The Giro d’Italia 2004. Or should we rename it “The Climbers Festival” ?? Team Time Trials ? What ? Hundreds of thousands of metres against the clock ? No thanks!! Once having the Tour de France as reference point, organizers of the first (in chronological order) Grand Tour of the season are more and more distancing themselves from the “JML way” to cycling.
If “Monsieur Le Tour” is used to provide specialists of the “race of truth” with lots of opportunities, year after year Carmine Castellano and RCS Sport are giving more and more chances to the mountain goats. A trend even strengthened by the next Tour of Italy, a race that features just one long Individual Time Trial, opposed to two mountain top finishes in its first week, and three tremendous mountain stages in the last days, where any brave Time Triallists who dared to venture into this race might have a very hard time.
And if there’s a “guiding light” for the Italian Grand Tour organizers, that must be the Vuelta now: even if a few years later that one could expect, it looks like Mr. Castellano and friends have finally opted for the “Spanish way”: relatively short, but difficult mountain stages, notably in the ultimate days, with the potential to turn the Giro into a more spectacular race.
But we’d better take one step at a time, and start the detailed review of the 87th Tour of Italy, set to kick off in the coastal town Genoa on Saturday, November 08, 2004, and finish in downtown Milan 22 days and (about) 3.435 km. later, with the race opener against the clock.
-------- PROLOGUE --------
The choice of the Ligurian town as starting point is not a random choice: Giro organizers are used to “contaminations”, to provide the race with motivations and nuances that go beyond the cycling side of the matter. Two years ago, as a tribute to the introduction of the single European Currency, the Euro, which took place a few months before, they turned the Giro d’Italia into a kind of “Tour of Europe”, as the race got underway in the Dutch town of Groningen (occasionally re-named “Giro-ningen”) and crossed five foreign countries (Holland, Belgium. Luxembourg, Germany and France), namely the “founding fathers” of the future European Union, before getting back to the “motherland”.
And the choice of Genoa as starting point of the 2004 “Corsa Rosa” has similar reasons, as it’s a way to pay homage to the “status” of European Capital of Culture the city is going to assume (along with France’s Lille) in 2004. Good news for the Ligurian city port, and good news for cycling too: with this event as part of the “Capital of Culture” celebrations, this sport gets a special acknowledgment for being considered integral part of European culture (a big thumbs up for cycling!).
Riders will get on their bikes for a Prologue Time Trial over a distance of about 7 km. in downtown Genoa, although when the Giro route was officially unveiled organizers still had to work out some details on the course, details that will hopefully be communicated in a short time.
The “Corsa Rosa” is back to Northern Italy’s third major town four years after Alvaro Gonzalez de Galdeano rode to a sensational solo win at the end of a sensational 120-km. break, after he rode into headwinds at almost 50 km/h in the last part, just to hold on a 24” lead on the oncoming peloton as he crossed the line.
Genoa also hosts the Giro start for the third time, after the 1980 and 1992 editions. Francesco Moser won the Tour of Italy opener 24 years ago (Bernard Hinault was overall winner) and Thierry Marie took the prologue a dozen years later (in an edition dominated by “Big Mig” Indurain).
Even if this is NOT a Giro for time triallists, they could appreciate the comeback of the “traditional” prologue against the clock, after last year’s road stage into Lecce was an exception to the rule. Spain’s Dominguez of Phonak won the prologue in Holland two years ago, while in 2001 it was Belgium’s Rik Verbrugghe that (helped by strong tailwinds) averaged a record speed of almost 59 km/h in his 7.6-km. ride along the Adriatic coast of Abruzzo. And in the year 2000 Rome and the Vatican saw Czech Jan Hruska burst into spotlight. Last but not least, 1998 was “Festina time”, with Alex Zuelle claiming victory in the Cote d’Azur prologue. Will the 2004 edition be the good one for an Italian to win the Prologue Time Trial and wear the first Maglia Rosa?
-------- STAGE 1 --------
The “Lecce exception” in 2003 was no random choice either: with Mario Cipollini just one victory short of equaling Alfredo Binda’s record of Giro stage wins, organizers thought that a flat road stage on Apulian territory could provide the chance to make history right at the start. The Lion King actually succeeded in equaling and even bettering Binda’s record, but it was something Cipo needed many a stage to achieve, while unexpectedly Lecce became the starting point of an impressive string of stage victories (15 cumulative wins in three Grand Tours of the year, six of which in the Giro) that made the name of Alessandro Petacchi, the man who stole the show to Super Mario, familiar to cycling fans worldwide.
