The Giro Lowdown
The 2012 Giro d'Italia route was announced and while it may be more "human" it still scares riders.
We had the unofficial leak of the 2012 Tour de France route and it seems to be designed for a time trialer who can climb well - no big surprise there. While there are some challenging stages and the last week of racing has the potential to keep us glued to the television right to the end, there are no stages that riders will say are inhuman. Challenging and selective - but not a death march. However, the same hasn't been said about the other two Grand Tours on the 2012 calendar, the Giro d' Italia and the Vuelta a Espana.
Maybe it's like a case of sibling rivalry. The Tour de France is THE race of the season and is only behind the Olympics and World Cup soccer in terms of press and spectators. The Giro and Vuelta don't quite attract the same attention - which is a shame. To make up for that, both tend to act out. The Italian tour is arguably the most beautiful. The Vuelta has not been afraid to think outside the box when designing stages. There's only a dirt road to the top of a mountain? No problem. A road that has a 24% gradient - yeah, they'll include that into the stage. At times both of these Grand Tours have relied on the "extreme" factor to prove they are just as worthy as their French cousin.
Sunday the route of the Giro was revealed in a ceremony that was a combination of the "X Factor" and America's (or maybe I should say Italy's) Next Top Model. The cherry on top was Alberto Contador lowered onto the stage like a rescued Peruvian miner. I love the Italians for their sense of flair. Who would have thought of having a cartoon character play the guitar to the Giro theme song? Upon further reflection here in the US we have a theme song for Monday Night Football (to my American readers - yeah I know Hank Williams Jr got yanked from ESPN, but the sports channel is still going to have a theme song.) so maybe we're not so different after all? Throw in some cheerleaders and I think we could rival the Italians in the flair department.
Speaking of reflection the Giro d'Italia organizers took a step back from creating a Grand Tour that leaves riders empty for months. Instead the transfers between stages have been shortened with the goal to have riders in bed by 8:00 pm rather than still in the team bus with 50 kilometers yet to travel before their head meets a pillow. Is it any wonder that many winners of the Giro have been accused or involved with doping? And I guess that's what ultimately killed the idea of starting the Giro in the States. Remember earlier this year there was talk about the prologue and a stage being contested in Washington D.C.? Yeah, that ain't happening. Selfishly I was disappointed to read that, but I also recognize for the riders this would be a massive adjustment and cause unnecessary hardship for everyone involved in the race who will be stressed out regardless. I'll continue to be content that Virginia has the road World Championships in 2015 and cyclocross Worlds in 2013. But let's get back to the 2012 Giro course.
The Giro starts in Denmark and the drama continues to ramp up. After the prologue there are the customary flat stages and then Stage 4's team time trial. Personally I love watching this discipline. The teams need to come together as a unit and the weakest links are made evident very quickly. Plus, I'm a huge tech geek and the time trial bikes are all about the newest equipment. Stage 8 is when things get difficult with a summit finish and from there the race enters the Alps. If watching the racing in the Alps doesn't at least make you want to book a travel vacation to the region you need to check and see if you have a pulse.
As I mentioned in the past, the last week of the 2011 Vuelta was a downer. We knew who had won the race and there was no suspenseful stage at the end to create any interest. Instead the Spanish tour just ended. Thankfully the Giro is not following in its Spanish Grand Tour cousin's footsteps. Friday and Saturday of the final weekend feature two tough climbing days and the time trial on Sunday will seal the deal on who will step on the top of the podium.
While the organizers of the race have designed the route to be more "human" it was enough to scare off defending champion Contador. El Pistolero has already said he's saving his bullets for July, so no Giro for him. Let's put aside the fact that he still has the positive result for clenbuterol from the 2010 Tour de France hanging over him like Damocles Sword, cast your mind back to Contador's Tour performance. His ability to respond in the mountains and shred his competitors was muted. As you know he finished fifth on the general classification by the time the peloton rolled into Paris. Hell, he was beaten by Frenchman Thomas Voeckler! Back in June if you'd had told me Voeckler was going to finish in front of Contador I might have slapped you in an effort to bring you back to your senses.
With the defending champion out of the picture, who is the favorite? Unlike the Tour where riders commit months to sometimes years in advance, the Giro is one that will be decided later in the year over some espresso and biscotti at the team's training camp. However, I am confident enough to pick an Italian winner. Why an Italian? Look at who followed Contador onto the final podium. He was the Spanish meat in an Italian sandwich. And I'm thinking either teammates Ivan Basso or Vincenzo Nibali could become the meat in 2012. They just need to see who picks the short straw that determines who is lining up in Denmark come May.
Conflicting with the Giro is the Amgen Tour of California, which has attracted some great riders, but frankly not great racing. The marquee riders are still building form for July so this year's event was a RadioShack training ride with Andy Schleck being ridden off the wheel on the Queen stage to the summit of Baldy Mountain. Then, just two months later, it was the opposite with Leipheimer unable to be a factor at all in France's mountains. I guess that's racing - either you're on good form or you're not. With the Amgen Tour of California becoming more popular and the winner of the Giro failing at the Tour, look for the race in the Golden State to become even more popular with European based riders looking for a strong July.
While the Amgen race is still only a baby in terms of racing history and who knows maybe will surpass the Giro in terms of marquee riders, the Giro will always have a rich tradition that few can touch.