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Pez Previews Il Giro’11 Corsa: Stages 1-9

With the Corsa Rosa set to start on Saturday, it’s time for a closer look at the route that could be the most difficult Grand Tour in recent years. Today we cover stages 1-9, which carry the race from the start in Torino to the southernmost point of this year’s race on Mount Etna in Sicily. We’ll follow with a look at the run up the Adriatic coast and into the Dolomites, and then tackle the final week and its vast array of mountain peaks and summit finishes.

Giro 2011: 3,498km going top to toe and back – with a mountain-heavy weighting.

The Giro has consistently delivered the best racing of any Grand Tour for several years now, and while it’s the riders who make the race, serving up an interesting and spectacular parcours always makes for a more animated coffee ride banter.

In addition to some imaginative race planners at the RCS, The Giro has the added benefit of being in Italy – which is blessed with some of the best geography for bike racing anywhere.

Once again the organizers have opted for an entertaining route that will see the GC battle start in week one, and carry on with peaks in weeks two and three right to the end. Like the Tour de France, the real fighting will hot up in the second half of the race, but the first half will by no means be tranquillo.

Starting with the opening 21km Team Time Trial in Torino, a pink jersey will be claimed and a team charged with controlling things for the next few stages. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the nationalization of Italy, and Torino was the first capital. We were last here in 2005 for the individual TT from Chieri to Torino – my trusty driver Francis and I chased Ale-Jet Petacchi on his run – and he dropped us at over 90kmh on the descent into the city.

The Stage 2 mostly flat run from Alba to Parma is the 3rd longest at 242km, but a day for the sprinters. Nothing else to report there.

Here’s the town of Camogli – next door to Rapallo, and typical of the towns that line the Ligurian coast.

• Stage 3 from Reggio Emilia to Rapallo carries the race 178km to azure waters of the Ligurian coast, maybe my favorite part of Italy. I spent 2 weeks in nearby Cavi di Lavagna this past Spring, and after visiting almost every corner of the country over the past 10 years, this is one place I could live – but more on that in another article.

The descent from Passo del Bocco runs out this valley to the sea – which lies just over that distant ridge.

The stage climbs gradually over the Appenines, summiting at the Passo del Bocco before plunging to the coast. In May ’10 I rode the climb from the south, it’s about 20km up to 1000meters, but taken from the northeast will be about as decisive as the Passo del Turchino is to Milan-Sanremo.

Rapallo nestles in a natural bay, and is a great base for a riding holiday.

Watch for an early break to go the distance, since the roads of the descent and along the coast over the Madonna della Grazie are small and twisty – perfect for the opportunists. This will be a fun stage to watch, as the closing kms snake along the coast, and we may even see a crash or two on the tight bends, just like we did in 2007’s stage 10 to Santuario Nostra Signora Della Guardia.

• Stage 4 runs 208 km southeast along the coast from Quarto dei Mille – Livorno .
Ale Sez: From the Ligurian coast, the Giro will arrive in central Italy passing through Toscana and the Lazio regions. Quarto dei Mille is a neighborhood in Genoa located on the sea, has been chosen for its high symbolic value as departure village for stage 4, as one of the symbols of the 150 years of Italian independence. Giusepe Garibaldi sailed from Quarto 150 years ago heading to Sicily to make one Nation from a group of different small countries.

You can see the summit of the Passo del Bracco slicing across the top of that yonder ridge. Also note the autostrda below left – which runs through miles and miles of tunnels here.

The biggest obstacle is the climb over the Passo del Bracco – Jered did a great preview on it here when we last saw it used as part of the uber-hard 65km stage 10 TT from Sestri Levante to Riomaggiore. I rode it too, and although it can be a grinder in the heat going solo, it comes too early in the stage to provide anything more than a launch pad for an early break, which the sprinters’ teams will be cursing later in the day as they be forced to shut it down before the finish along the seaside beach resorts in Livorno.

Stage 4 winds up in Livorno, alongside the fashionable Italian beaches that take on a life of their own during summer months.

• Stage 5 – Piombino – Orvieto 201km
After a couple days on the coast, the race heads for the hills of central Italy, and the first taste of the ‘strade biancha’ which last year tuned into the ‘strade mudfesta’ in the rains – and left us with one of the all time epic days of modern bike racing. The race guide shows just one section of the dirt roads for this stage versus 19.5km one two sectors last year, so it’s too early to say how this could impact the day.

The race climbs to the finish in the hill top town of Orvieto, famous for wines (like most of Italy), and also noted because one of the only bad meals I ever had in Italy – I had in Orvieto. Let’s just say I don’t recommend the pizza with wurstel. Seriously – how they even got wieners on a pizza past the Austro-German border guards is beyond me.

The Umbrian landscape never takes a break from going up and down.

Ale Sez: One of the most interesting stages will be the two that finish and start in Orvieto, located in Umbria, closed to Toscana. Stage 5 will pass through Fighine, a small village surrounded by ancient walls, submerged in the typical Italian landscape. The road to Fighine is a gravel road. That day the Giro will find again the white Tuscan roads like those used in last year’s epic stage to Montelcino.

• Stage 6 – Orvieto – Fiuggi Terme 195km

Ale Sez: From Orvieto the Giro will head to Fiuggi, a thermal town in the centre Italy. Fiuggi is the right place where you can eat some perfect “spaghetti amatriciana”. But, in fact, the correct pasta to eat as amatriciana is “bucatini” and not spaghetti (bucatini are a kind of fat spaghetti-like tubes).

