PROLOGUE: MAY 11 (Saturday) - GRONINGEN : ITT - 6.5 KM:
As already mentioned in other Giro-related articles, the organizers of the 2002 Italian Grand Tour chose to pay tribute to the birth of the European single currency, the "Euro", making the Giro D'Italia a kind of "Tour of Europe", a race going through Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany
and France, the "founding mothers" of the European Economic Community (later European Union), before getting to Italy, "sixth mother" of the EEC and homeland of the Giro. This is the seventh time the Giro starts abroad, after the Republic of San Marino in 1965, Montecarlo in 1966, the Belgian city of Verviers in 1973, the Vatican City in 1974, Athens in 1996 and Nice two years later.
The 2002 Giro has striking resemblances with the 1973 edition, when legendary boss Vincenzo Torriani (passed away a few years ago) decided to pay a first tribute to the "European ideal". In that edition the Giro started in the Belgian city of Verviers, whereas next year the riders will get on their bikes in Groningen (for one day renamed GIRO-ningen, with a pun), a town of 170,000 people (and perhaps the same number of bicycles), located in the northern part of The Netherlands, and famous for its picturesque canals (somebody calls it "another Venice of the North"), the University, and even streets named after professions practised in the 13th Century.
The flat 6.5-km. course, tested by nothing less than World Cup winner Erik Dekker, 1988 Giro runner-up Erik Breukink, "Diablo" Chiappucci and promising Dutch youngster Niels Scheuneman could be harder than expected. According to what "El Diablo" Chiappucci (who was asked to become kinda "sporting ambassador to Italy" of the city of Groningen in 1999, when racing a criterium in the Dutch town) said, after an easy first kilometer the road gets narrower, and an insidious, not uniform cobbled section begin. Especially if the day is rainy (as it often happens in The Netherlands, I guess), the cobbled sections could compromise the chances of a stage victory to anyone among the time-trial specialists. The final 1000 meters are quite simple instead.
With such a course, much different from the long, straight roads we saw last year in Abruzzo, not only TT specialists, but also riders able to change their pace fast could have their say.
The race starts in Groningen's Grote Markt and finishes in front of the
STAGE 1: MAY 12 (Sunday) - Groningen/Munster (215 km.):
The Giro leaves Dutch soil and enters the European Union's most populated country, Germany, with its first ever stage finish in Munster, located in the Vestfalia region. It's a flat stage, ending with a city circuit to be repeated three times.
Time for the first duel between Mario Cipollini and Ivan Quaranta? Or will any Italian or foreign sprinter manage to surprise both "The Lion King" and "The Cheetah" ? That's not unlikely, especially considering the difficulties usually found by Super Mario in the opening stages of many Grand Tours (but when he finds proper condition nobody, apart from Zabel maybe, can stop him. And with the Tour of Germany starting right after the Giro, the Telekom's champion won't be in the Italian race for sure).
Add new likely troubles coming from the fact that Cipo will be riding for a new team, with new teammates and a new (blue) train, and you may understand why his victory should not be taken for granted.
STAGE 2: MAY 13 (Monday) - Koln/Ans-Liege (199 km.):
Should Super Mario be denied the joy of a victory in Stage 1... this is not the proper time for a revenge. As an Italian Journalist pointed out on Saturday, stage 2 could be more difficult and hard-fought than expected, with fireworks starting on the final part, on the same roads you may see during the toughest Spring Classic, the Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
The stage, going from Germany to the third country touched by the Giro (Belgium), starts not in Munster, but in (relatively) nearby Koln, or Cologne if you want. After about 90 km., it enters Belgium and hits the first hills, starting from the
Cote de Saint Nicolas (Km 3,700 of climbing - an average gradient of 10,57%), followed by a descent and the final ascent to Ans, near Liege (going up to
Ans - Rue Walther
Jamar, at an altitude of 225 mt., with 1200 metres of climbing, at an average gradient of 8,58%).
So forget about a sprinter winning the stage.
Perhaps a one-day rider could take profit of the knowledge of those streets he got while taking part in the spring Classics there. I'm thinking about the Mapei's guys, and Bettini (winner of LBL in 2000) in particular, although he said he is not yet sure of participating. Or maybe his former teammate (or should I say "owner" ?) Bartoli could win his first Giro stage as a Fassa-Bortolo rider! Bartoli and the Giro D'Italia are no good friends, though, despite the Tuscan wore the pink jersey for a few days in 1998.
But don't forget about local riders. I don't know yet which Belgian and Dutch teams and riders will take part in the Giro, but surely any of them could eventually take a home win in front of thousands of deligthed fans.
STAGE 3 : MAY 14 (Tuesday) - Verviers/Esch Sur Alzette (213 km.):
Now following the 1973 route, the stage will start in Verviers, a place where a certain Eddy Merckx gave a sign of his class 28 years ago, opening his triumphal Tour of Italy with an unsual two-man time trial he won (together with Roger Swerts), ahead of De Vlaeminck and Sercu.
But the 2001 Verviers stage, passing through the Belgian provinces of Liege and Luxembourg before getting into the Granduchy of Luxembourg
itself, will hardly be such an all-Belgian affair ... Instead of a Belgian legend winning in front of a Belgian crowd, we could see an Italian legend winning in front of an ... Italian crowd.
Actually about 70% of the population of Esch-Sur-Alzette, the city hosting the stage finish, has Italian origins, and the flat parcours seems appropriate to Super Mario Cipollini, the ambitious Lion King who outspokenly said he will be aiming for the new record of Giro stage wins in the coming years. For the moment the title is hold by Alfredo Binda with 41 stages, but Cipo needs just 8 more wins to beat it...
STAGE 4: MAY 15 (Wednesday) - Esch Sur Alzette/Strasbourg (210 km.):
Fifth day in foreign territory, and fifth nation touched by the Giro. This time it's France, with the stage finish in the Alsatian town of Strasbourg, near the German Border. Stage 4 will go from Esch-sur-Alzette to the seat of the European Parliament (that's the
reason why Strasbourg was chosen), passing in front of the Schengen castle, where the Treaty practically cancelling frontiers inside the European Union was signed. In spite of some small false flats, the route is once again appropriate for the fastest wheels, and all should be decided in the last 500 meters, when they will find the heir of Belgium's Gustav Van Roosbroeck, stage winner in 1973.
MAY 16 (Thursday): REST DAY
Time for a little rest, and the first of those big transfers apparently scaring Mario Cipollini. After taking the plane to the "motherland" of the race, the riders will spend the day in the
Cuneo area of Piedmont. From now on, fans from abroad have to come to Italy if they want to see the race live on the spot.