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A man battling cancer will likely be following the results of the 93rd Giro d’Italia more closely than anyone else over the next three weeks. That’s because Aldo Sassi, the 51-year-old Italian physiologist who had a brain tumor removed last month, is the coach to the Giro’s top two contenders, Ivan Basso and Cadel Evans.
“They’re like two sons to me and I can’t choose between them,” Sassi told La Gazzetta dello Sport last week. “Cadel is the strongest athlete I’ve ever coached. Ivan is the one with the most determination.”
Sassi says that both of his clients are approaching form that will enable them to contend with the other main favorites, Carlos Sastre and Alexander Vinokourov. The only one of these four yet to win a grand tour is Evans, but BMC Racing’s Aussie has three podiums (two at the Tour de France, one at the Vuelta a España), and he is competing with more confidence since he won the world road title last October.
“I think the rainbow jersey has changed him in a very positive way during the race,” Sassi said. “He has become more like a general.”
Evans, who has been given the No. 1 bib at this Giro in the absence of 2009 winner Denis Menchov, will need to be a general in a team that is competing in its first grand tour. There to help him are three Americans (Brent Bookwalter, Jeff Louder and John Murphy) and five Swiss (Martin Kohler, Mauro Santambrogio, Michael Schär, Florian Stalder and Danilo Wyss).
Most of the BMC riders have completed mountainous stage races like the Tour de Romandie and Dauphine Libéré, and they have all shown this season they will ride 100-percent for Evans. And the Aussie’s recent victory at the Flèche Wallonne confirms both his and his team’s readiness.
The route for the 2010 Giro d’Italia has elicited a sense of awe from most racers, who see the final week as the week from hell. The highlights look like being (despite the forecast cold rain) massive crowds this weekend in the Dutch city of Amsterdam for the opening time trial and two long road stages; the stage 4 team time trial on the first day back in Italy next Wednesday; no less than six mountaintop finishes, including a repeat of the ultra-steep dirt-road hill climb to Plan de Corones on May 25, and a hilly final TT on May 30 to Verona’s 2,000-year-old Roman amphitheatre (see stage details below).
Without defending champion Menchov and other habitual grand tour contenders like Lance Armstrong and Levi Leipheimer (their RadioShack team turned down its invitation), Astana’s Alberto Contador, Saxo Bank’s Andy and Fränk Schleck, and Caisse d’Épargne’s Alejandro Valverde, this Giro is going to be more open and dynamic than ever.
It could even open the way for riders like Christian Vande Velde of Garmin-Transitions and Brad Wiggins of Team Sky, both of whom say they are riding the Giro as preparation for the Tour, but they might shoot for a podium spot in Italy if the circumstances play out for them.
A similar argument might be made for three former winners of the Giro, Acqua & Sapone’s Stefano Garzelli (who won in 2000) and Lampre-Farnese’s Damiano Cunego (2004) and veteran Gilberto Simoni (2001 and 2003), who have declared they will just be trying to win a stage or two.
Androni-Diquigiovanni’s Michele Scarponi has also been mentioned as a favorite, but the best of his four Giro finishes was only 16th back in 2003. An Italian climber with a better chance of success is Colnago-CSF’s Domenico Pozzovivo, who was ninth at the Giro two years ago and last month won the most difficult stage of the Giro del Trentino.
Team Astana’s Vinokourov won the Trentino race largely because of taking the opening time trial, but the Kazakh veteran has returned with a vengeance from his two-year ban for blood doping at the 2007 Tour, and it is hard to rule out such a determined character from the victory stakes.
As for the 2008 Tour winner Carlos Sastre of Cervélo TestTeam, he has never implicated in doping affairs, and the score of grand tours he has ridden attest to the 35-year-old’s longevity. At last year’s Giro, he won two stages and finished fourth overall — second if runner-up Danilo Di Luca (suspended for testing positive for EPO-CERA) and third-place Franco Pellizotti (who is out of this year’s race because of suspicious blood parameters in his biological passport) are removed from the result — and Sastre will be fresh for the final week after choosing to race fewer than 10 times this season.
