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THE CHALLENGING 100TH GIRO D’ITALIA

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Mauro Vegni, organizer of the Giro d’Italia, has laid out a route for his grand tour’s 100th edition that visits all four corners of the country, including most of the Giro’s iconic climbs and honoring many of its greatest champions. Vegni hoped that the start on the island of Sardinia this weekend would draw thousands of roadside fans to cheer on Fabio Aru—who grew up on this Mediterranean island and hoped to be vying for home-country honors with defending champion Vincenzo Nibali. Instead, a knee injury has prevented Aru starting the Giro, so his fans had to be content with him flagging away the 196 starters from Alghero on Friday, after the peloton stood in silence for a minute to honor Aru’s late Astana teammate, Michele Scarponi, who died in a training-ride accident last month.

Words: John Wilcockson | Images: Yuzuru Sunada

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Friday also happens to be May 5, the date on which one of the Giro’s greatest champions, Gino Bartali, died 17 years ago at age 85. Bartali won the Giro three times, took its KOM title seven times and won 17 stages between 1935 and 1954. He will be honored midway through the Giro when Kilometer 0 of stage 11 on May 17 will be in Ponte a Ema, just to the south of Florence, where Bartali lived his whole life.

Sardinia has hosted the Giro’s “grande partenza” twice before—in 1991 and 2007. In ’91, the three days on the island, with stage finishes at Olbia, Sassari and Cagliari, saw Italy’s Franco Chioccioli emerge with the leader’s pink jersey. He was also the ultimate race winner. Ten years ago, the Giro opened with a team time trial (won by the Liquigas team of eventual winner Danilo Do Luca) and two sprint stages, taken by Robbie McEwen at Bosa and Mario Cipollini at Cagliari.

This weekend, there are again three days of racing in Sardinia, but it’s unlikely that the Giro’s eventual overall winner is likely to be prominent. Friday’s opening stage along the northern coast to Olbia was won surprisingly by Austrian Lukas Pöstlberger, but not in the expected mass sprint. The victory came with an “accidental” last-kilometer solo escape, when Pöstlberger was initiating the lead-out for his Bora-Hangrohe sprinter Sam Bennett but suddenly found himself racing clear of a splintered, hesitating peloton.

The sprinters’ teams won’t make the same mistake twice, so expect Sunday’s shorter stage 3 along the southeastern coast to Cagliari to be contested by the sprinters who chased Pöstlberger home on Friday, led by Caleb Ewan (Orica-Scott), André Greipel (Lotto0Soudal) and Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek-Segafredo). None of those sprinters are likely to be in the frame at the end of Saturday’s stage 2, which is much longer (221 kilometers) and heads through the medium mountains of the east-central part of Sardinia. The lengthy Cat. 2 Genna Silana climb has gentle grades and tops out at 3,287 feet (1,002 meters); and though it’s 49 kilometers from the finish in Tortoli, the first 40 kilometers are mostly downhill to the coast.

Should a breakaway succeed on Saturday’s stage, the rider in the pink jersey by Sunday night is unlikely to be heading the GC after the next stage. That’s because after the riders take a flight from Sardinia to Sicily—while the race vehicles and entourage take ferryboats on Monday’s first “rest” day—stage 4 is the 2017 Giro’s first mountaintop finish, on the slopes of Mount Etna, where Sicily native Nibali would love to take over the race leader’s maglia rosa.

Alberto Contador led Michele Scarponi through the black lava fields of Mount Etna in the 2011 Giro d'Italia
Alberto Contador led Michele Scarponi through the black lava fields of Mount Etna in the 2011 Giro d’Italia

Nibali has an opportunity of doing this, because the 181-kilometer Tuesday stage takes in the 33-kilometer-long climb of Portella Femmina Morta at half-distance before tackling the rugged, lava–covered slopes of Mount Etna at the end. The Etna climb starts in Nicolosi and ascends for almost 18 kilometers to the 6,207-foot (1,892-meter) summit, with a steepest pitch of 12 percent halfway up. The Etna winner at the same summit in 2011 was Alberto Contador, who finished a few seconds ahead of Venezuelan climber José Rujano and 50 seconds ahead of a five-man chase group that included Nibali.

With Contador absent and Bahrain-Merida’s Nibali seeking his best form, this first showdown of the race is likely to see top favorite Nairo Quintana make a bid to establish early supremacy—though a host of others look ready to make their mark, including Team Sky’s Mikel Landa and Geraint Thomas, Orica-Scott’s Adam Yates, BMC Racing’s Tejay van Garderen, FDJ’s Thibaut Pinot, Trek-Segafredo’s Bauke Mollema, Sunweb’s Tom Dumoulin, Lotto NL-Jumbo’s Steven Kruijswijk and Katusha-Alpecin’s Ilnur Zakarin.

