Understanding the 2011 Giro d’Italia Route

The stage over Monte Zoncolan would be tough even if you didn’t have to ride the next day.

I’ve spent the last four days looking at the Giro route for 2011, attempting to digest it like a 40-oz. steak—something larger than can be tackled at a single sitting. Looking back at previous editions of both the Giro and the Tour, I have never encountered a Grand Tour more deliberately designed to do nothing so much as find the world’s finest climber.

Let’s take a moment to look at the profiles of the pivotal mountain stages:

Stage 7

Stage 9Stage 13Stage 14Stage 15Stage 16Stage 17

Stage 19Stage 20

Only two short years ago the Giro featured seven mountain stages, the same as what is claimed for the 2011 Giro. However, in 2009, only four stages finished on mountain tops, whereas in 2011 all seven will finish atop mountains. By any estimation, this will be the hardest Giro in a generation.

Chances are, what you most recall about the route announcement is hardman Sean Yates’ oft-quoted pronouncement that the Giro route is “savage.” I hadn’t previously considered Yates’ gift for understatement.

Let’s put this in perspective: The Giro route, at 3498km, spends almost two thirds of its kilometers—2199 of them—on courses that are anything but flat. More mass-start stages finish uphill than on flat courses. And while the route has generally been reported to have seven mountain-top finishes, the uphill time trial from Belluno to Nevegal really can’t be called anything other than a mountain stage.

But wait, there’s more! In addition to the Ginsu knife you get stages such as the Giro’s longest stage, some 246km from Feltre to Sondrio. While this little jaunt is called a “mixed stage” or in Tour terminology it would be known as a medium mountain stage, it features roughly as much climbing as the Tour of Lombardy.

Eight of the final nine stages are mountainous. Four stages in a row finish uphill, the last of those being the time trial up Nevegal. The only non-mountain stage of those final nine stages is the individual time trial that ends the race in Milan. Think about it: after eight days in the mountains interrupted by only one rest day, the race finishes with an individual time trial. Fully 10 days with no chance to hide.

Seriously, though, calling the 2011 Giro d’Italia “savage” is like saying war is a messy business. Savage doesn’t begin to get at just how incomprehensibly difficult this Grand Tour will be. Truly, this one can be called cruel. If the time limits are enforced to the letter of the law, cumulative fatigue could easily see two-thirds of the field eliminated. Add in crashes and illness and this Giro could see fewer than 50 finishers.

For those who want exciting racing, this Giro is likely to do one of two things: Either it will feature daily detonations that see pink jersey wearers and wannabes crushed like Tess of the d’Urbervilles, or some of the best riders in the world will ride so conservatively that we see what amounts to a recovery ride up Monte Zoncolan.

There are plenty cycling fans will take this route as evidence that the Giro is the better, tougher, more inventive race. In the Tour’s defense, we should note that being #1 always confers a degree of conservatism with it. Overcoming being #2 requires both ambition and invention, which is why we see a greater willingness for RCS to mess with the formula of the Giro.

You may recall that in some quarters a suggestion has been made that the Grand Tours are too difficult, that the courses of the Grand Tours are so difficult that riders are effectively forced to dope just to survive. While we may not be open to this criticism if it comes out of Pat McQuaid’s mouth, it is no less worth considering.

Those of you who followed the Grand Tours before the age of EPO may recall the stories that riders like Bob Roll would tell about how the first four hours of a stage would be ridden piano, and then when the TV helicopters arrived, the riders would crank up the pace to make a show for the viewers for the final hour of racing.

Let’s be honest about what we want. We want to see riders go out and crush it on each of the mountain stages. We want to see guys attacking at threshold, other guys detonating in floods of lactic acid and in every instance a small group of favorites sprinting for the finish. The last thing in the world we want is for the peloton to ride the first two climbs of a three climb day in their 39x25s and passing bidons like a flask of Jack Daniels at a Cowboys’ game.

Addition is to last year’s course what calculus is to this year’s course. Even suggesting a course like this is to invite speculation about what might be too difficult, too demanding. But that’s not the issue, not directly. The real issue is that a course such as this invites doping, does it not? While even the garden-variety PRO is orders of magnitude stronger than the best amateur racer, knowing what we know of the practices and the requirements involved in doping, can anyone reasonably suggest that the winner of this race would be above suspicion for doping? Heck, wouldn’t you venture to think that anyone who even finishes this race would be on something stronger than ox blood? There isn’t enough Red Bull in Europe to get a guy through this course.

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11 comments

  1. Champs

    I guess it comes down to whether it’s a race for the athletes, the fans, or the sport itself. You could distill the Giro down to a three week series of hill climbs and 60 minute crits. It’s less bruising and gets to the point of what the tifosi want to see, but that’s hardly a grand tour.

  2. Mike

    I understand all that you are saying (and agree with most). While we have to live with (until it is changed) the realities of the current culture, I do not believe that any rider has to use PEDs. Any race can be won by someone in a field of clean racers. The times will just not be as fast. I will give you that this Giro is a monster by today’s standards. However is it so much so if we compare it to the early Grand Tours when stages were hundreds of miles long, the courses were on poor roads (especially those in the mountains), the machines were heavy and single speed, and the men were not the finely tuned, scientifically trained, and full-time athletes of today. One might argue that they used PEDs of their time (e.g., bourbon). However, the PEDs of that time were of no comparison to that of today (remember also that many of the early competitors also smoked!). I suppose a bottom line is that doping in today’s culture is simply a choice, not a necessity brought on by tough courses.

