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:
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.