The 100th edition of the Corsa Rosa celebrates a hundred years of the Giro d'Italia and so is also a celebration of Italian cycling and Grand Tour racing that will last three weeks, 21 stages, and this year, a total of 3612km.
This year's tough, but finely balanced route, and a peloton packed with overall contenders of different talents promises to make the Giro 100 a special race.
The 2017 Giro d'Italia will, naturally, recall the rich history of Italian cycling also give a two-wheeled tour of Italy's culture, history and sheer beauty. It should be three weeks of celebrating everything Italian and three weeks of great racing. What more could we want in May?
Il percorso rosa
Giro d'Italia director Mauro Vegni had hoped the 100th edition of the Giro d'Italia would visit every one of the 20 regions of Italy but he and his hard-working staff were forced to make some difficult choices as they combined the average stage distance of 170km, Italian geography, history and also commercial interests to design the 100th route around the Bel Paese.
The 21 stages will visit all but four regions, starting with three stages in Sardinia and then two days and the first mountain finish to Etna in Sicily, before a traditional ride north via Tuscany, the Apennines and Emilia Romagna.
The mountain stages of the final week begin in the Italian Alps with a climb to the Santuario di Oropa, where Marco Pantani won in 1999. The route then heads east to the Dolomites via Bormio and a double ascent of the Stelvio.
The final five mountain stages are packed with legendary climbs made famous in previous editions of the race, before the final and decisive 27.6km time trial from the Monza motor racing circuit to the spectacular Duomo in the heart of Milan.
There are arguably six stages for the sprinters, eight hilly stages for possible finisseur riders and breakaways, two time trials and five high mountain stages - with four summit finishes spread between stage 4 and stage 19.
The Grande Partenza in Sardinia was supposed to celebrate Fabio Aru's rise to role of an overall contender and create a festival atmosphere on the island. His absence due to a knee injury could dampen the party atmosphere but the third Grand Partenza will still offer some spectacular racing. Stage 1 to Olbia on Friday follows the northern coastline and its stunning beaches and coves. The sprinters will fight for the first victory and the first maglia rosa but they will have to survive the late San Pantaleo climb to pull on pink.
Stage 2 and 3 head south inland via Nuoro and then along the coast to Cagliari. Stage 2 includes some serious climbs, while crosswinds could be a factor on Sunday.
The riders get to enjoy an early rest day on Monday but will also be the transfer from Sardinia to Sicily, with the first mountain finish on the slopes of the Mount Etna volcano coming on Tuesday. The finish is the same as where Alberto Contador won in 2011, with the 19.4km 6.2% climb not especially difficult, but a first real test for the overall contenders.
Nibali may be dreaming of riding into his home town of Messina in pink the day after but stage 5 is a day for the sprinters before the Giro d'Italia catches the ferry to the mainland and the long ride north via an uphill finish in Terme Luigiane, a visit to the famous Trulli in Alberobello and another uphill finish in Peschici in the sunny southern heel of the Italian Peninsula.
While Mount Etna is the first mountain finish of Giro 100, stage 9 to Blockhaus is the first brutal finish and should not be missed. The 149km stage is short and mostly flat but ends with the 13.6km climb to the line, with the gradient over 9% for the final 10km. It will surely cost someone dearly and shake up the overall classification after a week in the south.
The second rest day comes on Monday May 15, a day before the key hilly individual time trial in the Sagrantino vineyards of Umbria, with the 39.8km course a long loop between Foligno and Montefalco. Hilly time trials have become standard in recent editions of the Giro d'Italia, often hurting the chances of the home riders. We can expect the same again, with Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb), Geraint Thomas (Team Sky), Tejay van Garderen and Rohan Dennis (BMC) likely to gain a chunk of time on their rivals. In many ways, the time trial equals out the finishes on Mount Etna and Blockhaus, as the Giro d'Italia reaches the halfway point.
The Apennines are the spine of Italy and will continue to hurt the riders on the rollercoaster 12th stage from Gino Bartali's birth place at Ponte a Ema near Florence to Bagno di Romagna. Expect fireworks and surprises here.
The sprinters will return to the fore after crossing the Apennines and entering the plains, with Reggio Emilia and Tortona the last chances for the fast finishers before the back-to-back days in mountains. We can expect many of the sprinters to quietly head home after the stage. With so many mountains to be climbed and so many other races to ride, nobody can really criticise them.
Into the thin air
The finale of Giro 100 officially opens on Saturday May 20 with the finish to the Santuario di Oropa.
The 131km stage starts in Fausto Coppi home village of Castellania, while the finish will evoke Pantani's incredible comeback in 1999. He lost his chain at the bottom of the climb but came back and swept past everyone before winning the stage. Of course, a UCI blood test and a high haematocrit meant he would never reach Milan.
After the steep slopes of Oropa, a transfer east via Bergamo and the third rest day takes the riders high into the mountains via Lombardy and the Valtellina. It will be the last chance for the riders to recover before the big five mountain stages.
Stage 16 on Tuesday May 23 climbs the Passo dello Stelvio twice after also covering the easier Monno side of the Mortirolo early on. Weather permitting, the Cima Coppi prize will be awarded at the 2758m high summit of the Stelvio, with the riders descending the iconic hairpins to Prato dello Stelvio before climbing back up the Stelvio via Switzerland and the Umbrail Pass, which joins the road down to Bormio just two kilometres from the Stelvio summit. The 222km stage includes over 5000m of climbing. It should be epic.
