Lumpy course profiles see pure sprinters bypassing Giro d’Italia

Robbie McEwen says Giro d'Italia sprinters won't have it easy: 'Organizers are making the sprint stages harder.'

Photo: Getty Images

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This Giro d’Italia doesn’t have the deepest sprinter field — no offense, Mark Cavendish — but it’s for good reason.

There just are not that many stages that will guarantee a mass gallop the purest of the pure sprinters.

Dylan Groenewegen? Nope. Fabio Jakobsen is racing the Tour of Hungary instead. Biniam Girmay, Arnaud Démare, Sam Bennett, and Jasper Philipsen are avoiding the Giro steeps and peaking for the Tour de France instead.

Sunday’s rollicking, crash-marred bunch finish won by Jonathan Milan (Bahrain Victorious) was about as easy as it gets for the fast-twitch gallopers this month until the Giro’s final week.

How hard are the rest of the sprint stages? Michael Matthews (Jayco-AlUla) had to turn himself inside out Monday to squeeze out the stage win after surviving two hard climbs in the final hour of racing.

Sprinters during this Giro will have to earn their wins, not only by being fastest at the line, but by being able to haul themselves over an endless string of climbs each stage before the finish.

“In this Giro, the sprint stages are all fairly lumpy,” said ex-pro Robbie McEwen told VeloNews. “For the guys on the start list, you go through most of them, they’re all sprinters who can get over a climb. It will be interesting to see how many sprints there are in this Giro.”

McEwen, who is calling the Giro this month on Eurosport and the GCN+ networks, said it’s a bit of shame that the peloton’s fastest sprinters don’t get their fair shot during the Giro.

Back in McEwen’s racing days a generation ago, the Giro would be packed with flat, rolling stages ideal for mass gallops.

“There are not as many completely flat days as you’d have in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when they would build a course that would bring a lot of Cipollini wins,” McEwen said.

Looking at this Giro, there are really one or two stages that fit the old-school, Giro sprinter profile. And both of them don’t come until the final week, with stage 17 rolling out of the Alps, and the final stage in Rome being contested on an urban circuit course.

Instead, this Giro is a rollercoaster of vertical challenges that will press the sprinters who are here to the maximum.

“There are not a whole heap of sprinters, so it’s not going to be overly crowded at the front for the sprints,” McEwen said. “There are some opportunities for someone to come out and grab a grand tour stage.”

But they’ll have to work for it. Each stage is littered with climbs.

Sometimes the vertical hurdles come early, like in stage 5 or 10, or in the middle, as in stage 6, 11, and 12, or they are like late-race barriers thrown up to trip up the sprinters like the bunch saw Monday and on stage 8.

Who does McEwen see in this field who can emerge as the big sprinter?

Cavendish, who crashed in Sunday’s late-race pileup and couldn’t reach the line Monday with the leaders, isn’t expected to race the entire Giro, so anyone who can handle the hills could come out big.

“For me, Kaden Groves is the standout sprinter on the on the start list, with a good team, followed by Fernando Gaviria,” said McEwen in a call. “There are some interesting guys in between, Milan, who’s got a long turn of speed, Consonni, who close last year.”

McEwen: ‘Organizers are making the sprint stages harder’

Cavendish crashed in the first sprint stage Sunday at the Giro d’Italia. (Photo: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)

The challenging 2023 Giro course profile reflects the general trend during the past two decades to spice up the grand tour racing blueprint.

Shorter stages, steeper climbs, lumpier profiles — they’re all part of the quest by race organizers to pack in as many spills and thrills into each day.

The old-school, flat-as-a-pancake transition stage that served as a parenthesis between climbs and time trials is a thing of the past.

And no one is complaining about that, but the sprinters simply don’t have it as easy as the likes of McEwen had a generation ago.

Long gone are the days that the likes of Alessandro Petacchi would rack up five, six, or even nine stage wins — as he did in the 2005 edition — in one Giro.

“You’d see that over the years, and you’d look at the road book and say, wow, this course is built for Cipollini or Petacchi,” McEwen said. “I remember when Bettini was at his peak and he was riding the Giro, and then you’d get all these punchy uphill finishes, and he’d come and win a lot of stages.

“That’s par for the course for the Giro, and I didn’t mind that so long as I got a few chances.”

McEwen said part of the reason that organizers are jazzing up their racing recipe is the advent of online streaming and the expansion of start-to-finish live broadcasting.

That’s raised the stakes that every stage needs to have some sparks or some hurdles thrown in to create something interesting for fans to tune in.

“Sometimes I think race organizers, maybe with a bit of broadcast pressure, are making the sprint stages harder,” he said.

“There are a lot of races now broadcast from start to finish, and we’ve been spoiled a bit with the likes of Wout van Aert and Van der Poel, Pogačar, how these guys just go ballistic all day long, and when you’re trying to make a TV product and satisfy your sponsors, maybe they don’t want — quote — a boring flat stage.

“The sprint itself is always super exciting, and the fight for position,” McEwen said. “The balance is about finding courses where if sprinters can hang on they can win, but not too hard to be ridden off the wheel by the climbers, because then you do have a boring sprint.”

McEwen, who won 12 Giro stages during his racing career, laments that sometimes pure sprinting doesn’t receive the appreciation the discipline deserves.

“You see a lot more [climbs] because it’s prime time, and they want that drama, but sometimes you need to let that drama play out on the flat roads between the sprint teams,” he said. “With everybody there, and everybody relatively fresh, and then you get an incredible final few kilometers.”

Tuesday sees the Giro’s first major climbs, but will Wednesday’s stage end in a sprint?

With plenty of vertical in the front half of the stage, that’s far from certain, and perhaps that’s exactly the outcome the race organizers want.

Michael Matthews and his team set a brutal pace in Monday’s finale to drop some of their direct sprint rivals, and he celebrates his first win since last year’s Tour de France. (Photo: LUCA BETTINI/AFP via Getty Images)

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