  3. Souleur

    I love the Giro! I love its ambition, its rough around the edges feeling which tends toward less pomp and circumstance-more toward fantastic racing. I love the unconvention of it all. For all the propriety of the TdF, the Giro seems to be less of but in it accessible, less barriers and tangible. I can only dream of being there every day, but work requires me as does reality.

    And in it all, no matter what, I will never see the Maglia Rosa overtake the Maillot-juane. Yet that is alright, and should be. Its simply the order in cycling.

    The fear I have, admittedly, is that the Giro will become so brutal that the Tour of California may gain popularity within the peloton, and afterall, the Tour of California is a worthy weeks race.

    The vuelta has the same conundrum, and frankly any other race that is pretending to be a Grand Tour. The group in the corner that is talking about the grand tours being too hard, I suppose, need to openly discuss this w/organizers…all of them, and all of them should work together in mutual ways and means to further the sport. Not like we tend to have done in the past in territorial ways w/boundaries on races, dates and invitations.

    So, for now, I basque in the dream of strada bianchi and remembering stage 7 from last year and…hope for another similar race!

  4. Robot

    To me, it’s a matter of expectations. The entire pro peloton has become accustomed to riding a certain way, which is to say, they know how to ride a Grand Tour as long as that Grand Tour falls within certain parameters. What RCS has done with this route is change the parameters.

    As things stand, it is possible to manage your GT efforts so that you can ride hard on the decisive stages. You can strategize, not only for survival, but also for success. Doping may or may not be a part of that strategy.

    This Giro route defies strategy. It more or less says, “There are too many potentially decisive stages for you to ride hard on all of them.” The teams may decide they don’t know how to ride a Giro like this, but that doesn’t mean it’s too hard or not a good route. It means that the peloton should expect to ride more piano and less hammer. It means that the favorites will have to get over the fact that, at some point, they’ll be spit out the back, and that getting spit out the back may not have any effect at all on their ability to win the race.

    Frankly, I like this route. One thing it may do is push the dopers beyond their ability to hide in the bunch. If you are micro-dosing or whatever it is they do now, and you have push the limits on your dope to maintain steady effort over so many brutal stages, you are more likely to get caught, and that’s a good thing.

    Of course, the route it too hard. Mineral water and vitamin shots will only allow you to race so hard when the racing is this hard. If we all (fans and riders) lower our expectations for speed, consistency, etc. then this can be a great race. It may, in fact, be exactly what we need.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      First, let me comment on my own writing and say that I hate that the biggest question on my mind after poring over the route was how anyone could succeed without doping. There’s no question that a clean cyclist can ride the course, but I don’t for a second think that a clean cyclist could beat a doped cyclist on this course. And that’s a shame.

      The hopeful thought I have is that we might see dramatic turns of fortune the way with did with pre-war Grand Tours. Back then, a guy could lose 12 minutes one day and pick up 20 the next with a solo break leading to a stage win. If that could happen, did happen, I think we would suddenly see a great deal more appreciation for those older editions of the Tour and Giro.

      I really adore the route. It’s one great adventure and I’d love to watch it without wondering what’s deep down in the pink of the pink jersey winner.

  5. michael

    “The hopeful thought I have is that we might see dramatic turns of fortune the way with did with pre-war Grand Tours. Back then, a guy could lose 12 minutes one day and pick up 20 the next with a solo break leading to a stage win. If that could happen, did happen, I think we would suddenly see a great deal more appreciation for those older editions of the Tour and Giro.”

    that is exactly what I am expecting to see. that and a rider from a smaller, less significant team take a flyer ala Steve Bauer, Chiappuci or Pensec and build a 20 minute lead on one stage just to mess with people and see it all the way through to a podium. Those days were the big hitters are trying to hide will see unknowns and other teams take well-deserved victory, sharing the spoils all around and just making for a more involved sport.

    if all of that happens, not only are fans all winners but so is the sport.

  6. James

    I wish we could get decent television coverage of more than just the Tour. A race like the 2011 Giro deserve great TV coverage…as do Paris-Nice, Lombardia, the Dauphine, etc. And when we get decent TV coverage, people who are fringe fans can see that there is more to heaven and earth, Horatio than the Tour!

  7. Michael

    Speaking of savage, has anyone taken note of the charity ride with members of the Rapha-Condor squad in 2011 that will follow the entire Giro route over….23 days? Starts on May 29th in Turin rolling into Milan 23 days later. It is a prostate cancer awareness/charity ride being run by Pete Easton of Velo Classic tours and a British charity. 200 rider cap, you can sign-up do ride small blocks, a full week or the whole meal deal.

    Would I willingly put myself into the line of fire to ride the full meal deal?

    hell yes i would!


    1. Author
      Padraig

      I hadn’t heard of the ride; I traded some e-mail with Peter recently and he said he had something he wanted to tell me about … this might have been it. With out a really well-matched peloton that stays together, that tour could be devastating. Chunks of it would be terrific.

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