2013 Giro d’Italia route – the best balanced Grand Tour of recent years?

The parcours for the 96th edition of the Giro d’Italia was unveiled this morning, and if first impressions are anything to go by we will be in for a treat come the start in Naples next May. There is something for everyone on this balanced route, whether it is the specialist climbers or time-trialists among the overall contenders, the puncheurs or even the sprinters, for whom there is just enough to keep them interested.

Race director Michele Acquarone introduced the route, saying:

Our guiding line is that the great champions must be respected, and every champion must be given space to express himself. I think that we’ve put together a very balanced route.

A quiet opening week for the GC men

The initial nine-day stint contains few major obstacles for the maglia rosa contenders, although there are a number of opportunities for pockets of time to be gained or conceded. It is, however, more of a showcase for the sprinters and Classics specialists.

The first stage – ten laps of a circuit around Naples – should yield an early battle for supremacy between the top sprinters. Mark Cavendish has spoken of there being five probable and two other possible sprints in the race: stage three to Marina di Ascia features medium climbs about 65km and 30km from the finish and looks to be a ‘possible’, while stage six is a flat transitional stage and therefore a virtual dead cert to finish in a bunch sprint. In between, the second day sees a 17.4km team time trial on the island of Ischia which will open up some small gaps, but nothing too significant.

Meanwhile a trio of stages – four, five and seven – will favour Classics rouleurs and puncheurs. The first two of these feature late medium climbs followed by a flattish run to the finish – think of them as larger versions of this year’s Road World Championships finish on the Cauberg – while the last features a series of smallish climbs throughout a lumpy stage, the last just over 6km from the line and leading into a downhill-into-flat finish reminiscent of Milan-San Remo. Watch out for world champion Philippe Gilbert and 2012 WorldTour leader Joaquim Rodriguez on these stages.

The 2013 Giro offers plenty of opportunities for one-day specialists such as new world champion Philippe Gilbert – stage four, for instance

Stage eight sees the first true test for the big guns, a 55.5km individual time trial which could easily see some big names losing four or five minutes. It’s a technical course, in parts twisty and hilly, but it will certainly strongly favour the likes of Bradley Wiggins over, say, Rodriguez.

The opening series ends with a medium mountain stage to Florence. With the toughest climbs early in the stage this should not unduly trouble the GC men, although with many weary legs in the peloton this may just be a day for a breakaway to succeed, with the sprinters likely to be parking up in the gruppetto.

Let the climbing commence

There’s no doubt that the jewel in the crown of the middle week is that Sunday’s 15th stage, which crosses into France to finish at the summit of the Col du Galibier. However, the previous day’s test is just as likely to shake the order up, taking in Sestriere en route to the Jatferau climb, a 7.2km stinger with a 9% average gradient.

The race passes briefly into France for the finale of stage 15 – not quite a leisurely Sunday afternoon ride!

Before that, there is potential peril immediately after the rest day too, which will catch out anyone who has not recovered properly. The first proper summit finish at Altopiano del Montasio is no match for Jatferau or the Galibier, but at 11km and 8.1% it is not to be underestimated. Someone will get caught out here and give away a minute or two.

The three days in between should be relatively tranquillo in terms of the GC battle, with stage 11 being yet another punchy climb-into-plateau finish and the following two days likely to end in sprints. And stage 16, the final day before the second rest day, has some significant climbing to tackle early on before a nasty medium summit 16km from the finish. If any stage is going to favour the breakaway artists, it’s this one.

The final showdown

By the start of the final week the top of the GC should be taking shape, but without any decisive gaps between the main contenders, and the last five-day stretch starts with a relatively benign run to Vicenza. It would be a straightforward sprinters’ finish, but the organisers have thrown in a hill 16km from the end to make life interesting. A breakaway, a sprinter or a Classics-style attack? It could be any of the three.

It is on the following three days where the race will be won and lost. Stage 18 sees the second individual time trial, a 19.4km climb containing a vertical gain of 1,008 metres (an average of 5.2%) from Mori to Polsa. There is a big opportunity for time gains here, but not as big as on the next two days.

The first of this pair of decisive stages is only 138km long, but takes in the legendary Passo Gavia (2,618m) and the Stelvio (2,758m) – this year’s Cima Coppi as the highest point of the race – before a finish at the summit of Val Martello (a ‘mere’ 2,051m).

The pain on stage 19 does not end on the Stelvio – there’s more to come

And the penultimate stage 20 takes in five major climbs, the last three in the final 40km and including the Passo Giau before the final summit finish on the Tre Cime (Three Peaks) di Lavaredo.

We can expect the contenders to give everything on a brutal penultimate stage which is likely to decide the race

Whoever is in red at the summit of this climb will succeed Ryder Hesjedal as champion, after completing the formality of the final criterium bunch sprint in Brescia.

The 2012 Tour on steroids?

Without seeing the detail, this looks to be an evenly balanced route which will give the time-trialling all-rounders every chance to compete on a level playing field with the pure climbers. To me it looks like a route perfectly tailored for Alberto Contador, although Bradley Wiggins will fancy his chances too if he can recapture his 2012 form and defending champion Ryder Hesjedal will not be too upset at the parcours either. However, this year’s runner-up Joaquim Rodriguez may find the long time trial too much for him.

Indeed, the balanced nature of the 3,405km course is reminiscent of this year’s Tour de France, but one which has feasted on a diet of steroids first: slightly fewer time trial kilometres and more tricky mountain finishes. This will make it nigh on impossible for one team to control the race with the kind of iron grip Sky exerted in July. We may well see the top contenders keeping their – and their teammates’ – powder dry until as late as stage 14 or 15 before unleashing hell. This could in turn lead to an unexpected face in the maglia rosa during the first two weeks, providing us with the kind of romantic B-plot the best Grand Tours always possess.

Will the race be as good as it looks? That’s for the riders themselves to determine, but it looks like the organisers have certainly given them a suitable battleground to fight on.

2013 Giro d’Italia stages

May 4th: Stage 1 — Naples to Naples, 156km

May 5th: Stage 2 — Iscia to Forio, 17.4km team time trial

May 6th: Stage 3 — Sorrente to Marina di Ascea, 212km

May 7th: Stage 4 — Policastro to Bussentino, 244km

May 8th: Stage 5 — Cosenza to Matera, 199km

May 9th: Stage 6 — Mola di Bari to Margherita di Savoia, 154km

May 10th: Stage 7 — San Salvio to Pescara, 162km

May 11th: Stage 8 — Gabbicce Mare to Saltara, 55.5km individual time trial

May 12th: Stage 9 — San Sepolcro to Florence, 181km

May 13th: Rest day

May 14th: Stage 10 — Cordenons to Altopiano del Montasio, 167km

May 15th: Stage 11 — Tarvisio to Vajont, 184km

May 16th: Stage 12 — Longarone to Treviso, 127km

May 17th: Stage 13 — Busseto to Cherasco, 242km

May 18th: Stage 14 — Cervere to Bardonecchia, 156km

May 19th: Stage 15 — Cesana Torinese to Col du Galibier, 150km

May 20th: Rest day

May 21st: Stage 16 — Valloire to Ivrea, 237km

May 22nd: Stage 17 — Caravaggio to Vicenza, 203km

May 23rd: Stage 18 — Mori to Polsa, 19.4km individual time trial

May 24th: Stage 19 — Val Martello to Martelltal, 138km

May 25th: Stage 20 — Silandro to Tre Cime di Lavaredo, 202km

May 26th: Stage 21 — Riese Pie X to Brescia, 199km