And next year the Fassa Bortolo fastman will be trying to repeat the great results he got in 2003. To start from his Giro victories. He’ll be given a first chance on Sunday, May 10, with the first road stage of the race, Stage 1 covering 149 km. between Genoa and the Piedmontese town of Alba (Cuneo province), “the city of the white truffle”, the Italian capital of truffle.
The route should suit the fastest wheels of the bunch, but don’t expect a completely flat stage with the teams of the sprinters marshalling the peloton and (more or less easily) reeling in any escapee. The same Petacchi, who tested the course for Italy’s RAI TV, warned against the dangers of the first ascents of the Giro: 46 km. into the stage, the bunch will get to Savona, stop contemplating the Ligurian sea and turn to the right, heading for Colle di Cadibona. A few kilometres later they will see the street going towards the sky for the first time.
But difficulties are not over: after Cadibona the peloton has got to tackle another one, the Montezemolo climb, a 7-km. ascent peaking at an altitude of 734m asl, and starting after a 3-km. long “false flat” section.
Neither Colle di Cadibona nor Montezemolo are difficult ascents, but they could take their toll on the legs of sprinters who can’t climb, and dash their hopes of a first stage victory. No doubts that there’s enough room for dropped riders to regain the bunch in the last part of the stage, albeit at the end of the Montezemolo climb the peloton won’t find the “usual” descent, but a route going up (mostly) and down that would make for a challenging, interesting final.
Petacchi did not sound so sure (he sounded hopeful anyway) that Stage 1 might come down to a massive sprint. Maybe a breakaway could form in either of the two ascents and make it to the line. But former sprinter turned Italian TV commentator Silvio Martinello sounded more optimistic, and said that in his opinion the fastest wheels in the bunch would hardly miss their first opportunity to score a stage win.
But even in case of a blanket finish, please don’t take Petacchi’s first triumph for granted. The “Sprinter Gentleman” will face stiff competition from the “usual suspects”, McEwen and Furlan included, but also a certain Mario Cipollini. If you expect the Lion King to wave white flag at the end of quite a disappointing season like this, well, you are probably wrong.
The Tuscan is currently enjoying a vacation in the resort of Sharm-el-Sheik, Egypt, and didn’t attend the Giro presentation show. But he has got a bike with him and, even if not in Milan, found the way to keep fans informed of his plans for the future: he told the assembled crowd via TV hookup that he’s aiming for redemption, after what he labeled as “an atypical season “, adding that his determination is still high, and similar to that of a young rider eager to emerge.
His former lead-out man Silvio Martinello seemed to agree: even if age is not on Cipo’s side, his form is still good enough to give him more than one satisfaction; and Martinello is persuaded that, although it will not be easy task at all, Cipollini can still edge Petacchi out more than once.
Another former rider now successful TV commentator, Davide Cassani, echoed Martinello’s words, adding that “A rider can be regarded as old when he lacks motivations and determination. But Cipollini still has got plenty of them, and the fact he was overshadowed by Petacchi last year may have hurt his pride, but also provided further motivation for him to keep fighting”. Super Mario will be 37 in 2004, but “his racing seasons were never complete, and this helped him save energies” such that ”even if he’s not as good as he used to be in 2002, Cipo may still have something to say, and clinch some more victories”.
Maybe the first step towards redemption will be taken in the white truffle’s capital, or maybe Petacchi-Quaranta-McEwen-any other sprinter will deny him the first joy of the Giro.
-------- STAGE 2 --------
Any fast guy missing the first chance on Sunday, May 09, could be given a new one the following day, in Stage 2, covering 183 km. between Novi Ligure and Pontremoli. Novi Ligure is in the core of Fausto Coppi’s “homeland”: that was the place where his cycling skills were discovered, that was the place where he met blind soigneur Biagio "the magician of the muscles" Cavanna, that was he place where “Il Campionissimo” “learned” to ride in Cavanna’s “cycling school”.
And that’s the place where the Giro will pay a further tribute to Italy’s Greatest, hosting the start - right in front of the one-year-old Cycling Museum (“Museo dei Campionissimi”) - of a leg that will step back into Liguria heading for the provinces of Genoa (again) and La Spezia (Alessandro Petacchi’s own “homeland”), then east to Tuscany, where the ride is set to finish into Pontremoli, a hamlet hosting a Giro stage finish for the first time ever.
But don’t be so sure it would come down to a bunch sprint: the presence of two ascents (Passo del Brocco, km. 15.3 - Gradient: 5% - and notably Passo del Brattello, km. 10 - Gradient: 5.4%, the latter peaking just 19km from the finish line) might give sprinters who can’t climb a hard time, and maybe pave the way for a successful breakaway attempt. Our money is on a (small) bunch sprint the likes of Baldato - or perhaps even Petacchi and/or McEwen - could add to their tally of victories.
