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The Giro vs. The Tour
WORDS | PHOTOS: Phil Deeker
In 2010 I had the privilege of riding the full Tour de France route (managing the ‘Tour de Force’ event) and then driving the entire Giro d’Italia 2011 route (reconnaissance for the Gran Corsa d’Italia event). This has given me an indelible insight into the world’s two Grandest of Tours.
NB - Since this piece loosely compares the Giro to the Tour, it is inevitably quite subjective at times. What follows is a collection of personal impressions, not pretentious claims to truths or scientific arguments.
Like many, I have cycled more of the iconic Tour cols than the climbs of the Giro. But from my very first meeting with the Dolomites I was struck by their uncompromising and dramatic nature compared to the somehow more ‘approachable’ nature of their French counterparts. The Passa Fedaia, or Marmolada, was my initiation (it features in the Giro 2011), and it was a painful one. The long straight 10% stretch half way up was as much a shock to my calculating mind as it was to my determined legs. The barren, windswept Passa summit did little to thank me for my efforts. The frozen lake (even though it was early June) added to the hostility of the place. Only after a thrilling 50 mph descent to Canazei did it begin to dawn on me that I had faced up to a very special climb and had come away generously rewarded. Italian climbs are often brutal but always ‘enriching’. They will mark you for a long time, perhaps even longer than the French ones.
On paper the Giro and the Tour are more or less the same distance, the same number of stages, with only one more mountain stage than the other. But the Giro 2011 will, I imagine, feel longer, higher and harder than the 2011 Tour. On that point everyone seems to agree. The Giro has twice the number of mountain stages and mountain top finishes this year than its 2006 edition. The Giro organisers seem hell bent on destroying the peloton.
It seems that in Italy, when it comes to drama, they only serve it out in Pavarotti-sized portions. From the mighty, monumental walls of the Stelvio hairpins to the rural, rugged ramps of the Zoncolan, Italian climbs offer flamboyance and brutality in equal measure. Perhaps this is the essence of Italian cycling?
Having just driven all but the higher mountain sections of the Giro 2011 route, I am left with the impression that the Italian psyche is another example of how the geography of the land really does form what we loosely call a ‘national character’. And it’s not just the mountains, even the coasts of Italy are dramatic. There seems to be little in between the endless flat and very straight stretches of sand that characterise the Adriatic side (stages ten and twelve) and the tumbling, chaotic rollercoaster of much of the Mediterranean side (stages four and eight). The drama of the land is not always especially beautiful, but it is at all times ‘challenging’ for the Giro cyclist.
Hence, with so much drama waiting for the riders, the Giro d’Italia 2011 allows little time for the peloton to loosen its legs before watching the sprinters fight it out in the last few hundred metres. It does give them one stage (stage two) of almost-flat terrain, but even here a cheeky 4km climb near the beginning and the end of this 246km stage awaits the riders. The very straight, very long stretches of road across the risotto-rice fields will be a mind and leg-numbing experience for the Gran Corsa pack.
Unlike the Tour, which gives the sprinters six stages to display their power, the Giro’s stage three instead hands out a 50km climb. It does start off like another endless flat sprinters’ stage, until it turns westward to take a road over the coast - 'over' being the operative word here. The reward, though, is more than enough for the effort demanded; one of the best descents I have yet seen.
The worrying thing about the Giro is that it has a little too many stages that resemble one day classics. Bad news when it goes on for three weeks, this is the “no-compromise” attitude of the Giro. Monsieur Prudhomme seems almost compassionate towards the riders in comparison. Or is it just the lie of the land? If we look at the final mountain stages in each, we have the Tour serving up the Galibier, from the Telegraphe side, followed by the Alpe d’Huez, over 109km. Epic climbs for sure, but known to most of us and climbs that become really painful only if you have already asked your legs to pedal you a long, bumpy way to get to them. I am not whatsoever saying that this stage will be easy for Etapistes, but just look at the Giro’s Stage 20.
After 19 stages the Giro is still handing out distances usually reserved for the early flat sprinters’ stages, which is in fact how this stage starts. With a return visit to Turin, perhaps as another tribute to the importance of this city in the process of the unification of Italy 150 years ago, the Risorgimento, riders will have a moment to reflect on all that they have survived since they rode the Prologue here, 21 days before. Then the road points them towards the town of Susa and the Grand Finale.
For pure drama and raw brutality the Colle delle Finestre surely has few equals anywhere? 18 km at an average overall gradient of 9.1%, the last 7.9 km of which are on gravel road… The Sestriere climb, coming immediately after this beast, is the icing on the cake, if you regard pain and suffering as icing…
However, although this stage is obviously designed for the final shoot-out for the GC, the deadly Finestre/Sestriere duo is rivaled five stages earlier by a trio of extra-ordinary climbs. The unmentioned 6km (steep) climb to Aviglio precedes the unknown 10km (very steep) Monte Crostis climb, featuring for the first time in the Giro, which in turn precedes the 10km killer that is the Monte Zoncolan. Not a bad end for a stage of 210 very un-flat kilometers…
By the time the Tour leads its riders to the Massif Central for their first taste of ‘proper’ climbing, in the same number of stages the Giro already puts four 16-20km climbs in the peloton’s way. Stage seven may only be 103km long, but it packs two impressive 16km climbs in with a major mountain top finish at the Sanctuary of the Maddaloni of Montevergine. The way this looms high above the rider when he is just half way up is more than daunting, it’s terrifying.
Just two stages later the riders will be in Sicily for more scares. The first ascent of Mt. Etna (northern side) is a meaty taster for the second (southern side) time up. Well, why not go up twice? It’s a long way to have brought everyone after all. The 23km climb twists its way up through a charred desert of black rock. The lava may no longer be molten, but if the sun is out, which it tends to be a lot of the time in Sicily, then this could be a very hot experience indeed…
And then there is the Race of Truth. The Giro, however, can’t even do time trials without extra spice. The Tour places the first serious TT in between sprinter stages, a relatively safe ASO tradition. But RCS, the Giro organisers, have got into a habit of sticking a mean TT hill-climb in between high mountain stages. David Millar, a very able time-triallist, pleaded with the organisers to show a little humanity towards the riders after the Plan de Corones mountain TT in 2008. Understandable. What did they do? Brought it back again in 2010! If it weren’t for the two (short) transfers the Gran Corsa will have to do either side of the 13km Belluno-Nevagal stage, it would almost be a rest day for them…
And yet, despite ‘winning’ so many comparisons with the Tour, the Giro still remains on the second pedestal of the global podium when it comes to the “Greatest Race in the World”. The Tour still remains The Race all (non-Italian) pros want to shine in. History, I suppose, explains a lot of this and I am sure there are many other reasons. Both Tours are sporting spectacles of the highest kind. Maybe the world's sporting media only has room for one such annual event? I do not even want to try and answer this one.
I’ll be bold enough to say this though, if the Tour has the best set design and stage lighting, then the Giro surely has the best script. (Giro stage 18 has to be mentioned here as a superb contradiction to this statement as the scenery is stunning and the script ain’t too bad either.) Were the Beatles second to the Stones? Does it matter? The Giro has something ‘raw’ and edgy about it that the mighty machine of the Tour has long since eradicated from its ultra-slick professionalism.
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