Mauro Vegni didn’t pretend his race was something it wasn’t when the lights went up at the Giro d’Italia 2020 presentation in Milan on Thursday. “We’ve probably made the course a bit easier compared to recent years because we were mindful of the fact that there are the Olympics and a tough World Championships in 2020,” the Giro director said. “Riders who want to do a full season also need organisers to take that into consideration.”
The merits of a Giro d'Italia route, of course, are always in the eye of the beholder. While in Tuttobici, Cristiano Gatti decried what he saw as “a Giretto, a size extra-extra-small Giro,” L’Équipe was more approving, describing the 2020 edition as “balanced.” Mitchelton-Scott directeur sportif Matt White, meanwhile, pointed to some latent difficulties, such as the presence of stages of 200km or more, and concluded that this Giro is tougher than it initially appeared. “It’s a filthy Giro,” White said. “That last week has five mountain stages and three of them are over 200 kilometres.”
In May, of course, stages that looked straightforward on the big screen in Milan will be altogether more laborious in practice, and there is the risk, too, that the highest mountain passes might fall foul of the weather. But even at this distant remove - and before any marquee contenders have formally confirmed their participation - some stages leap off the page as being pivotal to the final destination of the maglia rosa.
Same same but different. For the third time in four years, the Giro scales Mount Etna in the opening week, but RCS Sport have at least tried to ward of the nagging sense of déjà vu by bringing the race up the volcano by yet another new route. In 2017, the Giro finished at Rifugio Sapienza after climbing the exposed route from Nicolosi, while twelve months later, the race followed a different, more sheltered approach via Ragalna. A brisk headwind in 2017 meant that the GC contenders were reluctant to attack one another behind stage winner Jan Polanc, but the fare was more combative in 2018, when Simon Yates bridged across to his teammate Esteban Chaves near the top.
This time out, the Giro will scale Mount Etna from Linguaglossa, climbing to a new finish location at Piano Provenzana, 1,775m above sea level. The final climb is 18.2km in length and though the average gradient of 6.8 pere cent isn’t the most daunting, the final 3km pack a considerable punch. The gradient rarely drops below 9 per cent in the finale, and the ramps of 11 per cent with a kilometre or so to go lend themselves as an obvious springboard for late attackers in the manner of Yates in 2018.
Etna will loom on the horizon from the moment the race leaves the start in Enna, and while the finishing climb is the stage’s only mountain pass, the road rises and dips all day long as the gruppo skirts around the base of the volcano and through familiar spots such as Nicolosi and Zafferana Etnea. Ordinarily, a mountaintop finish this early on doesn’t provoke big differences due to the relative freshness of the peloton, but this Sicilian chapter is subtly different to the Giro’s recent trips to the island. Unlike in 2017 and 2018, the Giro travels from Hungary to Sicily without the benefit of an early rest day, and although stage 4 to Agrigento is short (135km), the finale in the Valley of the Temples is a punchy one.
It’s also worth noting that, on paper at least, the haul up Etna is the toughest ascent of the Giro’s opening stanza. In 2017, the race’s second weekend featured the Blockhaus, while the Giro tackled Montevergine and the Gran Sasso d’Italia at the same point a year later. This time out, the Vallico di Montescuro on stage 7 is the only other ascent over 1500m in the opening two weeks of the Giro, which, at least in theory, only adds to Etna’s overall significance.
Those suffering from Etna fatigue – including the sala stampa, who have long since exhausted the available seam of volcanic metaphors – should be mindful that the Giro will return to Sicily for the Grande Partenza in 2021. Expect those rumours of a gravel time trial up Etna’s ash roads – altitude 2,850 metres – to, er, erupt all over again next autumn.
Stage 14: Conegliano-Valdobbiadene, 33.7km individual time trial (May 23)
Tom Dumoulin was all set to eschew the Giro in 2019 only for Mauro Vegni to unveil a route that featured three time trials, which persuaded the Dutchman to change his mind and line out in Bologna. Speaking to Procycling about that decision last spring, Dumoulin confessed that, come what may, he would likely have to skip the Giro in 2020 and focus on the Tour de France, but one wonders if he will revisit that stance when he pores over the maps at Jumbo-Visma’s first team gathering this winter. Then again, his new teammate Primoz Roglic, third overall in 2019, might also be tempted to make a swift return to the corsa rosa.
