The highs and lows of the 2017 Giro d’Italia – from the road and the air

Lorena Jones gets a unique perspective on stages 18 and 19 of the Giro d'Italia

The 100th edition of the Giro d’Italia brought with it iconic climbs, enthralling racing and tributes to some of the Corsa Rosa’s greatest champions at every turn. While the battle for the maglia rosa naturally dominated the limelight, the chance to make a mark in a historic edition of the Italian Grand saw battles unfolding all over the road. RoadCyclingUK’s Lorena Jones experienced stages 18 and 19 from the heart of the race – watching the former from an official race car and the latter from the skies.

Channeling his way through the storm drains, refusing to let go of Mikel Landa’s wheel, Tejay van Garderen jumps from behind his rival and times his attack to perfection with seconds to spare; a quick glance back before the American sits up to take the win. Not just any win but his first ever Grand Tour stage win, on the queen stage of the Giro d’Italia.

“A stage win would be nice,” van Garderen told me just hours earlier ahead of the start of stage 18 of the race, when I asked him if he was aiming for the maglia azzurra, the Giro’s blue mountains classification jersey. The 28-year-old’s palmares already included three team time trial stage wins at the Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana – but, despite two top five overall finishes at the Tour, van Garderen was yet to cross the line arms aloft at a Grand Tour.

Stage 18 of the Giro d’Italia took riders on a 137km route from Moena to Ortisei/St. Ulrich via five climbs in the Dolomites

Sat in the front passenger’s seat inside the official race car, now a few kilometres ahead of the start line, the unexpected serenity inside the vehicle is quickly replaced by a buzz of excitement as we attempt to catch a first glimpse of the riders through the rear window. The driver steps on the accelerator as news of what is happening behind us begins to crackle over the race radio.

Thirty seconds, 40 seconds… the distance between the early breakaway and the peloton quickly increases. It’s a familiar format in almost any bike race, with a group of valiant riders attacking in hope of glory – this time on one of the Giro’s most important stages through the Dolomites. The intensity with which the start of the race unfurls is both surprising and leg-sapping, and while van Garderen isn’t in the initial break, he’s part of a later escape which goes on to contest the win.

A large break formed early in the stage, with riders bidding for glory on the Giro’s queen stage

The allure of the Dolomites

While the Tour de France has the Alps and the Pyrenees, the Dolomites are no less iconic and have a compelling history which, combined with the stark beauty of the jagged peaks and plunging cliffs, make the Giro the most beautiful Grand Tour to many fans.

However, van Garderen had earlier told me it is not the mountains, now dramatically rising above us as we climb the first of the day’s five ascent, which have produced the wildest racing in his career, but the violent crosswinds of stage two of the 2015 Tour de France.

Van Garderen rode strongly that day, finishing at the head of the second group, four seconds behind stage winner Andre Greipel and eventual champion Chris Froome. He would also go on to survive a crash-laden third stage and the cobbles of stage four, but would be forced to abandon the race on stage 17 due to illness, having been third overall.

Despite van Garderen’s memories of the 2015 Tour’s crosswind-and-cobble-filled Grand Depart, with the sight of the unrelentingly long, twisting and steep Dolomites climbs unfolding beneath the wheels of our car, it’s hard not to spare a thought for the heroes of the Giro d’Italia – not least those early riders who tackled these ascents on fixed gear bicycles.

The road winds up the mountainside past barren ski slopes

We soon pull up closer to other cars in the Giro’s motorcade and now, side by side, my driver takes the time to introduce me to his colleagues, many of them former racers and stage winners of the Giro d’Italia themselves. Once the Giro has you in its grasp, it’s hard to let go.

The same goes for fans, too, and supporters line the roadsides at key spots. We chance upon Didi the Devil, an iconic figure of Grand Tours and the tifosi, who this year has fashioned his trident in tribute of the 100th anniversary of the Giro d’Italia. With the race now heating up, it’s easy to sense the excitement increasing in everyone – whether fans lining the road or those inside the cars – as the riders make their way up the mountain.

