All eyes are on France right now, but on Friday the women’s peloton will come roaring through central Italy.
September 11 marks the first day of the Giro d’Italia Femminile, otherwise known as the Giro Rosa. The nine-day stage race — abridged by one day this year due to the coronavirus calendar reshuffle — unfolds on Friday in Grossetto, Tuscany with a team time trial.
With a historically long stage, plenty of climbing, and two-time champion Annemiek van Vleuten intent on defending her title, 2020’s edition of the Giro Rosa is one to watch.
Stages to watch
This year’s Giro Rosa is one day shorter and focuses less on long alpine climbs than in years past; however, the course is aggressive in other ways, chock-full of punchy climbing and opportunities for teams to take a tactical approach. Although it might not be her preferred course, van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott), the current champion of the race, isn’t underestimating the challenges ahead.
“The course isn’t as hard as it was last year, there aren’t as many long summit finishes, but still there are a lot of mountain finishes,” she said. “There aren’t a lot of flat days, so it will hard and exhausting, I think already after the team time trial on the first day we have some hard days coming up, so I’m really looking forward to it.”
The race begins with a pancake-flat team time trial around the town of Grossetto. Expect fast racing on a course that doesn’t have many bends in the road. For time trial fans, this is as good as it gets; there will be no individual time trial in the Giro Rosa this year.
The next three stages all boast lumpy profiles, and the punchy climbing will keep the entire peloton on its toes. Saturday’s stage two is particularly interesting: at 124 kilometers with 3,000 meters of climbing, the route is new to the Giro Rosa and features some of the white gravel roads of the Strade Bianche.
At 170 kilometers, stage four covers a distance 10 kilometers longer than the recommended UCI maximum for Women’s WorldTour stages. The first 70km of the race should pass quickly; then, riders will ascend a category 3 climb in Arrone. The route continues on a mostly gradual uphill trajectory before reaching the final, sharp climb to Tivoli.
Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig of FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope reckoned that the length of the stage represents a win for women’s cycling.
“It’s so cool! Finally, we’re being taken seriously. They don’t think our uterus will fall out if we ride long stages or do long climbs. This is what we need.”
Stages five and six will finally see opportunities for the sprinters. Stage five is flat for the first 50 kilometers, with a 15km climb midway through the race. Stage six should see a fast finish, with the third of the day’s climbs peaking at around 20 kilometers from the finish line.
The Giro Rosa concludes with three mountainous days, with the first summit finish coming on stage eight as riders climb up to San Marco La Catola. There will be no relaxing finish to the tour; the peloton will tackle four laps of a 27.5km circuit on the final day, with each lap featuring the Motta Montecorvino climb.
While the Giro Rosa is notorious for intimidating stages that typically send riders up long, alpine ascents, it’s often the seemingly innocuous ones that make or break the race. Staying on guard through the entire event is a team’s greatest challenge.
“That’s why it’s so cool to win the Giro,” said Uttrup Ludwig. “You need to be focused and ready and on your marks at every stage. You cannot sleep through a stage.”
Riders to watch
The dearth of long summit finishes matched by a lack of flat days gives more riders more opportunities at this year’s Giro Rosa. Pure climbers and pure sprinters will each have their chance, but with the majority of the stages a mix of punchy climbs and fast flats, an all-rounder might be able to better split the difference.
“I think it’s going to be super exciting,” Uttrup Ludwig said. “There’s a lot of teams who have not just one good card — look at Trek [Segafredo], they have Lizzie and they have Longo — they have so many cards to play. It’s like, for us, ‘Which one do we pick?’ I think it’s going to bring some really exciting races and not just a 10k climb where, at the moment, there’s no one that can follow Annemiek. That would be more boring racing if it was just crazy long climbs.”
Although crazy long climbs are van Vleuten’s specialty, she and teammate Amanda Spratt are confident that team tactics will replace individual dominance at this year’s Giro Rosa.
“In my opinion, it is going to be a lot more tactical,” Spratt said. “The time gaps will be smaller and having a strong team, good numbers and a good game plan are going to be critical.”
Of course, the changes to the 2020 format in now way take van Vleuten out of contention; the world champion has dominated the last two editions of the race with five stage wins. She also won two stages of the Giro Rosa in 2017 where she placed third overall.
In terms of team cohesion, Trek-Segafredo brings a tightly-knit team to Italy this week, as well as two GC contenders.
Newly-minted Italian national time trial champion Elisa Longo Borghini has had an impressive 2020 season already, despite spending a few months of the springtime confined to the indoors. Her recent accolades include a sixth-place finish at La Course, second at the European national championships, and fifth in this year’s extremely challenging edition of the Strade Bianche. The all-rounder who rises to the front of the bunch during hilly sections is keen for a win on her home soil.
Longo Borghini’s teammate Lizzie Deignan is also in fine form of late, racking up victories at the last two WWT races, GP de Plouay and La Course.
Other riders to watch include Dutchwomen Marianne Vos (CCC-Liv) and Anna van der Breggen (Boels-Dolmans). Both riders boast a wealth of Giro Rosa experience and accomplishment (Vos is a three-time winner, and van der Breggen has two first-place finishes) and excel on the type of punchy climbing that characterizes this year’s route. Team play will also be integral for both women who are backed by impressive squads. Vos’ CCC-Liv teammate Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio will also be a rider to watch as she returns to the peloton after an injury in early August.
Other riders to watch include Uttrup Ludwig, Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM), Demi Vollering (Parkhotel Valkenburg), Mavi Garcia (Alé BTC Ljubljana), and Team Sunweb’s Liane Lippert.
As with every edition of the Giro Rosa, it’s always too early to make the call on who will ultimately wear the Maglia Rosa. This year’s race shouldn’t be any different, with each stage serving as a fresh start.
“The final three stages of the tour get harder and harder,” said Rolf Aldag, sports director for Canyon-SRAM. “They’re for the climbers and it creates a nice battle for the GC as it won’t be all over and done by stage six. No. It still can play out on the final days. Who has the strongest team standing. Who has recovered the best day today and who still has the best legs.”