Which brings us to Liquigas team leader Ivan Basso, the 2006 Giro winner who finished one place behind Sastre last year. He has not had an easy time on his comeback from a two-year suspension that emanated from his admitted involvement in the Operación Puerto doping scandal of 2006; but he has regained the support of his fans and the confidence of his trainer.
As Sassi said last week: “If either Ivan or Cadel win the Giro, we’ll have the proof that you can win without doping. I totally trust them and I’m certain they wouldn’t do anything to hurt me.” We know the cancer patient will be watching very closely.
Saturday May 8, Stage 1: Amsterdam TT (8.4km)
The boot-shaped course for this opening time trial on the flat (and likely wet) city streets of Amsterdam has a dozen sharp turns and a double-crossing of the Amstel River. It starts outside the famed Van Gogh Museum that features the Dutch artist’s Sunflower collection, and finishes opposite the Rijksmuseum that showcases the paintings of Rembrandt and Vermeer. The stage looks made for Sky’s Olympic pursuit champ Brad Wiggins or fellow Brit David Millar of Garmin.
Sunday May 9, Stage 2: Amsterdam—Utrecht (210km)
This twisting course through the small towns and farmland to the southeast of Amsterdam is completely flat except for two small hills, both less than 200 feet elevation. Crowds will be huge for a stage passing through this densely populated area. If anyone other than a sprinter (perhaps HTC’s André Greipel, Tyler Farrar of Garmin, Robbie McEwen of Katusha or Alessandro Petacchi of Lampre) wins this opening road stage in Utrecht it will be a huge surprise.
Monday May 10, Stage 3: Amsterdam—Middelburg (224km)
This is probably the flattest stage in Giro history, with parts of the course at or below sea level — where high levees protect the land from the sea. On the second half of the course, after it passes through Rotterdam (start point of the Tour de France in two months’ time), the peloton will likely be blasted by west winds from the North Sea. The winds and constant changes of direction will see echelons forming, which could spell danger for the lightly built climbers, even before reaching the day’s final 37km loop at Middelburg.
Tuesday May 11: Rest day
This will be devoted to traveling from the Netherlands to Italy, the riders taking charter flights between Rotterdam and Turin, while the race entourage will have an all-day 1,200km drive across Europe. This early rest day means that it’s followed by 12 consecutive days of racing!
Wednesday May 12, Stage 4: Savigliano—Cuneo TTT (33km)
This should be a fast team time trial, even though the start and finish are respectively in the medieval hearts of the walled cities of Savigliano and Cuneo. Three U.S. teams, BMC Racing, HTC-Columbia and Garmin-Transitions, should be among the challengers of the top home formation, Liquigas, on the 32.5km course.
Thursday May 13, Stage 5: Novara—Novi Ligure (162km)
Commemorating the 50th anniversary of cycling legend Fausto Coppi’s death, this largely flat stage has two short climbs — including one close to the village of Castellania, where Coppi was born (and buried) — before a 21km finishing loop at Novi Ligure, where the campionissimo worked as a butcher’s bicycle-errand boy before he took up bike racing. This stage, like the previous road stages in the Netherlands, has “sprinter” written all over it.
Friday May 14, Stage 6: Fidanza—Carrara (172km)
After an easy transfer along the Po Valley, this stage heads south across the Apennines. It includes the first three significant climbs of the race, and notably the Passo del Cucco and Foce di Ortonovo, respectively 29km and 8km from the uphill finish in Carrara — the town famed for its quarries of white marble. Look for strong climbers like Cunego, Garzelli and Scarponi to make their first bids for a stage win.
