Fast and furious: in praise of the short stages at the 2022 Giro d’Italia

Dear race organisers, more short stages and hilly local laps at Grand Tours, please. Yours, cycling.

Photo: Dirk Waem - Pool/Getty Images

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The most thrilling, most action-packed days of the 2022 Giro d’Italia so far have been two of the shortest stages: 8 and 14.

Positioned on consecutive Saturdays, both came the day before a massive mountain test, both incorporated at least one breathless circuit in the finishing town, and both saw attacking from the start. They even had a brief attack by lone ranger Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) in common.

While one saw success for the breakaway with the as-yet-barely-tested GC contenders holding themselves back for Blockhaus, the second set the stage for the hardest, most aggressive day of the Giro so far as Bora-Hansgrohe put their rivals to the sword.

Bora-Hansgrohe and the local fans loved the hard and fast hilly Turin circuits on stage 14.

These stages have been a breath of fresh air, especially after the fairly stale first week. Every May, the cycling world whips itself into a frenzy of excitement in anticipation of the first Grand Tour of the season, only to be reminded of the relentlessly dull ~200 km so-called transition stages that are a hallmark of these historic races. Snore.

But remember a couple of years ago when the Giro peloton refused to start stage 19’s 258 km slog from Morbegno to Asti? The protest resulted in the riders jumping back in the team buses for a transfer to Abbiategrasso from where they would race the remaining 124 km of the stage.

Nathan Haas thanks Adam Hansen for his instrumental role in persuading the organisers to shorten stage 19 of the 2020 Giro d’Italia as pink jersey-wearer Wilco Kelderman looks on.

That rider protest infuriated race organiser Mauro Vegni who rained threats and derision upon the peloton, but as Alex Dowsett (Israel-Premier Tech) pointed out in one of his Giro vlogs last week, this year’s race seems to have benefited too.

Yes, there are still four stages over 200 km, but the longest was stage 12 at 204 km. What’s more, from where we sit now going into the final week, there’s only one 200 km+ stage left, and, you’ll be pleased to hear, it’s not a sprint stage!

If we take a closer look at the middle week we’ve just had, on paper, it left a lot to be desired.

“The second week’s going to be one long snooze,” said many at CyclingTips last Monday.

However, with the exception perhaps of Wednesday’s stage 11, there was a lot to love in the middle week of this year’s Giro. Granted, if the expectations are low to begin with, then it’s rather easier to exceed them, but we had Biniam Girmay making history on Tuesday, Oldani’s breakaway success to make back-to-back Italian wins mid-week, and Friday’s breathless sprint showdown after the break was caught in the final kilometre of the 150 km stage.

Short and sharp is the way to make exciting racing, that’s no surprise. Yes, there are examples of long Classic-style stages like stage 7 at last year’s Tour de France – and super long Spring Classics, obviously – but Grand Tours are already bloody long, and if we want to see the favourites for the overall duking it out more often, short stages are one surefire way to make that happen.

GC offensive the day before mega mountains? Surely not!

Perhaps the first of this kind of short, action-packed Grand Tour stage in the modern era was at the 2011 Tour de France, a year before a side-burned ‘mod’ would win a first Grand Boucle for Britain, and days before Australia would get its one and only Tour champion.

Stage 19 was a sharp 109.5 km race from Modane to Alpe d’Huez via the double-peak of the Cols des Télegraphe and Galibier. Everyone’s favourite gurning Frenchman Tommy Voeckler was going into his 10th day in the yellow jersey, albeit with a slender margin over stage 18 winner Andy Schleck, and Alberto Contador was smarting after losing time on the previous day’s climb to Serre Chevalier.

Now, before I continue, it should be pointed out that the following is tainted slightly by Contador’s subsequent doping violation which saw him stripped of all results from July 2010 (including the Tour he *ahem* won) to January 2012. But the stage design at least ought to rest unaffected.

Contador was always at his best when he was on the attack.

With a teammate a little way up the road, Contador went on the attack inside the first 20 km. Sensing danger, Voeckler tried to follow, but he visibly struggled while both Andy and Frank Schleck seemed equal to the Spaniard’s acceleration, with Cadel Evans keeping a cool head to stay in contention.

Contador, like Koen Bouwman (Jumbo-Visma) on stage 7 at the 2022 Giro and Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal) on stage 8, was feeling in a defiant mood, which can only have helped, as will the proximity to Paris. He didn’t win that stage, but – like Bora-Hansgrohe on Saturday – he blew the GC race apart. The Spaniard, nicknamed ‘El Pistolero’, finished third on the stage behind Pierre Rolland, and the explosive efforts delivered Andy Schleck into the race lead, putting an end to Voeckler’s dreams of taking the maillot jaune all the way to Paris. He would never wear yellow again.

There are plenty more examples to chew over, not least the otherworldly Nice stage that kicked off the 2020 Tour de France, hilly circuits included, and the perplexing grid start on the super short stage 17 of the 2018 edition – although that didn’t exactly add the drama the organisers hoped for.

Back in Italy, we were treated to an exemplary day for the breakaway on stage 15 of the 2021 Giro. That stage unfolded over just 147 km from Grado to Gorizia, with three laps of a fast and lumpy loop before a rapid run into town. Victor Campenaerts won from a two-up sprint that day after the breakaway shattered on the run-in, but there was a stalemate in the peloton, which was led home more than 17 minutes down by the Ineos Grenadiers.

Another good example of opportunistic Italian racing was during the 2015 Giro when stage 15 took the peloton from Forlì to Imola, finishing with four laps of the race track. Much of that course was borrowed by the 2020 World Champs road races which were cobbled together last-minute, and which provided a far more exciting spectacle than anyone expected.

Three years after taking the pink jersey home to Canada, Ryder Hesjedal got into the breakaway that would contest stage 11 victory on the Imola circuit at the 2015 Giro.

The 2022 Giro has been widely touted as the hardest edition in recent memory, despite fewer visits to the high mountains, most of them in the more traditional final week yet to come. The organisers have instead created an electrifying programme of stages with many more short and sharp climbs than usual, and a double dose of entertainingly aggressive circuit racing.

More please.

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