Italy’s grand tour, the Giro d'Italia celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. This historic event is among the most spectacular stage races in the world. From the Mediterranean's warm, blue waters, to the fertile, rolling vineyards and shady olive groves of central Italy, to the craggy peaks of the Alps and Dolomites, the Giro traverses some of the most beautiful and challenging terrain possible.
Beginning May 9th on the island of Lido, off the coast of Venice and ending May 31st in front of the Colosseum in Rome, the 2009 edition covers 2,160 miles over 21 stages highlighted with blazing sprints, epic climbs and grueling time trials. And for even more excitement, this year's race boasts the most stacked field in a long time, setting the stage for a huge, nail-biting battle for the coveted Maglia Rosa. Swarms of spectators will line the roads just to catch a glimpse of the racers as they streak past, while millions more worldwide tune into the action on TV and online. We've put this guide together to help you understand, follow and fully enjoy this wonderful and important cycling event.
|Stage 1 — Saturday, May 9: Lido di Venezia, Team Time Trial: 20.5km – 12.8 miles. Following the formula of recent years, the centenary Giro starts off with a short team time trial on the island of Lido just off the shore of Venice. Our prediction: It'll be a battle royal between last year's TTT winners Garmin-Slipstream and the powerful Astana squad. And don't discount the LPR team of former victor Danilo Di Luca, recent winners of the TTT at the Settimana Ciclista Lombarda, a major stage race in Italy's Lombardy region.|
|Stage 4 — Tuesday, May 12: Padova - San Martino di Castozza: 165km – 103.1 miles. Just 4 days in, riders take on the Giro's first summit finish. Although we won't see huge time gaps on this two-climb stage, some GC riders could get knocked out of contention on the final ascent. Our prediction: Today will set the tone for the rest of the Giro and any rider hoping to do well will have to be at the front. A strong climber with a fast finish like Stefano Garzelli or Michele Scarponi will take the win.
|Stage 5 — Wednesday, May 13: San Martino di Castozza - Alpe di Siusi: 125km – 78.1 miles. The second summit finish in as many days could see some tired legs in the peloton, but the short distance will help some riders off the back stay close to the leaders. Our prediction: The quick, punchy stage is well-suited to the abilities of Damiano Cunego. Perhaps the only rider who can rival him at the finish is the similarly skilled Danilo Di Luca.
|Stage 10 — Tuesday, May 19: Cuneo - Pinerolo: 260km – 162.5 miles. After a few days respite from the Giro's opening salvo, the GC contenders and climbers will return to the pain cave on this epic trip to Pinerolo over the notoriously difficult Sestrière climb. Our prediction: No stranger to glory on Sestrière, look to Lance Armstrong to put his stamp firmly on the Giro. If Lance doesn't take the win, power riders like Ivan Basso and Denis Menchov are good bets, as well.
|Stage 12 — Thursday, May 21: Sestri Levante - Riomaggiore, Individual Time Trial: 61.7km – 38.6 miles. The Giro's ITT through Cinque Terre is one of the longest seen in pro cycling in many years. The steep undulations and tight, twisty roads will add to the time gaps between riders. Our prediction: The course is tailor-made for light, powerful cyclists like Levi Leipheimer and Marco Pinotti. Or it could be another Astana danger man taking the win: Lance Armstrong.
|Stage 16 — Monday, May 25: Pergola - Monte Petrano: 237km – 148.1 miles. Riders hoping to just finish the Giro will certainly dread this stage – 148 miles and 4 categorized climbs will break the legs of lesser cyclists. Our predicition: This is where it will all go down. The GC contenders will leave it all out on the road to establish big time gaps, while a strong climber such as Gilberto Simoni or Caisse d'Epargne's Joaquim Rodriguez will rise above the fray to glory.
|Stage 17 — Wednesday, May 27: Chieti - Blockhaus: 79km – 49.4 miles. Normally stages this short would be seen as a welcome relief by the GC contenders and backmarkers alike, but they'll have no such luck on today's nearly all uphill grind to the summit of Blockhaus. Our prediction: The Giro's top climbers will come to the fore and make this a stage to remember. There's Italian glory on the line, too, as Blockhaus is the Cima Coppi – the highest point of the Giro with a prize awarded in honor of Italian legend Fausto Coppi to the first rider to reach the top.
