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Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: In search of the perfect grand tour

So what can we expect from next year’s Giro and Tour, the routes for which will both be announced officially in the coming days?

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Giro and Tour organizers have different terrain, same goals for 2012

No one can predict how a bike race will turn out. And I don’t mean predicting who will win — but how the race will be perceived by those involved: the riders, the journalists, the organizers and the fans. When this year’s Giro d’Italia was announced last fall, most pundits expected an incredible race because it was littered with amazingly steep climbs and seven summit finishes, whereas the 2011 Tour de France was seen by many as a little too conservative even though there were four mountaintop finishes.

Contador on stage 15 of the 2011 Giro.

What happened? Well, the Giro did have some spectacular scenery but the race itself was a dud. Alberto Contador was so dominant on the mountaintop finishes that he’d virtually sewn up the overall victory before the first rest day; and the final week’s stages were so demanding, with long transfers in between them, that riders simply battled to survive and didn’t have the will or the resources to make it a competitive race.

Even Contador suffered from the rigors of that ultra-difficult Giro and a month later at the Tour he came up short on a less-demanding course. And yet that course, most people agree, produced one of the Tour’s most successful editions. Race director Christian Prudhomme’s decision to spice up the stages gave rise to much more exciting finales and a good mix of stage winners — even though multiple crashes did mar the opening week.

The favorites did play possum in the Pyrénées, but the sometimes breathtaking racing in the Alps greatly enhanced the reputations of eventual winner Cadel Evans, his feisty runners-up Andy and Fränk Schleck, along with an inspired Thomas Voeckler and never-give-up Contador. What’s more, the tough-as-teak Evans became a national hero in Australia and added to the impetus of cycling’s fast-expanding popularity around the world.

So what can we expect from next year’s Giro and Tour, the routes for which will both be announced officially in the coming days — though the stage towns of the 2012 Tour were leaked Monday and several of the Giro stages have been released by the organizers. In some ways, the Giro is stealing the Tour’s thunder by moving the date of its official presentation in Milan to this Sunday (October 16), a week earlier than usual, and two days before the Tour presentation in Paris (October 18).

2012 Giro: It will be “better balanced”

Changes at the head of RCS Sport, the company that organizes the Giro, could take the race in a new direction. Longtime race director Angelo Zomegnan — a former journalist who greatly revived interest in the Italian grand tour even though his courses were sometimes overly grueling — has stepped down after seven years. In his place comes RCS Sport’s director general Michele Acquarone, who has a more bureaucratic background and is likely to be less hands-on than Zomegnan.

Acquarone has promised that the 2012 Giro will have fewer transfers and be a better-balanced route than last year’s. Everything points toward it being similar to the Giro of two years ago that started in the Netherlands with a short time trial and two flat road stages before transferring to Italy where the race continued with a team time trial.

The opening scenario is the same for next year’s 95th edition of the Giro, except that the start is in Denmark, where winds off the Baltic Sea could contribute to the race splitting apart before it heads to Italy. Acquarone has already announced the three Danish stages, while he has used Twitter to reveal full details of two spectacular mountain stages that will be included in the Giro’s final week.

The Danish sector takes place on the Jutland peninsula on the western side of the Scandinavian country. It starts with an 8.7km time trial at Herning on May 5; continues with a 206km out-and-back stage from the same city; and concludes with a 190km loop at Horsens. Both of these two road stages end on circuits (something the Tour de France only does on the Champs-Élysées), with one 12.4km lap at Herning and three 14.3km laps at Horsens.

The long transfer for all the race vehicles (the riders fly), due south across Europe to northern Italy, consumes the first rest day before the expected TTT, which is said to be in Verona, where the Giro finished two years ago with an individual TT into the city’s Roman arena. The winning TTT team usually fills the top places on GC and keeps the leader’s jersey for a long while; but that may not happen at the 2012 Giro as the next stage could head into the hills of Emilia-Romagna with a possible hilltop finish in the walled medieval city of Urbino.

With Acquarone promising fewer and simpler transfers, the race will likely have a flat stage 6 down the Adriatic coast before heading into the Apennines for a southern “turn” on the second weekend — perhaps with a “small” mountaintop finish in Campania — before the race heads back to the north.

