Giro d’Italia Week One Preview

Giro d’Italia Week One Preview

103rd Giro d’Italia 2020 - Stage OnePhoto by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Huh, so I guess it’s Giro time! This is getting deeply weird.

WIth the just-concluded Tour de France, the experience of watching, and apparently the riders’ experience as well, turned out to be surprisingly normal. Races were raced well, fortunes were made and lost, and the stories of the Tour blotted out the sun for three weeks. It all happened with a reasonable build up and little distraction. The Tour felt like the Tour.

And none of that is happening now. The Giro d’Italia is about to start, with no notable run-up of Romandie or spring racing. The Giro doesn’t feel like the sun is coming out; if anything, it’s setting. Tirreno just happened but going up against the Tour it was hard to pay much attention to. The post-Tour exhaustion is the opposite of what we are used to feeling at the Giro, which keeps building on top of the classics and shorter stage races that precede it. Pile the Worlds on top of that and it’s all deeply, strangely anticlimactic to be heading to Italy right now.

But hey, I don’t make the rules, I just follow them blindly, led along by the promise of good coffee, colorful scenery and the Processo Alla Tappa. While I may not have had time to prepare myself mentally for the Giro, and while I have some doubts about the racing being memorable, I … just… can’t… stop … watching the Giro.

Case in point: back in May, I passed some of the time (OK all of it) by putting together a make-believe Giro course that was designed to be the percorso di tutti percorsi, released in three parts. It was an assemblage of actual Giro stages, notable for their route and their real-life impacts to Giro lore since 2000. The point of the exercise was to sit around imagining the Giro and how exciting it all is, even while it wasn’t happening.

The Giro remains a showcase of Italy, a wonderful landscape of cycling roads and fans and stories of legend. This edition, like most others, will invite — nay, insist — on some sort of action. Hopefully the riders involved will ramp up all of our passions with their exploits, the snow will hold off in the high mountains, and the Giro will be the Giro, more or less. Nothing is quite what it was right now, so if the Giro comes close to capturing its usual beauty, then I’m good.

By way of a preview and breakdown, I’ll do one post a week having some fun with the upcoming stage. Let’s dive in ASAP before the bloody race kicks off. Here’s a good startlist. Get more details at the official site. And settle in for a three week ride.

Monreale CathedralPhoto by Camillo Balossini/Archivio Camillo Balossini/Mondadori Portfolio

Stage 1: Monreale – Palermo, 15.1 km ITT

Saturday, October 3

Details: The Giro starts with a prologueish, downhillish time trial that, when it was first announced, set of a small round of outrage in the name of rider safety. The course starts up near the Monreale Cathedral and drops down into the center of Sicily, making for a flashy, urban course that won’t be without its challenges.

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Eyeballing the descent, it looks to be about a 6% gradient with just a couple hairpin bends to get through. Then it gets super straight and boring — a good test for the power brokers and sprinters who can keep the pace high for the 10km of flat racing. The 15km course might not take much more than 22 (? 24?) minutes for the stage winners to master.

Significance: Minimal, I think, although moderately treacherous for anyone who shows up in less than a fully focused state. Not because I think people will fall off the side of a straight, somewhat modest descent (fingers crossed), because we are so bloody far from Milan that it’d be foolish to put too much into this stage. But it is a course for the powerful riders, and the little climber types will want to limit their losses as much as possible. Also Geraint Thomas being among the favorites throws a wrench in a few riders’ plans to take this stage cautiously.

Did You Know? For a regional capital, Palermo has seen just a few Giri roll through. Obviously the city’s history as an economically depressed and culturally distant corner of Italy had a role in dissuading the Giro from coming here. Italian Wikipedia can only think of four times the Giro came here, and only once before 1986 (in 1930). Maybe they mean stage finishes, because the Giro has set out from Palermo a few times, including a rather infamous time in 1949. Yes, that race has been written about perhaps too much — it’s not like other editions didn’t have their high drama. But the Garibaldi-style route, starting in Palermo and making its way up the peninsula like the Quarto dei Mille is prone to, oh, stoking the imagination.

