Everyone agrees: The Giro d'Italia is a special race. The corsa rosa is chaotic, emotional, colorful, and hard, very hard. The Tour de France might by more difficult, when the speed and the pressure of cycling's most important race are considered, but every May, the Giro pushes the peloton to the physical limit.
Gone are the days of "piano," when the peloton would soft-pedal for the first three hours of a stage. The Giro has enjoyed a renaissance over the past decade, as the race organization has modernized and re-energized the race without forgetting its enduring qualities.
An important element of the Giro's resurgence has been its sometimes-controversial innovation in the design of a three-week race. Over the past several years, the Giro has taken the peloton across gravel roads in Tuscany, up and over dirt tracks better suited for jeeps in the Italian Alps, and up horrendously steep roads, such as the Monte Zoncolan and Plan de Corones.
This year's Giro, which starts Saturday in Naples and ends with a road stage May 26 into Brescia, seems to throw the novelties out the window. Instead, the 96th edition of the corsa rosa goes back to its roots, with a balanced, open race, and all the good stuff packed into the final week.
While there are no blockbuster new additions, there are a few wrinkles that should have major impacts on the final outcome.
Time bonuses, a long, early TT, and explosive stages are key
First, time bonuses are back in play in all road stages (not in time trials), with 20-, 12- and 8-second bonuses at the finish line. Last year, the Giro experimented by taking them out of the major summit finales -- a move that deeply impacted the tactics on the road and the finale GC.
This year they're back across the entire race, something that will favor riders like pre-race favorite Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), who have strong finish-line kicks. The Giro has also introduced a second intermediate sprint, with 5-, 3- and 2-second bonuses for the first three across the line. If the race is as close as it was last year, when just 16 seconds separated Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) and runner-up Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), the time bonuses could become a major factor.
Second, the first half of the race is anchored by a long, 54.8-kilometer individual time trial that should put reigning Tour champion Bradley Wiggins (Sky) into the driver's seat (and pink jersey) early. There are no real major climbs until the Giro dips into northern Italy after the rest day, though that doesn't mean the opening 10 stages are not without their traps. A team time trial in stage 2 and some hilly, technical terrain is sure to catch a few of the pre-race favorites out.
And third, nearly all of the major, decisive climbs are featured as part of shorter, more explosive stages. Only the penultimate stage, with a five-climb, 200km parcours, fits the bill as a classic grand tour grinder. After seeing how exciting some of the shorter mountain stages have been over the past few grand tours, the Giro has opted for shorter, but action-packed mountain courses. The climbs come fast and often, which should produce some exhilarating racing.
2013 Giro d'Italia, stage-by-stage
Here's what to watch for as the racing plays out over 3,454 kilometers and 21 days.
Stage 1, May 4, Naples to Naples, 130km: The bustling port city of Napoli hosts the Giro partenza for the first time in 50 years. Ditching the idea of a prologue, the sprinters will get their chance to grab the pink jersey right from the gun. The flat route along the spectacular seafront ends with four laps over a 16.3km circuit, including passages over a short climb to award KOM points. Despite the lumpy circuit, a bunch sprint should be in the cards.
Stage 2, May 5, Ischia to Forio, 17.4km (TTT): Pre-stage favorites will be BMC Racing and Sky, but the technically challenging route on the volcanic island of Ischia will deliver the first time gaps among the GC candidates. Though relatively short, the course is technical over narrow roads, and some GC candidates could cede time right out of the start gate. Euskaltel-Euskadi, which is notoriously awful in TTTs, will be trying to keep podium candidate Samuel Sánchez in the running. Time gaps between the top teams should just be a few seconds.
Stage 3, May 6, Sorrento to Marina di Ascea, 222km: This lumpy stage begins on the spectacular Almafi peninsula and pushes south over flatter roads before hitting two short, punchy climbs in the final hour of racing. Stage hunters will be on the move, meaning a sprint finale is far from guaranteed.
