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Why the Giro still holds its charm

Long stages, high mountains, and unpredictable weather have become part of the Giro d'Italia's identity and throw riders challenges not faced at the Tour de France or Vuelta a Espana.

It’s long, it’s hard, it’s mean — the Giro d’Italia retains its old-school charm. Some hate it, most love it.

When race organizers revealed its 2020 route, it reconfirmed its commitment to a more traditional grand tour look. Packed with longer stages, grinding climbs and a blend of time trials and sprint-friendly stages, the 2020 Giro is more balanced compared to what next year’s Tour de France offers up.

Everyone is still waiting for the December 17 coming out party for the 2020 Vuelta a España route, but no one should expect too many surprises. The Vuelta is expected to stay true to its modern tilt, starting next year in the Netherlands, with early hints of a possible stage at the Col du Tourmalet.

So what do the riders think of the Giro’s old-school roots? Throughout the season, we asked riders and sport directors why longer, 200km-plus stages still have a place in cycling.

“It’s a beautiful race, you never know what’s going to happen in the Giro,” said Joe Dombrowski, set to move to UAE-Emirates in 2020. “Maybe it’s the last bit in cycling that there are surprises.”

Mitchelton-Scott’s Simon Yates, who has a love-hate relationship with the Giro, said longer stages are what help make the Italian grand tour so unique.

The Giro’s decision to stick with old-school long stages has become part of its identity.. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

“With the history of the sport, we’ve always had long stages. There is still a place for them. We need to find a balance,” Yates said. “I would prefer shorter stages. In the past, the stronger riders and the guys who were training more – they would come to the fore in the longer stages. Now, everyone is training the same way. The same guys will be there if it’s 140km or if it’s 240km.”

The Giro’s old-school layout, coupled with a tempting and challenging road route at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, is luring many top names toward the Giro over the Tour. Others, such as Alejandro Valverde, have confirmed they will race the Tour as well, but only as preparation for the Olympics or for a chance to win a stage.

Vincenzo Nibali, set to join Trek-Segafredo in 2020, has already confirmed he will race the Giro. Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) also confirmed he will race the Giro for the first time of his career.

Sagan could be in for a big surprise, especially in the Giro’s final week that is packed with long climbs across stages that push more than 200km per day.

José Azevedo, a former pro and ex-Katusha manager, said it’s not the distance that makes a race hard, but rather how a stage is raced.

“What makes the race hard is not the distance,” Azevedo said. “It can be a long stage, but if it’s raced at 35kph for the first two hours, it’s not bad. Sometimes a short stage when they go full-gas from the beginning can be more tiring. What makes the race harder is the riders.”

The longer stage distances of the Giro, coupled with its sometimes-unpredictable weather, is what makes the Italian race unique and so challenging.

Rain fell through much of the opening week in the 2019 Giro, typical of the unpredictable weather associated with the race. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images.

As fans have seen in the past few editions of the Giro, the wild swings in GC are often provoked by the longer, more grinding distances of key mountain stages.

“There is a fatiguing element to the Giro you don’t see as much in other races,” Dombrowski said. “The Tour is more stressful, but at the Giro, physically you have to be more switched on if the weather is bad. If you race in the cold and rain every day, it adds up.”

But does it add up to more exciting racing?

That’s a key debate question that will play out in 2020. With the Tour de France offering a modern-style course — short on time trials and packed with challenging terrain across three weeks — the difference to the Giro could not be more striking.

Is one better than the other? That’s a personal choice. Both will likely offer up tantalizing racing, just with a bit different flavors. As Giro organizer Mauro Vegni likes to say, cycling’s grand tours are like the grand slams in tennis. One does not stand above the other. They’re equal in standing and prestige.

That’s true now more than ever in cycling as both the Giro and Vuelta have upped their attractiveness with innovative courses over the past decade or so, and the peloton has responded in kind. The Vuelta has gone full modern gonzo, while the Giro is staying true to its traditional roots. It almost seems as if now the Tour is trying to play catch-up.