With the GC likely to be well established after those first four stages, expect a battle between the breakaways and the sprinters’ teams over the next several days. Stage 5 favors the sprinters, ending with a lap and a half of 6.3-kilometer finishing circuit in the streets of Messina, Nibali’s hometown. Following a ferry ride across the Straits of Messina to the mainland, the next three stages hug the western, southern and eastern coastlines of the Italian “boot.” The final half-kilometer of stage 6 at Terme Luigiane is steeply uphill, but favors explosive sprinters such as Ewen or Bennett, along with dynamic uphill finishers like Thomas or Cannondale-Drapac’s Tom-Jelte Slagter. And stage 7 has a flat finish in Alberobello, where teams will need to keep their sprinters well positioned on a tricky run-in around the town.

The focus returns to the GC riders next weekend. Stage 8 on Saturday (May 13) has a short, spectacular climb from the Adriatic Sea up to a finish in the old town Peschici—where Di Luca won in 2000. And stage 9 features the Giro’s second summit finish, at Blockhaus, which is famous for witnessing in 1967 the first-ever grand tour stage win by Eddy Merckx. The narrow, twisting road up to Blockhaus is 13.6 kilometers long, with frequent double-digit grades in the final 10 kilometers.

A second rest day precedes stage 10, a 39.8-kilometer time trial between Foligno and Montefalco, dubbed the Sagrantino Stage in deference to the Umbria’s region’s incomparable Sagrantino di Montefalco wines. This time trial is likely to have a greater impact on the race than the Blockhaus climb. It’s built for a TT specialist. The first third from Foligno to Bevagna is made up of long, straight flat roads; the middle third heads into the hills with twisty roads, short climbs and a fast descent to the second split at Bastardo; and the finale is mainly on straighter, uphill roads to the walled hill town of Montefalco.

Next up is stage 11, starting in Florence itself, but first heading to Bartali’s hometown of Ponte a Ema for Kilometer 0. Only the 161-kilometer stage’s opening 15 kilometers are flat before taking in a series of climbs in the Apennines that Bartali trained on during his 20-year pro career. The peloton faces climbs of 16 kilometers, 15 kilometers and 11 kilometers to reach Bagno di Romagna—where the racers then make a 50-kilometer loop that includes the day’s highest climb, Monte Fumaiolo, at an elevation of 4,419 feet (1,347 meters). It may not be the longest or highest stage of the Giro, but whoever wins in Bagno di Romagna will have enhanced the heroic memory of Gino Bartali.

After the “Bartali stage” on May 17 come two stages along the Po Valley from east to west, both favorable to sprinters with completely flat run-ins to finishes at Reggio Emilia and Tortona. Tortona is the town where Fausto Coppi died of malaria at age 40 in 1960, and the following day’s stage 14 starts in the campionissimo’s birthplace of Castellania, to celebrate his career. The start is close to the memorial to Fausto and his brother Serse Coppi in the somewhat remote village of Castellania, not far from the house where they grew up. Serse was also a bike racer; he was killed in an accident at the Milan–Turin classic in 1951. Fausto developed his love of cycling after he left school at 13 and earned money for the family as an errand boy for the local butcher, delivering meat to customers by bike. After getting his first “real” bike at age 16 he won his first race in a solo break, turned pro at age 19 and won his first Giro at age 20!

At the 1999 Giro d'Italia Marco Pantani scored a storied stage victory at the Santuario di Oropa.
At the 1999 Giro d’Italia Marco Pantani scored a storied stage victory at the Santuario di Oropa.

Coppi would likely have been delighted that the stage dedicated to him in this 100th edition of the Giro ends with a summit finish in the foothills of the Alps. After a flat run across the plains between Turin and Milan, the 131-kilometer stage 14 finishes on the “Pantani Mountain”—an 11.8-kilometer climb to the Santuario di Oropa, famed for Marco Pantani’s stage win here in 1999. Whichever climbers perform best at Oropa, they will be thrilled with the next two stages, both of which contain significant climbs that will set the scene for the final week of the 100th edition.

Stage 15 is made for early breakaways. There’s almost 150 kilometers of racing across the Lombard plain north of Milan before reaching the climbs that defined last October’s Tour of Lombardy (Il Lombardia) classic—the Miragolo San Salvatore and Selvino—before the hilly finish into Bergamo. This 50-kilometer finale, where winner Esteban Chaves escaped with fellow Colombian Rigoberto Urán, Italian Diego Rosa and Frenchman Romain Bardet at Il Lombardia, may encourage similar riders to challenge favorites Nibali, Quintana and Pinot on the hilly roads into Felice Gimondi’s hometown of Bergamo.