This 33.7km test in Prosecco country calls like a siren to men like Dumoulin and Roglic, who built their Grand Tour wins around stages precisely like this, namely a time trial through rolling terrain that lends itself to opening big gaps. Dumoulin set the tone for his 2017 Giro by dominating the Montefalco time trial, while Roglic produced something similar in Pau on the recent Vuelta a España. It’s also worth noting that – his later travails on the Finestre notwithstanding – Alberto Contador effectively won the 2015 Giro thanks to the gains he made on Fabio Aru in a strikingly similar Valdobbiadene time trial, which also took place on the race’s third weekend.
On that occasion, mind, the stage was almost twice as long. Indeed, at a distance of 59.4km, it was the longest time trial in any Grand Tour in the past decade. The discipline has been afforded rather less space in three-week races ever since, though this undulating test to Valdobbiadene, together with the short opener in Budapest, gives the rouleurs a chance to amass a buffer on the pure climbers ahead of an arduous final week at high altitude. It remains to be seen, however, how much the time triallists can (re)gain in the concluding 16.5km leg to Milan.
The Valdobbiadene time trial demands several changes in rhythm, starting with the early climb of Muro di Ca’ del Poggio, centrepiece of the 2010 Italian Championships. The first time check at the summit after 7.2km should be a reliable indicator; those who fail to settle early could find themselves incurring big losses come the finish. As in 2015, the finale brings riders along rolling hills through Guia and San Pietro di Barbozza, before a final kick to the line Valdobbiadene.
Stage 15: Base Area Rivolto-Piancavallo, 183km (May 24)
Stage 17 to Madonna di Campiglio is undeniably more demanding on paper, with some 5100m of total climbing including Monte Bondone, but this leg through the Carnic Alps might yet prove to be of greater strategic importance, especially if the high-altitude final week ends up being curtailed due to inclement weather. On a stage sandwiched between the Valdobbiadene time trial and the second rest day, the men with designs on overall victory must make the abrupt transition from pushing large gears to climbing in the little ring, and it will be a surprise if some lofty GC challenges don’t lose momentum here.
At first glance, the stage profile isn’t especially daunting. Only two of the day’s four classified climbs exceed 1,000 metres in altitude, but in this corner of Italy, the uneven gradients and twisting roads can provoke some breathless racing. In 2018, Simon Yates claimed the pick of his hat-trick of Giro stage wins at the end of a gripping leg to nearby Sappada, while this stage also features terrain covered on the tumultuous day in 1987 when Stephen Roche divested his Carrera teammate Roberto Visentini of the maglia rosa.
The day’s first ascent is the 955m-high Sella Chianzutan, which is followed by the Forcella di Monte Rest, scene of Roche’s attack on Visentini all those years ago. This time around, the Giro tackles the pass from the opposite side, climbing the sinuous road from Ponte sul Tagliamento and dropping to Tramonti di Sotto. The Forcella di Pala Barzana is next on the agenda before the final haul to Piancavallo, which is included on the Giro route for third time. Mikel Landa won at the summit in 2017, while Marco Pantani triumphed in 1998. The ascent has been designated as the race’s ‘Montagna Pantani’ as RCS Sport continues its policy of celebrating the myth of the climber while blithely ignoring the part professional cycling and its culture played in his tragic and senselessly premature death.
The road from Aviano to the 1,290m-high summit of Piancavallo is 14.5km in length at an average gradient of 7.8 per ceent, and while there are tougher climbs to come in the final week, this ascent was demanding enough to see Dumoulin temporarily concede the pink jersey to Nairo Quintana in 2017. The steepest section comes after 4km, when the gradient reaches 14% and stays in double digits for more than 2,000m.
Stage 18: Pinzolo-Laghi di Cancano, 209km (May 28)
As in 2019, the Giro shoehorns the bulk of its mountainous stages into the third week of the race, though last May, the race’s finale arguably proved less arduous in practice than it had initially appeared on paper, and not only because the Gavia was removed from the route. The proof will be in the racing, of course, but three stages of more than 5,000m climbing apiece add up to a most testing finale in 2020.
