Double days. Double delight. We're racing a dual program this week with squads in France…
The beautiful race
From the majestic shores of the Mediterranean to the epic vistas of the Dolomites
“There’s an old saying that applies to me: you can’t lose a game if you don’t play the game”
-William Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet
Here we are, ready to play the game as the first Grand Tour of the year is charged and ready to take to the stage. The curtain will raise on the 102nd Giro d’Italia this Saturday in Bologna, where a 21-stage drama will commence. The power of the iconic pink leader’s jersey driving them along through cities, past seas, up and down mountains to their final destination: Verona. The rider quickest against the three-week clock will stand head held high crowned by a roaring crowd within Verona’s amphitheatre.
Italy has immense pride in its aptitude to conserve tradition. The Giro itself has proven innovative over the years offering an antidote to, say, the Tour de France, but the race always comes down to the traditional arena of the Alps and Dolomites mountains. For riders, staff, and fans, the Giro feels like a celebration of Italy, from road to table.
EF Education First Pro Cycling Team sport director Fabrizio Guidi, an Italian who now calls Switzerland home, gets right to the point when asked about the high points of Italian dining.
“Tignanello wine and fiorentina are good together, but I think my favourite wine is Sassicaia and my favourite dish is Catalana di Scampi — but they don’t go together,” Guidi says. “Scampi has to be eaten with a white wine.”
“I did the Giro two or three years ago with [Alberto] Bettiol and Fabrizio and in one of the stages around Florence they basically got this special delivery for us of Fiorentina from, according to them, the best butcher in Italy,” says Joe Dombrowski. “There’s this knowledge and pride around the food in Italy that I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else in the world.”
Life in Italy follows a long-ago written script. Like the romance that plays out between Romeo and Juliet, passion has a twine that twists its way through society. Foods and wines must fall together like lovers in each other’s arms; design and architecture are fertilized by craftsmanship and beauty; flamboyance is the pillar of language and fashion.
So when it comes to a bike race, one that’s more than 100 years old, it embodies all this with tradition being its beating heart. It’s a race that the nation has grown up watching, an occasion for family get togethers.
“I grew up with the Giro, watching it on TV with my father and my uncle and brother. We had one TV and we would meet as a family and watch it together,” Guidi explains. “Some of us would support one rider, some would support another. As a child it was fascinating to see the energy that people put into watching this sport.”
Its personality is different in comparison to cycling’s other heartlands, like France and Belgium Guidi says, “In Belgium you are strong if you can ride hard on the cobbles. Here in Italy everyone loves the one who can survive on the mountain.”
Sticking to tradition, this year’s race has back-loaded the mountain stages into the third and final week.
“The last week of the Giro is always the big crescendo, but the geography of Italy and the way the race is designed means it’s much more varied. It’s not like in the Tour de France where you have blocks of flat days and then you arrive in the Pyrenees and then the Alps. In Italy there can be something hiding behind every corner,” sport director Charly Wegelius says.
This year’s Giro d’Italia has a total of three time trials, giving the riders who aren’t as strong in the mountains the chance to claw some time back. But as a consequence of this those missing kilometers have to be made up elsewhere. This year there will be nine stages that exceed 200 kilometers in length. Stage 16 serves up an eye-popping 5,000m (16,400 feet) of vertical elevation over 226 (140 miles) kilometers, where the double act of Passo Gavia at 2,618m (8,589 feet) and Mortirolo at 1,854m (6,100 feet) will soften riders’ legs to clay.
“The second half of a Grand Tour, the narrative is completely different.”
“I have the impression that it’s more of a classic Giro, in that there’s long stages and some really big mountain stages in terms of the amount of climbing. The second half of a Grand Tour, the narrative is completely different, guys start to get tired, there’s just this sense of apathy and when you have that it turns into opportunities for the opportunists,” Dombrowski says, his thirst for the mountains quite obvious.
Being the Grand Tour that takes place in spring can mean the weather can be unpredictable. It’s not unheard of for the peloton to race between walls of snow at the top of climbs. Descents down mountains after monster efforts climbing up them can chill riders to the core, adding another layer of complexity to keeping it all together. Everything is scripted to be unpredictable.
“I think the race reflects the best things about Italy to be honest, a lot of passion, a lot of color, all kinds of unexpected things going on. Odd things can happen in this race. That’s a bit of a rarity in pro cycling at the moment. In 2010 there was a 56 rider breakaway that got 40 minutes on the peloton, which is unheard of generally in cycling,” Wegelius reflects, a pang of lust towards a race that he rarely works nowadays.