|Stage 19 — Friday, May 29: Avellino - Vesuvio: 164km – 102.5 miles. Painfully close to the finish in Rome, this mountaintop finish is the last opportunity for the climbers to make time before the final stage's TT throwdown. Our prediction: A punchy climber, most likely from the Italian triumvirate of Cunego, Simoni and Di Luca should take the victory as the peloton ascends out of the ashes of Pompeii to the summit of Mount Vesuvius.|
|Stage 21 — Sunday, May 31: Rome: 15.3km – 9.6 miles. For the second year running, Giro organizers are forgoing the typical final day sprint spectacular in Milan for a short time trial in Rome. Our prediction: Sore legs will abound in the final test of strength and only a true champion will come out on top. Although the general classification will probably have already been decided, look to Armstrong, Basso, Sastre and Menchov to give it their all one last time. Next stop: Le Tour.|
Peloton: The main body or group of riders. Also called the "pack," "field" and "group."
Stage: One of the individual daily races that make up the Giro. This year’s event is composed of 21 days of racing (21 stages).
Individual Time Trial (also called "the race of truth" and "the race against the clock"): A special event where riders cover a set course alone. Every rider’s time is recorded and then compared to determine who went the fastest. Time trials often play a major role in determining the overall race winner because the strongest riders go the fastest and gain time on those who don't have the horsepower to maintain top speed without the support of their team.
Team Time Trial: All the rules of the individual time trial apply, yet instead of riding alone, racers compete as teams (left). To optimize speed, teams ride as units, trading positions at the front of their small group so no one rider has to break the wind by himself for very long. Coordination, teamwork and skilled drafting are as important as strength and speed. (See: Paceline).
General Classification (GC): This is the term used in stage racing for the current overall rider standings. Since stage races are comprised of multiple races, there are results for each race and also results for each rider's cumulative time for all stages. The person with the lowest time overall after all the races is first on GC and the winner of the race.
Maglia Rosa: Italian for "Pink Jersey," this is the jersey (right) worn by the current race leader (see: General Classification). It is also a term used to refer to the leader. TV commentators might say, “The Maglia Rosa is riding well today.” The jersey's color comes from the Italian sports tabloid and race sponsor La Gazzetta dello Sport, which is printed on pink paper.
Maglia Ciclamino: This jersey is named after the purple Cyclamen flower and is worn by the leader in the points competition. Riders earn points by placing in each day's intermediate sprint, called the T.G. Garibaldi, and finish. Points are awarded 6 places deep on the intermediate sprints and 15 deep at the day's end. This jersey is highly sought after among the race’s fast men who battle for top placements during the flat stages.
Maglia Verde: The jersey (left) worn by the best climber in the King of the Mountains competition. Points are awarded at the top of designated climbs. As the climbs get tougher, more points are awarded.
Maglia Bianca (White Jersey): The white jersey is worn by the leading rider who is under 25 years old. Sometimes these young talents go on to wear the Maglia Rosa in future editions of the Giro.
Rider Type: The size and shape of a rider very often determines his racing specialty. Sprinters tend to be taller with ham-size legs ready to crush the pedals in a frenzy of speed. Climbers can be quite short, and all are rail thin for maximum anti-gravity advantage. All-around riders, the ones capable of winning the Giro, tend to be of average height and weight, and are blessed with the ability to climb, time trial and sprint at a very high level day in and day out.
Drafting: To ride so closely behind one or more fellow racers (right) that you are shielded from the wind, thereby saving considerable energy. The drafting effect increases as the size of a group grows, creating the potential for a number of riders to travel much faster than an individual cyclist (See: Paceline).
Attack: One of the more spectacular scenes in cycling is a lone rider, head down giving it their all to blast off the front of the field. These impressive leg-searing efforts are what makes bike racing so thrilling to watch. Nothing beats a high-speed chess match and sometimes a well-timed attack is exactly what a rider needs to speed to victory or get in the day's big breakaway.
