The Centennial Giro d'Italia offers up a unique parcours which is deceptive in its difficulty. Procycling and Diquigiovanni's gregarious manager Gianni Savio break down the route for the 92nd edition of the race.
"It is an abnormal Giro, where you find the Dolomites right from the beginning and not at end like all the other years," said Savio. "This will change how the riders prepare for the Giro; the riders have to show up at 90 percent or higher, and not at 80 percent."
Stage 1 - Saturday, May 09: Lido di Venezia (TTT), 20.5km
Route: A simple out-and-back course on the huge sandbar that stands guard in front of Venice. It's sure to be very high speed and, with St Mark's very prominent in the background, will be hugely spectacular.
Local hero: It's fitting that the location of the prestigious Venice Film Festival should also be home ground for cycling's Glenn Close look-a-like, Franco Pellizotti. He's actually from Latisana, 50km north-east. Expect mayhem if the Liquigas train can put him in the maglia rosa here.
Procycling's top tip: Garmin-Slipstream steamrollered this stage last year and it's sure to be in contention again. Mark Cavendish reckons Columbia-Highroad will more than match them, though, and Astana will surely go better than last year's seventh. Garmin by a short head.
Savio speaks: The Venezia team time trial that will pull in the public thanks to its location. Venice is a city known all around the world, but if you have never been there it is difficult to understand. You are always between small side streets or water. It is a beautiful city.
Stage 2 - Sunday, May 10: Jesolo - Trieste, 156km
Route: A very straightforward opening road stage that concludes with three laps of an 11km circuit in Trieste. There's a climb halfway around it that offers the first mountains jersey points on the second pass. The infamous local Bora wind could prove a bigger menace to riders.
Local hero: The last half of the stage runs along the corridor of Italian territory that looks back over Venice. Bordering Slovenia is a growing cycling power, and support for Slovenes Janez Brajkovic and Tadej Valjavec will be very apparent.
Procycling's top tip: It'll be extremely rapid on the downhill run into the finish, which will make for a frantic, nerve-jangling finale. 2009 form suggests a straight fight between Columbia-Highroad's Mark Cavendish and Garmin-Slipstream's Tyler Farrar, who should be battling for bonus seconds toward the maglia rosa. While Farrar pipped Cav in a similar sprint in Tirreno-Adriatico, our money's on the Manxman.
Savio speaks: Trieste is certainly a stage for sprinters, there's a 99-percent chance that it arrives in a sprint. The sprinters will control the race for Alessandro Petacchi and Mark Cavendish. Trieste is a historic zone and one of the big cities this year's Giro will visit.
Stage 3 - Monday, May 11: Grado - Valdobbiadene, 198km
Route: The race heads west with another stage that looks to have sprint written all over it. It's lumpy towards the end, but not enough to trouble any of these guys.
Local hero: The finish is just 30km north of the Castelfranco Veneto, home of UCI World Road Champion Alessandro Ballan. Will the rainbow jersey make a bid for glory on the San Pietro climb, less than 20km from the finish?
Procycling's top tip: Who will challenge Mark Cavendish? Last year it was Daniele Bennati, who was far more consistent than the young Columbia-Highroad rider, and earned the maglia ciclamino as a reward. But with the Liquigas star on the injured list, it will likely be Alessandro Petacchi who will fight to keep the points jersey in Italian hands. A win here would set him well on his way.
Savio speaks: Valdobbiadene is another sprinters' stage. Grado is a city on the water which, back in the time of World War I, was not part of Italy. Valdobbiadene is known as a zone for Prosecco, sparking wine - salute.
Stage 4 - Tuesday, May 12: Padova - San Martino di Castrozza, 162km
Route: The first summit finish of the race, although not one that will have the main contenders quaking. The climb to San Martino has its tough sections, but overall it's not a tough ascent on what is the main road up the Cismon valley. Time gaps won't be too big here; the finish could be contested by quite a large group.
Local hero: If Ivan Basso is going to ride off with the maglia rosa for a second time, he's likely to be leaning heavily on Manuel Quinziato. A time trial specialist, the Bolzano man is very strong and versatile and is sure to be allocated plenty of hardcore domestique work on stages like this.