There’s talk of a longer individual TT near Rome and then a stage over Tuscany’s famous strade bianche into the historic city of Siena (where the annual Monte Paschi “white roads” classic finishes). If true then the prospects will be looking good for the stronger time trialists like Vincenzo Nibali and Denis Menchov before the high-mountain stages are contested in the second half of the Giro.

2011 Giro d'Italia stage 16: Michele Scarponi
Michele Scarponi in the 2011 Giro. Photo: Graham Watson |

That scenario means that the better climbers like Michele Scarponi, Juanjo Cobo, Igor Anton and José Rujano will need to make up time, perhaps several minutes in the second half. There first chance could come on what looks like being a stage 11 over the fearsomely steep Alpe di San Pellegrino climb to an uphill finish in Abetone. Then, after two rolling stages — one to the Italian Riviera, the next into Piedmont — comes the one stage in the Alps that’s said to end with the 28km climb at 5.1 percent to Breuil-Cervinia, just below the mighty Matterhorn.

Two transition stages, split by the second rest day, will precede the four mountain stages that Acquarone says will decide the 2012 Giro. The first of these (already announced) on Wednesday, May 23, is from Falzes to Cortina d’Ampezzo, crossing four passes in the Dolomites, with 4,500 meters (almost 15,000 feet) of climbing in 187km. The finish is in the valley but the last 17km is all downhill from the day’s toughest climb, the Passo Giau, which averages 9.3 percent for 10km with a steepest pitch of 14 percent.

The second of the next two stages will have a mountaintop finish (still unconfirmed), but possibly at Alpe di Pampeago, which has been used at the Giro four previous times — 1998 (Pavel Tonkov), 1999 (Marco Pantani), 2003 (Gilberto Simoni) and 2008 (Emanuele Sella). But what is certain is the penultimate stage (already announced), starting at Caldes and featuring half-a-dozen climbs including the feared Mortirolo (11.4km at 10.4 percent with a 21-percent maximum grade) and ending with the 22.4km slog up to the summit of the Passo dello Stelvio at 2,757 meters (9,045 feet) above sea level.

The Stelvio has seen three previous stage finishes. In 1965, when spectators cleared a passage for the riders through deep snowdrifts, it came three days from the end and had no bearing on the result as overall winner Vittorio Adorni had a double-digit lead before the stage won by Italian climber Graziano Battistini. It also had little bearing on the result in 1972 when the Stelvio finish was four days before the end of a Giro, though the stage-winning Spanish climber Juan-Manuel Fuente did take two minutes out of race leader Eddy Merckx, who had a five-minute cushion.

The third Stelvio finish was in 1975, when it saw the finish of the very final stage, with a duel between the top two on GC, Italian Fausto Bertoglio and Spaniard Francisco Galdos. The pair finished together, with Galdos taking the stage and Bergtoglio winning the Giro, by 41 seconds.

What’s different about next year’s Stelvio stage, 37 years after that last one, is that it climbs the “easier” western side, not the famous 48-switchback ascent from the east, and it’s much longer, featuring a mind-boggling 5,900 meters (almost 20,000 feet!) of climbing in 218km. That’s at least seven hours of racing and is as tough as any stage imposed on the race by outgoing director Zomegnan; it has already been criticized as “over the top” by a few riders, especially as it comes less than 24 hours before they have to race the final stage in Milan (probably a third individual TT).

The organizers say they chose this course because their Twitter followers voted the Mortirolo and Stelvio as the top two climbs they wanted to see included in the 2012 Giro. But including them both on the same stage, along with four other climbs, is somewhat sadistic. It could well backfire.

2012 Tour: Unexpected climbs, tough time trials

Giro race director Michele Acquarone’s use of social networking did give us a sneak peek of his upcoming race. This openness is in sharp contrast to the normal secrecy of Tour organizer ASO, so this week’s leak on the Tour’s website is a major embarrassment for Christian Prudhomme and his team.

What the leak revealed is the dates, stage towns and stage distance of next year’s Tour. It did not show what climbs and stage finishes are to be included. In general terms, like the Giro, there will be a bigger emphasis on time trials. Already, defending champion Evans, three-time winner Contador (if he’s not suspended next month) and Team Sky’s Brad Wiggins are rejoicing that the 99th Tour de France will include three TT’s, totaling almost 100km of racing against the clock.