Well anyway, in 1949 the Palermo stage came under some threat when the bandit Salvatore Giuliano threatened to interrupt the race as it rolled out of the Sicilian capital. Giuliano is sort of Robin Hood crossed with Vito Corleone, except that he definitely existed and for a while captured hearts and minds in a region where the national government, heedless of the suffering of southerners, tended to drive the people into the arms of outlaws. Giuliano was known for executing police officers who had made enemies among the locals, for gently kidnapping people for political or monetary gain (it is said that his team would even give them books so they weren’t too bored during their stay), and for his political support of the Sicilian separatist party. He eventually lost some hearts and minds as a result of a massacre of 11 people in Ginestra in 1948 when someone — possibly his people, possibly the actual mafiosi who didn’t see much benefit in Giuliano’s gaining power — ignited a volley of gunfire into a crowd. By 1949, he was on the run and somewhat desperate.

When the Giro came to town, Giuliano was under heavy pressure from roving troops combing the hills of western Sicily looking for him and his gang. The rumor was that if the government didn’t call off their search, he and his gang would shoot at the riders as they passed by somewhere along the route to Catania. The stage came off without a hitch, Giuliano was killed in July, 1950 by his lieutenant Pisciotta, and Mario Puzo would eventually write a sensationalized biography of him titled The Sicilian.

Pick to Win: This stage is clearly set up for veteran hero Vincenzo Nibali to show off his wonderful downhilling skills, but newly crowned World ITT Champion Filippo Ganna is positively flying at the moment and should profit from the long, flat sections where his pure power can take over. Nobody has more pride invested in this stage than the young Rainbow warrior, the first-ever Italian to don the crono title jersey, who would love to pull on a maglia rosa to cap off his incredible two weeks.

[OK it’s 11pm on the eve of the race and I SWEAR this is what I wrote. By the time you read this, I will either be gloriously correct or forgettably wrong.]

Paestum temple

Stage 2: Alcamo – Agrigento, 149 km

Sunday, October 4

Details: A classic tour of the culture and landscape of Sicily, starting in the center of the island, amidst rolling hills and abandoned farmhouses, past groves of lemons and olives and almonds, with some peaks at the Mediterranean coast, before arriving in one of the great Greek archaeological sites in the region, the Valley of the Temples. The race kicks up to the line in the city center with a gradient that touches 9%.

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Significance: Both the points competition and the overall will come to life on this stage. Not that the maglia rosa is ever an afterthought, but if it starts this day on the back of a time trial specialist, it’s probably going to end on the back of a puny climber guy. Like a million other places in Italy, Agrigento’s town center sits up on a pretty decent hill, separated from the coast by the sprawling Greek monuments. It offers such a competitive route (and visually stunning) that the World Championships held their race here in 1994, won by Luc LeBlanc over Claudio Chiapucci.

Did You Know? Agrigento was one of the jewels in the Magna Grecia empire, a city of more than 100,000 people in those ancient times. The Valley of the Temples is best known for the Temple of Concordia, visible from lots of places, including a restaurant more or less next door where my wife and I had dinner on our honeymoon, as well as the less intact Temple of Hera off the main road to town. However, the valley is largely unexcavated, and it may be quite a while before people can see the full splendor of old Akragas. The Italianized name Agrigento was only given to the city in 1927 by Mussolini, and in 2016 the locals voted to rename the center city by its old Norman handle, Girgenti. Fascinating place. Put it on your bucket list.

Pick to Win: The stage hunters will be out in force, and an Italian rider — of which there are only 47 out of 176 riders — will be the likeliest choice here. The usual suspects have to be Diego Ulissi, Giulio Ciccone and Fausto Masnada. I’ll take the Quick Stepper.

Stage 3: Enna – Etna, 150 km

Monday, October 5

Details: High mountain drama, and possibly the most important stage of the entire Giro. Probably not, but the Appenines don’t tend to define the Giro, and the week 3 climbs could be at the mercy of the weather. Nobody is sleeping on this stage.