After the previous day’s summit finish at Madonna di Campiglio, the Giro heads for its highest point on stage 18, with the Passo dello Stelvio – all 2,758m of it – serving as the Cima Coppi for the 10th time. It should be noted, however, that the Stelvio was also due to be the Cima Coppi in both 1988 and 2013 but had to be removed from the route due to heavy snow, a constant hazard in May and early June at that altitude. Back in 1965, meanwhile, the Stelvio was the Cima Coppi, albeit in truncated form, as conditions meant that the gruppo could not climb to 2,000m.
Assuming it goes ahead as planned, the stage looks set to be a brute. The climbing starts from the moment the flag drops in Pinzolo, as the race immediately tackles the Campo Carlo Magno (14.3km at 6 per cent), followed shortly afterwards by the lengthy Passo Castrin. The 23.7km haul from Rumo has an average gradient of just 4.7 per cent, though those figures mask its true difficulty as the slopes pitch up towards 10 per cent in the final 8km and scarcely relent all the way to the top.
The centrepiece, of course, is the mighty Stelvio, which is tackled from its most celebrated side, the hairpin-garlanded grind from Prato allo Stelvio. It makes for a seemingly interminable ascent of 24.7km at an average gradient of 7.5 per cent, and which gets harder as it goes on, with long stretches in excess of 9% nearer the summit. A 20km descent follows before the final ascent of Laghi di Cancano, which features on the Giro for the first time having been the site of a stage finish at the Giro Rosa last summer. The 10km haul to the finish is on a narrow, twisting road that cuts through the rocks via a series of tunnels and turns to gravel in the final kilometres, making it far more than a mere epilogue to the Stelvio. All told, the day features 5,400m of altitude gain.
Stage 20: Alba-Sestriere, 200km (May 30)
The Giro’s Alpine coda is broken up by a flat and long stage to Asti before the gruppo enters the fray one last time with this tappone that snakes its way across the Franco-Italian border and back. The start is in Alba, amid the gentle hills of the Langhe, but the road is climbing from the outset and the terrain grows increasingly rugged on the approach to the day’s first classified climb, the soaring Colle dell’Agnello, whose 2,744m summit marks the French frontier.
The Agnello is 21.3km long at an average of 6.8 per cent, but it grows steeper as the air gets thinner, and riders will face pitches of 15 per cent as they pass through the tightly packed banks of snow on the final approach to the top. Although the Agnello only made its Giro debut in 1994 and has appeared sparingly in the intervening period since, it has the feel of a classic ascent, not least because of the drama that unfolded on the corsa rosa’s last visit in 2016. When Vincenzo Nibali went on the offensive over the top of the climb, maglia rosa Steven Kruijswijk was initially able to follow only to crash on the descent as he strained to follow the Sicilian’s line. Nibali soloed to stage victory at Risoul and sealed overall victory the next day at Sant’Anna di Vinadio, while Kruijswijk had to settle for 4th place.
The Col d’Izoard (14.2km at 7.1 per cent) follows immediately afterwards. The pass and the haunting Casse Desert have appeared in the Giro on seven previous occasions, most notably in 1949, when Fausto Coppi was first to the top during his famous solo raid between Cuneo and Pinerolo. It returns after a 13-year absence from the corsa rosa – Danilo Di Luca led at the summit in 2007 – though more recently, it was a stage finish on the 2017 Tour de France.
On the Giro’s last three visits to the Izoard, in 1996, 2000 and 2007, the stage has finished over the other side in Briançon. This time, there are still 20 miles and two more mountain passes to go when the gruppo reaches the citadel, and the last section of the stage follows the exact same route as the Briançon-Sestriere time trial that decided the 2000 Giro in favour of Stefano Garzelli.
The Col de Montgenèvre (8.4km at 6 per cent) brings the race back into Italy, before a short and fast descent leads to the base of the final haul towards Sestriere, the ski resort developed by the Agnelli family to service nearby Turin. The final climb is not the steepest, but its demands (11.4km at 5.9 per cent) will inevitably be accentuated at the end of a stage – and Giro – like this one. The ascent has witnessed some late drama on the Giro, after all. In 2005, Paolo Savoldelli salvaged his maglia rosa here after scrambling down the Finestre, while a decade later, Mikel Landa crossed the line in tears after being ordered to desist from attacking to help his Astana leader Fabio Aru. In 2018, meanwhile, Chris Froome led over Sestriere during the startling 86km solo attack that won him the Giro.