In the weeks before the 2013 edition of Italy’s Giro Rosa, Mara Abbott and Team USA fixated on a short and extremely steep hill that appeared on the race’s GPS stage details. The team decided that the steep ramp, with 30% pitches, could influence the race, and decided that they had better be at the front of the peloton when the group hit the climb.
Weeks later, when the women sped to the base of the supposed hill, they were greeted by something else entirely.
“So when we got toward that kilometer marker on race day, the whole team got on the front of the pack,” Abbott said. “And then, we went through a tunnel.”
The GPS blunder is one of countless tales of confusion and glory told by women who race the Giro Rosa, the longest and hardest stage race in women’s pro cycling. Launched in 1988 as the Giro Donna, and then rebranded the Giro d’Italia Feminine and then Giro Rosa, the race has become one of the most prestigious events on the women’s pro calendar. Abbott ended up winning the 2013 edition of the race, which was one of the biggest achievements of her career. Her Giro titles from 2010 and 2013 make her the only American to have won the race twice.
“The Giro Rosa was everything,” Abbott said. “That was the reason that I was a cyclist.”
And the dichotomy between the prestige and the gaffe sits at the heart of a paradox surrounding the event. Abbott’s story is hardly unique, and the 10-day race is infamous for its challenging logistics, long transfers, and questionable lodging. Hardly anyone has been given a glimpse into the event’s operations, so nobody knows for sure why the Giro each year throws curveballs at its participants. Nevertheless the race remains women’s cycling’s only grand tour, perhaps the most prestigious race on the calendar to win.
And the Giro Rosa has stubbornly held its June calendar spot since its debut in 1988. The Giro Rosa always occurs during the Tour de France, and despite requests to change the date from everyone from team directors to the UCI, the organization has indicated that it has no plans to remove the race from the Tour’s shadow.
What does it mean when the hardest, longest, most prestigious and beloved race in the women’s peloton is a mystery to most of the world? Perhaps the Giro Rosa gives us a lens through which to examine the ecosystem of women’s pro racing itself.
“If women’s cycling is really improving, then all the races should be, as well,” says Trek-Segafredo’s Elisa Longo Borghini.
Racing the Rosa
The Giro Donne was launched in 1988 and came to popularity in the 1990s, as other promoters launched major stage races for female pro riders. During the high point of the sport it sat alongside the Tour de l’Aude and Route de France Feminine as a long, multi-day stage race for the stars of the sport. Many of today’s pro riders grew up with the race having been cemented as a stalwart on the international calendar.
Longo Borghini, 28, has completed eight editions of the Giro Rosa, and like many other riders, she was young and inexperienced during her first attempt at the race in 2011.
“We did the Mortirolo, and for a young girl, it was hard,” she said. “I remember that I came to the top and there was my dad cheering for me, but I was so boiled at the first switchback that I went into a sign and crashed. That really messed me up in my head.”
Since the Giro Rosa course changes each year, riders arrive prepared for anything. The climbing can come at the beginning of the race or not until midway through. Flat, seemingly innocuous stages can be the stage for the biggest drama. According to Boels-Dolmans team director Danny Stam, the 2017 Giro Rosa was won where no one expected it.
“There were a lot of mountain stages, and we made the biggest gain in a flat stage,” he said, referring to Anna van der Breggan’s GC victory. “It wasn’t won in the mountains but on a flat and windy day where everyone expected that nothing should happen.”
Managing expectations at the Giro Rosa might be racers’ most important tactic. Some of Abbott’s most prescient takeaways from the Giro Rosa have to do with adjusting or altogether abandoning expectations. Riders arrive at the Giro Rosa in top form, have spent the spring racing the classics and May and June dedicated to preparing for the Italian stage race. That’s not the challenge with the Giro Rosa, Abbott says. It’s all of the things that riders can’t control, like the long transfers between stages, inaccuracies in the course map, and inconsistencies in hotel quality.
“It is stressful,” Abbott said, “but if you can accept that stuff and roll with it, it gives you an advantage. If you can just focus on the 3-4 hours of racing and accept that everything else is out of your control you have a huge advantage.”
Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio, who currently rides for CCC-Liv, also spoke of how form often takes the backseat to chance at the Giro Rosa; how a puncture or bad stomach at some point during the race can derail even the most perfect preparation. It’s not impossible to come around from mishaps, she says, but they’re also a good reminder that not everything is within a rider’s control.
“Tour riding is kind-of an art and a lot of luck thrown in,” she said. “To be able to win the Giro things have to go right throughout the race. If you suffer one mishap you’re gonna pay for it.”
Impossible, but not physically
Ten days of racing may present ten more opportunities for things to go wrong, yet everyone agrees: the Giro Rosa’s length is not a problem.
“I loved it,” Abbott said. “By the end you’re pretty worn out, but if you’re not completely wasted, then what the hell were you doing anyway?”
In 2009, Abbott’s first year racing in Europe, the Giro Rosa stood alongside two other 10-day tours, the Tour de l’Aude and the Route de France. Although the Giro Rosa has persevered while other stage races have come and gone, its longevity is less about what type of racing women are capable of and more its ability to weather the financial storms that have shuttered other events.
