Final week’s Lavaredo and Zoncolan climbs dominate the course

By John Wilcockson

The 2007 route

The 2007 route

Photo: courtesy Giro d'Italia

The course for the 90th Giro d’Italia offers something for everyone — but the climbs in the final week should decide the winner. The May 12-June 3 grand tour has eight “flat” stages, five “mixed” stages, five mountain stages (with four summit finishes), two individual races against the clock (one of them a hill climb), and an opening team time trial that could see a bitter battle between the top teams — with CSC, starting with world time trial champion Fabian Cancellara and U.S. TT champ Dave Zabriskie, the favorite.

Indeed, the opening stage TTT is a challenging 25.6km long, linking the islands of Caprera and Maddalena off the spectacular Costa Smeralda, Sardinia’s northeastern coast. It will be an unusual opening to the 3486.2km Giro on a technical course that showcases the spectacular island scenery and could create big gaps between the race favorites.

The TTT precedes two hilly stages on the main island of Sardinia that should both end in sprints. Team Milram’s top sprinter Alessandro Petacchi, who missed most of the 2006 Giro because of injury and is keen to increase his career tally of 19 Giro stage wins, said, “I’m more relaxed than last year. I see more chances for me and my team. I would like to take part in the three grand tours and win at least one stage in each. The Giro is the first one.”

Petacchi and the other sprinters, including Australia’s Robbie McEwen (Predictor-Lotto) and two-time Giro points winner Paolo Bettini (Quick Step-Innergetic), will find some more opportunities for stage wins once the race reaches the mainland. After crossing the Tyrrhenian Sea for a rest day in Salerno, the 2007 Giro continues with another picture-perfect stage, which opens with a loop around the cliff-lined Amalfi peninsula and ends with a 17km, 5-percent-grade climb to the first of the summit finishes at Montevergine di Mercogliano. Both Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Fondital) and Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas) have taken stages on this first summit finish.

Unusually, the next four stages head north up the spine of Italy’s Apennine mountains, without hitting either coast. Two of these stages look destined for sprinters, including the Giro’s longest one — a giant 254km — from Spoleto to Scarperia, while the other two favor opportunists.

Then, after another sprinters’ stage to the coastal resort of Lido de Camaiore, the race reaches its next decisive day. This one, stage 10, heads over the spectacular hills of Cinque Terre, and continues up the coast to Genoa before heading to a “new” summit finish. After a marathon 250km in the saddle, the Santuario Nostra Signora della Guardia is reached on a narrow, twisting climb that averages almost 8 percent for 9km, with a maximum 14-percent pitch.

That challenging finish will give some indication which of the former winners (Cunego, Paolo Savoldelli of Astana, Gilberto Simoni of Saunier Duval and Stefano Garzelli of Acqua & Sapone) is on his best climbing form ahead of the only day in the Alps. After a flat opening 60km, stage 12 heads up the mighty Colle dell’Agnello, climbing for almost 40km, with the final 9km averaging a daunting 10 percent. At 9101 feet, this is the highest point of the race, where the Cima Coppi prize is awarded. The narrow road then plunges into France to tackle the mythic Col d’Izoard before the 163km stage finishes on a short, steep climb in Briançon.

As in 2000, when Garzelli clinched his Giro title in a hilly time trial after a stage to Briançon over the Agnello and Izoard, the 2007 edition also features a TT. This one is only 12.6km long, but it climbs all the way from Biella, first on grades of 3 and 5 percent, and then on grades from 6 to 13 percent, to the finish at the Santuario di Oropa. It was here in 1999 that Pantani created a sensation by coming back from a mechanical at the foot of the hill, passing all of his rivals and winning the road stage by 21 seconds over Laurent Jalabert, with Simoni in third.

The final week of racing will be headlined by two mountaintop finishes at Tre Cime di Lavaredo (stage 15) and Monte Zoncolan stage 17), but there are also some tough climbs on stage 14 to Bergamo (including the rarely used Passo San Marco, which climbs though a mind-boggling 5757 vertical feet in 26km!), stage 16 to Lienz (the Passo di Campolongo and Bannberg mountains) and stage 19 to Comano Terme (the Pian delle Fugazze and Ballino climbs).

Cycling legends Eddy Merckx and Greg LeMond have diverging memories of the infamous climb to stage 15’s Tre Cime di Lavaredo summit in the rocky splendor of the Dolomites. When the remote climb was first used at the Giro in 1967, the stage was nullified because the partisan fans had pushed their favorite Italians up the final 4km, averaging a nasty 12.2 percent, to the 7611-foot summit. A year later, riding through a blizzard, the 22-year-old Merckx didn’t need any outside assistance as he sliced through the snow and slaughtered his Italian opposition. His main rival, defending champion Felice Gimondi, finished five minutes back as Merckx grabbed the leader’s pink jersey and went on to win his first grand tour.