2011 Vuelta a España, stage 20, Bradley Wiggins
Bradley Wiggins may like the TT mileage in the 2012 Tour. Photo: Graham Watson |

But the gains taken in the time trials will be offset by an unusual mix of climbing stages and tricky finishes. Prudhomme has already promised that the lesser mountain ranges will be exploited, so the leaked course that shows only four mountain stages (two in the Alps and two in the Pyrénées) is somewhat misleading.

Indeed, the Schleck brothers may have lots of terrain to exploit to make up for their TT deficiencies. And those 14 en ligne (“in line”) stages aren’t all opportunities for Mark Cavendish to extend his fast-mounting total of stage wins. In fact, Cav may get only six or seven opportunities to add to his 20-win streak.

After the familiar prologue on June 30 in Liège (Fabian Cancellara won here in 2004 by two seconds ahead of eventual Tour winner Lance Armstrong), the opening road stage into Seraing has a bunch of climbs on the Liège-Bastogne-Liège course, while the finish has been switched from the previously announced flat run alongside the Meuse River to one that climbs a long hill to the south.

Stage 2 across Belgium is one of the Tour’s flattest, but given the location of the finish in Tournai, there could well be some sectors of cobblestones in the finale — not as tough as those included in 2009 but perhaps hard enough to split the peloton and leave Cavendish still looking for a mass-sprint finish.

That opportunity won’t come the next day on the arrival into Boulogne-sur-Mer: There’s a bunch of climbs in and around this port city, where Sylvain Chavanel earned a solo win at this year’s French national championship. It’s also possible that stage 4 to Rouen will feature some late hills, but more likely that it’ll produce the Tour’s first real bunch sprint.

There’ll be another sprint the next day at St. Quentin, but the finale into Metz on the first Friday’s stage 6 is bound to have some steep climbs. Not the sort that suit the Schlecks, but their first big chance comes on the weekend that follows. Both stages 7 and 8 feature ultra-steep climbs in two of those lesser-known mountain ranges: the Vosges and the Jura.

Stage 7 will likely include the Vosges’ more famous Ballon d’Alsace climb and a bunch of shorter, steeper ones before the summit finish at La Planche des Belles Filles. That’s quite a mouthful to say but, in short, the Belle Filles (French for “Beautiful Girls”) climb is 5.5km long, averages 8.2 percent grade and has some ramps as steep as 14 percent. Not a finish for Cav!

It’s likely that stage 8, which crosses the border into the picturesque Swiss town of Porrentruy, will be similar to the decisive stage of last month’s Tour de l’Avenir, which included the 15-percent slopes of the Col de la Croix. The finish is flat but the vertical climbs in this region should produce a great stage-win opportunity for the likes of Philippe Gilbert.

The GC will get its next major shake-up with stage 9’s 38km TT from the historic salt-making town of Arc-et-Senans, through the foothills of the Jura, to Besançon — where Armstrong clinched his 2004 Tour victory with a TT win by a minute over Jan Ullrich, with Andreas Klöden 90 seconds back in third. Who will emerge as the top GC contenders from the Besançon TT in 2012? Contador? Evans? Wiggins?

Following a rest day at Mâcon, next year’s Tour will encounter another “new” challenge in the southern portion of the Jura on the 194km stage to the small town of Bellegarde-sur-Valserine. That challenge is the Col du Grand-Colombier, never used in the Tour but regularly seen at the annual Tour de l’Ain. This is almost 9km long, and averages almost 9 percent, with some sections as steep as 19 percent. It will come about 25km from the finish, but will also see several other steep uphills on the 194km stage (which is about twice the actual distance between start and finish).

All of these “lesser” mountain stages will definitely separate the true contenders from the pretenders, but we’ll have a better idea of who could take the final yellow jersey on stage 11 — which is the only true alpine stage. It’s not too long at 140km, but it will be intense, most likely including the Col de la Madeleine. Col du Glandon (and its extension to the Croix-de-Fer), and possibly the Col du Mollard, before the mountaintop finish at La Toussuire. This is the summit where Wiggins clinched victory in this year’s Critérium du Dauphine, and though it’s not particularly steep at 6 percent, its 19km length makes it a fearsome obstacle at the end of such a rugged stage.

Stage 12 is also labeled a mountain stage, but all the main climbs will be in the opening half — probably the Grand Cucheron, Porte and Cucheron — before a long trek across the Rhône Valley to the foothills of the Massif Central. The actual finish in Annonay may be uphill but not one for the GC riders; expect a long breakaway to succeed here.

