This is the third and final chapter of the 2004 Tour of Italy stage-by-stage guide, from Stage 17 (Brunico-Val di Non, 158 km.) through Stage 20 (Clusone-Milan, 144 km.). Both previous parts are available in the links below:
* Part 1 (Prologue through Stage 7): click here
* Part 2 (Stage 8 through Stage 16): click here
-------- STAGE 17 --------
The race resumes Thursday, May 27, with another hilly ride. In the quartet of terrible stages marking the ultimate week of the Giro, this is probably the “easiest” one. It covers 158 km. between Brunico and Fondo Sardonico, and moves from Veneto into Val di Non, part of Gibo Simoni’s home region of Trentino-Alto Adige.
As the peloton, riding over predominantly flat or slightly downhill routes until around the km. 90 mark, hits the town of Appiano, in the outskirts of Bozen, riders meet the only climb (“we can’t make them climb too many ascents after the rest day, they need a more gradual approach to the main difficulties” words from Carmine Castellano) of the stage, Passo della Mendola, quite demanding (km. 14.8 - Gradient: 6.5%), but peaking around the km. 108 mark.
Not a long time later, the peloton hits Fondo Sardonico for the first time, then embarks in a (more or less) 40-km. long circuit, with the road going downhill again for about a dozen more km. But in the last 30 km. or so, right before entering the hamlet of Cles, things change and the route heads (slightly) uphill. The finish line is located at an altitude of 977 metres above sea level.
Well, you’d better not expect “epic” racing in such a parcours anyway, as this is more of a “transition” stage, but it’s the men on the bikes that make the race after all, so perhaps some big name can pull off a surprise and try his luck over the Mendola or anywhere else.
* Stage 17 Altimetry Map available in this link
* As for a detailed Profile of the Mendola Pass: just click here
-------- STAGE 18 --------
Overall contenders might have “played poker” in the past stage, but they will not this time. They couldn’t even if they wished. With today’s menu offering four climbs (three of which absolutely hard) and the last mountain top finish, Stage 18, which covers 120 km. between Cles/Val di Non and Bormio 2000, is the first of two short and hectic mountain stages that will determine the outcome of the 2004 Giro. The first of two days that could make the race explode.
The hardness of the leg scheduled for Friday, May 28, was perfectly summarized in the words uttered by Stefano Garzelli when he finished his “test ride” for RAI TV. “You won’t cheat me anymore. If you want to check a similar stage again, just go look for someone else!” Actually the 2000 Giro winner (and 2003 runner-up) was laughing and (half) kidding while saying this, but he surely wasn’t when he stressed the difficulties of today’s stage.
A little more than 30 km. into the stage, the peloton hits the first one, Passo del Tonale, a 15.2-km. climb whose gradient (about 6%) makes it a difficult ascent, notably when tackled by riders with almost three weeks of racing in their legs, but still easier than many others the bunch has to face in these ultimate days. The Tonale Pass comes early in the stage, but in such as short parcours it could be more selective that one might think.
After getting to the top of the pass, at an altitude of 1883 asl, and entering the Brescia province of Lombardia, the peloton embarks on a 10-km. descent into Ponte di Legno (“Wooden Bridge” in English). As riders hit the town, they take a turn to the right and start climbing the Passo Gavia, the most difficult ascent of the day, that’s also the “Cima Coppi” (status awarded to the highest mountain in the Giro) of this year’s race. It’s one helluva climb for sure: 16.7 km. of uphill riding at an average gradient of 7.9%, peaking at 2621 metres above sea level.
It’s an ascent that, also with a “help” from climatic conditions, has made its mark on the Giro history more than once since it was introduced in 1960, when riders had to use the 44x25 and Italy's Imerio Massignan took the stage. Or, in Stefano Garzelli’s own words “it’s not hell, but comes so close to that”. And if you don’t trust the guy, just ask another Giro winner, Mr. Andy Hampsten, the first ever – and so far only - American to win the race. He might tell you something on June 05, 1988. A late spring Sunday according to the calendar. A day of “riding in winter Wonderland”, albeit perhaps “hellish land” is a more appropriate word, in Hampsten’s World (and Moser’s, and Saronni’s, and Chioccioli’s). He might tell you something like this (Pdf file).
The first 500 metres on the way to the Gavia Pass are downhill, but the road keeps going toward the sky soon. The gradient is quite easy in the first 5 kilometres, until they reach a bunch of buildings going under the name of Santa Apollonia (1500m asl). That’s where the “real” Gavia kicks off. That’s where the road gets narrow, and the asphalt surface worse (but don’t whine about it, please. Until a couple decades ago, there was no asphalt either over much of the ascent!). That’s where you can see that damn road sign telling you the gradient is somewhere around16% (and it’s going up to a maximum of 19% soon). And that’s where you may enjoy a magnificent landscape (you just entered the Stelvio National Park, after all) … unless you are a bike racer involved in the 87th Giro d’Italia.