Procycling's top tip: No one could touch Emanuele Sella on stages like these last year, but he's now sidelined by a doping ban that contributed to his CSF Navigare team's non-selection this year. If a sizeable group comes to the finish, 2000 champion Stefano Garzelli is a good bet in an uphill sprint.
Savio speaks: San Martino di Castrozza is the first stage in the mountains - I Dolomiti. Here we will get the idea of who is not up to the task of winning the 2009 Giro d'Italia. Gilberto Simoni will try to stay with the front men.
Stage 5 - Wednesday, May 13: San Martino di Castrozza - Alpe di Siusi, 125km
Route: The profile for this stage is shaped like a massive half pipe (in skating parlance), meaning the old adage of 'what goes down must come up' has never rung more true.
There are effectively 57.2 kilometres of descending after the initial and gentle 8.2km climb up the Passo Rolle. That is countered by 25 brutal kilometres of climbing from Prato all'Isarco to the finish at the Alpe di Siusi. That's an average gradient of 6.1 percent, with the final ramp from Siusi to the finish yielding an unforgiving 8.1 percent grade, enough to split up some likely contenders.
Local hero: The middle of this stage is in the heart of the training area north of Trento used by Gilberto Simoni. The Diquigiovanni rider would love to put one over on Basso, a favourite target for Simoni's vitriol.
Procycling's top tip: All the major contenders will need to be at their sharpest today and one is almost sure to ride into the maglia rosa. It looks like a battle between Liquigas and Astana. With so much racing still to do, it would be no surprise to see someone like Franco Pellizotti slip away from the favourites.
Savio speaks: Alpe di Siusi is a tourist zone, like the day before, and a classic Dolomiti day. If it was any other Giro year these stages would be deciding days, but remember, we are only in the first week. Here the food is hearty, influenced by the Germans: speck and local cheese.
Stage 6 - Thursday, May 14: Bressanone/Brixen - Mayrhofen (Aut), 248km
Route: The stage has the look and length of a Classic, and will cause some problems for anyone who doesn't take enough sustenance on board or is slightly off form. The Gerlospass is hard enough to break plenty of legs, although some riders will get back up to the front on the long run-in.
Local hero: It's been pretty dismal for Austrian cycling lately with the positive test by Bernhard Kohl but Peter Wrolich is a likely starter with Milram.
Procycling's top tip: Increasingly regarded as a Classics rider whose 2004 Giro victory was a spectacular one-off, Damiano Cunego is clearly relishing this stage. The lack of an uphill finish will suit him and he's quick enough and smart enough to see off most of his rivals.
Savio speaks: The stage to Mayrhofen, crossing into Austria, is really an unknown zone for me. Likely on this stage we will see a small group succeed, which could maybe drop the sprinters, or we could see a group of 60 to 70 riders with some sprinters. If Petacchi is in great condition, he will arrive in Mayrhofen for the sprint.
Stage 7 - Friday, May 15: Innsbruck (Aut) - Chiavenna, 244km
Route: The race heads south-west, back into Italy via Switzerland. Although we're surrounded by high peaks all the way, passing the upmarket resort of St Moritz, the stage is one very steady climb to the summit of the Maloja pass, followed by a high-speed descent into the finish. A sprint is not out of the question, but a winning break more likely.
Local hero: Winner of stage seven last year, LPR's Gabriele Bosisio hometown of Lecco is just down at the other end of Lake Como/Lecco from the finish. This stage might not suit his climbing talent, but don't be surprised to see him on the attack.
Procycling's top tip: Like the previous day, this stage should favour one-day specialists, and there are plenty of them to choose from. We give Katusha's Filippo Pozzato the nod here, as his new team has been going well and this is the kind of stage-winning opportunity they won't want to pass up.
Savio speaks: Chiavenna continues the international flavour for the Giro. This Swiss stage is for sprinters, we are only in the seventh day and so it is too early for long escapes to succeed. We will see the leader's team work to protect the maglia rosa. We are in Valtellina area, known for its Bresaola meats and Pizzocheri pasta. Enjoy!
