The stage you’ve all been waiting for has finally arrived. The queen stage of this year’s Giro includes over 5,300 meters (17,500 feet) of elevation gain. Read that again. Gather yourself. Now sit back, relax, and be thankful you’re not riding this savage stage.
The route first climbs gradually to Edolo, then up the feared Mortirolo from Monno, a route used only once before in 1990. Next, the peloton will pass over the finish line in Bormio, before it begins the long climb of the infamous Passo dello Stelvio (the Cima Coppi, or highest point of the race). Then, the race will plunge down the eastern side of the Stelvio to the village of Prato allo Stelvio, and cross into Switzerland. Finally, the race climbs, for the first time, the Umbrail Pass leading back to Italy, cresting just three kilometers from the Stelvio summit, before running down to Bormio and the finish.
That brief description doesn’t do the 222-kilometer route justice, of course. Needless to say, of all the climbs on offer on stage 16, the Stelvio is the most famous, and for good reason. The riders will traverse 40-plus switchbacks as they climb from Bormio, a figure surpassed by the 48 switchbacks they’ll navigate as they plummet into the eastern valley.
While the Stelvio may be Italy’s most famous climb, due to its position in the middle of the stage it may prove less decisive than the final climb over the Umbrail. Let’s take a look at them both.
Stelvio (from Bormio) by the numbers: 21.5km, averaging 7.1 percent, reaching a maximum gradient of 13.6 percent. It climbs 1,533 meters to the pass.
Previous Giro stages: 1953, stage 20; 1961, stage 20; 1965, stage 20; 1972, stage 17; 1975, stage 21; 1980, stage 20; 1994, stage 15; 2005, stage 14; 2012, stage 20; 2013, stage 19 (cancelled); 2014, stage 16.
Umbrail Pass by the numbers: 13.2km, averaging 8.5 percent, reaching a maximum 11 percent, and climbing 1,126 meters. (Never been climbed before.)
What history can teach us: Without a doubt, the Stelvio (and Umbrail) will have a major impact on this year’s race. The iconic climb just has a way of playing a momentous role in the outcome of the Giro.
Look no further than 2014, the year of the so-called “Stelvio Stink-up,” when snow clogged the summit and some riders attacked in confusion while others slowed, thinking the race had been neutralized. Pure Giro chaos. Nairo Quintana was among those who continued to race, and he would win the stage and take over four minutes on his biggest rivals, Rigoberto Urán, Cadel Evans, and Rafal Majka.
The 2013 stage over the Stelvio was cancelled due to heavy snow and the risk of ice on the descents.
In 2012, Thomas De Gendt rode himself back into contention for a podium spot by winning the stage from a long-range breakaway. That stage finished atop the Stelvio. He would take 3:22 from race leader Joaquim Rodriguez, and go on to finish third overall that year.
In 2005, there also was drama. Ivan Basso started the day in second-place overall, only to fade immediately on the lower slopes of the Stelvio due to illness. He lost 18 minutes and plummeted from the top of the general classification. Maglia rosa Paolo Savoldelli also lost time to Gilberto Simoni and Danilo Di Luca. He was able to retain the race lead by a scant 25 seconds.
What will we see this year? Can you say chaos? It seems unlikely that snow and ice will play a role in the stage’s outcome. Expect to see fireworks all day long. Quintana and the other contenders will need to attack Tom Dumoulin in an attempt to gain back chunks of time. Will they go early and often, putting pressure on Dumoulin’s Sunweb teammates to try and bring back attackers? Will Dumoulin be isolated late in the stage as a result? Or will the race come down to one big push on the final ascent of the Umbrail? In any event, the stage has all the makings of a day of racing that will be talked about for years to come.