Paceline: A formation of racers riding in a single-file line. Each racer spends some time riding at the front pushing the wind for those behind him. Sharing the workload allows a group to go faster than one rider on his own. (See: Drafting.)
Echelon: When a small group of racers forms a diagonal line across the road while riding into an oncoming side wind to best take advantage of the drafting potential. (See: Drafting.)
Breakaway: To ride away from the peloton in an effort to win a race. Because the peloton can ride much faster than an individual (see: Drafting and Paceline), breaking away is often a futile effort that usually leads to exhaustion with the peloton eventually catching and passing the hapless rider. However, sometimes the brazen attack pays off and the rider captures a dramatic win that can make their career.
Sprint: The final, crazed charge for the finish line at the end of a race. Top sprinters attempting to out accelerate their opponents can reach speeds over 40mph. The finishing chaos and speed often cause spectacular crashes.
Climb categories: Climbs are ranked on a scale of 1 to 3, with Category 1 being the most severe. Riders are awarded points towards the King of the Mountains competition (see: Maglia Verde) based on their order over the top and the harder the climb, the more points that are available. There is also one climb that stands above standard classification and that is the Blockhaus ascent, which serves as this year's Cima Coppi, the highest point in the Giro. Bonus points are available to the top riders over its summit.
Descent: The tight, twisty mountain passes of Europe are notorious for rewarding world-class descenders and punishing those with less than superhuman bike-handling skills. It is common for descents to have upwards of 20 switchbacks in addition to other sharp curves that can make the difference between a race-winning effort and being reabsorbed by the pack. Some cyclists like Samuel Sanchez and the recently retired Paolo Salvodelli (nicknamed Il Falco, the Falcon, for his ability to go downhill like a stone) wisely use descents to conserve energy and gain time over their rivals.
Domestique (Gregario): A racer who sacrifices his own chance of victory to help a teammate win. Tasks of these unsung heroes may include: carrying extra bottles and food for fellow riders, chasing breakaway groups, and even giving their bikes to the designated team leader should he have a mechanical problem. Simply put, domestiques do whatever is necessary to help their teammates win.
Equipment: Every rider has at least three bikes to choose from for any day of racing. A super-light rig for mountain stages, a deluxe aerodynamic machine for time trials, and a standard road bike for average racing days. Now, consider that every team uses at least 100 wheels and it’s no wonder that a full-size bus is used for team and equipment transportation.
Directeur Sportif (Sport Director): The person responsible for coaching riders and managing almost all logistical concerns of the team. During a race, the Directeur Sportif drives behind the peloton watching live race coverage on a dashboard-mounted TV and informs his team on proper race strategy. He may also pass out drinks and help with medical or mechanical issues.
Auto Bus (Grupetto): This term refers to the large group of riders that band together on difficult mountain stages and simply try to finish the day while conserving as much energy as possible. After all, they are going to need it during the next grueling stage.
Crash: To fall off your bike and go “boom.” As soon as a rider hits the deck, he is expected to remount and start racing again. Having a seriously broken bone is one of the very few things that will keep these tough men from continuing.
Time Limit (Time Cut): A way to eliminate the slowest riders in the race. After every stage a time cut is established by taking the winner's time and adding 10 to 20%. Riders who finish in excess of this buffer zone are not allowed to start the next day.
Caravan: A motorized circus composed of officials' vehicles, motorcycle police, team cars, medical vans, and photographers hanging precariously off the back of even more motorcycles.
How is the overall race winner determined?
Cumulative times are kept for all 21 stages. After the finish of the last stage, the rider who covered the whole trip around Italy in the least amount of time wins.
It seems like a lot of the time, racers are rolling along in one big group. How do riders gain and lose time against one another?
During this multi-day race, it’s quite difficult for race favorites to gain or lose time against each other while on flat or rolling terrain, as drafting and teamwork cancel out individual rider strength differences. Therefore, the mountainous climbing stages and time trials have a heavy impact on deciding who the final winner will be, as both require a competitor to ride on his own, without the benefit of drafting or help from his team.
How can 198 guys race all day and then be awarded the same time at the finish?
