The Giro d’Italia is always won or lost in the mountains, right?
Not this year.
Dirt roads feature twice at this year’s race, with a short gravel road detour on stage 9 providing a mere antipasti for some 35km of Tuscan dirt roads on stage 11 into Montalcino.
“It’s basically a mini Strade Bianche but tougher and more technical,” said Team BikeExchange sport director Matt White.
Packing four long sectors of sterrato into the final 70km, the Montalcino stage is a veritable gravel grinder that would do the midwest proud. Many voices in the peloton think – or fear – that the loose gravel stones of the strade could be just as important as the highest passes of the Alps in the battle for pink this month.
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“Even if you’re used to those off-road races, or you do recons, you can ride strade sections 10 times and never get used to them,” Deceuninck-Quick-Step director Klaas Lodeweyck told VeloNews. “If it rains the day before they can be super soft and dangerous. A flat tire or crash here could change our whole planning on GC.
“Everybody will have to be fully committed and confident, but you just hit the first section and you just hope you’re going to arrive at the finish line without bad luck. I think everyone is thinking about it.”
If anyone knows the carnage that can be caused by a wet day on the strade bianche, its Alexandre Vinokourov, Vincenzo Nibali, and Cadel Evans.
The last time the Giro ventured to the dirt in 2010, Evans won on a stage tracing similar roads to that on tap for May 19 this year. Race-leader Nibali slid out in the wet, filthy race into Montalcino and lost the GC lead to Vinokourov. The Kazakh may have pulled on the pink jersey after he washed away a layer of wet, greasy clay, but he sure didn’t enjoy the ride that earned him the maglia rosa.
“Maybe this stage ended up being harder than a mountain stage,” Vinokourov said at the time. “The last 45 kilometers were worse than Paris-Roubaix … I don’t think there’s a place for dirt roads like this in a stage race like the Giro.”
Does off-road racing have a place in grand tours? The debate rears its head every time the peloton turns off the tarmac in any of the three-week races.
However, unlike the gratuitous grind across the Plateau des Glières in last year’s Tour de France or the gravel climb of the Finestre that saw Chris Froome’s incredible move in the 2018 Giro, stage 11 this month makes for a full-on foray into the dirt.
Coming immediately after the first rest day, nerves will be jangling ahead of possible mayhem into Montalcino, whatever the weather. For any classification rider harboring pink jersey hopes, one untimely slide or puncture on the sterrato could spell disaster.
Team cars have little space to maneuver through the tight Tuscan tracks and roadside staffers are sometimes relied on to make tire changes. Nursing a slow puncture through a few kilometers of dirt of strade bianche can lose a one-day race. Having to do that in the middle of the Giro d’Italia could permanently puncture any challenge for the pink jersey.
Deceuninck-Quick-Step director Lodeweyck doesn’t oppose cobblestones in grand tours on the basis that most riders have experienced them at some point in their career. For many riders however, the loose stones of the sterrato are dangerously alien.
“I don’t think these stages should be in grand tours. They can change your whole expectation of GC, and teams can waste a lot of effort in just one second,” Lodeweyck said. “You can put a gravel section in it when it’s uphill. But the moment you hit it with a big speed in the peloton or on a downhill, just one rider has to lose control of the bike and a big crash can happen.”
Like it or not, the peloton will have some 1600 meters of gravel climbing to contend with on stage 9 and the full 35km of dirt racing on stage 11, and many teams have reconned the Montalcino stage in a bid to familiarise themselves with the unpredictable Tuscan stones.
Riders could gain or lose a lot on the 35km of dirt two weeks from now.
Nibali has become one of the most adept bike-handlers in the bunch since his turmoil 2010 and could come to the surface to bite. Other multi-skilled riders in the mold of the “Shark of Messina” – including junior MTB star and surprise podium finisher at this year’s Strade Bianche, Egan Bernal – could take more time on the roads into Montalcino than on any of the Giro’s high mountain stages.
“I think to be a grand tour winner, you need to be a well-rounded rider, so I believe these types of stages absolutely have a place,” Larry Warbasse told VeloNews. “Yes, they may be more dangerous than normal, but they also add a lot to the race dynamic, and they’re exciting to watch.”
Whether you’re for or against gravel grinding in grand tours, this year’s Strade stage will be a must-watch as GC contenders strap on their handlebar bags and comb out their beards for a day that could be make-or-break.
“People still look back on the images from 2010 when Cadel won the stage there,” Warbasse said of the 2010 Montalcino stage. “Maybe 2021 will be another classic.”