There’s something about this race, it embraces you, taking you on a journey it doesn’t want you to forget.
If what Shakespeare wrote for that famous love story in Verona is true, ‘Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs,’ then the passion for a bike race is made from the grimaces of pain fighting for pink.
The Rider Download
Choosing a team for a Grand Tour is a process, like making a fine Parmesan. You need the right ingredients that come together, mature and produce a great result.
Sean Bennett says: “I was pretty excited when I was told that I was going to be racing the Giro. I’ve been listed as reserve for a while and have been hearing mixed things about my chances of racing it. I’m super grateful for the opportunity to race my first Grand Tour during my neo-pro season.”
Charly Wegelius says: “The Giro is going to be a steep learning curve for Sean. A Grand Tour is a deep dip into cycling. Sean, like most first-time three-week race riders, will find new limits. He’s probably going to redefine what it means to be extremely tired. We’re confident that he’s got the skills to make the most of this chance but he’s got no expectations on him. He’s there to watch and learn.”
Jonathan Caicedo says: “It’s a dream to race the Giro. I hope that I can help support the team and enjoy every moment.”
Charly Wegelius says: “Jonathan has had a quiet start to the year but every time he’s raced he’s shown himself to be determined. Apart from being good on a bike, he’s a very quick learner and a smart guy on the bike. He’s on the same kind of plan as Sean. We’re not going to put any pressure on him.”
Joe Dombrowski says: “This race suits my own strength. The harder mountain stages come in week three, and I like that epic blast in the final week. It’s going to make for some good viewing.”
Charly Wegelius says: “Joe’s a regular at the Giro now. This race, along with the Tour of Switzerland, are two races in the year that really suit him the most. He’s been really diligent in his preparation. Given the right circumstances, Joe could pop off a mountain stage win if the race unfolds in a certain way.”
Matti Breschel says: “I knew that there was a free spot so I put my hand up. I really wanted to do another Grand Tour. It’s been a few years, so I thought it was about time.”
Charly Wegelius says: “Matti had some health problems at the beginning of the Classics season. The doctors did a great job to get him back on track and salvage some of his Classics season, but without having raced all the cobbled races, he’s got a lot more left in the tank than he would normally have. We’ll put that fitness and his experience to good use. Having an older head in a young group of riders is really essential.”
Hugh Carthy says: “This is probably the hardest Giro route that there’s been since I’ve turned professional. I’ve grown a lot as a rider over the past couple years, and I think I’m ready to give it a real good go this year.”
Charly Wegelius says: “Hugh is working hard, and, as he gets older, he just takes the workload much more in his stride. Slowly he’s getting up to knocking on the door to a nice result.”
Tanel Kangert says: “They have made stages way longer than we’ve had in the last couple years. I haven’t done a Grand Tour where you’re riding 200 plus kilometers every second day, but I’m an old man so maybe this gives me an advantage. I hope that the youngsters will tire faster and that maybe my endurance will help me.”
Charly Wegelius says: “Tanel has had a kind of a slow burn over the spring. He was sick at the beginning of March, which was probably a bit of a blessing in disguise considering his program coming up. We saw in Liège that he’s coming into condition at just the right time. I hope that Tanel can take advantage of not having the big GC riders in the team, who he’d normally have to work for, and make the most of the chance that he gets.”
Sacha Modolo says: “For me, the Giro is the best moment in the season, particularly this year because there are two stages that pass close to my home, so I will have more fans here cheering for me.”
Charly Wegelius: “Sacha is coming off a pretty hard spring. Things haven’t gone as he would have hoped up until now, but we have faith in him and when things don’t turn the way you want them, apart from doing all the checks to ensure everything is the way it should be, you’ve just got to keep the faith really and keep repeating good practices and doing the right things.”
Nate Brown says: “I’ve done lots of Grand Tours now and the Giro is my favourite one. It’s a super hard course this year. The last week is going to be brutal but I’m excited for it. On top of my excitement about the route, I found out the other day that Sean Bennett got the call-up, and I was pretty stoked about that for him. I asked if we could room together because I think we’ll get along great. Going into your first Grand Tour, you don’t really know what to expect. I remember my first one and I had no idea what I was doing. If I can give Sean a bit of knowledge to help him get through, I’ll have already accomplished something.”
Charly Wegelius says: “Nate is slowly turning into a guarantee for us. Like Hugh, Nate has needed a few years of work for him to really solidify himself, but he’s now a rider that we know we can send to any race and count on him delivering a reliable, high-quality performance. In a group where you have riders riding their first three-week races, guys like Nate are invaluable.”