Stage 8 - Saturday, May 16: Morbegno - Bergamo, 209km
Route: Another long day over 200km and one with a number of tricky moments, mostly towards stage's end. The early climb should be the springboard for a breakaway, and there's no reason that a group with several powerful riders won't stay clear till the finish. The race leader will need to be careful over the closing kilometres, as valuable seconds could be lost.
Local hero: It will probably be a few more days before we see the best of Marco Pinotti in the Cinque Terre TT, but he'll have a huge incentive today as he races into his hometown.
Procycling's top tip: Winner of the 2007 Giro, Danilo Di Luca, was not far behind stage-winner Garzelli on a similar stage to this that season. A proven Classics performer, the LPR leader should be in the mix today.
Savio speaks: Riders will have to pay attention to the climbs like Colle del Gallo. However I think the gruppo will make it over this with no problem. The riders confront the climb yearly at the Settimana Lombarda. It is not a climb that will make the difference.
Stage 9 - Sunday, May 17: Milano Show 100, 163km
Route: Traditionally the Giro's finishing point, the centenary race still takes in Milan. This is effectively a long criterium over 10 laps of a course through the city centre that takes in many of the principal sights. Mixing high speeds with lots of corners will make for frenetic and risky racing. Crashes look almost guaranteed.
Local hero: Acqua & Sapone's Luca Paolini is a good pick for a stage which should be aggressive and fast. He won a stage of the Settimana Lombarda earlier this year from a small group, and if he can slip into a break he may be able to nab a stage in front of his home crowd.
Procycling's top tip: Surely one for the sprinters, but don't discount a late burst of unparalleled power from Saxo Bank's Fabian Cancellara. The twists and turns towards the finish could favour a lone break.
Savio speaks: Milano is the heart of the Giro, but this year the Giro changes completely. The finishing city moved from Milano to Roma and, rightly so, there had to be a stage in Milano at some point along the route. You will see a great circuit with many people out in Milano on Sunday. Look out for Cavendish and Petacchi.
Stage 10 - Tuesday, May 19: Cuneo - Pinerolo, 262km
Route: This is undoubtedly the queen stage of this year's Giro. The distance is epic, the climbs are iconic and the day is made for gnarly climbers such as Basso and Simoni, who revel in this type of tough terrain. It comes the day after the first rest day - riders had better make the most of the time off because they'll need it.
Originally mirrored on the stage Fausto Coppi won by an incredible 11 minutes in the 1949 Giro, stage 10 was meant to include the Colle della Maddalena, Col de Vars and Col d'Izoard, although it won't travel up any of these due to a combination of natural hazards (landslides) and a clash between Italian and French radio frequencies.
It's undeniable that the stage, which was designed to celebrate the essence of the Giro, won't garner the same level of intrigue as originally expected. With no Alberto Contador to dominante proceedings though, it's likely the attacks will be on tap throughout the day, which should compensate for the truncated climbing on offer.
Colle del Monginevro - This is the first of the two big passes, where there's no respite from la salita. An average gradient of 6.4 percent and maximum of 14 percent - which comes late in the climb - will likely be contested by a bigger selection than that which will fight for honours on the ascent to Sestrière.
Sestrière - Following a descent of 17km into Gravere it's straight back to work for the troops as they muster to either launch or counter the likely attacks up these slopes. An average gradient of 8.6 percent that peaks at 11 percent early in the climb will be the perfect launching pad for a stab at the stage victory. The early ramps act as a natural selector before some reprieve is offered in the middle section of the climb ahead of the kick back up to gradients of between six-eight percent.
Sestrière was the scene of an epic battle in the 2005 Giro, where Savoldelli, gunning for his second title, held off the challenge of Simoni and Di Luca. That Giro was a revelation for Di Luca, who went on to finish fourth overall and claim the crown in 2007.
Procycling's top tip: The true contenders are sure to emerge, especially with the addition of the Pramartino just kilometres from the line. A daredevil descender who is also a top climber will win the stage. In the past, we'd say Savoldelli, but Astana's Levi Leipheimer also goes downhill pretty quickly.
Savio speaks: The 'Coppi' stage they had programmed before was going to be lethal. It would have been felt in the legs, up and down, and right after the first rest day - the riders would have been caught off guard. The organisers always knew they might have problems with snow. I remember back in 1994 when we did the Colle dell'Agnello, they had to stop the stage at one point because of snow. That stage has always been problematic.