Saturday May 15, Stage 7: Carrara—Montalcino (222km)
The first weekend of racing in Italy should be spectacular, starting with this difficult 222km stage 7 through Tuscany. It marks the 10th anniversary of Italian legend Gino Bartali’s death with a course that visits many of the places where he trained and raced from his home in Florence. After a first couple of hours racing down the Tyrrhenian coast, the peloton will head inland through Pisa and climb to Volterra before a hilly finale that takes in two 10km-long stretches of strade bianche, the infamous dusty white roads made famous by the Montepaschi Eroica race. The second of these sectors is almost entirely uphill and ends only 8km from the finish in Montalcino — where Filippo Pozzato of Katusha will be a stage win favorite.
Sunday May 16, Stage 8: Chianciano—Monte Terminillo (189km)
Although the first 170km of this stage has plenty of significant uphills and steep descents, all the focus will be on the Giro’s first mountaintop finish at Monte Terminillo in the Abruzzese Apennines of central Italy. The finish line will be at 1,672 meters (5,485 feet) elevation, not at the mountain’s 2,216-meter (7,270-foot) summit as has been erroneously reported. Even so, the 15km, 8-percent climb is extremely tough. Commenting on the Terminillo, Basso said, “You have to watch out for that stage; it’s the first summit finish but it could well be decisive!”
Monday May 17, Stage 9: Frosinone—Cava de’ Tirreni (187km)
After a weekend of challenging stages, the peloton will be happy to return to the plains, and this rolling 187km stage 9 south of Rome will give both the breakaways and sprinters a chance of success.
Tuesday May 18, Stage 10: Avellino—Bitonto (230km)
The sprinters will get a second bite of the cherry on a second rolling stage, this one across the foot of the Italian peninsula to Bitonto, near the Adriatic city of Bari. But the probable heat-wave weather might favor the breakaways over the sprinters.
Wednesday May 19, Stage 11: Lucera—L’Aquila (262km)
If the temperatures are high, this marathon stage of 262km — likely to be the longest time-wise since the 2000 Giro when Axel Merckx won a 265km stage to Prato in 10 minutes short of eight hours! — will give everyone painful memories of this Giro’s halfway point. The finish town of L’Aquila was near the epicenter of the 5.8-level earthquake in April 2009 that killed more than 300 people, left 65,000 homeless and caused an estimated $16 billion in damage. Seven or more hours in the saddle over a course featuring three difficult climbs in the Apennines almost guarantees that a breakaway will succeed.
Thursday May 20, Stage 12: Citta Sant’Angelo—Porto Recanati (205km)
This transitional stage travels north up the flat Adriatic coast for 100km before heading inland for a loop that ends with a lap and a half of a hilly 24km circuit at Porto Recanati. This stage should be a last one for the sprinters before this Giro gets really tough.
Friday May 21, Stage 13:Porto Recanati—Cesenatico (223km)
The whole race and its entourage will be pleased that for the first time in two weeks a stage will start at the same place as the previous one finished. And the good vibrations should continue for a good four hours up the coast through Rimini before stage 13 takes in two steep climbs and then descends for the final 35km into Cesenatico — hometown of the late Marco Pantani. A stage for the aggressors.
Saturday May 22, Stage 14: Ferrara—Asolo (205km)
A quick glance at the map would make you think this was an easy stage across the Po Valley from historic Ferrara (home of controversial Italian coach Dr. Michele Ferrari) to the exquisite hilltop town of Asolo. But there’s a sting in the tail. Upon reaching the Asolo finish line, the riders will have another 80km to race, including the formidable Monte Grappa, which climbs through 1,501 vertical meters (4,925 feet) in 18.9km at an average grade of 7.9 percent. The summit is followed by a twisting 25km downhill and 12km of flats before a second short climb to the Asolo finish. Monte Grappa will catch out the weakest of the remaining favorites … but the winners will emerge the following day.
Sunday May 23, Stage 15: Mestre—Monte Zoncolan (222km)
Few stages are tougher than this one. It starts near Venice and heads northeast into the Dolomites for the 2010 Giro’s second summit finish, this time on the ultra-steep slopes of Monte Zoncolan. Three demanding climbs precede the finale, which is only 10.1km long from the town of Ovaro. But the Zoncolan has an average gradient of 12 percent, with a couple of pitches over 20 percent. It suits a pure climber like Pozzovivo or Simoni — who has won each of the two stages that have finished here.
