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Vasto, Italy (VN) — It’s only seven days into the Giro d’Italia, and riders are already starting to feel the burn.
This year’s Giro might pack all of its punch at the end of the race, but the first week is loaded up with kilometers. Four of the first five road stages have all been longer than 200km. In just six full days of racing, the peloton has already raced more than 1,000km, nearly one-third of the entire distance of the Giro.
“We knew today would be a good chance for a breakaway because people are already getting tired,” said stage 6 winner Fausto Masnada (Androni-Sidermec). “With these long stages so early in the Giro, it is making it possible to ride into a breakaway to win.”
That’s what happened in Thursday’s 238km sixth stage in what is the the second-longest in the 2019 Giro – an edition that sees nine stages longer than 200km. A big group pulled away, and the elastic snapped, delivering the Giro’s first successful breakaway before the week is out.
The longer earlier distance helped Thursday’s breakaway succeed. Compared to last year’s Giro, with a different type of course, escapes had little success until well into the second week.
With no choice but to follow the pink directional race arrows, riders can only buckle up and bear it.
“It would be better if it were sunny,” said Larry Warbasse (Ag2r-La Mondiale). “It’s the same for everyone in the race but it makes for a long day on the bike.”
Short is the new long
For the past decade or so, short was the new long. Race organizers across all three grand tours have been incorporating shorter stages into their repertoire with exciting results. Compact stages of less than 150km packed with climbs delivers a start-to-finish battle that’s compressed into four hours in the saddle.
This year’s Giro is a throwback to the old-school style of long and hard almost every day. There are four stages that hover around 140km to 150km, enough to spice things up, but there are more than a fair share of 200km-plus stages.
Obviously, each Giro course is different, but every year organizers fill out the puzzle based on twin factors. The first is where the Giro starts, and the second is steering the race into the mountains of northern Italy in the final week. Getting from A to B depends on the starting point. Over the past decade, with the Giro starting in far-flung international destinations on alternating years, organizers have not front-loaded the race profile with too many long stages in the first week. That is largely to accommodate travel from such places as Ireland, Israel and Denmark.
This year’s Giro is firmly planted on Italian soil, and organizers have delivered an old-school race format with the first major mountain summit coming on stage 13. So to make up for a relatively easy front half, they’ve added some muscle in the first week to make it harder.
For GC riders like Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), these long transition stages are all about not losing time or making mistakes that could torpedo their GC aspirations.
“It’s more about saving energy,” Yates said. “We knew the route a long time ago so we’ve all been training for it. Every race is hard, so a few kilometers more or less here or there is not going to make a difference.”
Teams and riders have little input on how a race course is designed, and they have no choice but to race what’s presented to them.
José Azevedo, general manager of Katusha-Alpecin, said the longer stages don’t necessarily mean the race will be more physically demanding.
“It’s not the distance that makes the race hard,” Azevedo said. “Sometimes they have a short stage and they go full-gas from the start, and they’re much more tired. What makes the races hard are the riders.”
That’s certainly true in a few of these early stages. Some have even whispered that there might be an informal strike among the peloton to race easy in protest of the excessively long distances of these early stages.
In stage 3 for example, the peloton rode at a snail’s pace of 36kph until the feed zone when they finally ramped it up to reel in the lone breakaway and set up a bunch sprint.
Protest or just being prudent? Either way, longer certainly doesn’t always equal excitement.
“These long stages won’t change the GC because everyone stays in the bunch,” Azevedo said. “It’s doesn’t look good to go slow, but the Giro is 21 days — you cannot race six hours every day at full-gas.”
Taking a toll
Yet everyone agrees that back-to-back days with six hours in the saddle will add up over the course of three weeks. Fatigue will set in, and organizers are hopeful it will lead to some unpredictable dynamics and wide open racing deep into the third week.
Some of the Giro’s biggest surprises and turnaround’s have come at the end of three weeks of racing. Chris Froome’s attack over the Colle delle Finestre was successful in part because early leader Simon Yates simply ran out of gas in the closing days of the Giro.
Making the first week of this Giro even more demanding is the cold, wet weather swamping the southern half of Italy’s boot. By mid-May, this region south of Rome is typically enjoying warm, spring-like weather. So far, however, it’s been cooler and wetter than anyone’s seen in a few years.
“It’s not nice racing 200km when it’s 12C and raining. That really takes a toll on the body,” said Mitchelton-Scott sport director Matt White. “The weather is going to have a big impact on these next two weeks.”
Riders moan about not only the longer distance of the early stages, but also the transfers before and after a stage. Though Giro organizers have done a better job of shortening post-race transfers, there is still a lot of distance to cover in the team bus before and after each stage.
For example, on Thursday, most teams were about one hour away from the start. So that meant an early wake-up call to pile into team buses at around 9 a.m. The stage started at 11:15 a.m., and after six hours in the saddle, most teams didn’t arrive to their respective hotels until around 7 p.m.
“It’s difficult when the stage is more than 200km,” said sprinter Fernando Gaviria (UAE-Emirates) before he abandoned the race with knee trouble early on stage seven. “You are arriving late at the hotel at night, and you still need a massage. You don’t sleep well, and it’s harder to recover. I want to sleep more, but it’s not possible because we have to get up early for the next day’s stage.”
It’s that day-in, day-out grind that makes grand tours so unique in cycling.
Modern grand tours, however, have gradually squeezed much of the longer stages out of the formula. All three grand tours have led a decade-long tendency to shrink stage distances. UCI rules require a certain number of kilometers to meet grand tour status, and most stages average around 180km. Even the more traditionally minded Tour de France has introduced very short mountain stages that sometimes can produce wild racing.
But grand tour racing at its essence is about going the distance, and having the endurance to attack when everyone is on their knees.
Riders say they agree that longer stages belong in grand tours, but wonder how effective they are in changing the outcome of a race or providing much excitement for fans.
“In the history of the sport, we’ve always had long stages,” Yates said. “There is still a place for them. We need to find a balance.
“I would prefer shorter stages,” Yates continued. “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 win if it’s 140km or if it’s 240km.”
There’s no rest for the weary. Friday’s 185km stage to L’Aquila is backed up Saturday with the longest stage in this year’s Giro at 239km.