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Another short one at 150km but with barely a flat meter to be found, this one will tire out lots of legs on the way to the final climb. Typically Etna is climbed from the south to the Rifugio Sapienza, but not this time. Now they are climbing from Linguaglossa, after skirting the edge of the volcano, to the Piano Provenza. It’s not for the faint of heart.

Etna Linguaglossa

It reads 18km at 6.6%, but that includes some 9km of tapping out a 7% rhythm, then a bit of a break, followed by a beastly last 3km at close to 9%, hitting 11% at one point. Not among Europe’s worst ascents, but this could mean minutes to be won or lost.

Significance: As I was saying, the GC could well be decided here. Sound crazy? OK, but in 2011, Alberto Contador put 50 seconds into his rivals and seized control of the race for good on Etna, then just the ninth stage of the race. Sure, taking the jersey on stage 3 and defending it sounds ludicrous, but with the end of the race up in the air, it’s hardly out of the realm of possibility.

So then you have to ask, is everyone ready by stage 3? It’s odd to have a race-defining stage so early that contending riders are more or less still warming up to the event and looking for their rhythm. An alternate scenario to the heroic stage glory would be the big names keeping their powder dry and not making too much of a fuss here. Someone will want it, but if it’s a rider whose GC chances aren’t too highly regarded, maybe they let him have his fun.

Did You Know? Etna is a giant fucking volcano that, like some people I know, never really shuts up. It is in a near-constant state of eruption, spewing toxic gas like a presidential campaign. It has dumped so much lava on the island that Sicily was once considered a terrible place to ride a bike, thanks to all the flat tires. Eh, whatever.

Really, the interesting point is that they start in Enna. This was another place where I spent a night on our honeymoon. It sits at the top of a very large hill, a natural fortress, which means it would also do well as a stage finishing town. I distinctly recall driving down some steep cobbled alleyways and giving up all hope of not crashing into a wall (we didn’t). Lots of places in Sicily have Greek roots because Greek people lived there, but Enna goes to the next level as the host of a scene from Greek mythology, the Rape of Persephone. Apparently she and her mom Demeter lived in the area, and the legend has it that Hades, a/k/a Pluto, a/k/a the God of the Underworld, captured her and, well, I guess they ended up married, although it probably says more about the treatment of women than anything else. Anyway, it certainly wasn’t the last underworld to inhabit Sicily.

Pick to Win: Well now it’s Saturday and Joao Almeida, star of my FSA DS team, just took second in the time trial, so now I think he’s going to win the Giro. If so, this would be a good place to start the march to pink. In any event, it’s a day for the GC guys; we aren’t far enough into the race for breakaways to be left out on their own.

smoking etna

Stage 4: Catania – Villafranca Tirrena, 140 km

Tuesday, October 6

Details: The sprinters’ stage… from Hell! Nice, flat finish, all you have to do is survive a 1000-meter climb in the middle of the stage as the race ascends from the Ionian Sea to the Tyrrhenian one.

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Kind of a sick joke actually. Up to this point, the Giro has served up a time trial, an uphill sprint finish, a major mountain, and now this. Can the regular fastmen get a break? No, they cannot. Not that they come to the Giro anyway.

Significance: This race could go a long way to deciding the points competition. The Giro classifies this as a flat stage, or at least it has the same whimsical purple-kidney-bean-with-a-gently-sloping-line-through-it symbol, as opposed to the lumpy medio montagne or high mountain symbols. That means this is one of the five stages where the winner nets 50 points, not the more routine 25-point haul for the other stages. Of course, sprinters don’t often end up in Milan (or wherever) with the points jersey, but there is always a chance for them to do so if none of the punchy climber types gets too hot. So if there were to be a sprinter taking the competition, well, that sprinter would sure boost his chances by getting over the highlands with the peloton while maybe a few of his rivals get left behind in pointless land.

