The curtain falls on the 2018 Giro d’Italia against the grandest of backdrops on Sunday evening, with Chris Froome (Team Sky) set to celebrate overall victory and the sprinters ready to fight for one final stage success.
Nine years on from its last visit, the corsa rosa returns to Rome for the big finale to a tumultuous edition. After three weeks of tough racing and arduous transfers, from Israel to Sicily, from Italy’s deep south to the high Alps, the 150 survivors will complete their odyssey in the shadow of the Coliseum.
While the Tour de France has the Champs-Élysées, the Giro’s final stage is something of a moveable feast. Milan, home of the founding newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport, is the traditional site, but the Giro d’Italia has looked elsewhere for its final stage with increasing regularity over the past decade, combining the lure of extra revenue with the search for a prestigious finale.
Verona’s arena feted Ivan Basso’s triumph in 2010, Vincenzo Nibali was crowned Giro champion in Brescia (2013) and Turin (2016), while Nairo Quintana signed off on his 2014 win on Trieste’s charming seafront. A year ago, Tom Dumoulin retook the maglia rosa in Milan’s Piazza del Duomo, but nothing can quite compare with the venue for Sunday’s final, where Froome will be the centre of attention.
Stage 21 of the Giro sees the gruppo take on ten laps of an 11.5km circuit in Rome’s centro storico. Suffice to say, this is no ordinary criterium. It is, as La Gazzetta boasted on Sunday morning, “a monumental procession in the city that brought the world civilization and law.”
The start-finish line is on Via dei Fori Imperiali, the avenue that bisects the Roman forum. The city-centre course touches upon Renaissance and Baroque Rome as it sweeps along Via Sistina and Piazza del Popolo, and then brings the gruppo along the shopping thoroughfare of Via del Corso, before swinging past il Vittoriano and the Capitoline Hill.
The race swoops past the Arch of Constantine and Terme di Caracalla before the most spectacular of finishing lines on the Via dei Fori Imperiali, where the Coliseum will serve as a striking backdrop.
The Giro has been coming to Rome since its maiden edition in 1909, but this will be only the fourth visit to the Eternal City in the past thirty years. Urs Freuler won in 1989, Jan Hruska claimed the Vatican prologue in the jubilee year of 2000, while Denis Menchov survived a late crash to secure overall victory in the concluding time trial of the centenary Giro in 2009. Froome will no doubt be hoping to avoid similar problems.
In the intervening period, big-time racing has sadly petered out in Rome. RCS Sport’s attempts to rebrand the Giro del Lazio as Roma Maxima and hold it on the same weekend as Strade Bianche lasted just two editions, in 2013 and 2014, despite the striking finale on the Via dei Fori Imperiali.
Late on Sunday afternoon, Froome will ride the 115km stage aboard a pink bike as he marks overall victory. The Team Sky rider will join Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault as the only riders to hold all three Grand Tour titles at once, though it remains to be seen if the achievement will remain in the annals. Froome risks being stripped of his Vuelta a España title – and possibly this Giro d’Italia – if he is sanctioned for his positive test at last year’s Vuelta.
Viviani seeks fifth win
Despite the jarring cobbles of Rome’s centro storico, Sunday will be a festive afternoon for all those who completed the Giro, though the stage will set off without the unfortunate Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), who was hospitalised in Aosta and unable to take the Saturday night charter flight to Rome following his travails on stage 20. The rest of the peloton transferred from Turin to Roma on Saturday evening and got to enjoy a lazy morning before an expected fast final stage.
One group of riders, of course, are not ready to celebrate just yet. Sunday’s stage provides the sprinters with a final opportunity to claim a stage victory. Elia Viviani (Quick-Step Floors) and Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe) have hoovered up all the bunch finishes to date, winning four and two stages, respectively. They will surely duel again in Rome.
Viviani hauled his way up to the final mountain finish in Cervinia on Saturday thinking only of the final sprint in Rome and a fifth sprint victory in this year’s Giro d’Italia. While most riders celebrated the end of the mountains, he was focused on the final sprint along the Fori Imperiali in central Rome.
Viviani and several of his Quick-Step Floors teammates finished in the main gruppetto, 45:32 down on stage winner Mikel Nieve (Mitchelton-Scott), keen to save their legs for the Rome sprint. Interestingly, Viviani’s biggest rival Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe) rode even slower up to Cervinia, finishing last on the stage at 47:20.
“It’d be great to end our hugely successful Giro d’Italia with a final win in the centre of Rome. Of course, our rivals want to win too and so it’ll be important to do another great leadout and sprint,” Viviani said.
“I went in the early break and took the intermediate sprints points, so we’re confident we’ve got the ciclamino points jersey in the bag. That means we can focus on winning the sprint.
“We’ve had two terrible days in the mountains. I don’t think my legs are as good as earlier in the race, so the sprinters will be at about the same level. We’ll have to study the route carefully with the team and do a good lead out, so we can finish the Giro on a high.”