Giro d'Italia
The climb up the Colle delle Finestre will feature...

Preview: Decisive racing packed into Giro’s final week

The Italian grand tour features less climbing and more time trialing than normal, and the final week of racing should decide the winner

It’s as if the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France have had a brain transplant this season.

This year’s Tour looks like the Giro, and vice versa. The Tour is packed with a merciless string of climbs and is short on time trials, while the Giro features a Tour-like time trial of nearly 60 kilometers and serves up a “light” climber’s menu that is unlike anything the Giro’s seen in more than a decade.

Despite 21 stages totaling 3,480km that starts Saturday with a team time trial, the fight for the maglia rosa will be fought out over the final week. There are no major, first-week climbs, no dirt roads across Tuscany. Starting in stage 14’s 59.2km individual time trial, the final week will decide who earns the pink jersey.

With only six mountaintop finales, which is light by Giro standards, riders such as Rigoberto Urán (Etixx-Quick-Step) and Richie Porte (Sky) will be hoping to use the long time trial to open up important gaps to Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Fabio Aru (Astana). That means the climbers will have to attack every time the road tilts upward, and with a relative lack of truly challenging climbs, they cannot afford to let an opportunity slip past.

The sprinters will see more chances this year, with at least six clear opportunities, perhaps even a few more. Stage-hunters and puncheurs will also have more opportunities, as the GC favorites will be working to keep things tight going into the decisive final climbs. Perhaps that’s just what the Giro organizers were hoping for; a taut race that could go down to the penultimate stage to Sestriere.

Week one: Avoiding disaster

Crashes, and avoiding them, have proven decisive in recent grand tours. Mishaps have been part of cycling since its inception, but there’s been a steady uptick in high-profile crashes over the past few years. Though typically less nervous than the Tour, the Giro’s first week is laden with possible landmines for the GC contenders. Last year saw two protagonists go out early; Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) crashed hard in stage 6, derailing his hopes for an elusive pink jersey, while Dan Martin (Cannondale-Garmin) crashed in the opening stage last year in Belfast. Neither are back this year.

Like last year, the Giro opens with a team time trial, this time on a narrow, former railway along the Italian Riviera (sorry, it doesn’t go over the Cipressa or Poggio). The time differences shouldn’t be major in the 17.6km course into Sanremo, but the technical route will see the nerves ratcheting up.

The remainder of the first week is laden with tricky stages, with some hilly terrain and technical finales designed to spice up the sprint finishes that can often prove disastrous as the peloton fights for position. Stages 2-4 follow that pattern, and the Giro’s first mountaintop finish will come in stage 5, arriving atop the second-category climb to Abetone. Though not terribly steep, the finish-line time bonuses will come into play in the first-week chase for pink.

The sprinters will get their chances in the first week, especially riders like Juanjo Lobato (Movistar) and Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge), who can pack a punch in the explosive finales.

The first week closes out with the second summit finale in stage 8 to Campitello Matese. The lumpy stage ends with a first category climb, enough to reveal who has the legs. The stage should put a rider clearly into pink going into the second week.

Week two: Setting up the ‘fight for pink’

Following the first rest day on May 18, the Giro loops back north, with the decisive time trial waiting at the end of the week. A string of sprint and breakaway stages leads to the Giro’s third weekend, one that will prove pivotal about who has a real chance of winning the Giro.

The 59.2km time trial from Treviso to Valdobbiadene in stage 14 is the longest of this year’s grand tours, and will give wings to Porte and Urán, the latter who won on a similar course last year in Barolo. Contador inspected the course, and said it’s not nearly as lumpy as it appears in the official course profile, which will favor Porte and Urán even more. Contador’s time trialing abilities have receded, at least compared to the 2009 Tour, when he beat Fabian Cancellara in the long time trial around Lake Annecy. In stage 14, Contador, Aru, and the other climbers will be doing their best to limit their losses to Porte and Urán. If either of them can take huge gains, it will set up a real dogfight in the final week.

The weekend concludes with the 165km stage from Marostica to Madonna di Campiglio. The Passo Daone, with 31km to go, could see some long-distance attacks from stage hunters, but the GC favorites will likely hold their matches to the final, first-category run to the finish line. This is the first time since 1999 the Giro has returned to the climb, where Marco Pantani won the stage. He was caught with a high hematocrit afterward and was eventually kicked out of the race. No one’s hoping to see a repeat of that kind of off-race drama.

Week three: Attacking to win

Three major climbs in the final week will be the battleground in the real fight for pink. Depending on what happens in the time trial, the climbers will be forced to attack. Following the Giro’s second rest day, the race goes straight back into the climbs with the decisive, 174km 16th stage finishing atop Aprica. The five-climb stage tackles the feared Mortirolo climb, riding it up the steeper northern approach. The stage will prove pivotal, and none of the GC favorites can afford to cede ground at this point in the race.

A quick detour into Switzerland delivers up two stages for stage-hunters, ahead of the final two mountaintop finales that will crown the eventual winner. The 236km 19th stage to Cervinia features three first-category climbs packed into the last 75km of racing. The final, 19km grind up to Cervinia will favor riders such as Contador, who has the team and the reserves to go deep into the stage, and finish it off with a race-breaking acceleration late on the climb.

The final podium will be decided on the 199km penultimate stage that tackles the gravel-road climb up Colle delle Finestre. Set high in the Italian Alps, the spectacular climb will provide the last chance for riders to break their rivals. The final ramp to Sestriere will define any unsettled business going into the final sprint into Milano.