Of course, the teams aren’t stupid, and in fact I’m not sure how many pure sprinters there are on the startlist. Peter Sagan is the name that jumps off the page, but he’s made his bones by getting over some middling climbs in his day. Arnaud Demare and Michael Matthews are two more riders who can function as a team’s designated sprinter yet still get over some climbs. Alvaro Hodeg might be the only guy I’ve spotted as a pure sprinter, but for all I know he can climb too. So maybe we’ll have a nice, lively sprint on our hands no matter what.

Did You Know? One of the sprint points happens in Barcellona Pozzo di Gotto, a town on the Tyrrhenian Sea not far from the sprint. Barcellona is the Italian spelling of the Spanish city Barcelona, something every Italian calcio fan knows from Champions League standings. Many of the big towns in Sicily are named from the Greek language, be it Panormos (Palermo), Taurmenion (Taormina, also part of Naxos), Syracuse (Siracusa) and so on.

But other conquerors got in on the naming fun too. Agrigento, before being conquered and renamed by Mussolini’s people, was conquered and renamed by the Normans from the Greek Akragas to Girgenti. Catania’s name comes from several possible sources, including the Arabic Qataniyyah. Barcellona Pozzo di Gotto is simply named after old Barcelona, the Aragonese having come from Spain to inhabit the town.

Sicily is home to about as convoluted an ethnicity as you’ll find. The Sicilians have their own language, where the o becomes a u and the consonants change, or the entire word is replaced, from the modern Italian. The language still exists and is spoken routinely on the island, though they mostly speak Italian too. The island’s original inhabitants are the Sicanians, Sicels and Elymians. Little is known as to whether these tribes were truly indigenous to Sicily or migrated down from the peninsula, or even from Spain. I mean, they came from somewhere, nobody seems to think they emerged from the soil. But since these original tribes, Sicily has been invaded by the Phoenicians, ancient Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Byzantine Greeks, Moors, Normans, Swabians, Spaniards, Austrians and finally the modern Italians. “Sicilian” is a bit hard to trace as a language, but basically it’s the unifying element to the island underneath all of the names from somewhere else. The Sicilians don’t look a lot like the Piedmontese, which is a pretty good if simplified way to start understanding the history of Italian disunification.

Pick to Win: Demare. I think the sprinters all get there, and Demare eeks out the win.

Stage 5: Mileto – Camigliatello Silano, 225 km

Wednesday, October 7

Details: Finally, the Giro hits the Italian mainland, and things finally ease off a… uh… (checks map) Good lord.

This one is an absolute brute of a stage. Up from the 150-km range of the early stages, now it’s 225km bouncing back and forth between the two Calabrian coastlines before swinging up the peninsula and hitting the cat-1 Valico di Montescuro, with a 12km descent to the line. It’s pretty much an entire Giro d’Italia boiled down to one stage.

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My favorite part is that, for one brief moment, everything seems so simple and sublime, as the peloton hits the Catanzaro Lido and strolls along the Ionian Sea. Can’t cycling always be this way? [Record scratch]

The climb up the Valico di Montescuro is not exactly the stuff of legends, topping out at 1618 meters and averaging a mere 5.6%. It does get steep, up to 14%, in the middle, but that trouble spot is some 25km from the finish.

Significance: Probably not that much, although the points competition could get interesting, and who knows, maybe some of the GC boys will make trouble. Mostly this is a long, exhausting stage where anyone who thinks of making trouble will probably run out of gas in time to remember that we are more than two weeks from the Giro’s conclusion. Also I’m not sure how much a 5.5% climb bothers anyone who dreams of pink in Milan. The descent could be where someone gets away, and I am not exactly predicting a bunch finish, but don’t expect major gaps.

Did You Know? Monte Scuro is a fine place for a bike race, but apparently it’s an even finer place for a… car race. It is one of a number of places where they hold uphill car races as part of the Italian Hill Climb Championship, raced on F-1 type cars, and I have seriously never heard of this before, nor do I expect to again.

Pick to Win: Someone from a breakaway. I can’t see the GC guys shutting everything down on this stage. In fact, it’s not a bad day to give away the maglia rosa you just won on Etna… though maybe check with a meteorologist before you say things like “we can just get the jersey back on the Stelvio.”

