting and ending in Naples on the waterfront road just short of the dense urbanity that comprises Italy’s third-largest city, with some short, punchy climbing circuits in there for fun.

Detailed Description: Although the finish in urban Naples is the headliner, the race may be defined more by the slopes of Monte di Procida, a short stabby hill near Bacoli, a beach area just to the west of town. The climb itself has the look of a smaller Poggio, but at just 2km but with gradients averaging 6% and topping out at 11%, the four trips up could break up the race some — especially the fourth time, which starts with the intermediate sprint point and ends with the day’s only KOM point. So there will be a few Euros at stake.

Mappa:

Giro ‘22 stage 8 mappa

Profile:

Giro ‘22 stage 8 profile

And the defining climb:

Giro ‘22 stage 8 Monte di Procida

There are numerous other slopes involved, though none of great consequence. Naples itself has no shortage of steep hills in town. No rest for the weary today, unless they all collectively decide that’s what they really need. In which case, it’ll be an expensive parade.

Giant Diego Armando Maradona murals, in the popular... Photo by Marco Cantile/LightRocket via Getty Images

Did You Know? Did Diego Maradona ever attend the Giro d’Italia? Apparently not. Cyclingnews did a feature on Maradona’s attendance at the 1990 Tirreno-Adriatico, and not only didn’t mention him ever stopping by the Giro, but laid out exactly why that might not have been a good idea. Everywhere he went, he was the whole story. Logistically, that wouldn’t be great for the race, and I’m sure it was rough on him too.

The Giro did stop by close to Napoli once during his run with SS Napoli... in 1990, just weeks after that Tirreno appearance. On May 20, 1990, the Giro ascended the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, a stage won by Eduardo Chozas of Spain. Was Maradona on hand, or anywhere nearby? Extremely doubtful. This was a mere three weeks after SS Napoli had secured its second Serie A title, making him an even more god-like figure to the region, and even less able to pop by a bike race. And it was barely three weeks before the start of the last World Cup to be played in Italy. I have little doubt Maradona was in Argentina, training with his national team, on the day of Chozas’ victory and the subsequent departure the next morning from Herculaneum.

Diego Maradona Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images

It’s hard to overstate the significance of Maradona to Napoli, as if there is a demarcation in human existence there, Before and After Diego. Naples had a terrible reputation then, a dangerous place to be and a hornet’s nest of Camorristi interference with life. The Giro would not have wanted to venture into the city center, something that is always difficult under the best of circumstances. If Maradona had invited the race to finish beneath his balcony, sure, that would have been a transformative event. But even thinking about such a thing is absurd. Maradona was probably home in Argentina every year by the time the Giro got going. He was a kid from the slums of Buenos Aires. He had no reason to be interested in cycling.

And cycling would have been somewhat in tension with his story. The Italian economic miracle of the 1960s brought the automobile to the people, and the people turned away from cycling as a result, they say. By the 1980s this would have been in full swing. But in Napoli, what would cycling ever have been? The region was poor before WW2, was devastated after, and the Partenopei — the people of the Parthenon — are not known for having had leisure time for long bike rides.

Maradona’s importance to Napoli is all the more poignant for the same reasons cycling could not fill their lives. He was poor, like them, or had been anyway, and he came to them to lift their spirits in ways unimaginable to them before, and in ways a bike race full of guys from Tuscany and the Veneto could not. It’s easy to think that all of Italy was in despair on July 3, 1990, six weeks after the Giro visited Napoli, when Maradona knocked in his penalty kick, following Roberto Donadoni’s miss from the spot, right there in the Stadio San Paolo, to eliminate the host nation from the World Cup and send Maradona’s Argentina on to the final. But in that stadium and the neighborhoods surrounding it, I have no doubt there were plenty of people celebrating the advancement of their hero.

Profiteers: This is a very classics-like course, so the simplest answer here would be to round up all the classics riders and name the fastest sprinter. I don’t think a breakaway stays up the road on a day with massive crowds around. I also am not too sure the fastest fastmen don’t hang on and just make this a parade to a bunch sprint. Girmay and van der Poel might have company from Ewan and Cavendish.

Cycling: 100th Tour of Italy 2017 / Stage 9
Blockhaus climb
Photo by Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

Stage 9: Isernia - Blockhaus, 191km

What Is It? A monster mountain stage with about one and three-quarters worth of that spent on the infamous Blockhaus.

Detailed Description: I spent a lot of time analyzing this in my overall preview, so I will recap that a bit here. The upshot is that you have a typically undulating Apennine stage transferring up to southern Abruzzo before getting down to business and climbing most of the Blockhaus from the easy side, descending down the second-hardest side, and then going all the way up the most difficult route, rated as the hardest climb in the Apennines.

Mappa:

Giro ‘22 stage 9 mappa

Profile:

Giro ‘22 stage 9 profile

Passo Lanciano, the “easy” route up the Blockhaus, and stopping short.

Giro ‘22 stage 9 Passo Lanciano

And then the hardest way up:

Giro ‘22 stage 9 Blockhaus

This graphic that I posted earlier shows the various routes, with the red line indicating the final ascent here. The route comes up first from Petri and Pretoro to the Passo Lanciano, then descends parallel to the red line to Lettomanoppello before heading to Roccamorice and going up.

Blockhaus routes

Did You Know? The Blockhaus is part of the Maiella Massif, a group of limestone peaks that are their own special little subset of the Apennines, which themselves are a chain of diverse geologic stories. Only the Gran Sasso d’Italia’s Corno Grande (2912m), looming over the Campo Imperatore that the Giro has traversed on occasion, is higher than the top peaks of the Maielloa, which reach heights of 2793 (Monte Amaro). Nobody knows how the limestone got here — maybe bubbling up from deep inside the earth? Or brought over the Alps by invading Mongols? It’s a msytery. But either God or glaciers carved it up pretty good, and now you have this:

Maiella Massif

Profiteers: The top guys. Here is what I said before:

When climbed in 2017, it was a 152km event featuring pretty much just the Roccamarice climb. In that relative isolation, it still resulted in a stage where the top 10 were separated by 2.35 — for reference, last year’s stage to Monte Zoncolan caused a separation among the top 10 finishers of 2.22. The simpler version of this face of the Blockhaus is a Zoncolan-level challenge. So what does it do to the legs when it’s the just back nine?

I could go on, but you get the point. This stage will be one of the days that defines the overall outcome of the Giro. Not the only one, but it will matter.