Scouting the Giro, and why it makes a difference

Previewing stages at the Tour de France is nothing new, but now more teams are doing the same thing at the Giro.

Photo: BrakeThrough Media

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This past March Mitchelton-Scott sport director Matt White went on a mission. A scouting mission, that is.

The dust had barely settled on Tirreno-Adriatico and a painful 0.13-second loss of Adam Yates to Primoz Roglic. White was already on the road.

The Giro d’Italia loomed on the horizon, and Mitchelton-Scott’s star Simon Yates had put the pink jersey at the center of his 2019 ambitions.

Thus, White made a B-line for San Marino for a recon mission, Giro-style.

“We did a few stages before Tirreno, and a few more after Milan-San Remo,” White recently told VeloNews. “It’s good to see these stages. I come over to Italy in March, so with Tirreno, San Remo and some recon, it’s killing many birds with one stone.”

In today’s tightly calibrated peloton, previewing grand tour stages is nothing new. People have been doing it for decades. What’s new, at least for White and the Mitchelton-Scott outfit, was they performed it in March.

The scouting trip is a reflection of how far the team has come since its founding in 2012, and how big its big goals are in 2019. For this year’s Giro, nothing less than overall victory counts. And White and the rest of the staff are doing everything they can to take away any mystery.

White knocked off roughly the first half of the 2019 Giro route during this particular scouting route. He skipped a few that were largely pure sprinter stages, but otherwise, he would trace each stage from start to finish. As he followed the route, he digested the information that could become critical in a few weeks’ time.

Occasionally, he’d come across some crews with road closures and workers telling him the roads were closed. White would just punch the accelerator and keep going. It’s Italy, after all, and he’s on a mission.

“In general, you get more surprises in Italy than France,” White said. “I had to sneak onto a climb, and I drove through their work site. They were waving me not to go up there, but I just ripped past them to see it.”

That sums up White’s determination to see what lies up the road before one of the season’s biggest goals. Once the workers realized that he’s in a team car from one of the Giro favorites, they would wave him through. The intel is key.

“Stage 7 to L’Aquila — it’s one of those stages where the sprinters could go pretty deep into it,” he said. “It has Valverde written all over it.”

Scouting the Giro stages offers a few challenges. First off, there isn’t much time to squeeze in a visit. The route is usually unveiled in November, and there’s only a few weeks before the holidays and the first winter snows.

And then there’s the weather. It was easy enough to check out the stages in central and southern Italy in mid-March. It’s a different story in northern Italy. The roads featured in the decisive final week were still choked under meters of snow in the Dolomites and Alps. Sometimes it’s impossible to scout certain stages at all because the roads are only cleared of snow just days before the Giro passes.

“We did some of the mountain stages in November before winter hit,” White said. “We’ve got time to check out the rest of the big mountains by late April or early May — if they’re cleared of snow by then.”

Stakes are even higher

The fact that White is scouting Giro stages reveals a few things. First off, more teams than ever are previewing key Giro stages as part of their preparation. Two summers ago, Chris Froome rode over the Passo dello Finestre nearly a year before he would attack on the gravel roads to blow apart the 2018 Giro. Intel is a small but integral part of the winning difference. Not every team has the budget or necessity to preview every stage.

Neither did GreenEdge. Until recently, it was a team stacked with stage-hunters and sprinters. That changed with the arrival and evolution of the Yates brothers and Esteban Chaves. Now the Giro overall is a realistic goal, and it’s at the center of the team’s focus.

“We hadn’t gone into much detail the last couple of years at the Giro, but since we realized we have a team that can win it, we are putting more effort into it,” he said. “Up until 2016, we were not a GC team, and we were going after certain stages, not the overall.”

White is hoping that by plying the back roads of Italy in March, it will pay off with a big jackpot in May.

Scouting key stages ahead of grand tours is a relatively new phenomenon, and even more so in the Giro. Through much of the history of the sport, most riders and sport directors were Europeans, so they would already know the roads from racing locally throughout their careers, from when they were juniors to professionals.

Things started to change in the 1980s, when riders from the United States, Australia, and Colombia started invading the European peloton. These riders didn’t grow up racing in Tuscany or the Alsace, so nearly every road was new.

By the 1990s, with more money and prestige at stake during the Tour, GC riders started to include previewing key climbs and stages as an integral part of their race preparation.

The Giro, long dominated by Italians, was largely immune to this trend simply because most top stars and sport directors already knew much of the roads. That too has started to change as the Giro’s profile continues to rise and more teams put a focus on the Italian grand tour.

“Reconning these stages helps even if you already know the road,” White said. “You can glean a lot of information from Google Maps and stuff like that, but nothing beats seeing it for yourself.”

Of the Giro’s 21 stages, White and other staffers will have checked out all but three or four.

White likes to soak it all in. Often driving alone as he traces over the route, he will start playing tactics over in his mind during the next several months to imagine how the stage might play out in May.

“What I like about recon, you can spend hours looking over maps, apps, but I like the visual aspect of driving the stage,” he said. “It gives me an idea months out on what I think can happen – is this a stage to attack? To defend? I just like seeing it personally.”

There can be a few more surprises between the time White previews the course in March and race day in late May. Even once the race kicks in, White and Co. will often sneak back out in team cars for a final glimpse with their top rider in tow, especially before a decisive climb or time trial.

White recalled in 2017 before a key time trial in central Italy that they had already previewed the course that spring, but he insisted to drive over the course the day before.

“At 3 p.m. the day before the race, they were still laying new asphalt,” he said. “That was 12 hours before the stage, and that was invaluable information. Better late than never.”

That kind of information can lead to little details like tire pressure, wheel selection or tactics that can change the outcome of a race in an instant.

After driving around Italy most of March, what does White expect in May?

“The first part of the Giro is not that hard. I’ve seen a lot harder the first 10 days of the Giro,” he said. “The last week of this year’s Giro is just brutal — now I know what’s coming.”

An American in France

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