For three weeks in May, the eyes of the cycling world are fixated on the Giro d'Italia. 2016 marks the 99th edition of the famous race, also the first of the three Grand Tours of the WorldTour calendar. To get a sense of riding through Italy and what it's like to be at Giro in person, we caught up with Adam from BikeStyle Tours and Peter who keep a diary of his Giro d'Italia experience.
Here's a quick taste of the Giro from Peter.
The air is electric. You can feel it all along the race route, through dozens of small villages, and you can see it in every window: pharmacies, grocers, cafes and pizzerias are all bursting with pink displays. Cotton-candy pink flags, pink balloons, pink banners, pink bicycles and giant pink stuffed animals. For three weeks in May, Italy gets dolled up like a 6-year-old girl’s fantasy bedroom.
When the Giro comes to town
From start to finish, around 3 million people will come out to watch the Giro. That's right; 3 million people will line the streets of small villages, country roads, and the highest mountain peaks to get a close up view of their heroes.
Peter: The parade stops in the center of every village along the Giro route, music pumping from stadium-sized speakers, whipping the crowd into a froth. The buzz of adrenaline and anticipation mixes with espresso and birra Moretti. The parade moves on, and the approach of the cyclists is heralded by far-off sirens, the sound of a helicopter beating the air, and cheers rising in the distance. The sirens approach quickly, as schoolchildren wave giant pink fingers from behind barricades and every voice in the crowd rises, a mix of languages and exhortations. In a flash, they’re upon us: we see grimaces, hands tight on handlebars, a blur of legs following pink arrows spray-painted on the tarmac.
What's it like to ride the Giro?
The Giro d'Italia is three weeks long, epic for WorldTour riders who will cover over 3,000km. As a result, most cycling tours will be between 4 - 10 days, enough time to get in some quality riding and experience the atmosphere, but not arduous enough for you to be asking, "are we there yet?". Peter joined BikeStyle Tours after the riders had already completed over 1,500km's of the Giro d'Italia route, but the high mountains of the Alps and Dolomites were still to come. His thoughts will give you an appreciation for what is it like emulating, in part, the feats of pro riders.
This year’s Giro has begun with primarily flat stages, and we have foolishly joined them for the mountains. This year’s Giro route includes 5 middle mountain stages and 5 high mountain stages. We’ll sample some of those high mountain summits on our Bikestyle tour, including the Stelvio, Gavia, Mortirolo and the Zoncolan. We’ll gain a painful appreciation for just how tough the climbs of the Alps and the Dolomites can be.
The Mortirolo is one of the Giro's most famous climbs, 11.8km in length at an average gradient of 11%, 1277m vertical in total. Lance Armstrong famously labeled the Mortirolo the hardest climb he has ever ridden.
Mortirolo may be roughly translated as ‘morte de rouleur’: death to cyclists. Or maybe that’s just how it feel. It’s only when I think I’m most of the way to the top that I see a sign in front of me: 25 tornante. Twenty-five hairpin turns to go. My fingers twitch on the handlebars, searching for a lower gear, and finding none. The Mortirolo takes us higher and higher, past the tops of massive hydro pylons, past the tops of ski lifts. I suspect we’ll soon climb into the clouds. “These mountains are not for mortals!” one rider shouts as he rounds the umpteenth curve.
The Stelvio pass has featured in 10 editions of the Giro d'Italia and is an imposing 24km in length at an average gradient of 7.4% reaching over 2,700m altitude.
It’s a long, long grind, the highest road in the eastern Alps and the highest finish of any grand tour. We climb the Stelvio one day ahead of the Giro racers. My pulse increases slowly as I spin a low gear past tall waterfalls and glacial creeks. The kilometre markers at the side of the road look like tombstones, and I half-expect to see my name on one of them. At 2580 meters, it begins to snow. At 2700 meters, the snowbanks are higher than my head. It begins to snow heavily, visibility is reduced, and the ride feels increasingly like a conquest of Everest.
The Zoncolan is located in the Dolomites and is considered one of the most difficult climbs in Europe hitting over 20% in some sections. The climb is 10.5km long at an average gradient of 11.5%, with 1,210m of ascension.
I can assure you that the Zoncolan is the longest ten kilometers in the world - it’s a cruel double-digit festival of suffering. The Zoncolan rises for ten kilometers at an average 15% grade that kicks up to 23% just to ensure a visit to the pain threshold. As I sweat my way up the hill, the cranks barely turning, I see hundreds of fans settled on the hill, some sleeping on blankets, some eating bread and cheese al fresco, some day-drunk and sunburned. Every kilometre or two, I have to stop and catch my breath.
Some advice from Adam when riding a Tour
You must remember that you will ride day after day, so you will get tired towards the middle of the trip and will need to pace yourself. On any given day you can choose a different ride option. If you ride a bike but fancy a day off that is ok. You can ride an easy ride one day and a difficult ride next. If you want a day by yourself that also is no problem. It’s up to you.
Where possible it is a good plan to pack a day bag and put it on the van before the ride start. This will allow you to get changed and walk around in comfortable gear at the end of your ride.
High mountain weather is very unpredictable and can be warm and sunny one minute and turn cold, windy and raining the next. Sub-zero temperatures, especially with wind chill, are still possible at the high altitudes.
The descents can be very long and if you haven't packed a vest or jacket you will get very cold. Dress appropriately or pack extra clothes for the descents and mountain tops.
Watching a mountain stage can be tough, so here are the 5 things you need to do to get the most of being in the crowd: Claim your position, be well prepared with clothes and food, protect your position, stay safe, and be patient once the riders go by - it's a long way back down the mountain.
What to Pack
It's always difficult to know what to pack on a cycling holiday, so Adam has given us a guide to everything you need to get through a week long cycling holiday in Italy.
Cycling shoes and winter overshoe covers
4 to 5 pairs of riding socks
3 to 4 pairs of cycling knicks
2 to 3 jerseys and 1 long sleeve winter riding top
Cycling undershirts, thermal layers for mountain tops, arm and leg warmers
Waterproof jacket and windproof cycling vest / gilet
2 pairs cycling gloves: Regular gloves PLUS a pair of deep winter, windproof long finger gloves
Spare batteries for your power meter, cycling computer, and any other electronic device
Spare cleats for your cycling shoes (plastic cleats can wear very quickly during a trip!)