Stage 4, May 7, Policastro Bussentino to Serra San Bruno, 246km: Pushing to the 2013 Giro's southern-most point, the stage hugs the Tyrrhenian coast, where crosswinds will be a factor. The stage finishes with a second-category climb up Croce Ferrata and a fast, 5km descent that seems ideal for Nibali or Sánchez, two of the best descenders in the race. The first touch of climbing could catch a few GC contenders by surprise if they cannot handle the speed of what's sure to be an explosive finale.
Stage 5, May 8, Cosenza to Matera, 203km: The mostly flat stage runs into some interesting features near the finale that will give wings to the stage hunters. A bunch sprint is not guaranteed as the late, fourth-category climb could see a few of the pure sprinters caught out. A rising finale in the final kilometer favors the power sprinters, such as John Degenkolb (Argos-Shimano).
Stage 6, May 9, Mola di Bar to Margherita di Savoia, 169km: This almost dead-flat stage rolls north along the Adriatic coast, where crosswinds could be an obstacle, but this one has mass sprint written all over it. If Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) hasn't won yet, he should here.
Stage 7, May 10, San Salvo to Pescara, 177km: This hilly, undulating course doesn't see a flat road until the final 5km. Four punchy climbs in the closing hour of racing, over technically challenging roads, will make this one a hard stage to control. Stage hunters will be looking to make their moves for a victory and a spell in pink as the first week winds down.
Stage 8, May 11, Gabicce Mare to Saltara, 54.8km (ITT): This is where Wiggins will be looking to take important time gains on of his rivals. This long, undulating course favors the specialists, though technical roads and a hard, grinding finale, with the final kilometer hitting ramps as steep as 13 percent, will make for a thrilling battle. Wiggins could take minutes on his climbing rivals, with the likes of Hesjedal and Nibali looking to limit the bleeding. This stage could tip the balance firmly in favor of Wiggins if he can deliver a performance like he did in 2012, when he won every time trial he entered over 30km.
Stage 9, May 12, San Sepolcro to Florence, 170km: Sandwiched between the time trial and the first rest day, this hilly stage has breakaway written all over it. Two hard climbs in the middle of the route across the heart of Tuscany, including this Giro's first Cat. 1 climb, will surely see the stage hunters on the march. The closing 10km trace portions of the route of the world championship course the peloton will see in September. With a long transfer and a rest day on tap, the peloton will be content to finish off the first part of the Giro as easily as possible.
Stage 10, May 14, Cordenons to Altopiano del Montasio, 167km: After some opening-week antipasti, the real Giro begins with this short, but potentially explosive stage that will see the GC contenders' true colors. Anyone who lost big time in the time trial cannot wait around, so they must go on the attack. The difficult Cason di Lanza will draw out the weaker links before the Giro's first true mountaintop finish up the Montasio climb. With ramps as steep as 20 percent with about 4km to go, the battle will commence. Watch for the Colombians like Carlos Betancur (Ag2r La Mondiale), who will be saving their matches for the Giro's second half.
Stage 11, May 15, Tarvisio to Vajont, 182km: This transition stage includes the Ciampigotto climb, which will spring stage hunters midway through the day. The final ramps to the finish line, with an average grade of five percent in the closing 5km, aren't hard, but sometimes those explosive grinders can cause more damage than longer climbs. With finish-line bonuses in play in every stage (minus time trials), the GC riders will be attacking with gusto if a break isn't clear.
Stage 12, May 16, Longarone to Treviso, 134km: This transition stage punches out of the mountains into the flats of Veneto, one of the hotbeds of Italian cycling. Some minor climbs early shouldn't prove the undoing of most sprinters, who know that their chances are running out.
Stage 13, May 17, Busseto to Cherasco, 254km: The longest stage of this year's Giro looks to be pre-destined for a sprint finale. There's a tricky, third-category climb with about 45km to go, and two more unrated climbs in the closing 20km, so it could prove trickier to control than many expect. It all depends on who has the legs, or the motivation, to try to fend off the sprinters.
