Anything can happen in a three-week Grand Tour. One thing is for sure, however, there are more stages where a rider can lose this Giro than win it. Here are five stages that I think will be key to the final podium selection this year.
1. Stage 8: Gabicce Mare-Saltara, 54.8km ITT
Unlike last year’s individual in the Tour de France, this is not a race-nullifier. Bradley Wiggins will almost certainly put in a storming ride and probably get an advantage over his climbing rivals, but this won’t be a procession from here on in.
The parcours is up and down, left and right bends, short sharp climbs, short sharp descents, narrow roads – there is only about 20km of flat in all and the final 400 metres is a steep climb (with a maximum gradient of 13%) to the finish line. This stage will be the first significant indicator of which riders are in contention for the podium.
2. Stage 15: Cesana Torinese-Col du Galibier, 149km
I picked this stage because it was so much like a Tour de France stage – and in fact was the site of one of Andy Schleck‘s greatest rides in 2011. These Alpine climbs aren’t walkovers, that’s for sure.
The stage includes the Col du Telegraphe, which averages a 7.2% gradient over 12km, and the final 8km or so of Galibier is 8.4%, but they don’t have the treacherously steep gradients and technical descents of the Dolomites later on. And that’s why I’ve picked it – this is a stage that could see Sky on the front all day, setting the kind of blistering pace that sapped the will of the peloton during the Tour. If Wiggins is in the maglia rosa, he might use this stage to consolidate his lead in anticipation of the final week. Equally, it’s a chance for the climbers to take back lost time.
As the final stage before the second rest day, it’s a big opportunity for anyone who’s feeling (relatively) fresh to put in a mega effort and put their more tired rivals in distress. Don’t expect the GC men to finish all together – there will be riders scattered in ones and twos all the way down the Galibier as we discover who’s still in good shape and who’s running on empty.
3. Stage 18: Mori-Polsa, 20.6km ITT
This 20km is all uphill, with a 5.2% average gradient, ramping up to 10% in some places, so more steady than steep but with lots of twists and turns to disrupt the rhythm. As it’s uphill, this suits the climbers who might not be that great at time-trialling on the flat, but the relatively steady gradient will also suit the likes of Wiggins and Cadel Evans.
It’s a manageable stage but it will be 45 minutes of suffering and if one of the main contenders has a bad day, they might leave their Giro dreams on the roadside. This also comes in the third week of what cannot be considered an easy parcours so if the legs are feeling leaden, there are going to be some major time losses.
4. Stage 19: Ponte di Legno-Val Martello, 139km
Three monster climbs all over 2,000m – Gavia, Stelvio and a brand new summit finish to Val Martello – in the short space of 139km means this stage will most probably go down in Giro history as legendary. The Stelvio is the highest peak in this year’s Giro (the Cima Coppi) and was the arena of Thomas de Gendt’s epic ride last year.
The day starts with the gruelling Gavia before it hits the heights of the Stelvio (2,758m). A technical descent into the ‘hammer’ valley then the final 22.3km climb up to the summit finish (with a final kilometre with hairpin bends and maximum gradients of 14%) means that a GC rider can’t do this stage on his own. They are going to have to rely on their teams to control and chase – with the two long, fast, technical descents presenting arguably bigger opportunities for attacks than the climbs – therefore the team with the freshest and strongest men will surely be key to the result of this epic stage.
5. Stage 20: Silandro-Tre Cime di Lavaredo, 203km
Five climbs – 4,000 metres of climbing – and switchback after switchback of gruesome gradients means this final mountain stage is going to take every last ounce of strength from the GC guys. If the top three are tight time-wise, they may play a dangerous game of trying to hold on to their own position while forcing the others to go too far into the red and blow spectacularly.
In the last 50km, it is the Dolomites at their most dastardly as the riders have to get over Passo Giau, one of the range’s hardest climbs and one that only a purist could love. If a contender is going to crack, it may well be here and if they do, they’ll find it hard to get back, as they won’t have much opportunity to regroup before a cat 2 ascent takes more energy out of them before the final climb of the day and the summit finish.
The Tre Cime di Lavaredo will give the riders a hellish last climb of the Giro – in fact, it’ll give them a hellish last 4km as there are gradients of up to 18% in that final section. It’s a leg-killer of a stage when considered in isolation – coming as it does after the previous two days, anyone who makes it to the top within the time cut will have been nothing but heroic. It’s a worthy climax to a thrilling final week.
Tomorrow we’ll have a look at the key riders to watch.
(Opening photograph: The Stelvio ©TheMusette.)