Blazin' Saddles: All you need to know about the 2020 Giro d'Italia route
Three days in Hungary, 10 stages in excess of 200 kilometres, the Stelvio in a brutal final week in the high mountains, and final time trial into Milan – the route for the 2020 Giro d'Italia has a bit of everything, especially if you like the seaside. Just spare a thought for the commentators…
After all the conjecture and rumours, the route for the 2020 Giro d'Italia was announced on Thursday in the presence of defending champion Richard Carapaz and the Slovakian superstar Peter Sagan, who confirmed he would make his debut in La Corsa Rosa next May.
With a total of 3,580 kilometres and close to 45,000 metres of climbing over 21 stages (almost half of which are longer than 200km) the 103rd edition of La Corsa Rosa is no walk in the park. Then again, organisers RCS have to stay true to their slogan, "The toughest race in the most beautiful country".
Let's take a closer look at the main talking points surrounding what appears on paper to be a highly unconventional route that bucks cycling's current trend of shorter, sharper stages and unprecedented climbs.
Grande Partenza in Hungary
The fourteenth foreign start in the Giro's history sees the race head to Budapest for three days in Hungary – starting on Saturday 9 May with an 8.6km prologue time trial in the capital city which culminates with an uphill rise to the line.
Much like the Grande Partenza in Israel two years ago, the three days taken together are not really about the racing – which could be quite stodgy and lacking in drama – and more to do with politics, money and opportunity.
Stages 2 and 3 are both largely flat affairs which should give the sprinters two early opportunities. Fans from nearby Slovakia (Budapest is just 50km from the border) will be able to cheer on their man Peter Sagan after it was confirmed on Thursday that the Bora-Hansgrohe rider would tackle the Giro as part of his preparation for the Tour de France.
Great for us neutrals – but spare a thought for his German teammate Pascal Ackermann and Ireland's Sam Bennett, who will surely complete that expected move to Deceuninck-QuickStep now his options have been limited even further.
Another upshot of the Budapest Grande Partenza is the likely wildcard spot for the Hungrian pro-continental Epowers Factory Team – much in the same vein as Israel Cycling Academy after Jerusalem in 2017.
With the UCI this week adding Cofidis to the 19-strong list of WorldTour teams and announcing that Total-Direct Energie would be invited to all three Grand Tours in 2020, that would leave just one remaining berth for the likes of Androni, Neri Sottoli and Bardini-CSF to scrap over. One of the home-grown teams is not going to be happy, and you sense that Gianni Savio may already have a bee in his bonnet…
Short Sicilian chapter before the Italian mainland
Although Stage 3 to Nagykanizka will leave the peloton just around 300km from the Italian border, RCS have no desire to hit the mountains so early. Instead, the race will board a flight to Sicily for three stages on the largest island in the Mediterranean. Note that there will be no need for an early or extra rest day.
A lumpy Stage 4 finishes with a ramped finish between the famous Valley of the Temples and Agrigento before the Giro's first proper summit finish on black ashen slopes of Mount Etna in Stage 5 – tackled for the first time via the climb from Lingualossa to Piano Provenzana.
The last stage in the Sicilian triptych includes another climb above 1,000m but concludes with a flat run to the finish in Villafranca. It's worth noting that, at 136km, 150km and 138km respectively, these three stages in Sicily are the three shortest of the entire race.
10 stages over 200km
The riders will be advised not get used to the brevity of those Sicilian stages for nine of the next 14 stages on the Italian mainland are in excess of 200km.
Add on to that the 204km Stage 3 plus three stages which are within 10km of 200km, and the message is clear: the 2020 Giro d'Italia will be no race for slouches and the winner is going to need staying power.
Indeed, the final week along includes five consecutive stages which are over 200km (three of which including more than 5,000m of climbing). It's a decision by RCS which goes against the current trend in cycling that follows the belief that shorter stages make for better viewing and more exciting racing.
While next year's Tour de France route, which was announced a fortnight ago, features just the one stage above 200km, the Giro has swung the other way with a multitude of leg-sapping stages – including one, Stage 19, which is a whopping 251km long.
A lot of coffee will be needed to keep Rob Hatch and Sean Kelly going in the commentary box in the final week or racing, that's for sure.
Hugging the Adriatic coast
At first glance, once you have omitted the Hungarian, Sicilian and Alpine legs of the route, what's left looks like the most unbalanced edition of Tirreno-Adriatico in history.
