Giro d'Italia
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Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: Has this Giro been over the top?

The difficulties — or, rather, the over-the-top difficulties — of this month’s Giro d’Italia conclude this Saturday with a final gnarly mountain stage that features the dreaded Colle delle Finestre and a concluding climb to Sestriere for the eighth summit finish in two weeks.

The upcoming Finestre stage is the last of eight summit finishes

Editor’s note: Every week through the 2011 road season, VeloNews Editor-at-Large John Wilcockson is writing about key features of the week’s racing. This is the 15th installment.

2011 Giro d'Italia stage 15

The difficulties — or, rather, the over-the-top difficulties — of this month’s Giro d’Italia conclude this Saturday with a final gnarly mountain stage that features the dreaded Colle delle Finestre and a concluding climb to Sestriere for the eighth summit finish in two weeks. And the riders are still talking about last weekend’s three stages that reinforced the argument that this grand tour has been far too tough.

The UCI does have parameters within which a grand tour has to conform (3,500km, 21 stages, two rest days) — and they were introduced as another measure in its anti-doping program — but perhaps there should also be limits on the number of summit finishes.

2011 wins for UCI ProTeams

(in UCI .1 races and higher through May 22)
1. HTC-Highroad 21 (seven riders)
2. Team RadioShack 15 (nine riders)
3. Garmin-Cervélo 14 (eight riders)
4. Lampre-ISD 14 (six riders)
Rabobank 14 (six riders)
6. Movistar 13 (seven riders)
7. Saxo Bank-SunGard 11 (four riders)
8. Omega Pharma-Lotto 11 (three riders)
9. Vacansoleil-DCM 10 (four riders)
10. Liquigas-Cannondale 9 (four riders)
Sky 9 (four riders)
12. Leopard-Trek 7 (three riders)
13. Euskaltel-Euskadi 6 (four riders)
14. Katusha 4 (three riders)
Astana 4 (three riders)
16. AG2R-La Mondiale 3 (three riders)
17. Quick Step 3 (two riders)
18. BMC Racing 3 (one rider)

The original reason for bike racers using drugs back in the 19th century was to enable them to be competitive in nonstop six-day track events or simply to make it to the finish of marathon classics like the 750km Paris-Brest-Paris. Today, the biological passport has helped to reduce the number of riders using drugs, so why present the peloton with a course so radical that some may again be tempted to cheat?

Taken separately, the stages last Friday, Saturday and Sunday were ones that could have been included in any grand tour; but having them run consecutively and each with a mountaintop finish made it a weekend from hell.

After the third and longest of those stages — more than eight hours in the saddle for the majority of the field — many riders were angry. French climber Jean Gadret, who’s in the top five overall, said, “That was inhuman.” Italy’s former race winner Danilo Di Luca called it “a monstrosity.” And Australia’s Richie Porte, one of race leader Alberto Contador’s top teammates, wrote on his Twitter account: “That was the hardest day I’ve ever had on a bike. Bloody hurt!”

The negative feedback continued this week, even after Monday’s rest day and a short time trial on Tuesday, when the peloton had to race more lengthy mountain stages, one of them over 230km. Riders were tired, the race was already settled, and the lengthy stages and frequent transfers simply added to their fatigue.

2011 Giro d'Italia stage 14 profile

What the riders resented the most was the 229km stage 14 that traversed five mountain passes and finished atop a 15-percent wall at Gardeccia. That day’s total amount of vertical gain, over a cumulative 60km of climbing, was a gargantuan 20,341 feet (6,200 meters) — far more than what alpinists climb from Base Camp to the summit of Mount Everest.

And that stage followed two others stages that had totaled 10 hours of racing, with one finishing on Austria’s Grossglockner at 7,011 feet (2,137 meters) elevation and the other on Monte Zoncolan, which has an average grade of almost 12 percent for 10km on a road so narrow that tech support was provided by motorcycles.

Perhaps the best quotes of the weekend were provided by race organizer Angelo Zomegnan, the man who conjured up this sadistic succession of stages, who was fuming when he heard his pièce de résistance, the Monte Crostis, was being eliminated from last Saturday’s stage.

When he was told that the race commissaires, after consulting with the team directors, had decided to cut the Crostis from the itinerary because they considered the vertiginous descent and 7km section of unpaved roads too dangerous, Zomegnan said the decision was crazy.

2011 Giro d'Italia stage 14

“The choice to not climb the Crostis came from those same directors who like to be in a car with air conditioning and television,” he said. Then, commenting on the UCI officials and the teams, he added, “I can only see that on one side there are cowards and on the other side ineptitude.”

It’s worth comparing the Crostis’ statistics with those of the upcoming Finestre. The Crostis is 14km long at an average 10.7-percent grade and turns to dirt for 7.4km, partly on the narrow, switchback descent; while the Finestre climbs for an interminable 18.5km at 9.2 percent, with the top 8km of the climb unpaved.

This is only the second time the monster mountain has been included in the Italian grand tour. It almost changed the podium of the 2005 Giro when pink jersey Paolo Savoldelli was dropped on the climb, but recovered enough on the newly surfaced descent to keep his overall lead over Gilberto Simoni and a youthful José Rujano (who won the stage into Sestriere).

Rujano is back this year, hoping to add a second stage win to the one he took on the Grossglockner last week, but with Contador utterly dominant on this Giro’s climbs there is virtually zero risk of any suspense like we witnessed six years ago. Especially as the 2011 peloton is just racing to survive what has been an unnecessarily rugged race.