Always expect the unexpected, that should be the motto of the Giro d’Italia.
This year’s course covers a total of 3,450 kilometers and features a whopping 47,000 meters of altitude gain, enough to climb Mt Everest just over five times.
GC upsets can happen almost anywhere in the race, even on the simplest of days, but there are some stages in particular that will test the pre-race favorites to their limits.
These are six of the stages that you cannot miss in the fight for the maglia rosa.
Stage 9: Sunday, May 16 — Castel di Sangro to Campo Felice (Rocca di Cambio), 158km
The opening week of the Giro d’Italia is not easy, it never is, but the first major test for the overall contenders does not arrive until the second weekend.
With a prologue time trial and some tricky hilly stages over the preceding eight days there should be some small gaps in the GC already, but this 160k ride from Castel di Sangro to Campo Felice should kick things up a notch.
This will be the first time the Giro d’Italia’s has finished Campo Felice since 2012, when Paolo Tiralongo beat Michele Scarponi to the line in a two-man sprint after the pair attacked a small group of GC favourites inside the final meters.
Unlike in 2012, when the stage was 205k, this year’s visit is part of the shortest of the big mountain stages at the Giro.
The stage still packs a punch with 3,400m of ascending across four classified climbs – including the summit finale at Campo Felice – and some tough unclassified terrain. If the climbing wasn’t hard enough, the final 1.6k of this tough stage will be ridden over gravel roads.
It is the sort of day that is made for the all-day broadcasts becoming more common in cycling with the pace unlikely to relent for too long.
With the comfort of a sprint day and the opening rest day coming up, the short nature of the stage should draw out some aggressive racing from the overall contenders. Those that gave away precious seconds, or even minutes, earlier in the week will have a chance to make up for lost time on this stage.
Stage 11: Wednesday, May 19 — Perugia to Montalcino, 162km
This is the sort of stage that you might just want to take a day off work to watch. It’s almost cruel of the organizer to have placed it in a mid-week slot.
Long-time cycling fans and watchers of the Giro d’Italia will be familiar with Montalcino and the rough gravel roads nearby. The corsa rosa last visited the area in 2010 when torrential rain turned the roads into a mud bath, producing some spectacular images of riders caked in earth.
Cadel Evans won on that day by two seconds over Damiano Cunego and Alexandre Vinokourov, and Vino rode himself into the maglia rosa.
The opening part of the stage is simple enough as nearly all of the difficulties are packed into the final 70km. After a brief gravel appetizer on stage 9, this is the main meal with a grueling 35km of strade bianche – more than double the 14km that featured in 2010 – and 2,500 meters of climbing.
The gravel comes in four sectors the first of which is a 9.1km stretch that begins 92km into the stage. No sooner have the riders completed that they will be on to the second and hardest strade bianche sector.
The 13.5k second stretch of gravel road encompasses an intermediate sprint and a third-category climb that would ordinarily not be too troublesome for the peloton but that won’t be the case here. Two more gravel sectors punctuate the undulating course before a fast run to the line in Montalcino.
To borrow a phrase, the Giro d’Italia won’t be won on this stage but it could be lost. GC contenders will have to be attentive throughout the stage and hope they don’t suffer a mechanical at the wrong time.
Stage 14: Saturday, May 22 – Cittadella to Monte Zoncolan, 205km
The Monte Zoncolan is intrinsically linked with the Giro d’Italia, yet it has only appeared six times in the race’s history. In fact, it was first ridden by the women’s peloton when Fabiana Luperini won on it as she stormed to her third successive Giro Rosa victory.
It was first included in the men’s Giro in 2003 when Gilberto Simoni won en route to the overall title. Meanwhile, Chris Froome won atop it on the way to his GC victory in 2018 during the climb’s last appearance.
With a fourth and a second category climb preceding the final ascent, the big battle for time is likely to come solely down to the Zoncolan.