Pay attention, I was informed by one of your journalist friends that at the arrival in Pinerolo the organisers inserted a wall in the final kilometre. It is a small passage, on pavé, in a pedestrian zone that lasts for 400 or so metres at 15 percent. Immediately after, there is the descent with two curves and then the finish. I know this zone around Torino well because I played football here in the amateur ranks when I was a young boy.
Stage 11 - Wednesday, May 20: Torino - Arenzano (Genova), 214km
Route: With the long time trial to come tomorrow, the main contenders won't figure prominently on this stage. A sprint is a strong possibility, especially as there aren't too many chances left for the fastmen, but a long break by riders well off the pink jersey pace is more likely.
Local hero: We're heading into Liguria, the home region of Petacchi. Winner of a staggering nine stages at the 2004 Giro, "Ale-Jet" will be hoping to be at his best against the new generation of sprinters as the bunch speeds into Arenzano.
Procycling's top tip: The Turchino's not tough, but this still looks a good stage for a successful breakaway move. Savio is sure to have one of his Diquigiovanni men in there, and we like the look of the precocious Francesco Ginanni.
Savio speaks: The Arenzano (Genova) stage is one for the sprinters, arriving in Liguria on the seaside. It is a tourist zone where you can have a nice plate of fish and Trofiette Genovese.
Stage 12 - Thursday, May 21: Sestri Levante - Riomaggiore (ITT), 60.6km
Route: The Cinque Terre is beautiful if challenging cycling country, but not the kind of terrain you'd expect to find a time trial. The roads twist tightly up and down - they simply don't do straight and flat in this region. Many riders have said they will be using a normal road bike for this test, although Lance Armstrong has said his is likely to have a few aero features.
Local hero: Perhaps there's something in the Ligurian water that helps turn out sprinters. As well as Petacchi, Liquigas's Francesco Chicchi hails from not far down the coast in Camaiore, but the race organisers haven't done him any favours with this stage.
Procycling's top tip: The main contenders should dominate, but it's hard to predict who'll have the edge. If Armstrong is fit, we'd back him to rinse his rivals today, but if he's not it will open the door to Basso.
Savio speaks: The Cinque Terre time trial clearly favours riders like Armstrong and Basso, but - attention - this time trial will not penalise riders like Cunego and Simoni. It would be a different story if it was all flat, Cunego and Simoni would be out of the game.
This time trial is very abnormal, just like the Giro is an abnormal Giro. That first climb is very tricky, and then a technical decent. I only hope it does not rain that day. If it rains the stage will be come a nightmare.
We will have to see what the differences are like afterwards to know if this stage changes the entire Giro. The classification men will hope to avoid any incidents, any mechanicals. I always tell my riders to follow their sensations. It is better to be safe and lose a few seconds than crash and lose it all.
Stage 13 - Friday, May 22: Lido di Camaiore - Firenze, 176km
Route: A couple of straightforward climbs early on in the stage apart, this is a pan-flat day's cycling that looks guaranteed for a sprint finish. In fact it would be no surprise to see several of the sprinters pull out after this stage with so few opportunities for them in the last week, which only makes a sprint even more certain.
Local hero: AG2R's Rinaldo Nocentini, winner of a stage at the Tour of California in February, is from Montevarchi, just south-east of Florence. This terrain won't suit this Classics specialist, but he'll be his French team's main hope for a stage win.
Procycling's top tip: It's hard to see past Cavendish and Petacchi in the sprints, but Lampre's Danilo Napolitano has been going well this season and is sure to be in contention in the bunch finishes.
Savio speaks: Stage 13 to Firenze is a day for the sprinters. I was talking with some there team managers and we noted how more and more over the years the unknown men have a hard time getting free in escapes. I don't know if that is due to race radios or the strong presence of the sprinters' teams.
It's great that the Giro combines cycling with Italy's historic cities. Firenze is a city of art, but in cycling it is known for the famed Gino Bartali, who comes from nearby Ponte a Ema. It is a stage dedicated to him and it will pass through his city.