Following a final rest day in Bergamo, the survivors face the long-awaited stage 16. This epic 227-kilometer, seven-hour day contains almost 18,000 vertical feet (5,500 meters) of climbing. It first climbs the “back” side of the infamous Passo del Mortirolo (12.8 kilometers at 7.6 percent), then the gargantuan Passo dello Stelvio (21.7 kilometers at 7.1 percent) and, finally, after descending through the 48 hairpin turns of the Stelvio’s eastern side, loops back through Switzerland to tackle the Umbrailpass (13.4 kilometers at 8.4 percent), which makes a T with the top end of the Stelvio before descending that previous climb to the finish in Bormio.

The last time the Giro scaled the western slope of the Stelvio was in 2014, on a cold, wet and sometimes snowy day (also a stage 16), when a nine-man breakaway was caught by the 9,048-foot (2,758-meter) summit, which, again, will be the highest point of the Giro—but hopefully without the cold rain and snow of 2014. It was in that storm that Quintana broke away on the Stelvio descent and grabbed the pink jersey from countryman Urán—who’s not riding this Giro.

Nairo Quintana scored a solo win in the stormy Stelvio stage to grab the overall lead at the 2014 Giro d'Italia
Nairo Quintana scored a solo win in the stormy Stelvio stage to grab the overall lead at the 2014
Giro d’Italia

In the final week of the 2017 Giro d’Italia, the climbs keep on coming. The day after the gigantic alpine stage over the Stelvio, there are only three moderate climbs in the first part of stage 17, but it’s still 219 kilometers long and gradually uphill for the final 75 kilometers to Canazei. That should prove a relatively “easy” day, but the difficulties return on stage 18.

This is the hardest Dolomites stage, even though it’s only 137 kilometers in length. In the roughly four hours of racing are five climbs (the Pordoi, Valparola, Gardena, Pinei and Pontives), which aggregate to more than 13,000 feet (4,000 meters) of uphill work, with the finish just 4 (uphill) kilometers after the final summit. For the record, the climb to Pontives is 9.3 kilometers long at an average grade of 6.8 percent, but kicks up to 12 percent in the final kilometer. Nothing too drastic, but with all those other climbs already in your legs, and with 18 days of racing behind you, this might be one climb too many for some contenders….

Following that challenging day in the Dolomites, there are two more truly testing road stages. It’s no wonder that defending champion Nibali said this is probably the toughest Giro he’s ridden. The first of the final two mountain stages is a challenging 191 kilometers featuring three “medium” climbs before the mountaintop finish at Piancavallo (15.4 kilometers long, with the opening part averaging 10 percent), which saw a solo win by Pantani on his way to overall victory in 1998. Stage 20 is another 190-kilometer stage, and the second half includes the always-formidable Monte Grappa—24 kilometers in length with a 4,000-foot (1,287-meter) height differential—and then the Foza (14 kilometers at 7.1 percent), which is less than 15 kilometers across a plateau to the finish in Asiago.

As for the concluding time trial in Milan on May 28, this is 29.3 kilometers long, starting with a lap of the Monza Grand Prix motor racing circuit and finishing in front of the magnificent Milan Cathedral—just as it did in 2012 when winner Ryder Hesjedal made up a half-minute deficit on penultimate race leader Joachim Rodriguez to win that Giro by 16 seconds. Will the final stage be just as dramatic in 2017?
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100th GIRO D’ITALIA
May 5 – Stage 1: Alghero to Olbia (206 km)
May 6 – Stage 2: Olbia to Tortoli (221 km)
May 7 – Stage 3: Tortoli to Cagliari (148 km)
May 8 – rest day
May 9 – Stage 4: Cefalu to Etna (181 km)
May 10 – Stage 5: Pedara to Messina (159 km)
May 11 – Reggio Calabria to Terme Luigiane (217 km)
May 12 – Stage 7: Castrovillari to Alberobello (224 km)
May 13 – Stage 8: Molfetta to Peschici (189 km)
May 14 – Stage 9: Montenero di Bisaccia to Blockhaus (149 km)
May 15 – rest day
May 16 – Stage 10: Foligno to Montefalco (39.8 km TT)
May 17 – Stage 11: Florence to Bagno di Romagna (161 km)
May 18 – Stage 12: Forli to Reggio Emilia (229 km)
May 19 – Stage 13: Reggio Emilia to Tortona (167 km)
May 20 – Stage 14: Castellania to Oropa (131 km)
May 21 – Stage 15: Valdengo to Bergamo (199 km)
May 22 – rest day
May 23 – Stage 16: Rovetta to Bormio (222 km)
May 24 – Stage 17: Tirano to Canazei (219 km)
May 25 – Stage 18: Moena to Ortisei/St. Ulrich (137 km)
May 26 – Stage 19: San Candido/Innichen – Piancavallo (191 km)
May 27 – Stage 20: Pordenone to Asiago (190 km)
May 28 – Stage 21: Monza racetrack to Milan (29.3 km TT)