Giro d'Italia 2017 (Pic: Lorena Jones/Factory Media)
Giro d'Italia 2017 (Pic: Lorena Jones/Factory Media)
Giro d'Italia 2017 (Pic: Lorena Jones/Factory Media)

Hold on tight

We naturally slow on the climbs, peering through the back window at the arrowhead of the lead group. Each climb follows a similar pattern and as we approach the summit, it’s time to step on the gas and make haste. With the riders capable of hitting speeds of up to 100km/h on the descents – and often able to descend quicker than a car – our vehicle needs a healthy gap. We need to make our escape and the expressions on the faces of those riders in the breakaway suggest they’re just as eager to rid themselves of the peloton.

On the final descent, however, we’re caught between two riders. It’s time to hang on as our driver skilfully chases the course of the road, interweaving with the motorcycle support and accelerating out of every switchback, the screeching of the tyres beneath us and the pounding sun above adding a flurry of excitement on top of the crescendo of the race itself.

We then decide to stop and watch the riders pass. I take the opportunity to get out of the car and crouch by the roadside, close enough to the action to almost hear the heartbeat of each rider. Having lost our position in the motorcade, we make our own way to the finish to watch the finale.

At the head of the race, it’s van Garderen and Landa, the final survivors from the escape group, who go head-to-head on the final 9km ascent, which is followed by four kilometres of false flat. I’m here as a guest of Tag Heuer, a new sponsor for the BMC Racing team this year, and we watch van Garderen take the honours from the finish gantry. He’s made the sponsors happy.

Time to take to the skies…

Head in the clouds

And yet our time at the Giro d’Italia has more thrills in store. The travelling show that is the Giro never stops as it winds it way around the country towards the finish in Milan and, following van Garderen’s podium ceremony in Pontives, stage 19 quickly comes into focus.

It’s another day in the Dolomites, focusing on the final climb of Piancavallo – most famous for Marco Pantani’s win on its slopes in 1998. Now it’s Landa’s time and, having just missed out on victory to van Garderen the previous day, it’s the Team Sky rider’s turn to claim victory.

For me, it’s time to take to the skies having watched the riders sign on and the race depart. We make our own race to the helicopter, waiting on a nearby football field, for our flight over the Dolomites above the Giro d’Italia.

Giro d'Italia 2017 (Pic: Lorena Jones/Factory Media)

Having diplomatically negotiated which of the group would take the co-pilot’s position at the front of the chopper, we climb onto the zebra-patterned seats and the rotor blades thud into action. I’ve flown in a helicopter before so have a sense of what to expect, but, in reality, little can prepare anyone for watching what is, in my opinion, cycling’s best Grand Tour unfold beneath you.

In the absence of race radio we are relying on our Twitter feeds for live updates as the helicopter brushes the tree line in search of the peloton below. We spot the TV helicopter and soon find the four breakaway riders working together to increase their lead.

Of course, we’re not as close to the action as the previous day, but with the riders just ants on the road beneath us, it’s a vantage point which quickly brings the scale and beauty of the mountain environment into focus. We can appreciate the distance between the breakaway group and the chasing peloton, now strung out across the road behind, and sense the riders’ efforts as they fight to hold the wheel in front, threading through the trees below.

Giro d'Italia 2017 (Pic: Lorena Jones/Factory Media)

With our head in the clouds, our pilot makes his way to the double-peaked summit of the mountain ahead, too high for the road to pass. If the Dolomites are beautiful from ground level, then they are even more stunning here. We start to make our way back to valley for lunch but it’s time for some fun first, playfully tilting the helicopter from one side to another through a series of sweeping turns.

After lunch and another stint in the sky we return to terra firma to watch Landa take the stage win at the finish line and cement his position at the top of the mountains classification, while Nairo Quintana wrestles the pink jersey back from Tom Dumoulin.

Both van Garderen and Landa have produced memorable performances during my time with the race and, two days later, Dumoulin overturns Quintana in the final time trial in Milan to be crowned champion of the 100th Giro d’Italia – a race that will live long in the memory, whether watched from the road, air or your television screen.

RoadCyclingUK was a guest of Tag Heuer, sponsor of the BMC Racing team and official timekeeper of the Giro d’Italia.


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