Sasso Caveoso district, Sassi di Matera (UNESCO World Heritage List, 1993), Basilicata, Italy...Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images

Stage 6: Castrovillari – Matera, 188 km

Thursday, October 8

Details: Sigh… I guess this is what counts as a sprinters’ stage.

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Are you getting as tired reading these as I am in writing them? Not because they are boring but for crissakes, the climbs just never stop. Italy has some truly flat places, the Po Valley, the areas around Milan and Turin, and much of the coastline, where they could jam a road in next to the beach. So that’s like 10% of the country. The rest, well, if you plan to bike there, knuckle up.

Eventually this should end in something of a sprint, although there’s a short ramp of 10% at 2km to go. I’d expect the few sprint teams to decide to deal with that rather than just giving up, particularly since (as noted above) the sprinters on hand are a bit more versatile than the Tour bunch gallopers.

Significance: Sprint points. Nothing more.

Did You Know? “Close the door, what, were you born in a cave?”

To the Materasi, this would not be as much of an insult as the rest of us. Or maybe it would, but Matera is home to the Sassi di Matera (pictured above), cave dwellings that are among the oldest inhabited spaces in Italy. Apparently in the 1950s the government decided that the people living in the caves were in need of modern housing, and the caves (converted into something like actual living spaces) were kind of miserable and in some cases dangerous. So they moved people out about 60 or so years ago. But with tourism on the rise, the Sassi have been cleaned up and made to look like living spaces again, even if not that many (or any?) people actually live in them.

Pick to Win: Peter Sagan. The course is very much his style. I guess he has to win something again someday, as his generation is quickly getting swamped by the youth tsunami. Just not so much at the autumn Giro, at least not with sprinters.

Stage 7: Matera – Brindisi, 143 km

Friday, October 9

Details: Aaaand exhale. Yes, it’s an ACTUAL SPRINT STAGE!! Hallelujiah!

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Not much to say, really. It’s time to go downhill and stay there.

Significance: Sprint time. Only this stage should bring in every fastman on the Giro. It’s too delicious to let a breakaway take it. Everyone else should enjoy a bit of peace.

Did You Know? Apparently Brindisi, other than being a port city of some note, is well known as a center of Tarantismo, or tarantism in English. I’ve blogged before about how Taranto (briefly visited by this stage) gave its name to the wolf spider we now refer to in terror as the tarantula (though the cute, fuzzy Mexican one is unrelated to its European cousin). From the tarantula comes the Tarantella, a dance based on the frantic movements that I guess you’d start doing if you got bitten by a tarantula. It’s all ingrained in Italian folk culture and the catchy upbeat accordion music is a bit of an Italian stereotype.

But Tarantismo is more like a pagan rite done on purpose, not for fun and not necessarily to exorcise spider venom. The origin of the tarantella is that if you were bitten by a tarantula, you became so out of it that you gave leave to your senses. For some reason, victims are sensitive to music and prone to start dancing wildly. So it’s not that people choose to dance, it’s that the venom makes them. When a victim was discovered, they would bring in the tambourine, accordion, mandolin, fiddle and guitar players and get the person on to their feet. From a declining state of lethargy, the dancer would become frenzied and as a result (?) recover.

Then it seems like maybe they started doing this for women showing signs of hysteria, which doesn’t seem like it would have anything to do with spiders (or science). Then it became more of a formal ritual where a number of “tarantees” would gather to perform a group dancing ritual for extended periods of time, even days, ending in a loud cry of some sort. In Lecce this is done in the Chapel of St. Paul, who got tagged with this for reasons unknown. Apparently there’s a “Lecce Pinch” and a “Brindisi Pinch,” and if you were a Tarantee, you could explain what this means. Enough people know about this for “tarantellagra” to be a Harry Potter spell that I guess causes wizards to dance involuntarily? Or just muggles? Anyway, I don’t judge. Dancing generally makes you feel better, so of course over human history people have taken this to ridiculous extremes.

Pick to Win: Hodeg. Quick Step ain’t getting shut out here.