Round and Round: Europe’s Grand Tours


For fans of professional cycling, the spring-classic appetizers have been served and the table is set for the main courses.  The Grand Tours start Saturday (May 4) with the men’s Giro d’Italia in Turin, followed by the Tour de France in July, finishing with the Vuelta l’Espana in August.  

These races feature plenty of grueling mountain climbs and hair-raising sprints through the European countryside.  But these are not just bicycle races. They are three-week telenovelas filled with pain, glory and tragedy.  Winning just a single day’s stage race can be the pinnacle of a racer’s career; winning one of the tours puts the rider in the history books. A touch of wheels at 40 miles an hour can bring the rider’s season to an end, or worse. 

Not just men are capturing fans’ attention.  Women’s cycling continues to grow in visibility and popularity.  All three of the Grand Tours now feature a companion women’s race. 

The Vuelta Femenina runs April 28-May 5, where Alaska native Kristen Faulkner (EF-Education team) won a long stage Wednesday.  The Giro Women race, July 7-14, was recently elevated to World Tour status. The third running of the Tour de France Femmes, Aug. 12-18, will likely see defending champion Demi Vollering compete for a second consecutive overall title. 

This year’s men’s Giro will cover 3,321 km from the Turin start, then will wind south to Naples and Pompeii before turning north again to the Dolomites, then finishing in Rome on May 26. The route features six mountain finishes as high as 2,758 meters (9,050 feet), and two-time trials (where riders race individually against the clock). 

The big favorite to take home the Maglia Rosa, or the Pink Jersey of the overall winner, is the Slovenian superstar Tadej Pogacar (Po-gach’-a), the recent winner of the Liège-Bastogne-Liège race.   The UAE-Emirates team leader has won the Tour de France twice, along with many other major races, and might have won last year’s Tour had he not broken a wrist in an earlier race. 

But the field is wide-open for other spots on the podium, or maybe the top spot if Pogacar falters.   

American Sepp Kuss (Team Visma), who won last year’s Vuelta, could be in the mix. Also contending will be UK rider Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers), last year’s Giro runner-up and a former Tour champion. Other riders to watch include Frenchman Romain Bardet (Team DSM), and Australian Ben O’Connor (Decathalon AG2R). Last year’s Giro winner, Primoz Roglic, is not riding the Giro this year.  The 2023 Tour winner, the Dane Jonas Vingegaard, is out with an injury.  

Pro road racing, despite the doping scandals that tarred the sport a decade ago and COVID restrictions, remains enormously popular throughout Europe. Each day’s Giro storylines are reported breathlessly by a huge cadre of reporters, feeding the appetite of the eager tifosi (fans) who crowd the racecourse from start to finish.   

Families camp for days on mountainsides just to see their heroes race by for a couple of seconds. At a Tour stage finish in Spain in 1991, I vividly recall the electric excitement of standing among thousands of cheering fans as bikes flew by wheel-to-wheel at 60 kilometers an hour. It is a traveling Super Bowl that goes on for 21 days across the country. 

The Giro is known for its brutally long stages, and this year is no exception.  Most stages are 150 km or longer, and there are two mountain stages longer than 200 km.  

The race field, or peloton, is made up of 22 teams with eight riders apiece.  While the General Classification (GC) winner is the rider with the lowest cumulative time over three weeks, and takes home the pink jersey, there are races within races that add spice to the competition. Climbing specialists compete for the King of the Mountains jersey, sprinters fight for the points jersey, the best young rider wears the white jersey. The jerseys can, and do, change hands daily as the race progresses from hilly to flat to mountainous. 

Each race is a giant chess game. The wealthiest teams with the strongest riders – like UAE and Ineos — compete for the overall win, carefully husbanding their energy for mountain stages.  Weaker teams hope just to snatch a stage win and capture some TV time to advertise their sponsors.  Riders in each specialty warily watch their competition, hoping for just the right moment to get the jump on their rivals and gain a few seconds.  

Pogacar is so strong many are speculating he might take the pink jersey the first day and hold it for most if not all the entire race. If he proves as strong as the bookmakers think, he will be in a strong position to command the Tour de France in July. 

The Giro record-book is full of heroic victories under impossible circumstances and tragedies.  Italy’s “Champion of Champions” Fausto Coppi won it five times. In 1988, Andy Hampsten was the first American to capture the overall Giro title after winning a mountain stage race in a driving snowstorm. 

Americans like Hampsten and Greg Lemond, who won the Tour in 1986, were emerging as contenders on the same stage as the best Europeans.  But the hard-earned credibility was destroyed by revelations about Lance Armstrong’s years-long team doping abuses, which he admitted to in 2013. Today, only one U.S. team, EF-Education, competes in the World Tour. 

The Giro still carries the legacy of Italian climbing great Marco Pantani.  Pantani was one a handful of riders to win both the Giro and Tour de France, among many other races, in the 1990s.  But this was the era of widespread doping.  Pantani was leading the Giro in 1999, after winning a spectacular mountain ascent, when he was disqualified after a drug test.  The humiliation sent him on a downward spiral that ended with his death by overdose. 

American riders are once again declaring their presence in top European races. Among the men, Sepp Kuss is a true podium contender.  Several other U.S. riders are also reaching top form, including Neilson Powless (EF-Education), Matteo Jorgenson (Movistar), Quinn Simmons (Trek), and Brandon McNulty (UAE).  

American women riders are also moving into their own. In addition to Faulkner, who won the Vuelta stage Wednesday, watch for other U.S. pro riders including Lily Williams (Human Powered Health) and Veronica Ewers (EF-Education). 

Despite the sport’s roller-coaster history with doping and the pandemic, the new peloton of powerful young men and women riders promises to excite fans around the world for years to come. 

Mike Merritt
Mike Merritt
Mike Merritt is a former writer and editor for local newspapers. He recently retired as senior executive policy advisor for the Port of Seattle.


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