Km. after km. the gradient goes up, then eases a little, then up again, then down a bit … seven percent, nine percent, eight, ten, twelve, ten percent again. But the route steadily goes up, up, uphill, and riders have to struggle on their bikes until the top of the climb. With about 3 km. to the top, there’s a short (200 m.) dark tunnel, with no lights inside at all. Well, it may look short when you are just watching a map, but when you are on your bike, you may think it’s longer than a whole (flat) stage. And soon after you are out of the tunnel …you get a warm welcome by another part of the ascent at a 15-16% gradient. The last 500m of the Gavia are no steeper than a six-seven percent grade anyway.
Historical and most recent images of the Gavia Pass can be found here and here. And here too.
Once the Gavia “not hellish, but so close to that” climb is over, the peloton descends into Santa Caterina Valfurva and Bormio, then tackles La Motta, a short ascent which could prove quite selective in today’s circumstances. Then down again for a few kilometres, and eventually up over the ultimate ascent of this “hellish” day, 9.9 kms. of climbing to the finish line at the Bormio 2000 resort, at an average gradient of 7.5 percent.
The most talented mountain goats - first of all Gilberto Simoni, winner in downtown Bormio exactly four years before, may rock in this stage, but who wants to be a 90kg rider today ???
* Stage 18 Altimetry Map available in this link
* Climb Profiles (Gavia, Bormio 2000): click here
* Passo del Tonale: more detailed Climb Profile: click here
* Passo del Gavia: more detailed Climb Profile: click here
* A clip of Stefano Garzelli testing the route can be found here
-------- STAGE 19 --------
Three for the climbers gone, one to go! If Stage eighteen was one of those that “separate the men from the boys”, the next challenge, set to run on Saturday, May 29, is more of the same. Three climbs, all of them extremely demanding (to say the least): a comeback tons of cycling fans welcomed, and two newcomers that will have a huge impact on the race. Stage 19 from Bormio to the Presolana Pass, which hosts a Giro stage finish for the first time, is as short and difficult as the previous one: 121 kilometres of aggressive riding.
The first 20-25 kms of the stage take place on mainly downhill roads, on the way to Mazzo di Valtellina. But as the peloton comes to town (at an altitude of 552m asl), riders meet Italy’s #1 Climb. The Climb! Its Majesty IL MORTIROLO!! If the Gavia Pass “is not Hell, but gets close that”, Hell … is not the Mortirolo, but gets close to that!
Along with Spain’s Angliru, and waiting for the hardest side of the Zoncolan (not the one climbed in the past Tour of Italy) to come and take the title - something that could be possible in a couple years, the Mortirolo is known as Europe’s most difficult ascent. The two climbs are different anyway: The Pico Gamonal (or “L’Angliru”, if you prefer) can boast grades you won’t find here. But also features much easier parts where a rider can recover. But no truce with the road is possible here: the route is always steep, and riders have to fight, fight and fight over the bikes throughout the 12.8 climb, that features an av. gradient of 10.2 %. (going up to a maximum of about 18% after 4 kilometres)
And if the Gavia Pass has a “legendary” meaning for Italian cycling suiveurs, the Mortirolo had a major impact in more recent editions of the Giro. It was reportedly introduced in 1990, and one year later saw Franco Chioccioli pull off a sensational performance that played a fundamental role in his overall win. But the mountain really made the headlines in 1994, where a certain Marco Pantani, unknown to the majority of cycling fans until a couple days before, burst into spotlight (after winning also the previous stage into Meran) with a sensational attack, that left no less than Miguel Indurain running out of gasoline (“I made a mistake in countering Marco Pantani‘s attacks. A mistake I will never repeat” Big Mig admitted in post stage interviews. And the Spaniard, a true champion when it comes to race strategy too, kept his promise).
