Giro d’Italia 2014 | Italy on two wheels

The Giro 2014 is here!

Pedala piu veloce!  It’s that time of year again; Italy’s biggest bike race is about to hit the road.  And Italy really is the place for cycling – though the Giro d’Italia may be presented as the Tour de France’s little brother (the race being six years younger), Italy’s cycling heritage, passion and skill are widely known.  It took almost a half a century for a non-Italian to claim the winner’s pink jersey, challenging Italian supremacy.  There is even evidence that Leonardo di Vinci and his student, Gian Giacomo Caprotti sketched the bare bones of an early example of a bike as early as 1493!

Whether you are a keen cyclist going out there to try out the routes the professionals are tackling, an armchair supporter going out there to cheer on your chosen team in the sun, or simply going along for the ride, Italy has the landscapes, towns and history to keep you enthralled along each stage of the route.  We highlight some of the race’s best Italian attractions with the aid of John Foot, author of the excellent book Pedalare! Pedalare! (focussing on the engrossing history of this sport in Italy), and throw in what this Italian race has to offer for those less enamoured with the world of sweaty helmets and aching calves!

route map Giro d'Italia

Explaining the Giro for those less knowledgeable of the race, John tells us that “obviously it is the most similar race to the Tour de France.  However, it covers the whole country, which is what makes it different.  The landscapes provide this dramatic mountainous backdrop to the race.”  That’s why the Giro is the perfect cycling race to combine with an Italian holiday, and a chance to learn more about Italian towns, heritage and culture along the way.  “The other difference,” John goes on, “is the history”.  The Giro is less commercialised and more genuine than the Tour, and Italian history has responded to the Giro since its inception –”from the age of Constante Girardengo, Anfredo Binda and Learco Guerra in the 20s and 30s” through the Golden Age of Italian cycling – “the era of Fausto Coppi (Legnano, Bianchi, Carpano) and Gino Bartali (Frejus, Legnano, Bartali)” which covered the 1930s to 1950s, Italians (and the rest of us!) have been hooked.  The biggest character of the 1960s and 70s was the man known as “The Cannibal”, Eddy Merckx, and the big names continue into the current era of cycling.

A race which conjures Italian pride, nostalgia and heritage, the Giro is a nail-biting and passion-fuelled race from start to finish, and will grip everyone who sees it.  This year’s Giro is in memory of rider Marco Pantani, one of the best (though controversial) climb cyclists of his era, who died an untimely death in 2004.  Nicknamed ‘Il Pirate’ because of his shaved head, bandana and earrings, he was a firm fan favourite because of his amazing acceleration and aggressive riding style, and this year marks ten years since his death. il pirata

You can’t underestimate the Giro.  “It’s harder than the tour”, John finishes – “the level of competition is great.  It destroyed Wiggins last year”.

 

 

 

Leaving rainy Ireland for sunnier climes

Stages 1 – 6

The race starts in Belfast and the next three stages roll through Ireland, before the athletes must use their rest day to get over to Italy’s heel.

 

the old port of Bari

The lengthy transfer was likely to rile many cyclists and their coaches, and it seems the organisers have responded to this.  They have made stage 4, from Giovinazzo to Bari, the shortest and flattest road stage of the whole race.  The Adriatic scenery and beautiful Puglian surroundings will make this leg the ‘holiday’ aesthetic of the route, so get your sunnies and gelati, and make sure to dive into Puglian cuisine – they are famous for serving beautifully fresh raw fish, and the abundant produce of the region – for example the fig and pomegranate trees which creep lazily over garden walls and border sleepy town squares.  Stage 5, from Taranto to Viggiano, is 203km.  The first 100km are flat, followed by rolling hills and three climbs.  Leaving the turquoise waters of Taranto (which is now a large, industrialised port) for the hills into the small town of Viggiano, with a 7.5km entrance stretch that will favour the uphill sprinters for the pink jersey.

Stage 6 is from Sassano to Montecassino.  Here the race ups the ante, hitting the riders with the second longest ride in the race, as they are chivvied them towards the mountainous climbs up North.  The race responds again to history, as Montecassino in 1944 was the setting of one of the massive battles of World War Two.  The only climb of this stage is the final climb up Montecassino, towards its abbey, founded by Benedict of Nursia in AD 529, and the finish line.