Stage 14 - Saturday, May 23: Campi Bisenzio - Bologna (San Luca), 172km
Route: The five climbs and serpentining route offer ideal terrain for a break, but the overall contenders will need to be on guard against possible ambushes by their rivals. If the GC battle is still close, this could be a very fast and nervous stage, where breakaways find themselves chased down within sight of Bologna's tough uphill finish.
Local Hero: Katusha's Luca Mazzanti is in the veteran category at 35, but he won't be lacking for incentive today as he races into his home city on home roads that he knows well and suit his ability perfectly.
Procycling's top tip: The final climb is also the finish for the one-day Giro dell'Emilia, won by Danilo Di Luca, Gilberto Simoni, Ivan Basso and Davide Rebellin in recent seasons. After his doping case, Rebellin won't be riding but the other previous winners will be.
Savio speaks: San Luca, an arrival that is famous for the Giro dell'Emilia every fall. It will be another stage where there won't be major differences, but the stage will be open for escapees; the classification men won't kill themselves over this.
The profile reminds me of the stage last year to Cesena where we won with our rider Alessandro Bertolini. Bologna is a city known for all kinds of food, including its Bolognese sauce and Tortellini.
Stage 15 - Sunday, May 24: Forlì - Faenza, 161km
Route: You expect the Giro's route to be unpredictable, but organisers RCS Sport have pulled out the stops for this centenary edition. This is another day where the climbs aren't all that big, but they are incessant. It's another day when the contenders will have to be watchful, but when a break should stay clear.
Procycling's top tip: Monte Trebbio features, and as the rider who won this year's Coppi e Bartali stage over that climb, Cunego will be one of the men to watch. In recent Giros, he's been off the pace by this point in the race – can he regain his form of 2004?
Savio speaks: The stage to Faenza is going to be a truly difficult stage. It is open for an escape of substance, but it will not affect the overall classification.
Stage 16 - Monday, May 25: Pergola - Monte Petrano, 237km
Route: Another stage that looks like RCS Sport has dropped a piece of string on a map and designed the day around it. These climbs are much harder than those of the two previous days. Monte Nerone and Monte Catria feature long, steep ramps that favour climbers with a rapid turn of speed. The hardest section of Monte Petrano is near the bottom, and there will be major splits there.
Local Hero: The Michele Scarponi fan club will be out in force, assuming they haven't deserted him after his involvement in the Puerto scandal. The Diquigiovanni rider is having a resurgence this season, exemplified by his stage and overall victory at Tirreno-Adriatico.
Procycling's top tip: The overall contenders will be at the fore, but this stage will also suit a flyweight climber with a rapid change of pace such as Scarponi's team-mate José Serpa.
Savio speaks: The Monte Petrano will be decisive; we will see who can win the Giro and who will lose it. It is very difficult, and you will see some circumstantial alliances amongst the teams to put others into trouble.
Monte Petrano is a hard climb as you can see it from the map. You will have some time gaps after a long 237-kilometre stage. It is Le Marche, the region of Michele Scarponi and he could be a man for the stage. Simoni is our leader, but we are not going to completely sacrifice Scarponi. He will remain in the wings as a second general classification option.
Stage 17 - Wednesday, May 27: Chieti - Blockhaus, 83km
Route: There's a brief opportunity for riders to get back into the swing of things, post-rest day, as the stage heads to and then along the coast. From there, it's up all the way; to more than 2000m. Ivan Basso took the maglia rosa on this climb in 2006, but that day finished at the Lanciano pass, and that's at 1306m. Today's blast goes right to the summit of the Blockhaus, where the last two kilometres are particularly testing.
Local Hero: We're on Danilo Di Luca's patch here, and it will be mayhem on the Blockhaus if "The Killer" is in contention; in fact, it will be mayhem anyway.
Procycling's top tip: Looking outside the obvious favourites, Rabobank's Denis Menchov, who has climbing ability and the sprint finish to make a difference, should be in the frame today as the Russian builds his condition for the Tour.
Savio speaks: Blockhaus is another beautiful climb, one day after Monte Petrano and will re-arrange the classification again. It's short but a stage that will send the classification up in flames. It's Di Luca's land; he won the race two years ago and will be out for the kill on Blockhaus.
