That’s a lovely way to start an article about a race in Europe, and it’s also the way we (as Aussies) would love to see the 2014 Giro pan out. While it’s possible it may end up this way, I doubt the Italian grand tour planners had our boys in their grand plan when designing the route. While RCS Sport (the Giro owners, and owners of La Gazzetta dello Sport – Italy’s pink daily sporting rag) trumpet this race as a tribute to the late Marco Pantani as it’s ten years now since his passing, it looks remarkably like it was designed for the Messina Shark – Vincenzo Nibali to repeat his 2013 victory. In fact the penultimate two days, where Vincenzo sealed his win, almost mimic those of last year’s race. All we need do is add a couple of metres of snow and it’ll be complete.
Let’s start by having a look at this year’s edition week by week.
I’d love to think of the Giro route planners throwing a handful of spaghetti against a map of Italy, then choosing to place stages along the routes of where the pasta has stuck. Maybe this method has featured in the past, as long transfers have often been the norm. However in 2014 the organiser lays claim to a finely balanced route that features three time trials, eight sprint finishes and nine hilly or mountain stages that will decide who sports pink into Trieste on the final Sunday. It’ll be the longest grand tour in recent times as it starts on a Friday, but there are three rest days. Combine this with limited transfers in the 2014 race, with many stages starting close to the previous day’s finish, and it should produce a fresher, more combative peloton and race.
Week one: It’s a unique ‘partenze’ to the 2014 race in two respects. We’re starting in Northern Ireland, on a Friday. A Team Time Trial of 22km around the streets of Belfast, commencing from Titanic (a monument to Belfast’s maritime heritage) will allow any good squad the opportunity to lay a base for success three weeks later in Trieste. Looking at the first three stages, which all stay under 320m altitude, the race directors will still be at the mercy of the weather gods, with all the Irish stages starting in (or near) Belfast, which parallels the southern parts of Scandinavia. Memories of last year’s shortened and cancelled stages due to late season snow falls are still fresh and while none of that should apply here, it’s entirely possible that grim sweeping cold winds, mist and horizontal rain will prevail.
The fourth stage, post the air transfer to southern Italy, is short at 121km, and should be a cracker, finishing with eight laps of a 10km street circuit in Bari. This is an endearing feature of the Giro, which the other grand tour organisers could well embrace. Not a huge benefit to the TV audience, but for your street fan at the barriers, there is nothing better. The following stage hits a couple of peaks close to 850 metres at the Giro’s southern most point, as it passes through Basilicata. However it’s not until nearing the end of the first week, as the seventh stage departs Frosinone, that the race broaches 1000m above sea level on the Valico d’Arcinazzo. The race has commenced galloping northwards at a rapid rate by now, and stage nine wraps up the week with a proper hilltop finish at Sestola (1528m) in Emilia-Romagna, after passing through Bologna.
The stage six ‘arrivo’ gives the Giro its first hilltop finish at the Abbey of Montecassino. Not huge at 484m, but its history is. In 1944 it was the sight of a pivotal battle between the Germans and the Allies, as they moved up the peninsula. The Abbey, occupied by the Germans, was decimated by allied bombing on a wintery morning in February, giving a massive boost in morale to the infantry dug into the mud of the valleys below. This allowed the allied troops to get their heads up and gain momentum, as they pushed the Germans back towards Berlin.
Week Two: The second week starts with a rest day in the mainly industrial town of Modena, which boasts Ducati and Ferrari amongst its exports, not to mention aged balsamic vinegar and the best Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Once the Italians and the rest of the peloton interlopers are well fed and revved up, they can commence the second week which steers through the regions of Piedmonte and Lombardia. This week features a very relevant individual time trial in the Barolo wine region and finishes on top of Montecampione where Pantani triumphed in 1998, on his way to his giro/tour double that year.
The second week features stages with four different finish loops. Stages 10 and 11, leading up to the TT, give a nod to the fans with finish circuits that allow them two views. This is of course, of great benefit to the riders, as they get a preview run down the finish straight before arriving for the finale. The former is a classic sprinter’s style stage while stage 11, with a 700m ‘berg in its finish loop, is more appropriate for an opportunist. Expect spectacular TV coverage here too, with close to 100k of the final run, racing along the coast of the Ligurian sea, passing close to Portofino.
The Barolo time trial of 41.9km, covering rolling hills, will suit an efficient rider who can maintain a steady pace over the winding roads. That’s an obvious and easy statement to make, but when you are entering the final half of a three-week tour, cracks appear aplenty, and nothing is as easy as it looks. Once again, excellent camera backdrops for the punters at home enjoying the TV coverage, as one by one, the riders cut a course through the world famous vineyards.
The final two Piedmonte stages again feature loops that benefit the race fan, with stage 14’s compact but mountainous parcours, leading to a hilltop finish at Oropa. Four featured GPMs, with the final three above 1000m. Sunday brings an end to the second week with a flat run heading east to one large ascent, a hilltop finish on Pantani’s Montecampione. NB We are deep in the Dolomites now, and won’t be out until Trieste.