 

 

La Vita Bella

Stages 7 – 9

torre de campolato, frosinoneStage 7 quickly skirts Rome before making a dash up the country.  Make sure to take in the culinary offerings as you move quickly from Lazio into Umbria. Frosinone’s offerings include Ciociara-style baby goat leg to coppiette ciociare, which is seasoned pork strips, as well as struffoli (a sort of doughnut dripping with honey) and fini fini, a type of maccheroni.  Moving into Umbria as the riders reach Foligno, the stage is a day full of lumps and bumps.  As the riders summit the Valico della Somma, they then face a 15km stretch of downhill, which should allow for some gaps to be made up and the race to become nailbiting.  If you’re ready for a break (after watching all that hard-work!) why not have a look at our selection of Umbrian villas to find a bit of luxury and peace.  Foligno is where the first printed edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy was published in 1472, and will also provide enough culinary inspiration to tickle your tastebuds – Umbrian cuisine is based on the earthy produce found in this region, as Rebecca from Shades of Umbria tells us

Many restaurants in Perugia feature pasta preparations with truffles or meat dishes (usually pork) with truffles shaved on top. My favorite truffle preparation is the frittatura (like an omelette) at the restaurant La Taverna. My son has been sampling ragù a cinghiale (wild boar ragu) all over town. He likes the simple version at La Bottega dei Priori, usually served with tagliatelle. Umbrians, however, also use lentils, chickpeas, and farro in their cooking. These dishes can be found on many Perugian menus as “primi piatti” (first courses) in place of pasta. We particularly like the “velluta di ceci” (a creamy chickpea soup) and the “gnocchi al farro” (gnocchi made with spelt rather than potatoes) at the restaurant Il Cantinone. Right now asparagus are in season and restaurants are featuring dishes with asparagus. La Piazzatta has a several course asparagus menu.

All of these Umbrian dishes are complemented with some outstanding wines – Umbria’s principle red is from the Sangiovese grape, but it is renowned for its whites, which make up 60% of its oenological output, with Orvieto (from the Trebbiano grape) accounting for 80% of white production.

Stage 8, Foligno to Montecopiolo, falls on a Saturday, so expect the route to be rammed with fans.  The organisers have made this leg of the Giro’s second weekend the hardest day so far, with three mountains of the Marche region ready to climb.  Climbing the Cippo di Carpegna will be a highpoint of the day, as this ridiculously tough climb, which lasts only 6.8km, comes in at a bone-rattling 9% gradient.  This climb is included as part of the memorial to Pantani, as it was one of his favourite training climbs.   Detour into walled town Urbania for the day and see the macabre Chiesa delle morte, a church filled with mummies, and see the palazzo ducale in this quaint Italian town.  We spoke to Cosmo, author of the cycle blog Cyclocosm, who told us that

 

Stage 8 is the first mountain-top finish, and so a very important day for anyone who wants to win the overall title at the Giro. The final three mountain climbs are very tightly spaced—with some careful planning, you could probably catch both the third-to-last and final climb almost from the same location. Watching in the mountains is great because the field is spread out and slower-moving, giving fans a much closer and longer-lasting experience with the event.

So choose your watching location carefully and get there early, to maximise your view on what should be an exciting Stage.  With this year’s route failing to provide the traditional strade bianche of the Tuscan area, keep an eye out for our forthcoming blog post for some more information on cycling in and around Tuscany, more specifically. the castle at Sestola

 

Stage 9, from Lugo – Sestola follows up on Stage 8’s mountains.  Skirting the fantastic city of Bologna, stage 9 will be a zippy day, as cyclists look forward to a rest day tomorrow (also, because they are looking at a final 60km of solid climbing.  From the red brick and academic presence of Bologna, the end point of Sestola is a ski station on the Apennine ridge, which just shows the intensity of the climb.