After Gotti and Tonkov stole the show in 1997, the Mortirolo showed its skills as “talent-seeker” again in 1999, the last time the Giro hit the climb. While the same places that lifted Marco Pantani to the status of “hero” five year before had just put a end to his “empire” (he was thrown off the race in the morning for failing a blood test in nearby Madonna di Campiglio), two young climbers unveiled their talent as they escorted future overall winner Ivan Gotti over the Mortirolo and to the finish line: a certain Gilberto Simoni (then racing with the Ballan outfit) and a certain Roberto Heras (in his pre-USPS years). It would be great to see the two climbers - together again, this time in the Grand Tour Winners list, in 2003 - battle it out on the Mortirolo again. But it will hardly (better, NOT) happen …
So let’s stick to Simoni only, who tested the stage for RAI, climbing all three ascents (Mortirolo, Vivione, Presolana) of the day. After savoring the Mortirolo, that comes far from the finish line in the 2004 Giro stage (a tactical mistake, according to Ivan Gotti), the two-time overall winner of the Corsa Rosa descended into Edolo, Malonno (8.5 km. later), and Forno Allisone (4 km. later again …) just to tackle the second ascent of the day, Passo del Vivione (about 20 km. of climbing at an average gradient of some 7 %), which makes its official debut at the Tour of Italy.
While the Mortirolo could be selective, but probably not enough for the GC contenders start the fireworks there, the battle may kick off for real on the steep slopes of Vivione Pass. As a man who knows this area well, Paolo “The Falcon” Savoldelli, the Bergamasco winner of the 2002 Giro from Hamilton and Caucchioli, pointed out, in the second half of the climb (and notably the six final kilometers, with the gradient almost never going under 8%) there’s room enough for anyone wishing to go on the attack, either to grab the “Maglia Rosa” or with an epic stage victory as target.
Any rider breaking away on the Vivione could be helped by the absence (in the 30 km. between the top of the hill and the finish line) of flat parts where a bunch could put up a serious chase: indeed after the penultimate climb of the day is over, the peloton goes down to Azzone in a 16.5-km. descent, then tackles the final ascent of the 87th Giro d’Italia: Passo della Presolana. Another newcomer to Italy’s Grand Tour, this ascent of the Bergamo zone of Lombardy is 7.9 km. long, with an altitude difference of 547 metres, and a consequent average gradient a little inferior to 7 percent, and is well-known by several professionals based in the area.
”Il Falco” included, of course. And Savoldelli pointed out the difficulties of this last ascent too: the last 4 kilometres in particiular, where the gradient mostly hovers around 9.5-10%, goes up to 14% in some points, and easees to about seven percent in the last km. With the finish line located just 2.6 kms. after the top of the climb, the last mountain of the 2004 Giro is the place where anyone still in contention for the overall title has to give it all. It’s now or never!
* Stage 19 Altimetry Map available in this link
* Stage 19 Climbs: Profiles (Mortirolo, Vivione, Gavia): click here
* Mortirolo: more detailed Climb Profile: click here
* Vivione Pass: more detailed Climb Profile: click here
* Passo Presolana: more detailed Climb Profile: click here
* Gilberto Simoni tests Stage 19 click here for the Video
-------- STAGE 20 --------
Stage 20: From Clusone (Bergamo province) to Milan over 14 km. With the winner’s name possibly known since the end of the previous stage, the 87th edition of Giro d’Italia ends on Sunday, May 30 with the “usual” ride into Milan (Italy being one of the few countries whose cycling Tour does not end in the nation’s capital. Why ? Guess as “Gazzetta dello Sport” is a Milan-based newspaper).
Whereas the 2003 edition featured a flat road stage at the beginning, and a Time Trial finishing into the picturesque scenery of Piazza Duomo in the final day, this time the route is back to its old habits, with a short ride against the clock as opener, and the fastest wheels being given the chance to seal the race with a victory.
Well, if there’s any sprinters left in the pack at least! Indeed with four tremendous mountain stages in a row in the previous days, lots of steep mountains to climb, and short distances that could prompt aggressive riding, thus making the time limit lower, there’s a chance that many (if not even all) of them, notably if dropped on the first climb of any of the past stages, can abandon or be excluded from the competition for crossing the line too late.
But even if the “Gruppetto” (sprinters and other poor climbers who ride in a group, trying to avoid being eliminated by missing the time cutoff) will certainly have to ride hard, race boss Carmine Castellano confessed that organizers may request the technical commission to waive time limits, in order to be able to bring some (more) sprinters to Milan.
The finish line of the 87th Tour of Italy will be located in a new (to the Giro) place inside downtown Milan: neither Corso Sempione, scene of the last efforts of the “Girini” until 2002, but probably affected by major works at Milan’s subway in 2004, nor last year’s Piazza Duomo, good for a Time Trial but not a massive sprint finish, but Corso Venezia: another nice and prestigious area of the city, with buildings dating back to the late 19th century, and close to the Via Palestro/Porta Venezia Public Gardens. And that’s where the Award Ceremony will draw the curtain on the 2004 Giro d’Italia soon after the stage finish.
That’s all for the 2004 Giro d’Italia stage by stage breakdown. See you at the startline, and enjoy the race!
|87th Giro d'Italia on the Daily Peloton|