Once the riders cross the Strait of Messina – the one patrolled by Vincenzo Nibali's shark in cycling mythology – the race covers the toe of Italy on one day (including a long and steep climb to Camigliatello in Calabria ahead of a downhill finish to Stage 7) followed by the instep and heel the next (for the flat sprinters' Stage 8 to Brindisi).
From here, the race hugs the Adriatic coast for three consecutive days on stages that could suit the breakaway specialists or play into the hands of the fast men, with the regions of Tuscany, Umbria, Lazio, Campania and the under-populated Molise omitted entirely.
All in all, the race hits the coastline in 10 of the 21 stages, making the 2020 route something of a beach-dwellers paradise. Not that the riders or journalists covering those late finishes will get much opportunity to roll out the towels…
Individual wine trial tradition continues
After an intriguing Stage 12 which follows the same undulating route as the famous Nove Colli sportive through the Apennines to and from Cesenatico, followed by another sprinters' showdown to Monselice, the second of three individual races against the clock falls on the third Saturday.
Keeping alive a recent trend favoured by RCS, the 33.7km ITT from Conegliano to Valdobbiadene has been dubbed the Prosecco Superiore Wine Stage. The rolling terrain is entirely in the terroir of Italy's answer to Champagne and includes a ramped wall early on that hits a cork-popping 19%.
With a total of 58.8 individual time trial kilometres – compared to the Tour's paltry 36km – it will be interesting to see if Jumbo-Visma opt to field new signing Tom Dumoulin, the 2017 Giro champion, or Primoz Roglic, who wore pink for so long last year, both of whom are TT specialists.
Team Ineos, too, have a big decision to make, with new Ecuadorian signing Carapaz set to ride the Giro in defence of his maglia rosa, but perhaps one of Geraint Thomas, Chris Froome and Egan Bernal also likely to feature.
Mountain mayhem in final week
Before the final rest day, Stage 15 gives the riders a taste of what's in store with a lumpy ride over four peaks to Piancavallo for the second summit finish of the race.
But it's the final week where the race will be won or lost – starting with the hilly Stage 16 which concludes with three circuits and a triple ascent of the double-digit Monte Ragona.
All this is mere child's play, however, when set against the brutal Stages 17, 18 and 20, which include a who's who of fearsome Alpine ascents including the interminable Colle dell'Agnello, the Col d'Izoard in France, Monte Bondone and the mythical Passo dello Stelvio.
Such is the brutality of these long, arduous days in the saddle – which will push the gruppetto to breaking point – that the organisers have had to throw in a flat (albeit longest) stage to Asti on the final Friday: something to keep up the morale of the few remaining sprinters (expect Sagan, for instance, to have already packed his bags) and an apparent day of rest ahead of the penultimate stage to Sestrière.
Three potential Queen stages
Take your pick – it's so hard to make up one's mind. For some, the historical significance of the climb to Madonna di Campiglio (where Marco Pantani won in 1999 before being disqualified for a high haematocrit) makes Stage 17 the Queen Stage, especially given it also includes a maiden ride up the hard west approach of the Forcella Valbona, as well as Monte Bondone and the Passo Durone.
For others, though, the allure of the Stelvio makes Stage 18 the stand-out stage: over 209km the riders will tackle two early climbs, the harder side of the Stelvio, and then the stunning 21 hairpins – or "scale di Fraele" – of the final climb to Langhi di Cancano.
But then again, wait until you see what's in store on the penultimate day of the race: a monstrous 200km schlep up the snow-capped Agnello, entering France for the Col d'Izoard via the Casse Désert, then back into Italy via Montgenèvre before the final climb of the race to Sestrière as the riders break the 2,000m barrier for the third time in one day.
With each of these stages containing more than 5,000m of vertical gain, they all have regal status. Just don't expect Steven Kruijswijk to sign up for this Giro: the Colle dell'Agnello was where he lost the pink jersey in 2015 after crashing into a snow wall – something which probably still haunts him in his sleep…
Milan conclusion with final race against the clock
It remains to be seen if there's anything left to fight for in Stage 21, but the race concludes with a pan-flat 16.5km ITT into Milan which will crown the worthy winner of the 103rd edition of La Corsa Rosa.
Who's your money on? Early race favourites include the defending champion Richard Carapaz, Ineos teammate Geraint Thomas, Jumbo-Visma duo Primoz Roglic and Tom Dumoulin, and the former Italian champion Vincenzo Nibali of Trek-Segafredo.
But with no one – besides Sagan – yet to confirm their place at the start in Budapest, we'll have to wait a while longer before we fully comprehend the GC landscape of this intriguing Giro.