A Beginner’s Guide to the Giro d’Italia

A cheat sheet for watching—and appreciating—one of the most exciting cycling contests ever

It’s May, and for cycling fans that can only mean one thing: The Giro d’Italia is getting underway. So grab yourself a nice glass of Chianti and a plate of pasta, and prepare to feast on three weeks of world class racing action.

Although it’s overshadowed by a certain bike race you may have heard of that takes place in France every summer, the spring spectacle of the Giro d’Italia is no less worthy a contest. The race has captivated the attention of its host nation since 1909, and in recent years has provided arguably some of the most exciting competitive cycling anywhere. The race rolls—literally—through the breathtaking scenery of every region in Italy, passing through small towns steeped in cycling culture and over the big climbs of the Dolomites.

Collectively the three grand tours—the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia, and the Vuelta a Espana—are the crown jewels in the sport of cycling. There are many other one-day and shorter stage races on the calendar across the globe, but the grand tours are where legends are born—because nothing compares to the effort required to survive, let alone win, three weeks of intense racing. As a spectator, there’s plenty to look out for, too, because every segment contains multiple contests—one for the stage win, another for the fastest cumulative time across the stages, also known as the GC (general classification). Riders will also be vying for points throughout the race, and there are separate contests for the best climber, the points leader, and the youngest rider with the most GC points (see below for a crib sheet).

What makes the Giro so special? For all the largesse of the Tour de France, the Giro trumps it in terms of passion—it is in Italy, after all. While Lycra clad road racers still constitute a fringe sport in this country, there’s a particular Old World familiarity with and affinity for cycling culture in Italy that, once you get into it, is utterly contagious.

And here's the one piece of Giro trivia every American should know: Andy Hapmsten remains the first and only U.S. born rider to win a Giro d'Italia, and he did so in dramatic fashion. Riding for the upstart American 7-11 team in 1988, Hampsten broke away from the field in one of the most historic stages in Giro history, cresting the summit of the Gavia climb in a blinding snowstorm to claim the maglia rosa, which he would lose then regain en route to winning the Giro. Hampsten remains the only non-European rider to win the race, and his record will likely safe for at least another year.

There was a time when the Giro was considered a warm-up to the Tour, or a contest for racers who wouldn’t be competitive in France. Nowadays, the Giro has gotten too difficult to serve as a simple prep race for the Tour, and the racing has gotten more and more spectacular each year. Sadly, some say was the drive for “spectacular” that led to the horrendous crash that killed Belgian racer Wouter Weylandt in last year’s race. A common critique is that the stages have become "too hard," and that riders are forced to take unnecessary risks to contend—or even keep up.

So while Le Tour is still on top of bike racing’s pecking order, the Giro has regained a lofty position, and rightfully so.

The mountain stages have defined this race in recent editions, and this year should be no different. But will the winner be a pure climber? Hard to say—and because the final stage is an individual time trial, if the race is tight towards the end then the winner won’t be crowned until the bells stop ringing in Milan.

This year the Giro will begin in the city of Herning, Denmark, with an individual time trial and will continue for two more days across the pancake-flat Land of Vikings.  After a break, the race will transition back to Italy—the first of just two single-day rests  during the course of the race.

The fact the first rest day comes so early this year will make for a grueling 12 straight days before riders get their next reprieve—especially considering riders average 100 miles a day for 21 days of racing.

Racing resumes in Verona, Italy, on Day 4 with a Team Time Trial (TTT)—an element that historically has had a major impact on the outcome of the race. But with this one happening so early on, it is unlikely it will make much of a difference unless somebody really digs themselves a hole with a sloppy ride. The next five or six stages will likely see more sprint finishes, but a few stages will test the legs of contenders with plenty of shorter, rolling climbs.

As the race nears the end of the Week Two, things begin to get a lot more painful. Hills become mountains, and we start to see our first uphill finishes, which will begin the process of separating the contenders from the pretenders in the battle for the final GC. This section of the Giro will serve the first real tests of the race, but is ultimately just the beginning of the real agony to come in the third week.

By Week Three, there will no longer be anywhere to hide. The mountains become brutal, and unforgiving. GC contenders will have to rely heavily on their teams for support, and the pretenders will have to pull out some real miracles if they want to step onto the podium in Milan.

The tail end of the third week serves up some serious suffering, and will almost definitely see this year’s winner crowned.

In the unlikely event the race is still be close by the final Time Trial stage in Milan, the technical and flat course will be the final battleground.

If two or three riders are tightly bunched for podium spots, the final TT will be as exciting as it gets. Some will ride conservatively in hopes of preventing an accident that would push them from the podium, while others will lay it all on the line in a mad grab for glory.

Three weeks in Italy in May can prove to be breathtaking, but this year’s Giro is designed to practically guarantee drama and beauty. In the U.S., the Giro will only by televised on Universal Sports. Direct TV subscribers can purchase a $20 Giro package that covers the entire race. Luckily, the online offerings are much more diverse and you can stream live race video from several feeds.

Unless you’ve got other commitments in May, or will be attending the Tour of California (May 13-20), it’s Giro time, bambino!


Glossary of Terms:
TT: Time Trial, individual riders set out on the course to race the clock.
Team Time Trial. One team at a time takes to the course.
GC: Stands for General Classification, refers to the race’s overall leader.

Jersey Breakdown:
The Pink Jersey: The maglia rosa jersey is the equivalent of the Tour de France’s Yellow Jersey, given to the rider with the fastest cumulative time thus far in the race.
The Red Jersey: AKA, Maglia Rosso Passione, this jersey is worn by the rider who at the start of each stage, has the greatest amount of points. See more about the points classification system.
The Blue Jersey: Given to the winner of the mountain classifications. (Equivalent to the Polka Dot jersey in the Tour de France)
The White Jersey: Like the Tour's "Best Young Rider" jersey, this is awarded to the rider under 25 years of age with the fastest GC time.

Fast Facts:
Course Length: Total 2,177 mile; average 104 miles per stage
Stage types: 2 Individual Time Trial stages , 1 Team Time Trial stage, 7 Fast/ Flat stages, 4 Medium Mountain stages, 3 Medium Mountain with hilltop finishes stages, 1 High Mountain stage, 3 High Mountain with summit finish stages
Number of teams: 22
Number of Racers: 198