Is 10 days the sweet spot for women’s racing then? For 2021 there is a new 10-day race slated for the pro calendar in Denmark, called the Battle of the North. The 10-day format bears consideration, due to the increasing calls for a 21-day women’s Tour de France to be added to the calendar. While riders and directors agree that women are perfectly capable of racing 12, 15, or 21 days, the real question is why the calendar should include anything longer.
Stam cautions against putting more long stage races on the calendar for two reasons. One is actually a physical impossibility: the women’s peloton simply isn’t big enough to spread itself across multiple stage races per season. Teams are already small, with 12 or 16 riders, meaning some riders must compete in most or all of the events.
The other argument against a 21-day race is more philosophical.
“If it’s there, they will do it,” Stam said. “Of course women can do three weeks like the men. But we must ask ourselves, what does it bring to women’s cycling if we do this?”
The secret race
Early in her collegiate career, Moolman-Pasio was identified as a talented climber, and thus a rider who would excel in multi-day stage races. She aspired to do well at the Giro Rosa; in fact, she still does. However, she’s lately found herself more frustrated than inspired.
“I’ve really started to question why we call the Giro our grand tour and give it so much significance,” she said. “No doubt it’s our most prestigious tour, but they don’t do a good job of marketing it.”
Complaints about the lack of exposure of the Giro Rosa in the media ring out from a chorus of journalists, riders, directors, and fans. Last year, Voxwomen and Trek sponsored a free hour-long broadcast of each of the race’s 10 stages. The episodes aired online, after the conclusion of the day’s Tour de France stage. This was an improvement over past years when journalists weren’t even granted access to press rooms or results.
Nevertheless, Moolman-Pasio feels that the historic lack of information about the race set a bad precedent.
“It’s a secret race,” she said. “No one would really follow it because they couldn’t. We’d put in all this effort because it was our grand tour, and then we’d go and race for ten days, and no one would know.”
While the issue of making women’s professional cycling more prevalent in media isn’t unique to the Giro Rosa, other problems are. The race is notorious for long transfers and towns that aren’t prepared to host hundreds of bike racers in July. Every rider has a memory of staying in a hotel without air conditioning, staring up at the ceiling when she should have been sleeping. Logistics like this create a disparity that threatens an already tenuous grasp that smaller, less-resourced teams have on racing grand tours. Some people chalk up the chaos of the Giro Rosa to the fact that it’s just the Italian way. Longo Borghini translates it like this:
“What they mean when they say that is that the organization is not really organized,” she said. “I would really like to see the Giro Rosa being close to the men’s Giro in terms of the organization.”
If there’s one thing that the Giro Rosa is celebrated for, it’s the riding. The course doesn’t mimic the Giro d’Italia; in fact, this year the men’s race will go to the Laghi di Cancano for the first time, while the women have raced it twice, in 2011 and 2019. Race director Giuseppi Rivolta told VeloNews that the event is structured around towns that solicit involvement, as well as “historical climbs which give prestige to the race.”
“There are no impossible routes, even for women,” he said.
What the Giro Rosa says about women’s cycling
In 2018, Rivolta included one of these routes in the Giro Rosa, sending women on a blazing individual time trial from Lanzada up 2,000 meters to Campo Moro in the seventh stage. A new climb in an Italian bike race is akin to trail blazing; so why isn’t the Giro Rosa more of a role model, leading the way for women’s cycling? Moolman-Pasio argues that, no matter how long or challenging a race is, it has to excel in other ways in order to attract attention.
“Pro cycling doesn’t just become popular,” she said. “It’s up to the organization to market the event. People don’t just arrive.”
Other events on the women’s calendar have taken that tactic to heart, and it’s working. The Women’s Tour, Britain’s six-day stage race, may not have the elevation profile of the Giro Rosa, but organizers have figured out other ways to showcase the event.
“They want to show us off,” said Moolman-Pasio. “They take us to the center of London to race.”
Stam agrees that the races that make themselves more palatable to spectators and the media will be the ones that carry the sport forward. As attempts are made to improve coverage of women’s racing, the lack of exposure at the Giro Rosa becomes a bigger problem, he says.
“This is the biggest and most prestigious stage race, and if you want to read something about it, you have to search the entire Internet,” he said. “When you ask if we can have more races like it, I’d say no, we still have a long way to go.”
What makes the conversation around adding more races, and longer races, to the women’s calendar even more challenging is limitation presented by the size of the field. That, too, is inextricably linked to issues of media coverage and sponsorship, the same factors that can sully a race’s popularity. Given what we know about the women’s peloton, which includes teams of 10-12 women, some of whom are managing part time jobs, what if the focus shifted from more, or longer, races to something wholly different?
“Women’s cycling shouldn’t imitate men’s,” Moolman-Pasio said. “We don’t want to go down that same road. The sport is outdated and governed by history. There’s this movement toward reinvention in all sporting disciplines, so if we try to imitate men to prove that women are just as capable, it’s counter-productive.”
It’s like Abbott and the national team discovered in 2013: even if the course has an unmarked tunnel, the women who ride the Giro Rosa will find the light.