Bologna

 

With tomorrow being a rest day, why not overnight in Bologna?  With its extensive markets (great for picking up some vintage clothes, or some regional produce) and great foodie offerings (Bologna is known as La Grassa, the fat one, and is arguably the heart of Italian cuisine), why not settle into Piazza Maggiore with an aperitivo in hand, and watch the world go by?

 

The climb begins

Stages 10 – 21

We spoke to Felix Lowe of Blazin’ Saddles about the final, mountainous stages of the Giro:

The final eight stages of the race, without a doubt, will offer the most challenging terrain for the riders [...] Once the race hits mainland Italy it warms up with a week of flat or rolling stages as the peloton sweeps up the backbone of Italy from Bari in the south to Savona in the north. But it is not until stage 14 when the race hits the Alps that the true difficulties begin.

Stage 10 Modena – Salsomaggiore Terme comes after a well-deserved rest day, and provides a day of flat cycling.

massimo bottura

Modena, a cobble-stoned town in the Emilia-Romagna, was the site of the devastating earthquake of May 2012, which was the worst the region has seen for 500 years.  Halfway between Parma (famous for Parma ham and Parmesan cheese) and Bologna, Modena’s cuisine summarises these culinary influences, as well as being the originator of the world famous balsamic vinegar (Aceto Balsamico di Modena) to boot.  If you are led astray by your stomach in Modena, you will no doubt find yourself at the famous Osteria Francescana, home of the pioneering Massimo Bottura.  With the sensational tasting menu featuring experiences such as ‘eel swimming up the Po’ and ‘Five ages and textures of Parmesan’, gourmet gastronomes won’t be disappointed.  For the smaller purse, Franceschetta58 up the road offers creations from the same hand, but at the ridiculously small cost of 8.50EUR per dish.  Though the atmosphere is more chintzy, with mismatched crockery aplenty, the simple and delicious fare will not disappoint, from the salumi to more adventurous offerings such as octopus ragu.  Head for Salsomaggiore with a bulging belly for the sprint finish of today’s stage, on a slight incline.

nebbiolo vines above Barolo

 

Stage 11, from Collecchio to Savona, provides 249km of undulating mountains, and is therefore the longest day of this year’s Giro.  The riders must climb to Passo Cento Croci, before a winding fall towards the Italian Riviera and Savona (though not before a “quick” detour out of town up the Naso di Gatto, or Cat’s Nose, a 17.86km climb with a 4.2 ascent percentage.  Barbaresco to Barolo, Stage 12, offers up the much anticipated time trial.  Today is the day on which we can gain a clearer picture of the riders in contention this year.  With both start and finish in the Piedmont region, this stage in particular caters for oenophiles, with some great wines surrounding the Stage.  Both Barbaresco and Barolo, indeed, are highly-prized wines from the Nebbiolo grape which populates the region.  Friday sees Stage 13, from Fossano to Rivarolo Canavese.  As implied by its name, Piedmont represents the foot of the mountains, and the Alps will threaten on the horizon today, promising tougher climbs ahead.  Today concentrates on the mountains’ feet, however, so there is little climbing except for the Bardassano, which shouldn’t pose too much of a difficulty, 100km from the end.  Rivarolo Canavese lies 30km north of Turin, capital of the Piedmont region.  Stage 14 from Aglie to Oropa, however, will be a very difficult stage, proffering the double-figure gradients of the Alpe di Noveis.  Today’s ride is a 164km tribute to Marco Pantani, as Oropa was the site of his breathtaking 1999 victory. Having had mechanical difficulties, Pantani went on to overtake 49 riders in the last eight kilometres to win the stage.  This sort of unexpected triumph is what cemented Pantani as a firm favourite amongst the Italian fanbase, and is presumably why such nostalgia for his rides exists, even despite the doping scandals that plagued his career. plan di montecampione ride

Stage 15, from Valdengo to Plan di Montecampione, will be the final ride 225km before the rest day, and represents a meander around Milan and then Bergamo at the beginning, before heading for a serious climb of 18.65km to end the day.  The steepest parts of the climb are an amazing 12% – to put that in perspective, the 18.65km climb goes from 204m above sea level to 1,665m – 1,446 vertical metres over 18km!  Thank goodness for the rest day!

