By Tim Maloney, European Editor In Milano
With a four-stage start in Belgium, then five mountaintop stage finishes, including an uphill time trial up the 11km climb to the Madonna del Ghisallo, and the return of the team time trial, the 89th edition of Giro d'Italia is the hardest edition of Italy's Grand Tour since 1999. The 2006 Giro starts in the Wallone region of eastern Belgium, the eighth time the race known as the Corsa Rosa for its distinctive pink leaders jersey, has started outside Italy.
This year's Giro start, with four stages in the "black" coal mining country of Wallonia has a special connection with Italy. After WW2, many Italians emigrated north to eastern Belgium to find work in the coal mines and this year's Giro will commemorate the 136 Italian miners killed in a tragic fire fifty years ago at the Bois du Cazier mine on August 8, 1956. Today, almost 300 thousand Belgians of Italian origin live in the region and thus, the organization of the Giro d'Italia decided to reach out to their people. Mr. Gerard Gaston who represented the Region Wallon at the Giro d'Italia presentation explained, "We're delighted to host the start of the Giro d'Italia in 2006; it's a major international event. We have many major cycling events in Wallonia like Liege-Bastogne-Liege and many Italians have perfectly integrated in our region, including our Prime Minister Elio DiRupo."
With a decidedly happier and more fun vibe than last months Tour de France presentation in Paris, Paolo Belli and his Big Band opened the festivities with his swingin' "Il grand bell'Giro" theme at Milano's Mazda Palace auditorium, then madrina Elena Seridova introduced RAI-TV's Giro d' Italia broadcast team Auro Bulbarelli, Davide Cassani, Alesandra DiStefano, while up in the mountains were Alessandro Fabretti and Moreno Argentin, with Silvio Martinelli in the broadcast booth. Icons of cycling Felice Gimondi and Eddy Merckx were briefly interviewed, then after a strange intermezzo from a Chinese acrobatic troupe, the Belgian antipasti of the first four stages of the 2006 Giro were revealed. On stage were Gibo Simoni, Damiano Cunego, Ale-Jet Petacchi, and ProTour Champ Danilo DiLuca but defending champion Paolo Savoldelli wasn't on hand as he was still on vacation.
After RCS Sport chief Angelo Zomegnan paid homage to the Italians in Belgium and explained that, "this is a modern Giro d'Italia, a Giro we have worked hard to make the best possible race", the challenging 2006 edition of the Giro d'Italia was revealed.
The 21-stage race is 3.553,2km long, with an average daily stage length of 169.2km. The 2006 Giro consists of ten flat or rolling stages, four stages of medium mountains, four mountain stages, three individual time trials and one team trial, with two rest days.
After four days in Belgium, the Giro d'Italia returns to the Italian boot for a dead flat team time trial between Piacenza-Cremona, then heads south through Emilia Romagna to the Giro's first mountaintop finish on the Maieletta in Abruzzo. The Giro goes as far south as Peschici, then after a transfer back north and a rest day, it's the first individual time trial over 50km in Pontedera. On the Giro's second weekend, it's time for Tuscany, then up to Piemonte with the second mountaintop finish awaiting on Stage 13 to La Thuile.
The 89th Giro d'Italia's final week gets serious on Tuesday May 23's stage 16 that finishes atop the mythical Monte Bondone, where Charly Gaul won fifty years ago and sewed up his Giro win. The next day is another mountaintop finish at Plan de Corones after a steep unpaved climb. After a transitional stage east through Friuli, the Giro's brutal final weekend finale has yet another mountaintop finish atop Passo San Pellegrino after Forcella Staulanza, Marmolada and Pordoi. Saturday's queen stage is Trento-Aprica including Passo Tonale, the legendary Gavia (Cima Coppi) and super-steep Mortirolo.
The final day of the Giro d'Italia has two stages; a 11km uphill ITT up the mythical climb of the Ghisallo, then the last gasp for the sprinters from Lecco to Milano.