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Analysis: A very Italian Giro route that packs a late punch

This year's Giro d'Italia is a race of two halves, with the second half building to a leg-cracking crescendo in the high mountains

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The Giro d’Italia has been the grand tour with the itchiest feet for much of the past two decades. Much more so than its grand tour neighbors — the Tour de France and Vuelta a España — the Giro has consistently pushed the boundary of how far a bike race can roam from home roads.

It has started beyond the Italian borders some 13 times in its long history, with its true international vision kicking into gear in 1996 with its big start in Greece. Since 2010 the Giro has ventured even further away, with foreign starts alternating every two years, seemingly the more far-flung the better. The 2010 Amsterdam excursion was followed up by Denmark in 2012, the wildly successful Belfast event in 2014, and the Netherlands again in 2016. And who can forget the historic (and controversial) 2018 start in Israel?

In each of those international editions, there was the moment when the Giro returned to Italy—a moment everyone would say “now the Giro can really start.”

There won’t be any of that this year.

The 102nd edition of the Giro d’Italia is a very Italian affair.


Opening week for the sprinters

No offense to the Republic of San Marino, this edition of the Giro doesn’t venture beyond the comfy confines of Italy’s boot. No dips over the mountains to nearby Austria nor any long transfers over the Alps. That can wait until 2020, when the Giro is confirmed to start in Budapest.

This year is all about Italy. In fact, this year’s Giro route hangs mostly in the northern half of the country. Perhaps taking a cue from concerns from teams about unbearably long transfers between stages, RCS Sport has delivered up a tidy and compact Giro route.

In many ways, it’s a Giro of two halves. In what’s almost like a throwback to the old-school editions, this year’s first major mountaintop finale doesn’t come until deep into week two. It’s as if the Giro is snubbing its nose to the latest trends — in part created by the Giro — of having climbing stages fast and furious, including a major summit finale slipped into the first week.

Instead, week 1 is all about the sprinters, would-be escape artists and time trialists. Front and center of the Giro’s first half are two potentially decisive time trials. The opening day 8km test against the clock ends with a steep uphill finale to the San Luca sanctuary. That climb — at nearly 2km with ramps as steep as 18 percent — will open up early differences. Stage 9 bookends the first half with another challenging TT, at 34.8km from Riccione to San Marino. There’s another sharp climb of nearly 5km with an average grade of 6.7 percent that will further separate the wheat from the chaff.

That’s not to say the front half of the Giro is easy. Far from it. There are some bruiser of stages that will require the GC favorites to be on their toes and burn some important early matches. It’s only until stages 10 and 11 that the Giro route lets up and delivers traditionally flatter, sprinter-friendly courses. Every other day in the first block of racing features a jagged profile, which translates into hard, aggressive racing.

This Giro is all about saving the best for last. And the final half of the race packs a real punch. While there won’t be much for the GC contenders to do in the opening half of the race except avoid crashes and other setbacks, the closing crescendo should deliver some fascinating race dynamics.

The first two weeks will slowly wear down the GC riders, with the TT specialists enjoying a slight edge with two early time trials. But even those include steep climbs, so it could still well be a fairly knotted up GC picture as the Giro patiently clips toward the Alps.

Fireworks for the second half

Things finally get serious in stage 13, the first major climbing stage of the Giro, with a three-climb, 196km route dead-ending just in the heart of the Italian Alps at Lago Serrù. Proceeded by Colle del Lys and Pian del Lupo, the 20.3km final climb averages 5.9 percent, but features ramps as steep as 14 percent. It will be interesting to see how the favorites race the first serious summit finish. Knowing what lies ahead, riders might be hesitant to attack from too far out. But also realizing they’re running out of road, anyone lagging behind after the two opening time trials will have pressure to move.

Stage 14 loops back to the shadow of Mont Blanc with a short, but potentially explosive five-climb stage to Courmayeur. The stage packs an incredible 4,000 vertical meters into the 131km route, with Colle de San Carlo at about 25km to go serving as an ideal launching pad for an aggressive selection.

Slotting in a day after the final rest day, Stage 16 goes retro, with passages over the Gavia and Mortirolo before ending at Ponte Legno. The monster 226km stage features two early climbs that will trigger a breakaway ahead of the southern approach of Gavia before looping around to the base of the steeper northern approach up the fearsome Mortirolo. Despite recent additions of new climbs such as Monte Zoncolan, the Passo del Mortirolo still packs a bite at 12.8km with an average grade of 10 percent.

Stage 17 to Anteselva is one of those stages that might be overlooked when compared to its more brutal neighbors, but the deceiving profile could be full of traps. Riders will be racing on fumes, and the undulating profile could set up surprise attacks and ambushes.

Stage 19 is the penultimate mountain stage in what’s been a slow-boil Giro. In many ways, this stage best represents a Giro that will be a race of attrition. Perhaps the Giro could have found a better mountain to conclude the stage, but this seemingly nondescript finale will see riders on their knees. At 11.6km with an average grade at 5.9 percent, the final charge will be a drag race all the way to the line.

In what’s been a very Italian Giro, it’s only fitting that the final mountain stage is deep in the heart of the Dolomites. The four-climb, 193km stage features more than 5,000m of vertical climbing. At the end of three weeks of hard racing, it will make or break the spirits of everyone in the peloton. The course heads up Passo Manghen, arguably among the hardest sustained climbs in the Dolomites at 18.9km at 7.6 percent. The 20km Passo Rolle is nothing to laugh at, with Monte Avena serving as the Giro’s final exclamation point. At 13.5km long, the hardest bits come in the middle, with one ramp at 16 percent in a 5km stretch with an average grade of 8.8 percent. It peaks out and dives down to the finish line.

The Giro ends with a final-day 17km time trial around Verona. There might be some reshuffling at the top of the leaderboard, but for most riders, their Giro will end Saturday.

 A route fit for a climber

So what can we expect of this purely Italian Giro?

It’s a uniquely Italian and old-school edition of the Giro. With a few exceptions, there are none of the new-school tricks that have become part of a modern-day grand tour playbook. No gravel, no 75km mountain stages. This is a grinder of a Giro that will see successful GC candidates looking to manage their strength conservatively. The early TT’s could open up the race by forcing climbers to attack, but with everything packed into the final week of racing, it’s hard to imagine that this will not be a Giro won by patience and persistence, rather than by brash attacks and daring tactics. Though that’s not to say someone who hits a flier in the closing few mountain stages can wrest away control of the race.

Fans hoping for early action might be disappointed, but there could be a few surprises in store in the middle of the first week. Those rollercoaster stages could prove dangerous and rivals will have their antenna up if they see any one of the GC threats struggling to ride into Giro race pace.

The time trials tilt the scales a bit, but even the three TT’s pack climbs in each one of them. So like any Giro, a climber should come out on top, or at least an all-rounder who can climb with the best.

There are nearly a dozen would-be aspirants for the pink jersey. And the Giro is a race that consistently delivers surprises. With the final week packed with so much vertical, expect the GC favorites to try to keep their powder dry for what will should be a series of wild shootouts in the Alps and Dolomites.

One thing is certain, this year’s Giro is all about Italy. And the tifosi cannot be happier.