Stage 14, May 18, Cervere to Bardonecchia, 168km: The run to Bardonecchia is another short, potentially explosive stage, with a steep, finish-line climb that should see exciting, tactical racing. The route turns back into the mountains, entering the Italian Alps, with the long, gradual climb to Sestriere to soften up the legs. After a fast descent, the stage broils toward Bardonecchia, with the final three kilometers at nearly 10-percent grades. Shorter, explosive finales like this could spell trouble for Wiggins, who has worked this year to improve his explosiveness in the mountains.
Stage 15, May 19, Cesana Torinese to Col du Galibier, 149km: This stage could well blow things up as the Giro takes a rare visit to the Galibier, the emblematic climb of the Tour de France. After turning into France on the Mont Cenis climb, the route tackles the Col du Télégraphe before the final charge up the Galibier. Short and highly explosive, the stage could see long-distance attacks from the favorites, with stage hunters trying to hitch a ride. Any man hoping to win the Giro will want to confirm his dominance coming out of France. These longer, steadier climbs are ideal for Hesjedal to make a move.
Stage 16, May 21, Valloire to Ivrea, 238km: Coming off the second rest day, this is a head-bangers' ball, with a hard climb to open the stage before the Giro returns to Italian roads. That will set the stage for almost-certain success for the breakaway. Look for teams desperate to chase points and results to put their men on the march while the GC boys cool their jets before the final showdown.
Stage 17, May 22, Caravaggio to Vicenza, 214km: There will be a few grumbling riders (and bus drivers) during what's a long, flat stage that drags the entourage all the way back across northern Italy. The otherwise flat stage is punctuated by a late-stage, fourth-category climb to spice things up. This is one of a few bones the Giro organizers are throwing the sprinters to encourage them to hang around until the end of the race.
Stage 18, May 23, Mori to Polsa, 20.6km (ITT): The Giro's second time trial goes up, and keeps going up, nearly 1,000 vertical meters. The climb features a relatively steady grade, with only a few ramps hitting about 10 percent. That will favor anyone with legs this late in the game. Nibali thrives in this kind of terrain, and will be looking to turn the screws to Wiggins and anyone else still in contention for the pink jersey.
Stage 19, May 24, Ponte di Legno to Val Martello, 139km: This is another short, potentially explosive climbing stage that leaves no room for recovery, and no room for error. This could be called the "little queen" stage, but within its brevity lies its danger. The stage hits the snowy steeps of the Passo di Gavia right off the gun. Following a long descent, the course turns up the storied switchbacks of the Passo dello Stelvio, the highest point of this year's Giro. Another long, 20km descent leads the survivors to the final hump up 10-percent grades. This stage could turn the Giro upside down; anyone with legs and still within striking range could well make a long-range move, much like Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM) did in last year's Giro in similar terrain.
Stage 20, May 25, Silandro to Tre Cime di Lavaredo, 203km: A classic, old-school Giro gut-buster, this 200km march across five high climbs will crown the 2013 winner. The stage is so hard and so long, the favorites might wait until the final charge up the super-steep Tre Cime climb to play their full hands. That will open the door for final-hour adventurers looking for a final bit of glory in breakaways. The GC faves will be at their end when the Giro hits the hardest climb of the entire race. After tackling the mighty Passo Giau, the weary pack hits the Tre Cime climb, with an average grade of 12 percent over the final 3km. Satisfaction (and pain) guaranteed.
Stage 21, May 26, Riese Pio X to Brescia, 197km: After endless complaints from residents and teams alike, the Giro bypasses Milano and ends in Brescia instead. And the race returns to a final-day "parade and sprint" format after scheduling a time trial on the final stage in recent years. Brescia certainly won't have the majesty of Paris' Champs-Elysées or even the Paseo de la Castellana in Madrid, but Milano wasn't exactly been the most welcoming of hosts, either. Sprinters who are in the running for the points jersey will still be in the hunt for the final-day stage win.