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2011 Giro route announced: Abandon all hope, ye who enter here

According to Inferno, the first part of the fourteenth century Italian poet Dante‘s Divine Comedy, the inscription “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” is written on the gates of Hell. It would be a fitting subtitle to describe the parcours for the 2011 Giro d’Italia, which was publicly announced yesterday afternoon.

Initial impressions are that next year’s 94th edition of the race, which marks the 150th anniversary of Italian unification, has one of the toughest courses in recent memory, with climbing strength an absolute necessity. It certainly isn’t going to be a race the sprinters will relish, with just four designated flat stages and a couple of other potential bunch sprint opportunities, none in the final week. Expect the likes of Mark Cavendish, Tyler Farrar and Andre Greipel to be making alternative plans for the month of May with a view to conserving their energies for July’s Tour de France.

We had already known for some time that the race would be book-ended by a team time trial in Turin – the unified Italy’s first capital city – and an individual time trial in Milan, and there had been rumours that the mighty Zoncolan would again feature, as it had this year. But the number and severity of the climbs in between had been no more than the subject of speculation – until today.

The race opens up relatively gently, with the opening team time trial on May 7th followed by a straightforward flat stage to Parma and two lumpy days which may well also end in sprint finishes. Stage five is where the race starts to get interesting, featuring a stretch of dirt road en route to Livorno reminiscent of stage seven of this year’s race, won in torrential conditions by Cadel Evans.

Stage seven features the Giro’s first mountain-top finish at Montevergine di Mercogliano, which should be the first time we see the major maglia rosa contenders come to the fore. The peloton then heads south with a routine flat transition stage before stage nine brings us the first truly iconic day, with what will be only the third visit in the race’s history to the summit of the active volcano of Mount Etna – which to all intents and purposes might as well be the gateway to Hell.

Stage nine profile - Mount Etna

After the first rest day, the middle week effectively splits into two, with three relatively mild stages up front, and three consecutive summit finishes, with the mighty Zoncolan being sandwiched by a sojourn into Austria to finish atop the Grossglockner and a day of five lofty climbs ending at Val di Fassa. This sequence will probably not be decisive, but it will go a long way to sorting out the genuine contenders.

The final week kicks off after the second rest day with a vengeance, as the riders tackle the 12.7km climb to Nevegal in the first of the Giro’s two individual time trials (ITT) on stage 16. There then follows four more climbing days of increasing severity, with murderous summit finishes on the final two: stage 19 finishes at the top of Macugnaga, before the following day’s penultimate stage covers a stamina-sapping 242km (only stage 17 is longer) before culminating in the fearsome double climb of Colle delle Finestre and Sestrière.

Stage 20 profile - summit finish at Sestrière

In all probability, the closing 32.8km individual time trial in Milan will be little more than an extended coronation procession, finishing in the city’s famous Piazza del Duomo, but if there is less than a minute between the leaders going into the day, it will require one final monumental effort from the contenders’ exhausted bodies.

Including the stage 16 ITT, there are a total of eight summit finishes in the 2011 Giro’s 21 racing days. It will be impossible for one rider or team to control proceedings throughout these key mountain stages, which should make for an interesting strategic race. As with Ivan Basso this year, the eventual winner is likely to hover quietly within striking distance and may actively avoid having to wear the maglia rosa until deep into the final week, with the final stage to Sestrière likely to be the race’s decisive moment. And with the route for the 2011 Tour de France also carrying an extremely high degree of difficulty, it is also likely we will see many of cycling’s top names opting to do either the Giro or the Tour, but not both.

Who does the course favour? Certainly there will be plentiful opportunities for strong, aggressive climbers to plot well-timed attacks. Liquigas‘s Italian pair of Ivan Basso and Vincenzo Nibali finished first and third this year and will undoubtedly feature strongly again. Top Spanish climbers such as David Arroyo (second in 2010) can be expected to flourish, as part of a campaign which focusses on the Giro/Vuelta double, missing out the Tour. And perhaps it might be one which the 37-year old Alexandre Vinokourov might also prioritise? The severity of the course will, however, probably count against strong all-rounders who lack the acceleration to attack on the steeper climbs, such as Evans and 2009 winner Denis Menchov – there simply isn’t enough flat time trial mileage for them to bridge their inevitable time losses in the mountains.

Regardless of what happens, the 2011 Giro looks set to be a punishing and spectacular race. It certainly won’t be one for the faint of heart.

2011 Giro d’Italia stages

May 7: Stage 1 – Venaria Reale to Turin – team time trial, 21.5km

May 8: Stage 2 – Alba to Parma, 242km

May 9: Stage 3 – Reggio Emilia to Rapallo, 178km

May 10: Stage 4 – Quarto dei Mille to Livorno, 208km

May 11: Stage 5 – Piombino to Orvieto, 201km

May 12: Stage 6 – Orvieto to Fiuggi Terme, 195km

May 13: Stage 7 – Maddaloni to Montevergine di Mercogliano, 100km

May 14: Stage 8 – Sapri to Tropea, 214km

May 15: Stage 9 – Messina to Mount Etna, 159km

May 16: Rest day

May 17: Stage 10 – Termoli to Teramo, 156km

May 18: Stage 11 – Tortoreto Lido to Castelfidardo, 160km

May 19: Stage 12 – Castelfidardo to Ravenna, 171km

May 20: Stage 13 – Spilimbergo to Grossglockner(Austria), 159km

May 21: Stage 14 – Lienz (Austria) to Monte Zoncolan, 210km

May 22: Stage 15 – Conegliano to Gardeccia-Val di Fassa 230km

May 23: Rest day

May 24: Stage 16 – Belluno to Nevegal – individual mountain time trial, 12.7km

May 25: Stage 17 – Feltre to Sondrio, 246km

May 26: Stage 18 – Morbegno to San Pellegrino Terme, 147km

May 27: Stage 19 – Bergamo to Macugnaga, 211km

May 28: Stage 20 – Verbania to Sestriere, 242km

May 29: Stage 21 – Milan – individual time trial, 32.8km

Link: Giro d’Italia official website

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