Stage 17 heads across the north via the Passo del Tonale and the Val di Non before a gradual climb to Canazei. The real climbing comes the day after, on stage 18, with five major climbs (three over 2000m) and a final climb up to Ortisei during a short 137km but breath taking stage through the Dolomites. The rugged and rocky peaks will be a perfect backdrop to some aggressive racing.
The Giro d'Italia last visited Piancavallo back in 1998, when Pantani cracked Alex Zulle and went onto to take the pink jersey three days later. The first five kilometres hurt at 9.4% and it is the ideal place for an audacious attack the maglia rosa. The rest of the climb will be a fight for the overall classification because the following day's Monte Grappa and the final climb to Foza offer only a desperate final shot at a final revolution of the 'classifica generale'.
The biggest chance for the likes of Thomas, Dumoulin and others to pull back time and perhaps snatch overall victory comes in the final time trial from Monza to Milan. The Giro d'Italia last finished with a time trial to the Lombardia capital in 2012, with Ryder Hesjedal taking the pink jersey from Joaquim Rodriguez in 2012 by just 16 seconds.
Another close, thrilling finish, whatever the outcome, would be the perfect ending to the 100th edition of the Giro d'Italia.
A high quality cast for Corsa Rosa
The Giro d'Italia has often had a weaker cast of protagonists than the Tour de France. Chris Froome, Richie Porte and Alberto Contador are absent but virtually every other Grand Tour rider has signed up for the 100th Giro d'Italia and will travel to Sardinia on Tuesday.
The limited number of real overall contenders has often simplified the plot for the pink jersey but this year's race, with riders of different ability, different experience and even with rivals within their own teams, promises more sub plots, more twists and turns and more intrigue than a Hitchcock movie.
Nairo Quintana (Movistar) is bravely going for the Giro-Tour double, while Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) is focused just on a third pink jersey in Milan. These two former winners seem the two outstanding favourites on paper, and both have strong teams to back their tilt at victory. It should be a clash of the titans come the final week.
There is no first Italian duel between Nibali and Aru, but that can wait another year. Instead, it will be fascinating to see how Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) gets on his Giro d'Italia debut. Can his love of Italy help him overcome his Grand Tour weaknesses and so become the first French winner since Laurent Fignon in 1989? Bien sûr!
Geraint Thomas will be another fascinating case study over the next three weeks. The Welshman is out to prove his Grand Tour credentials and will be joint team leader with Mikel Landa, who was third overall in 2015 before his move to the British Super team. They will ride parallel races deep into the third week, with a strong Team Sky built to support them. If they both fail then new signing Diego Rosa could step up to take over as leader.
The relationship and rivalry between Tejay van Garderen and Rohan Dennis will also be worth watching carefully. Van Garderen is the experienced Grand Tour leader with Dennis his rapidly learning understudy. Both have form and a point to prove even if they have weaknesses that could be exposed on the unpredictable roads of the Giro d'Italia. An American has not won the Giro d'Italia since Andy Hampsten in 1988, while an Australian has yet to add the green and gold flag to the Giro d'Italia's roll of honour.
Adam Yates (Orica-Scott), Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb), Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo), Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) will all want to have their say. They may only end up fighting for a place on the final podium in Milan but are all genuine overall contenders.
There are also lots of outsiders, long shots and dark horses. Call them what you want but don't forget Bob Jungels (Quick-Step Floors) - sixth in 2016 and three days in pink, Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin), Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2R-La Mondiale), Andrey Amador (Movistar), Wilco Kelderman (Team Sunweb) and triple Tour de Suisse winner Rui Costa (UAE Team Emirates). There are also the Cannondale-Drapac quartet of Davide Formolo, Hugh Carthy, Joe Dombrowski and Pierre Rolland. The Italian is focusing on the GC, while the other guys in green will be chasing stage victories and anything else that comes their way. Carthy would be a fine best young rider or winner of the Azzurra climber's jersey.
The sprinters and attackers will also be out in force at the Giro d'Italia and have the chance of pulling on the first pink jersey of the race in Olbia on Friday or in Tortoli on Saturday. The many overall contenders may limit the chances for a breakaway but Nathan Haas (Dimension Data), Filippo Pozzato (Wilier Triestina-Selle Italia), Adam Hansen (Lotto Soudal) –riding his 17th consecutive Grand Tour, Dario Cataldo (Astana), Alberto Bettiol and Davide Villela (Cannondale-Drapac), Lars Bak (Lotto Soudal), Simon Geschke (Team Sunweb) will surely still try to disrupt any monotony by going on the attack on hilly stages.
For the sprint finishes, take your pick between Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe), Caleb Ewan (Orica-Scott), Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors), Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal), Nicola Ruffoni (Bardiani-CSF), Ryan Gibbons (Dimension Data), Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek-Segafredo), Sacha Modolo (UAE Team Emirates) and Jakub Mareczko (Wilier Triestina-Selle Italia).
A total of 197 are expected to line up in Alghero on Friday morning. Astana has decided to start with just eight riders instead of the usual nine to remember Michele Scarponi who was tragically killed while training for the Giro d'Italia near home. Scarponi will not be forgotten even as the Giro d'Italia celebrates its 100th birthday.
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