Ale’s wife Natalia shows off a plate of the ‘real’ amatriciana.

• Stage 7 – Maddaloni – Montevergine 100km
We last braved the switchbacks to Montevergine in 2007, when the Giro started in Sardegna and climbed this peak on only stage 4. It climbs for 17 long kms and gains 856m at an average 5% with pitches to 10%, and DiLuca won from a fairly large group of gc contenders and climbers. We’re not going to see big time gaps, but we will see a selection of who’s serious about winning the overall, setting up the first big mountain showdown on stage 9.

Ed braved the nausea-inducing heights of the funicular when Di Luca won in ’07.

The spanner in the works though, is the short distance – only 100km – and the 1100m climb over Monte Taburno that starts just 20km into the race. This could really hot up the pace as there’ll be little time for heroic chases should a group get away – so watch for a high speed all day and the strongest men only left to fight the finale.

• Stage 8 – Sarpi – Tropea 214km
The 8th stage will be unique as only the second real day for sprinters’ as the race follows the Tirrenean coast south for 214 kms. Having visited the area in 2008 when I stayed in the seaside town of Pizzo Calabro, I can tell you it’s a gorgeous stretch of coastline marked by sparkling blue waters, fresh seafood, and friendly people. It’s as well suited to a vacation as to a bike race.

The stage itself is almost pan flat, so expect a quieter day as a break gets just as much time as the sprinters’ team will allow before shutting it down, and the gc boys rest up for stage 9.

While plenty of hills flank the route for stage 8, the road itself is mostly flat along the coast.

• Stage 9: To ETNA – And Beyond!
Stage 9 will be a cracker, and you bet your sweet bippy there’ll be metaphors of volcanic proportions to go along a with a day that climbs the always-on-edge active volcano known as Mt. Etna.

Submitted by Jamie Horner – and Ex-pat American who married an Italian girl and moved to her Sicilian hometown of Palermo. Jamie was deputized by the Pez for the opening stages of the 2008 Giro, and his local knowledge was indispensible to our coverage.

Jamie Sez: Italians are particularly drawn to stories of suffering, tragedy, the inexorable hand of fate. Italian cyclists even more so. Perhaps that is why stage 9 is starting at the place where 31 people lost their lives when rain saturated mountains suddenly melted down into the towns of Scaletta Marina, Giampilieri, Altolia, Molino, Santo Stefano di Briga, and Pezzolo. The cyclists will ride through all of these places, with those mountains towering menacingly on their right and the mainland of Italy clearly visible on their left as they follow the coast-line toward snow covered Mt. Etna.

The route takes a detour at the beach resort of Taormina to climb the steep slope above the ancient Greek city of Giardini Naxos, one of the jewels of Italy, where paparazzi patiently wait. Expect plenty of photographs from there, as this climb looks down nearly vertically to the sea below.

All the while the riders will be able to see Mt. Etna lumbering disproportionately over the horizon to their right. Sometimes its snowy top is engulfed by clouds and then at times it is surrounded by its own smoke. From the ground it is impossible to tell the difference. For fifty euros you can pay to ride up in a small bus with tractor tires and see for yourself. If you have the opportunity, you definitely should. The riders will head toward the town of Linguaglossa, one of the highest villages on the volcano. Above there the roads are often closed for lava flow the way a Rocky Mountain road is closed for snow drifts. Once, from a restaurant in Linguaglossa, I watched the smoking mountainside above me slowly start to glow and then, an hour later, start to flow lava. I was so alarmed by the sight that I asked some of the townspeople if they weren’t frightened to live this way, below an active volcano. One old woman I asked looked up at the mountain as though she hadn’t thought of it and shook her head slowly.

From Linguaglossa the route continues past farms and buildings half buried by lava flow to Lenza at 1631 meters, then they will descend and climb up the south side, essentially climbing the mountain twice. The final climb will go through Nicolosi, a town much like Linguaglossa, to the Sapienza Reservation at 1900 meters. There is not much up there, a large brick building surrounded by souvenir shops, a lot of parking and inactive craters. Among the craters it is possible to see rooftops of structures buried in lava flow. This is where the ski lifts mechanically move thousands of colourful skiers up to the snowy top of the mountain so they can gracefully glide back down. It is comforting to see so much skiing without the hot tubs and indoor pools and night life.

Meanwhile those buses with the giant tires creep insistently up toward the smoking craters. I am still grateful to my son, who irreverently rolled a good sized stone down the crater, to see what would happen. He was eight, and as I watched that rock roll down into the earth I suddenly realized that my entire group had stopped to watch, even the guide with the mountain glasses, we all stood motionless as the rock rolled down the soft sides into the sulferous who-knows-what.

Cycling is like that. Creeping close to danger, suffering, pushing limits, standing quietly to see what happens. Stage nine is certainly a stage for curiosity seekers, sufferers, and survivors.

Geez – there I am in 2005 – and in spite of being accosted be these guys, I’m still just as excited about covering my 7th Giro here on PEZ.

So there you have it – our rough guide to the opening week of racing at the 2011 Giro. While the gc will certainly not be decided until the final week these opening stages will serve up some great race days, and by no means allow the gc boys to hide out. You’ll not want to miss a minute of the action, and you know we’ll have it covered from start to finish.

Next up – The Giro’s second week that climbs north along the Adriatic, keeps climbing for 3 dizzying days to the Grossglockner in Austria, the uber-steep slopes of the Zoncolan, and the epic day through the Dolomites to Gardeccia- Val di Fassa.

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