PREVIEW: GIRO D’ITALIA
The 2021 Giro route has been hailed as a masterpiece of innovation and epic challenges. We break it down
During the past year, ‘Everesting’ has become a popular activity. Last month, Irishman Ronan McLaughlin broke the record by climbing the equivalent of the 8,848 vertical metres of Everest in six hours 40 minutes. This year’s Giro d’Italia attempts something similar on stage 16, as the riders will climb 5,700m in their 212km race from Sacile to Cortina d’Ampezzo, through the Dolomites.
This is just 64 per cent of Everest. But the 5,700m of vertical metres are more than any mountain in Europe, almost 1,000 metres more than Mont Blanc. It is about the equivalent of cycling up Mount Elbrus, the highest mountain in Russia at 5,642m, so the peloton at the Giro will be ‘Elbrusing’ in the final week of the race.
However, this isn’t a single attempt that can be meticulously trained for and done at will, unlike Everesting. It comes after 15 days of hard racing down and then up Italy, and forms just a single part of the 47,000m of climbing that the peloton will face over the 3,471km of this year’s Corsa Rosa.
The queen stage of this year’s race is on the final Monday, the day before the last rest day. Riders will tackle the Passo Fedaia, Passo Pordoi and finally the Passo Giau. The Pordoi is the highest point of the Giro, and the Cima Coppi will be awarded for the first man over the top of it. After the Giau, however, there is an 18km downhill run to the finish in Cortina d’Ampezzo, which might well encourage the attacks to come earlier in the day, rather than everyone waiting for a final, hard test. It will be a savage day in the saddle.
If stage 16 is ‘Elbrusing’, then stage 20, on the penultimate day, is ‘Mont Blancing’.
With 3,277.6km in their legs, the peloton will climb 4,800m, going over the 23km Passo del San Bernardino in the process. That day also includes the Passo di Spluga before finishing up the Alpe Motta, close to the border with Switzerland.
That’s the thing about the 104th edition of the Giro: it is unashamedly brutal. While the other grand tours try different things, mix their parcours up from year to year - the Tour de France has even reverted to a TT-heavy route - the Italian race sticks to its basics. Another brutal thing about this year’s race is that riders will have to wait until after stage 10 for the first rest day, after more than 1,500km. That Tuesday off will feel like a lifetime away when the riders leave Turin for the grande partenza.
The peloton will be forced to tackle climbs throughout the race, but it will inevitably be building towards a loaded back end, as the Giro almost inevitably does. The monumental stage 16 belongs to a run of five mountain days across just eight stages, with a rest day thrown in as the only respite. This is partly due to the Giro taking place almost entirely in the north this year, and therefore closer to the Alps and the Dolomites.
THE GIRO D’ITALIA MARKETS ITSELF AS ‘THE TOUGHEST RACE IN THE MOST BEAUTIFUL PLACE’. IN 2021, THE ORGANISERS HAVE STAYED TRUE TO THAT SLOGAN. PROCYCLING LOOKS AHEAD TO LA CORSA ROSA
Two days before that queen stage, the riders tackle Monte Zoncolan, the mythical climb which will be featured in the race for a seventh time since it was first introduced in 2003. It is 13.3km at 8.9 per cent. As much as it looks beautiful for the television viewer, as the lead group splits through those tiny tunnels and Alpine vistas, it must be horrible to ride. The last time the Giro went up the Zoncolan, the top 20 were spread over almost three minutes, with most riders crossing the line alone. With no drafting, it’s a 45-minute ramp test.
There are six mountainous stages in total, but even some of those that have been marked as simply ‘hilly’ by the organisers have over 3,000m of climbing.
Even a flat day like stage 18 is made difficult by its sheer length - 231km - but also by a series of short hills in the finale which could break the peloton up. There are eight uphill finishes in total.
There are new tests too, as the Giro follows the cycling zeitgeist, with gravel being introduced on two occasions across the race. On stage 9, in the Apennines, the final 1,800m of climbing after an arduous day are off-road. In the winter, the ‘road’ is used as a ski slope, so splits might occur over the final climb. It is the kind of short, punchy day that might be perfect for Simon Yates, of whom more later.
Stage 11 apes the Giro’s younger sibling, Strade Bianche, by putting in 34km of dirt roads in the final 70km, across four sectors. Only one of these is a particularly hard climb, but reintroducing the grand tour peloton to the white roads of Tuscany could cause chaos, much the same way as happens whenever the Tour visits the cobbles of northern France. While climbers have performed well at Strade Bianche in the past, the tension and fear in the peloton will be different coming 11 stages into a three-week race. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see leaders scattered across the course, time gaps caused by punctures or mechanicals, crashes caused by nerves. Mark May 19 on your calendar.
Finally, there are the two time trials. The first is a Giro-staple short time trial of under 10km on the opening day, something that has happened in four of the last five editions. It has Filippo Ganna’s name written all over it, going by his form at the last Giro. The final day also has a time trial, a longer test of 29.4km heading into Milan, finishing in front of the Duomo as they did last year. However, while the lead did change hands on that final day in 2020, the brutal climbing in the lead up to the end could mean that the action is all over by then.
October’s Giro was a strange affair, with its position in the calendar dissuading some big names from taking part. By stage 10, three of the race’s favourites, Geraint Thomas, Simon Yates and Steven Kruijswijk had all pulled out because of injury or covid fears. This year will be different,
with a start list that could be swapped with the Tour, it has that much quality.
Egan Bernal, Thibaut Pinot, Vincenzo Nibali and Simon Yates are all down to ride the first grand tour of the season. Plus João Almeida, who spent a fortnight in the pink jersey last year, who will be joined by Deceuninck team-mate Remco Evenepoel, who’s on his way back from injury.
Add Romain Bardet, George Bennett, Aleksandr Vlasov and Hugh Carthy, and there are many different riders who could end up in the maglia rosa in Milan.
2019 Tour winner Bernal is the most striking name on the list, as he lines up for the Giro for the first time. He is no stranger to the roads of Italy, however, as he spent his first two years as a professional with Androni-Giocattoli. The route appears to suit Ineos Grenadiers’ Colombian, with the time spent at altitude and the small amount of time trialling.
While he pulled out of last year’s Tour with a back problem and looked far from his best throughout 2020, there have been signs that he is returning to form. He finished second behind team-mate Ivan Sosa on the Mont Ventoux stage of the Tour de la Provence, before finishing third at Strade Bianche. He will also undoubtedly be helped by the strength of the team that he will have around him, with Pavel Sivakov and fellow Colombians Dani Martínez and Sosa currently on the startlist.
The other contenders do not have the luxury of such strong teams, and yet will still believe they have an excellent chance to win a grand tour. Yates returns for his fourth attempt at the Giro, and will surely look to add to his tally of stage wins at least. Whether his brand of attacking racing suits such a brutal edition remains to be seen.
Pinot is once again heading to Italy after a couple of notable failures at the Tour; he will hope that he remains upright and lucky at this edition. If he does that, he could prove himself in the final week. One wonders whether Nibali has one last perfect Giro in him, which he would need to add to his two titles. Astana’s Vlasov remains a dark horse. Despite his podium finish at last year’s Vuelta, Carthy’s grand tour pedigree is still a work in progress. This brief preview has not even mentioned Mikel Landa, Bauke Mollema or Domenico Pozzovivo, such is the depth of the field.
Between Turin and Milan this year, an exciting, chaotic race will take place and a worthy winner will be crowned.
There are six mountainous stages in total, but even some of those that have been marked as simply ‘hilly’ by the organisers have over 3,000m of climbing