Monday May 24: Rest day
This may be a rest day (well earned!), but with four more summit finishes coming up in the final six days, most of the riders will probably spend the time anxious about what lies ahead.
Tuesday May 25, Stage 16: San Vigilio di Marebbe—Plan de Corones TT (12.9km)
The Plan de Corones uphill time trial is only 12.9km long, but the one time it has been included in the Giro, in 2008, stage winner Pellizotti took 40 minutes and 26, seconds to complete the brutal climb. That’s an average speed of just 19.142 kph, which gives an idea of its steepness. It opens with a 3.7-pecent grade over 2.5km, continues at 9 percent for the next 5km, then reaches double-digits for the last 5.25km on a dirt road, with one pitch as steep as 24 percent 1km before the 2,273-meter (7,457-foot) summit. Surprisingly, Pellizotti won the previous TT here by only six seconds over Emanuele Sella and 17 seconds over Simoni; six men were within 50 seconds of the winner, including eventual Giro champ Contador in fourth.
Wednesday May 26, Stage 17: Brunico—Pejo Terme (173km)
If there is such a thing as an easy mountain stage, this is it. The day’s only categorized climb, the little-used Passo delle Palade (18.8km at 6.6 percent), is more than 66km from the stage end at Pejo Terme — and though this is technically a summit finish, the average grade is less than 5 percent for most of the last 10km. A day for the breakaway riders.
Thursday May 27, Stage 18: Levico Terme—Brescia (140km)
And this short stage should be one for the sprinters — if there are any left in the race. It’s downhill to Trento and then flat-to-rolling along the western shore of Lake Garda before a flat circuit finish in Brescia.
Friday May 28, Stage 19: Brescia—Aprica (195km)
The riders will have had the luxury of only their second night without a transfer before starting what the organizers have given its highest ranking of difficulty with five stars. It starts out easy enough, with a couple of hours of mainly flat roads past Lake Iseo to Édolo. Then the climbing begins, first with a 15-percent pitch to start the then gradual 13km ascent to Aprica, where the finish line is placed. But to reach it a second (and final) time, the survivors have to scale the 11km climb to Trivigno (the first 7km averages 9.5 percent!) and then the infamous 12km Passo del Mortirolo (whose middle half averages 12.3 percent that opens with an 18-percent pitch). After a second hair-raising downhill, the 195km stage repeats the final haul up from Édolo to Aprica. This is where Basso, Evans and Sastre have to show their strength — and where Vinokourov could struggle.
Saturday May 29, Stage 20: Bormio—Passo del Tonale (178km)
If the Mortirolo doesn’t give the 2010 Giro its final judgment, the race director has inserted another five-star stage that features more than 14,000 feet of climbing the day before the finish! It opens with a 123km loop into Switzerland, climbing the 18km, 7-percent Forcola di Livigno and two lesser peaks before returning to Bormio. Then comes the monstrous Passo di Gavia, famed for its epic crossing in a blizzard that earned Andy Hampsten the pink jersey he kept until the end of the 1988 Giro. In 2010, the 24.9km, 5.6-pecent Gavia is followed by a long descent and then a summit finish on the Passo del Tonale (another 11km at 5.7 percent). A brutal penultimate stage.
Sunday May 30, Stage 21: Verona—Verona TT (15km)
The Giro completes its 3,510.7km of racing with a short, but challenging time trial in Verona, hometown of Cunego. The 15.3km course is a reverse of the famous Torricelle circuit that has been used for two world championships (both won by Oscar Freire). The first 4km is flat, then comes the 4.8km climb to Torricelle, a rapid descent into the streets of Verona and a final flat 1.7km to the finish at the city’s Roman amphitheatre. A grand arrival for one of the toughest grand tours in years.
You can follow John at twitter.com/johnwilcockson.