Stage 18 - Thursday, May 28: Sulmona - Benevento, 182km
Route: The sprinters who are left will have been plugging away for almost a week now with their focus very much on this stage, and they'll be determined not to let this chance for glory slip by them. A break will go early and the sprinters' teams will claw it back on the flattish roads during the second half of the stage.
Local Hero: This has never been a stronghold of Italian cycling, and even less so at the moment, after a host of riders from this region have drifted out of the sport. Step forward Giuliano Figueras, Raffaeles Illiano and Ferrara, and Salvatore Commesso.
Procycling's top tip: It could well be an all-Italian sprintfest by now, in which case Lampre's Mirco Lorenzetto will fancy his chances, given his rash of form this season.
Savio speaks: The Benevento stage is for sprinters, but there will be a few riders who may try to blow it up on that first climb. If I had a team that was not working for the overall classification I would send all my men on the front for the Cinque Miglia climb.
I remember 2001, on the stage to Reggio Emilia. We attacked and formed an escape with our Freddy Gonzalez and eventual winner Pietro Caucchioli. We did not have anyone fighting for the classification, so we had nothing to lose.
Benevento is an area known for Mozzarella di Bufala. It is great on its own or with some tomatoes - 'Caprese'.
Stage 19 - Friday, May 29: Avellino - Vesuvio, 164km
Route: We're getting into the realm of fantasy cycling today, with a run down the stunning Amalfi coast and a finish on one of the world's most infamous volcanoes. The final climb to the summit finish on Vesuvius isn't long, but don't forget how far we've come to get here. Fatigue will be well set in, and the last and steepest 2km to the finish could see some significant splits.
Local Hero: A relative of Danilo Napolitano's must have come from Naples at some point. In our eyes that qualifies the Sicilian as a local for the day at the very least.
Procycling's top tip: One foreign rider we've not yet mentioned who could nab a summit victory is Spain's Ezequiel Mosquera. Fourth at last year's Vuelta, the Xacobeo team leader has never won a race outside Spain, but he could change that today.
Savio speaks: The stage to Vesuvio puts the beauty of Italy right into the Giro. Up the Amalfi coast to Napoli: pizza and spaghetti.
The stage is up and down, like a saw blade. This stage will determine the classification. We will likely see two races: an escape fighting for the stage win and then the classification men fighting for the overall jersey behind.
Stage 20 - Saturday, May 30: Napoli - Anagni, 203km
Route: At first glance, this should be a final hurrah for the sprinters, but there's a sharp climb to the finish, which the riders will pass over once before the finale.
Procycling's top tip: The final kick up to the finish should open this stage up to the kind of rider who goes well in the Ardennes Classics, such as Danilo Di Luca.
Savio speaks: On paper, this stage to Anagni should be one for sprinters, but it could see an attacking rider break free, like Di Luca or Rebellin
This zone is Ciociaria, known for the film La Ciociara and actress Anna Magnani.
Stage 21 - Sunday, May 31: Roma (ITT), 15.5km
Route: Much like the Tour's 2007 London prologue or 2003 Paris prologue, this time trial highlights most of what makes Rome so unique. This short time trial starts from the edge of the Roman forum below the Palatine hill and finishes in the shadow of the Colosseum. It's pretty flat, but has lots of turns that will favour the specialists.
Local Hero: Alessandro Proni probably wouldn't have imagined that he would get the chance to race around the usually traffic-jammed streets of his home city, and the ISD rider, who helped them win the TTT at the Coppi e Bartali race in March, is sure to relish this stage.
Procycling's top tip: We've been saving the name of Levi Leipheimer for this stage because we have a hunch the Astana leader may have reason for a double celebration here. Close to a first major tour win at last year's Vuelta, he's going better than ever.
Savio speaks: This stage will show off Roma as Caput Mundi, the capital of the world. The stage travels through all the historic sites, starting near the Colosseum.
I am on the edge of my seat thinking the maglia rosa could come down to a fight of two or three on the streets of Roma. It would be a spectacular fight.
I remember back in 1992 when Andrea Tafi won for my team at the Giro del Lazio ahead of Davide Cassani, third. Tafi had his hands up for victory with the Colosseum in the background on the Fori Imperiali.