Editor's note: The organisers of the 2019 Giro Rosa have been forced to cancel the summit finish on the Passo Gavia, which was to be the finish of stage 5 on July 9, due to unexpected landslides and bad weather in the area. The conditions have forced authorities to intermittently close the roads to traffic and organisers have re-routed the stage to finish at the Lago di Cancano.
Here we are at the start of the Giro Rosa!
I think it's the hardest parcours that the organisers have ever designed with a lot of climbing and not much for the sprinters. The addition of the Passo Gavia will be the highlight of this year's race, and it will be epic, but it's not the only ingredient that will make this Giro Rosa hard. It will probably be the first place where there are more significant time differences, but there will also be opportunities on the uphill time trial on stage 6 and the summit finish of stage 9. These will also be crucial stages.
I was pleased when the organisers announced that this year's course would include the Passo Gavia because I know that climb very well. I've spent about 200 days during my career in that area, and it's always been my preferred region for altitude training. I feel at home in the Valtellina region of Italy. The people from the hotel there – I love them – have become such good friends.
Last year, they closed the hotel in September and invited me for their annual staff BBQ, which was a lovely evening for all the people that work in the hotel to celebrate the end of the summer season. It was two weeks before the Innsbruck World Championships, and there I was at this fantastic party singing karaoke songs with the manager and the maître d'hôtel. It was a lot of fun!
Annemiek van Vleuten enjoys a BBQ with friends at an annual staff celebration at the hotel she frequently stays at near the Passo Gavia. Photo: Courtesy of Annemiek van Vleuten
There are some beautiful epic climbs in that area of Italy: there's the Gavia, but also the Mortirolo and the Stelvio, which have also been part of the previous editions of the Giro Rosa. It's also not too far from where I live, about 10 hours by car, so I can pack up my bike and drive there quickly. I like this region, too, because you can sleep and train at altitude. There are several loops, for example, to Zernez or St. Moritz, where you can ride at 1,800 metres of elevation without too much climbing, which is ideal for time trial workouts.
Training at altitude works well for me, but Livigno isn't the best location for athletes who prefer to 'sleep high and train low', and so for them I'd suggest the Sierra Nevada in Spain as a better option.
I recently spent a week training in the Valtellina area to prepare for this Giro Rosa. I was there with my teammates Amanda Spratt and Lucy Kennedy, and also Lucinda Brand from Sunweb. We rode up the Passo Gavia twice, but I've previously ridden on this climb many times, and I know the north and south sides well – both sides are beautiful.
The lake at the top was still frozen when we were there. Tall snow walls were lining the roads near the top that were three metres high. I've since heard that they got more snow and had to close it. Hopefully it will be open when it's time for us to race up it.
Annemiek van Vleuten, Amanda Spratt, Lucy Kennedy and Lucinda Brand training on the Passo Gavia. Photo: Courtesy of Annemiek van Vleuten
We'll race the north side from Bormio on stage 5, which will be a tough stage because within 100km we will start at 400 metres of elevation and finish at 2,652 metres. There's also a climb at the start of the stage, and so we race a total of 3,100 metres of elevation that day, which is a lot for women's racing, and it's also a lot to do inside 100km.
The final climb officially starts in Santa Caterina (2,000m) and travels 13km to the top of the Passo Gavia (2,652m). The men face similar high-altitude climbing during the third week of this year's Tour de France. I'll be following with interest to see who can cope the best with the altitude. The Colombian riders who either live or were born at altitude, such as Egan Bernal, will have an advantage here!
It's the reason why I've trained at altitude because I have to prepare myself for a stage like this one.
What makes the Gavia harder than a climb like the Mortirolo, for example, is that it's long and at a higher altitude, and so your power goes down because of the lack of oxygen. The Mortirolo is much steeper, almost double, but it finishes at 1,800 altitude metres, and so you don't have the lack of oxygen.
On one occasion, my mother followed me by car as I rode up the Gavia, and we stopped for a coffee and a pastry at the top. We liked the sweet cakes so much that we ordered a second round. I recommend everyone stop and have a coffee up there at the rifugio. The Gavia is a hard and long climb, and so there are always cyclists that stop up there to refuel. I enjoyed watching so many people stop to rest and eat up there because they always look so happy to have made it to the top.
Annemiek van Vleuten enjoys a pastry with her mother, Ria van Vleuten-Mocking, at the top of the Passo Gavia. Photo: Courtesy of Annemiek van Vleuten
It's a special feeling to start the Giro Rosa as the defending champion and to have the opportunity to be the sole leader for my team, Mitchelton-Scott. It's also a lot of pressure. Every day, I'll wake up feeling the pressure to perform at my best. There's no switching off, and this is the toughest part of targeting the overall classification.
Two years ago, I wasn't used to being the team leader, and at that time I was grateful to have teammates like Amanda Spratt and Katrin Garfoot. We were all riding for the GC. I wasn't confident enough back then to be the only leader for such a big race, and I wasn't sure if I could do it.
I can say now that I've grown as a rider and I've become more confident. My performance last year helped give me the confidence to know that I can target the GC at the Giro Rosa.
Thanks for reading!
Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) astounded the cycling world during the 2018 season, winning the Giro Rosa, a second consecutive world title in the individual time trial and securing top honours in the overall standings of both the Women's WorldTour and the UCI World Ranking – making her the number one rider in the world. You can visit her website here.