Most ascents of this brute of a climb have been done from the Ovaro side, which is considered the most demanding. This year will be different with the race tackling the “easier” Sutrio side – as if any ascent of the Zoncolan could be described as easy – which Simoni won on in 2003.
The Sutrio ascent is really the lesser of two evils and still puts the riders to the test with an average gradient of 8.5 percent and a maximum of 27 percent. The climb comes in two parts with the toughest sections at the top, after the riders find a small but of respite with 1.5km at a much easier 4.5 percent with close to six kilometers remaining.
The final kilometres will be a slow slog to the line where riders are likely to grind out a gap rather than make a stinging attack.
Stage 16: Monday, May 24 – Sacile to Cortina d’Ampezzo, 212km
Two days after tackling the formidable Monte Zoncolan, the peloton will take on the second longest stage of this year’s route. Not only does it pack in the kilometers, but it also rakes in the altitude meters with a leg-sapping 5,500 to contend with.
Only one of the day’s four climbs peaks out at less than 2,000 meters with two of the race’s highest ascents awaiting the riders in the second half of the stage.
The grupetto will find itself getting very full very quickly with the 1,118-meter La Crosetta put before the peloton almost as soon as it leaves the neutral sector. The Passo Fedaia, which crests at 2,057m, is next on the menu before the Passo Pordoi and the Passo Giau arrive in quick succession.
At 2,239m, the Pordoi is the Cima Coppi (the highest point of the entire Giro d’Italia) and the Giau is not too far behind it at 2,233m.
A long run of nearly 20km from the top of the Giau to the finish line in Cortina d’Ampezzo should give us a thrilling finale to the stage. Dropped riders will have a chance to pull time back but it could catch others out after a tiring day in the high mountains.
While there may be some brave riders who try a daring attack, this stage is likely to be one of attrition – that won’t make it any less exciting, though.
Stage 20: Saturday, May 20 – Verbania to Valle Spluga – Alpe Motta, 164km
This is the last of the big mountains and the final opportunity for those who lack confidence in their time trialing abilities to create a buffer for themselves in the GC. It is the third stage in four days in the high mountains and there will be some very tired legs going into it.
Like stage 9, this is a short and punchy day that should lead to some aggressive racing. A momentary lapse of concentration could lose a rider a lot of time and see them spending the day chasing their own tail.
While it might be one of the shorter mountain stages, the altitude is not to be trifled with here. Once again, there are two climbs breaching the 2,000-meter mark and the summit finish falls just short of that at 1,727m.
To achieve the climbing meters, the race heads into Switzerland for the second half of the stage. The Passo di San Bernardino, the Passo dello Spluga and the Alpe Motta come in quick succession with nary a strip of flat road in the final 84km of the stage.
This stage has the capability of turfing some of the top GC contenders down the standings with just one day to go. Blink and you’ll miss the action here.
Stage 21: Sunday, May 21 – Milan ITT, 30.3km
Time trials are often not the most exciting of events, but this is definitely one not to miss. Over the years, the Giro d’Italia has flitted between holding a time trial showdown on the last day and a more processional sprint stage.
Organizer RCS has stuck with the TT format over the last two years, which has regularly delivered a tense final stage. Of the last five times a final day time trial has been held, the pink jersey at the start of the day has not held onto it on three occasions.
Last year, we were treated to a straight head-to-head between Tao Geoghegan Hart and Jai Hindley after the duo started the TT equal on time in the overall standings. Meanwhile, in 2017 Tom Dumoulin overhauled Nairo Quintana on the final day and who can forget the dramatic TT in 2012 that saw Ryder Hesjedal beat Joaquim Rodríguez by just 16 seconds.
Anything can happen in a time trial like this after three weeks of racing and nothing can be taken for granted.
The parcours is almost pan-flat but it is also twisting and technical. It is made for the TT specialist, such as Filippo Ganna, while the GC favourites who can turn out a decent time trial can stand to change their fortunes in the overall standings.