passo dello stelvioStage 16 runs from Ponte di Legno to Val Martello, comprising two magnificent climbs – the Passo di Gavia and the Passo dello Stelvio, before the finish at Val Martello.  Split across the whole stage, the climbs are still significant – the riders end up travelling 60.5 kilometres up hill.  Scrapped last year due to poor weather, this stage could be blighted by snow; even in summer, there is usually a snowy cap to the Gavia.  If it isn’t called off, expect an exciting stage!  The Passo di Gavia is widely recognised as one of the most challenging climbs of the Giro, alongside the Stelvio and Martello climbs.  The Stelvio is the second highest paved mountain in Europe, so makes for a terrifying, back-breaking ascent.  Rated Top Gear’s best driving road in the world, this might be a more comfortable way for those of us who are less adrenaline-fuelled to reach the astounding heights.  Any skiiers will be in familiar territory up here, with Tyrolean ski chalet-style in all of the Alpine eateries.  Stage 17, from Sarnonico to Vittorio Veneto, is an Alpine ride made for the sprinters.  A flat day (about time, for those poor sprinters!) edged by the heights of the Dolomites on the imminent horizon, the only surprise will be the Muro at 20km from the end – an unforgiving 12.2% average gradient.  Today’s ride into Vittorio Veneto is loaded with history; part of Italy since only 1918, acquiring this region and the Battle of Vittorio were instrumental in bringing about the end of World War I.  Austro-Hungarian forces receded, giving back parts of the South Tyrol to Italian control.

The rest day is followed by Stage 18, Belluno to Rifugio Panarotta.  The riders travel 171km through the Dolomites today, through the familiar Passo San Pellegrino on to the new terrain of Passo del Redebus.  For a break from the dizzy heights, head to Lake Misurina, not far from Belluno.  This beautiful lake is surrounded by mountains, and is a great place for trekking or skiing in the winter, and water sports by this time of year.

bassano del grappaStage 19 carries the riders from Bassano del Grappa to Cima Grappa, a 26.8km mountain time trial.  Bassano del Grappa, infamous not only for the spirit of this name, is a sweet town with a beautiful wooden bridge, built in 1209, at its heart.  Bassano added ‘del Grappa’ to its name to honour the war dead, following the astounding fighting which saw the Italian army turn the mountain into a rabbit run of tunnels, bunkers and gun emplacements.  Over 12,000 Italian and 10,000 Austro-Hungarian troops laid down their lives in this battle.  The views from Cima Grappa stand above the tree line, and offer astounding views on a clear day, with the turquoise Adriatic glinting on the horizon.

Stage 20 runs from Maniago to the feared Montezoncolan, a rough track that shoots up into the sky.  This is so steep that riders must stay in the saddle, so as not to lose traction.  Over 4 kilometres, it never drops below 15%, rising to 20 and even 22% in places.  After a full day of cycling, this treacherous mountain (scaled from Ovara, the toughest approach) will unnerve many, taking some casualties.  Felix told us that

the fearsome Monte Zoncolan in the Friulan Alps will be the icing on the cake. With its ramps of 20 per cent, the Zoncolan has been described as cycling’s equivalent of rock-climbing. The peloton won’t face a bigger challenge than this during its three weeks on the road.

It’s only the fifth time Zoncolan has featured in the Giro, and is bound to make for an intense day.  Stage 21 follows this killer, running from Gemona del Friuli to Trieste, and the finish line.  Like the Tour’s Paris finish, this year’s Giro ends with a circuit.  Eight laps of 7.3km stand between the riders left standing and the finishing line, so expect a flat-out sprint for victory and the maglia rosa!  What a town to end in – Trieste is filled with influences from nearby Slovenia and Croatia, and Trieste’s summertime is packed with music festivals.  Trieste draws influence equally from Vienna and Venice, so enjoy the mid-European, easygoing vibe and relax in its grand literary cafes whilst enjoying an aperitivo – whether it is an Italian Prosecco or an Austrian beer is up to you!

giro finish

 

To discover some of the sites listed above, have a look at our interactive map.  You can even add your own pins, to let us know about any undiscovered treasures!

 

 

 

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