Cavendish and his fellow sprinters will get a chance to shine the next day with a finish on the Mediterranean at Cap d’Agde; but the final 20km are likely to be right along the flat, windswept sandbar after Sête, so the development of echelons is a strong possibility where the GC riders will have to be wary.

Curiously, the next two stages are both “en ligne” stages, but both go through the Pyrénées, to Foix and Pau before the last rest day. So will there be major climbs these two days, or will the Tour skirt the high mountains?

The shortest distance between Limoux and Foix is less than 70km, so this 192km stage 14 is almost sure to go to the south and west over some lesser Pyrenean peaks before a finale similar to the last Tour stage to finish at Foix in 2008. As for the following stage from Samatan to Pau, this might include some short climbs in the Pyrenean foothills, but this will likely be a stage for the sprinters.

After the rest day in Pau, the Tour will be decided on two very hard mountains stages. The first is the classic Pau-Luchon stage, which climbs the Aubisque, Tourmalet, Aspin and Peyresourde mountain passes. In this direction, it has been used only twice in the past 30 years — in 1983, when Scottish climber Robert Millar won the stage and eventual Tour winner Laurent Fignon emerged as the main challenger to race leader Pascal Simon, and 1998, when Italian climber Rodolfo Massi won the stage while eventual champion Marco Pantani dropped all his challengers on the final climb and hung on down the long descent to Luchon to take second place.

The last mountain stage, taking place on the last Thursday, is anything but classic. It starts in Luchon and finishes at the new ski station of Peyragudes, with the likely course climbing the eastern side of the Col d’Aspin (or the adjacent Col de Beyrède), the north side the of the Hourquette d’Ancizan (climbed this year for the first time in the opposite direction) and the nasty Col d’Azat-Val-Louron before the new ascent to Peyragudes (almost 8km at 8 percent).

These lower mountain climbs don’t have the allure of the Galibier or L’Alpe d’Huez (at the 2011 Tour) or the Giro’s Stelvio or Mortirolo, but this will probably equate (again) to a much more competitive Tour than Giro.

Next year’s Tour also includes a last couple of chance for the sprinters, at Brive and Paris, but just as happened this year at the Grenoble TT, the final fate of the maillot jaune will take place in a testing 52km time trial on a rolling course between Bonneval and Chartres the day before the finish. Evans again? Or will one of the 2011 crash victims, Wiggins, Klöden, Levi Leipheimer, Chris Horner or Jurgen Van den Broeck get a chance to challenge Contador and the Schlecks?

The Giro again looks too tough to produce surprises, while the Tour may again have got it just right. But in the end, it is the riders who make or break the racing, and what really makes the perfect grand tour is something that (thankfully) remains a mystery.

Editor’s note: Former editor-at-large John Wilcockson is no longer a staff member at VeloNews, but he will be writing for this website as a guest columnist.

2011 wins for UCI ProTeams

Soon-to-be-disbanded HTC-Highroad continues to head the ProTeam standings after Tony Martin’s victory in the inaugural Tour of Beijing, while another U.S. squad, Team RadioShack, moved up to second place thanks to Robbie McEwen’s two stage wins and overall title at the Tour de Wallonie-Picardie.

1. HTC-Highroad 48 (14 riders)
2. Team RadioShack 30 (12 riders)
3. Liquigas-Cannondale 30 (six riders)
4. Team Sky 28 (11 riders)
5. Omega Pharma-Lotto 28 (five riders)
6. Garmin-Cervélo 24 (11 riders)
7. Rabobank 24 (nine riders)
8. Lampre-ISD 23 (nine riders)
9. Vacansoleil-DCM 22 (nine riders)
10. Movistar 20 (nine riders)
11. Leopard-Trek 20 (eight riders)
12. Saxo Bank-SunGard 17 (six riders)
13. Katusha 17 (four riders)
14. BMC Racing 11 (four riders)
15. Euskaltel-Euskadi 10 (five riders)
16. Astana 7 (five riders)
17. Quick Step 6 (four riders)
AG2R-La Mondiale 6 (four riders)

(Individual wins in UCI .1 races and higher, including world RR and TT championships and national RR championships of major countries, through October 9)

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