When a large group of riders, possibly the entire field, comes to the finish in one huge group, everyone is awarded the finishing time of the first rider to cross the line. This is done to prevent the final sprint from becoming exceedingly chaotic. Therefore, the sprinting madmen get to battle over the stage win while everyone else rides in safely just behind them, knowing they will not be penalized for their caution.
If one or two guys can ride ahead of the peloton and win a stage, why doesn’t this happen every day? And, why does the peloton allow riders to pedal away and gain a few minutes of advantage?
The Giro d'Italia is an incredibly demanding event and conserving energy is an important aspect of team strategy. With conservation in mind, the peloton will allow an individual rider or small group of riders a time advantage, betting the escapees will burn out, slow down, and be reabsorbed by the pack. (The pack will also speed up to catch escaped riders as the finish nears.) Letting riders build up an advantage is a calculated risk made by the teams without riders in the breakaway group. Sometimes, the pack’s gamble backfires and the breakaway group stays away until the finish to contest the win among themselves.
How can a racer win the Giro d'Italia, but not win a single Stage?
This scenario is possible but rarely happens. However, because the Giro leader board is organized by total overall time, the most consistent racer wins. For example, always finishing with the first few riders during every crucial stage (but not winning) will result in a very low overall accumulated time. In contrast, using up loads of energy trying to win a stage may result in a one-day victory, but the winning racer will usually pay for his energy output the next day, as exhaustion will more than likely cause him to finish near the back of the pack. Racers have a choice. Ride steadily near the front of the race, never using up too much energy in the hopes of winning the whole Giro. Or go all out attempting to win a stage, knowing full well they’ll be exhausted the next day and overall Giro victory will be impossible.
There can't be good weather every day of the race. Are there rain delays?
Nope. Riders race in any and all weather conditions. From blistering heatwaves to biblical deluges, there are few meteorological events that will get in the peloton's way (rarely stages will be altered in cases of extreme weather). Some of cycling's most legendary escapades occurred in inclement weather. Lance Armstrong won the Tour stage to Sestrière in a downpour, Bernard Hinault took Liège-Bastogne-Liège in a driving snowstorm and Andy Hamsten, the only American ever to win the Giro d'Italia, took control of the race during an epic blizzard in the mountains of Italy. The Giro almost always surprises with a dramatically timed snowstorm or huge rain event.
That guy just gave a teammate his bike! What’s up with that?
The Giro is a team event and each team is comprised of nine riders. Within a team, there are one or two riders who hope to achieve a high overall finish. Most teams also have a sprint specialist trying for stage wins during the flat days. The remaining five or six riders are considered domestiques or helpers, and they do just that, as their job description includes carrying extra food and water, and chasing down breakaway groups. Amazingly, a domestique is even expected to give up his bicycle to a team leader should he have a mechanical issue.
Why is that rider talking into his shirt?
All racers carry miniature radios in their back pockets that allows them to talk with their teammates and team director while rolling down the road. The earpieces of these high-tech intercoms look like spy paraphernalia. The microphones stay hidden, clipped to the inside of the rider’s shirt collar. Therefore, when you see a rider “speaking into his jersey” he is actually using his microphone to talk with someone on his team. This on-the-fly communication is of great value, as it lets riders who are scattered throughout the pack plan race strategy and ride accordingly.
Don't they get hungry?
Yes, they get very, very hungry! Nutrition is so important to racing success that some say the Giro is partially won at the dinner table, as riders who successfully fulfill their daily need of 7,000 to 10,000 calories are more assured of optimum results. While actually racing, riders mostly consume liquid sugar in the form of sports gels and drinks (Coke is a favorite). It’s also no surprise to see mini ham sandwiches, candy bars, and pastries peaking out of jersey pockets. At dinner, it’s a full-on feeding frenzy: pasta, potatoes, rice, cereal, bread, fruits, vegetables, eggs, meat and yogurt is all fair game and consumed with gusto.
When do they go to the bathroom?
Ah, it’s a question that someone had to ask. Many times the pack will make a group decision and stop for a quick “natural break” at the side of the road. Riders will also urinate off the bike, usually while coasting on lengthy downhills. If a rider really has to go and there’s no downhill near, a teammate may push the bladder-challenged racer along as he relieves himself... hopefully while the TV cameras are not watching!