-------- STAGE 3 --------
Should your favorite fastmen miss both chances in the two previous days, you’d have to wait a bit longer to see them go for a first win, as Stage 3, going from Pontremoli to the Bolonian Appennine town of Corno alle Scale over 190 km., features the first of three uphill finishes.
Corno alle Scale, coming after a first “rehearsal” at Foce Carpinelli (km. 10. Gradient: 5.2 percent), is not a tremendous climb, and it’s far from the kind of ascents we are going to find in the last week. But a 12-8 km. hill with an average gradient of 5.2% can be a good first test to know who’s hot and - more important - who’s not. Even more if the route doesn’t climb steadily, but flat pieces, giving riders the chance to recover, alternate with steep ones (it's not a coincindence that “scale” is the Italian word for “stairs”), where any in-form mountain goat could make his move.
The three final kilometers are very demanding anyway. And that’s one of the things that could make Gilberto Simoni determined to have a shot at winning this stage. The other one being, in Gibo’s own words, that "the finish at Corno will be special for me because it finishes near the Saeco headquarters (located in nearby Gaggio Montano) and I don’t want to miss out doing well there”.
Stage 3 Altimetry is available by clicking here
-------- STAGE 4 --------
Stage 4 (Wednesday, May 12) runs inside Tuscan territory, and takes the peloton from Porretta Terme to Civitella Val di Chiana, just to end near the Del Tongo factory buildings, as an homage to the firm that gave so much to cycling (as sponsor) in the 80s and early 90s. The likes of Beppe Saronni and Mario Cipollini, and several others riders, got many of their victories while wearing the Del Tongo team jerseys. And Super Mario could pay proper tribute to Del Tongo by claiming victory in Civitella, as this looks like being another stage for the fastest guys in the pack.
-------- STAGE 5 --------
On Thursday, May 13, the Giro heroes will rally again in the same Tuscan place for the start of Stage 5, covering 174 km. and moving into Umbria, Italy's “green heartland”, to end in two laps of 7.6-km. circuit into the nice, medieval city of Spoleto, where the Giro gets back after a long time. Will a break make it to the line this time ?? Probably not, as the route features no major difficulties.
-------- STAGE 6 --------
Twenty-four hours later our heroes will get back in the saddle for Stage 6, and move onto Latium region soil to cover the 163-km. route between Spoleto and Valmontone, about 40 km. from Rome. The finishing line will be located inside a recently built tourist area, good for anyone wishing to have a good time before/after visiting the "Eternal City", and featuring an attraction park, convention center, sports fields, golf courses, a shopping center etc… You may expect one or several breakaway attempts in this stage, but you may also expect sprinter teams to do their best to chase them down. And likely succeed.
-------- STAGE 7 --------
On Saturday, May 15 GC contenders will get back into limelight again (or maybe for the first time) in Stage 7, a leg featuring the second mountain top finish of the race, up to the Montevergine di Mercogliano sanctuary, in the Avellino Area of Southern Italy, to the east of Naples. The Giro is not new to such pilgrimages, as the race paid visit to this climb twice in the past: in 1961 and 2001, the last time with Danilo Di Luca being the fastest in a 20-strong bunch sprint, and Gilberto Simoni taking second from Garzelli.
If the first uphill finish at Corno alle Scale may have told us a thing or two on the GC contenders and their condition, this stage kicking off in Frosinone and featuring a first ascent going up to Monteforte Irpino (km. 6.1. Gradient 3.8 percent) could have even more to say, both because of the distance (with 211 km. to cover, it’s the first stage going over the 200-km. mark) and the final climb.
The 17-km. ascent to Montevergine di Mercogliano, whose average gradient is no more than 5% (though with pieces going up to 10%) is not the place where mountain goats can make history, and with most riders probably using 53x19 (or even 17), and the best ones averaging some 25 km/h, there’s a solid chance of having a small sprint of a selected group in the end, just like it happened three years before.
But even if you can’t win the Giro here, a good performance may earn you some precious bonus time (and as Lance Armstrong says .. Every Second Counts) and, more important, be a great moral boost for the rest of the contest.
On the other side, a poor performance at Montevergine could harm your overall chances, so Gibo d’Italia, Stefano Garzelli and all other big names in the pack should be extremely careful to avoid the dangers that a long, windy (also the climate factor might play a significant role in determining the stage outcome) ascent featuring lots of turns may have in store, and stay at the front of the peloton in order not to get involved in “echelons” and be forced to waste energies in successive “sprints” to regain the wheels of the other overall contenders.
Stage 7 Altimetry can be found in this link.
Part 2 of the 2004 Giro Route Preview to follow. Stay Tuned !!
|87th Giro d'Italia on the Daily Peloton|