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Giro d'Italia

Stage 21 time trial: A slightly less dramatic final act

When I described the course of the Giro’s final time trial to my cab driver as we drove from my hotel to the Milan central train station, “That’s horrendous! I’m going to stay home that day; there’s no point to even taking my taxi out!”

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When I described the course of the Giro’s final time trial to my cab driver as we drove from my hotel to the Milan central train station, “That’s horrendous! I’m going to stay home that day; there’s no point to even taking my taxi out!” Perhaps he used the past couple of weeks (our encounter was the day stage 2; I was going to the finish in Parma) to get his fellow cab drivers riled up enough to become part of the chorus of voices that convinced organizers to alter and shorten the route. Otherwise central Milan would be complete gridlock on Sunday.

Giro d'Italia 2011: A preview of the final time trial in Milan
Rather than starting in front of the main gate of the Sforzesco castle, riders will be going past it so fast they won’t even see it.

The original time trial route started at the Sforzesco castle in the center of the city and finished at Milan’s historic cathedral (Piazza del Duomo), also in the city center. Like so many ancient European cities, Milan has a series of concentric walls encircling its center that protected its residents from invaders and were built in ever-larger circles as the city grew. This caused the streets to be extremely convoluted, especially the ones within the smallest-diameter wall. Now, most of the walls are gone, but the street routing remains largely unchanged, and the ancient gates through which major streets exited and entered the walls still stand.

The time trial was to start and finish within the innermost wall, of which the castle walls were a part. It was to exit the city center to the northwest, on the ancient road to Switzerland, and on its return, it was to form a tight loop around the city center in a counterclockwise direction. This would have almost entirely trapped residents within the city center. This map is cut off on the right hand side and thus does not show the way the final 6km of the original route almost closes a loop in the center of the city.

After looping counterclockwise around the castle, the riders were to have ridden northwest on major city streets – Corso Sempione, Via Gallarate and Via Sempione – to the suburb of Rho, turning around (at km 11.6) at Milan’s new fairgrounds and starting on the same road back in, on Via Sempione. But then they were to veer off their outward path a bit more to the south, also on major city streets, to pass the old Milan fairgrounds, thus linking the old Fiera Campionaria fair complex with the new Fiera di Milano fair complex. Fairs and expositions are important in any city, but in the city second only to Paris in fashion, they have heightened importance. The Milan bicycle and motorcycle show started at the old fairgrounds and moved to the new one when it was completed about five years ago. While the motorcycle show is an important one, and the bicycle show has dropped into irrelevance, both pale in comparison to the many fashion shows Milan attracts.

From the old fairgrounds, the original TT course circumnavigated the city center from the south and around the east side and would have almost closed the loop back on itself by finishing at the cathedral, as it is only a short walk from the start at the castle gates. Both the start and finish would have become villages of scaffolding that would have required parking places on tiny, congested city streets for team, race, and event construction vehicles.

A time trial with 160 or so riders starting at intervals of a minute or two would have closed this whole area down to traffic for an entire day. I would say that common sense must have finally prevailed in changing the route; can you imagine how angry residents of Chicago would be if a bike race were to shut down the entire center of Windy City for the last Sunday in May (Memorial Day weekend, even!)? Italians tend to appreciate bike racing more than Americans, but not that much. The idea of a major city shut down for a day to enjoy a bike race may appeal to us bike racing fans, but it would not have engendered a lot of goodwill from a large number of people entrapped by the road closures.

The revised time trial course will start outside of Milan (not that you can really tell where the city ends and the suburbs begin) at the new Fiera di Milano fairgrounds. It will loop around the Fiera’s many modern glass buildings and then around a major intersection on the edge of Rho where Milan’s beltway (the Tangenziale) crosses over the Sempione national highway. This start location will inconvenience a lot fewer people and will offer a lot more parking for spectators and race vehicles, while still being on the Milan subway line.

After passing the new fairgrounds another time, the route heads southeast toward Milan along roughly the same route it was originally to head out of town along – on the Via Sempione, Via Gallarate, Viale Certosa, and Corso Sempione. Giro aficionados will recognize this as where Milan sprint finish finales of the Giro used to happen nearly every year, with final laps going up and down the Corso Sempione the way the Tour ends on the Champs-Élysées. Historically far more significant, though, is that this route, all part of the Strada Statale del Sempione to its source at the Sforzesco castle, is the oldest road from Milan to France and the route along which new ideas, like those of the French Revolution in 1789, historically entered Italy. It is the route the French revolutionary army took when invading Italy in 1796, with Napoleon entering the city on May 15 as a liberator. And it was his treaty of Campo Formio, annexing the Venetian state to Austria in October 1797, that dashed Italian hopes for a unified state until Garibaldi unified the country in 1861, an event whose 150th anniversary is being celebrated by this Giro.

Rather than taking a big counterclockwise loop along the second city wall, the revised course will now loop tightly counterclockwise around Sempione park and the Sforzesco castle walls and moat. It was here in 1498 that the archers of Charles VII destroyed the 24-
foot-high clay model of a colossal war horse that Leonardo Da Vinci had completed at the age of 43 after working on it for 17 years. The Duke of Milan and resident of the castle, Ludovico Sforza, had commissioned Leonardo to make it, as the horse was the symbol of the aristocratic House of Sforza. Although Michelangelo predicted it would never be cast, Sforza and Da Vinci intended it to become the largest bronze casting ever. Michelangelo appeared to be correct until an American, Charles Dent, unveiled in Milan his 24-
foot-high, 15-ton bronze reproduction of Il Cavallo precisely 500 years from the day that French archers shot apart Leonardo’s clay model of it.

Instead of encircling the inner city, the new course will jog northward from the castle a few blocks and turn east for under two kilometers, cutting off a much smaller wedge. With about 2.5km to go, it will turn sharply southwest along the Corso Venezia (the ancient road to Venice) to the original serpentine finale in front of the cathedral.

The route will now be 26km rather than 31.5km, and Vincenzo Nibali, trailing in his battle for second with Michele Scarponi by nearly a minute, will probably be the only rider complaining about having a shorter race. Just like the original route, the course is completely flat, and the last kilometer will still have cobbles and many tight turns. It could be a day for those specialists who still have good legs and motivation after three weeks of hard climbing; certainly Alberto Contador will have no reason to turn on the afterburners.