Twenty-one years after that memorable stage, at the 1989 Giro, LeMond remembered the vicious Lavaredo climb for a much different reason. Still recovering from gunshot wounds sustained two years earlier, the Californian struggled in the back group, laboriously riding through a cold rainstorm to reach the summit more than 10 minutes behind stage winner Lucho Herrera of Colombia and the other leaders. LeMond was on the point of quitting the race, but he managed to get through the final 10 days, came in second at the final day’s time trial, and went on to win the Tour de France a few weeks later.

Remembering the Lavaredo climb at the ’89 race, America’s only Giro champion, Andy Hampsten, said, “The Tre Cime is one of the steepest, longest climbs I’ve ever done. We fitted 39×26 gears … and I kept it in my 26 sprocket most of the time. It was a dramatic finish, with the heavy rain and huge crowds.”

The Giro hasn’t returned to Lavaredo since that rainy day 17 years ago, so none of the current racers has competed on the Tre Cime. What they will find on May 27, besides the stunning Dolomite scenery (and maybe another rainstorm), is a 184km stage that features more than 16,000 feet of climbing. After a flat 40km run from the start in Trento, the course climbs for about 30km to the Passo San Pellegrino, then tackles the Colle San Lucia and Passo Giau (10km at almost 10 percent!) before crossing the Passo Tre Croci (8km at 7.5 percent) to reach the ultra-steep final, which has some pitches as steep as 18 percent.

The Monte Zoncolan is a very different type of mountain and has little of the Lavaredo’s history. At “only” 5675 feet elevation, this ski-station summit has featured in only one Giro, three years ago. Fans will remember it for being the climb where Marco Pantani, making a late comeback to the sport, made one of his final attacks in the final race of his tragic career. He died of a cocaine overdose the following winter.

That 2003 stage up to Monte Zoncolan was on the “easier” east side of the mountain, and was won by eventual Giro winner Simoni. This year’s stage 17 tackles the steeper, longer western approach. It’s just 10km long but climbs almost 4000 feet in that distance; the middle section averages a back-breaking 16 percent as it zigzags up a grassy mountainside, with some switchbacks as steep as 22 percent.

Hoping to repeat his stage win of three years ago, Simoni said, “The finish on Monte Zoncolan is one that I like. I’ve already tried it on my mountain bike; it will be 45 to 50 minutes of tremendous suffering.”

If all of that uphill work in the Dolomites fails to produce a clear winner, the decision will come in the mainly flat 43km stage 20 time trial through the Valpolicella vineyards between Bardolino and Verona. In 1984, a TT of the same length ending in Verona saw Francesco Moser score a come-from-behind victory, averaging 50.977 kph, to beat race leader Laurent Fignon by an astounding 2:24 to win what was the final stage and the Giro. The Italian’s win was controversial, with the Fignon camp accusing organizer Vincenzo Torriani of planting a helicopter right behind Moser and literally blowing him to victory. Don’t expect such shenanigans in 2007.

This year’s Giro ends in Milan with a traditional 10 laps of an inner-city circuit finishing on the Corsa Venezia — a stage that could see “headliner” Petacchi rivaling the career stage-victory hauls of “legends” Moser (23 wins), Giuseppe Saronni (24) and Eddy Merckx (25).

2007 Giro d’Italia
May 12, Stage 1:
Caprera-La Maddalena TTT, 25.6km
May 13, Stage 2: Tempio Pausania-Bosa, 205km
May 14, Stage 3: Barumni-Cagliari, 181km
May 15, Rest day and transfer
May 16, Stage 4: Salerno-Montevergine*, 153km
May 17, Stage 5: Teano-Frascati, 173km
May 18, Stage 6: Tivoli-Spoleto, 177km
May 19, Stage 7: Spoleto-Scarperia, 254 km
May 20, Stage 8: Barberino di Mugello-Fiorano Modenese, 200 km
May 21, Stage 9: Reggio Emilia-Lido di Camaiore, 177km
May 22, Stage 10: Lido di Camaiore-Santuario Guardia*, 250km
May 23, Stage 11: Serravalle-Pinerolo, 198 km
May 24, Stage 12: Scalenghe-Briançon (France), 163km
May 25, Stage 13: Biella-Santuario di Oropa TT*, 12.6km
May 26, Stage 14: Cantu-Bergamo, 192km
May 27, Stage 15: Trento-Tre Cime di Lavaredo*, 184km
May 28: Rest day
May 29, Stage 16: Agordo-Lienz (Austria), 189km
May 30, Stage 17: Lienz (A)-Monte Zoncolan*, 142km
May 31, Stage 18: Udine-Riese Pio X, 203km
June 1, Stage 19: Treviso-Comano Terme, 179km
June 2, Stage 20: Bardolino-Verona TT, 43km
June 3, Stage 21: Vestone-Milan, 185km
(* indicates summit finish)

Total distance: 3486.2km