Week Three: The start of the third week has the riders resting up in Ponte di Legno. This is where last year’s weather really turned against the race management, causing them to cancel a stage – unheard of in the Giro for many years. The final week’s six stages feature four hilltop finishes, so once again, at the sprint finish on the final day in Trieste, make sure you hang around to cheer all the riders when they cross the line because they will all deserve it.
A rest day in Ponte di Legno sounds like an oxymoron to me. How on earth do you get in a recovery ride when every immediate road surrounding your accommodation averages close to ten per cent? And where does Cadel do his beloved high cadence? Rest day motor pacing session or on the rollers?
Stage 16 departs Ponte di Legno, sending the riders over the passes of Gavia and Stelvio before finishing atop of Val Martello. It’s a repeat of the cancelled stage from last year, and pure quality within its short 139km. The pass of Stelvio being the Cima Coppi (highest point) of this year’s Giro. Let’s hope for sun instead of snow at the start of the day at least, so we can get the show on the road!
Thursday’s stage 18 sees the peloton visiting Passo San Pellegrino, an old Giro favourite, before finishing at the rarely visited Rifugio Panorotta. Another ski resort keen to use the Giro d’Italia to raise its profile.
Just Four of the likely contenders:
Friday the riders have to face up to Montegrappa, an outright climber’s individual mountain time trial, coming two days before the finish in Trieste. The penultimate day the riders finish atop Zoncolan. This is the climb where Cadel trailed Basso in 2010 and heard the fans saying “Non spingy I stranieri” (don’t push the foreigners). So, no secrets in Basso’s victory there. And the fans ought to use a little discretion, along with learning which of the riders are fluent in Italian.
Sunday allows Trieste to host the race’s grand finale. With the start in Gemona, the Giro finishes with eight 7.3km flat laps in central Trieste. No excuses for the sprinter’s teams that get it wrong there.
Wrap up: (cliché warning – Ed) It’s hard to see the race being ‘wrapped up’ before the third week. With its four hilltop finishes, including the Montegrappa ITT, there are plenty of chances for errors.
Last year’s tour sensation, the Colombian Nairo Quintana, should be a shoe-in if he opts for the Giro over the tour, which is his team’s initial plan. He’s even more suited to this course than Nibali, who the course was designed for. At 24, inexperience could be his only Achilles’ heel.
The hometown advantage given to an Italian cannot be underestimated in this event, due to the fanaticism of the crowds (see above) but I think a grand tour win may be past Ivan Basso these days. It would indeed be lovely to see the piano playing professional rider Domenico Pozzovivo shine, like he did with a win in stage 8 of the 2012 Giro. 2013 saw him battle with injuries; let’s hope he’s 100% and full of hunger for 2014.
Of a lesser note, there will be a hometown advantage available to another country, and Ireland’s Nicholas Roche is hoping to take full advantage of it. Hard to see it lasting over all those hilltop finishes though.
Spain’s Joaquim Rodriguez has been quoted as saying he can win the Giro and the Vuelta in 2014, and it’s good that he’s prepared to back himself in. Let’s see him roll everyone in the Giro first, as it’s wise to take it one grand tour at a time.
Last year, as we know, Team Sky had three potential GC contestants. They sent Wiggins spaghetti-side, and chose to keep Porte and Froome at home. Wiggins choked in the bad weather, but even without their three top GC riders in the race they still pulled second place overall, with Uran Uran. There’s not another team that could equal that. Now, with Uran Uran riding for OPQS, if he gets a good run at this year’s Giro, he’ll be a good bet for another podium, perhaps even the win.
Rigoberto Uran Uran, let’s explain his name. The Spanish, and those in Spain’s colonies, maintain their mother’s maiden name as a second surname. That’s why Spanish riders have double-banger names, usually only referred to fully on start lists. In the press it’s normal to refer to them by their first surname only, ie Alejandro Valverde (insert second surname here). So, Uran Uran is from Colombia, Spanish speaking of course, and I’m not sure if his father married a distant cousin (or his sister, for that matter) but definitely someone with the same surname, hence the doubling up in the double banger. All clear?
Cadel has unfinished business at the Giro; he lead the race on his first ride back in ’02, albeit for one day. He’s won a stage while proudly wearing the mud spattered world champ’s rainbow hoops, taken home the sprinter’s classification (both in ’10) and finished on the podium (’12). He as good as lives in Italy (just a couple of minutes over the border in a part of Switzerland that’s more Italian than Swiss) and he even has an Italian wife, who, while being a classic beauty, is not the Italian prize Cadel is chasing this year.
And Richie? There’s unfinished business here for him too. He’s channelling Cadel a little in his career. He too led the race during his first ride in 2010, enjoyed three days in Pink, before losing it in the mountains of the final week. He finished seventh on general classification and took home the young rider’s jersey easily that year, by more than seven minutes. He also allowed me the opportunity to write a favourite headline, ‘Porte Sports Pink into the Dolomites Domani (tomorrow)’. He lost the jersey on the Montegrappa stage, where teammates Basso and Nibali combined to work over Cadel and secure the win for Basso. It was not a good day for Aussies, although Matthew Lloyd did manage to hold onto the Climber’s jersey that tour.
Overall, I’m hoping I can wrap the 2014 Giro with another headline, ‘Cadel’s Pink Spell Bests the Rest into Trieste’.