Cycling Tour: Giro d’Italia , Tour de France or Vuelta?

Europe is home to Grand Tour cycling! Yes, those crazy 3 week long races where riders brave the high mountains, ferocious sprints, at times dangerous descents, high speed crashes and often extreme weather conditions. There are also all those magical moments of live television coverage as the peloton passes chateaus, fields of sunflowers, flowing mountain rivers, sites of geographical wonder plus crazed cycling fans screaming roadside for their favourite riders. Races such as the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and La Vuelta a España are all household names for those who follow professional cycling. This level of interest grows for those who then participate in recreational cycling to the point where one also wishes to experience the thrill of it all!

When it comes to contemplating which race is best for you one should first know that the Giro spans the month of May, the Tour pedals its way through July and La Vuelta spans August and September.

Not to be outdone the Gavia Pass is a tough ride

Sierra guests at the top of Gavia Pass after climbing from Bormio

Giro d’Italia

The Giro d’Italia is considered by many as the most beautiful of the 3 races. Why? The small towns embrace the race and the cyclists (both elite and recreational) are loved. Pink balloons and streamers line the streets adding to the atmosphere. It is the only grand cycling tour (up until now) where the locals have stopped me mid-ride offering cups of red wine and even grappa on a cold climb in the Dolomites. Bars and restaurants are also extremely welcoming to foreigners on a bike! For the most part the weather is comfortable but it is still spring in Europe so expect the unexpected. Begin with cycling layers in the morning which usually get stripped back as the day unfolds. The high mountain passes in the Dolomites (2000m + altitude) and the Stelvio/Gavia Passes at 2500m + mean freezing conditions are also possible. Just a few years back we had the Stelvio Pass closed half way up and the entire Giro cycling stage was changed to accommodate the low snow line. I wouldn’t let this put you off though if the Giro d’Italia is at the top of your bucket-list but potential changes to race and tour itineraries can and do happen.

Tour de France

Le Tour is ‘numero uno’ thanks to the publicity and media frenzy which is generated around arguably the world’s biggest annual sporting event. Access to the pro riders though is more difficult as chaperones guard them from team buses to start lines, team hotels and media arrangements. It is definitely the pinnacle for a cyclist though so the biggest names front up for the chance to wear the Maillot Jaune (yellow jersey). The thousands of dramatic sporting images help to promote this mythical event year on year on year. Most Sierra clients joining us for a pro-race cycling tour experience will first choose the Tour de France. Le Tour has a huge appeal and international spectators typically outnumber the locals as Belgians, Dutch, Norwegians, Australians, British and New Zealanders line up their camper vans in the best vantage points often days in advance!

Fun times on the oversize TDF bikes on the Aubisque

Always time to have some fun at Le Tour – this time at Col d’Aubisque!

La Vuelta a España

For those of you looking for contact with the locals then the Spanish ‘La Vuelta’ race provides this in droves. English speaking can be limited but the surprise on their faces as they find out how far our guests have travelled never gets tiring! Gestures and body language will get you a long way unless you would like some translation from one of our guides. La Vuelta a España race is also now run by Amaury Sports Organisation (A.S.O.) who also roll-out the Tour de France which means the image and organisation is first class. Over the last few years many big name cyclists also find their way to La Vuelta for a final chance to hunt a late season win while others get in some important training kilometres before the world championships. When it comes to following the Vuelta race stages there is definitely a more relaxed atmosphere. The police keep the roads open longer which allows us to design excellent cycling routes with more time on the bike rather than waiting roadside during a TDF road closure. The warm weather is another major advantage for many of our southern hemisphere guests who are looking to escape the winter and get a headstart on their cycling friends back home. Secret training!

Chilling out at La Vuelta

La Vuelta allows outstanding behind the scenes access!

Whatever you decide though and all three of the grand tour cycling races will provide a cycling travel experience full of memories that will last a lifetime. Meeting the riders, being treated yourself like a pro for a week, riding critical kilometres from key race stages, making new friends, epic mountain climbs, overnight stays in old convents, castles, agriturismo and casa rural establishments, dining on local cuisine and sipping delightful wines! What more do you want?

The Final Word – Which Cycling Grand Tour Should You Select?

So what is my favourite cycling grand tour? In my humble opinion La Vuelta is my favourite because it is more exciting. Most of the stages are attacking and riders are more aggressive because it is the final grand tour of the year. At the time of La Vuelta most of the riders have ridden a similar number of competition days so form is good and they have nothing to lose.

The Giro d’Italia is a close second for me as the big mountains in the north always provide a dramatic backdrop. Scraggy limestone peaks above green meadows just never gets boring! Furthermore, at the Tour de France one is applauded for finishing in the top 15. No one rides for the top 15 in the Giro so expect surprises all the way to the finish line.

The Tour de France comes in at third place but only based on a pure cycling tour experience. It is still a simply awesome event but more patience is required as external factors like the Gendarmeria (French police) and their at times unpredictable road closures come into play. It was fifteen years ago though that I first packed my bike and headed to Europe from Australia. The Tour de France was my first stop and the allure of Le Tour still continues to attract first time cycling tour adventurers. Late nights watching the peloton wizz through gorges, around switchbacks and sprint with the Arc de Triomphe in the background will do that to you I suppose!

Author: Paul D’Andrea (Owner of Sierra Sports & Tours)

2019 Giro d’Italia – A trip down memory lane!


October in Europe is always an interesting period as the Grand Tour cycling races begin to release the stage profiles for the following year. Now that the anticipation and speculation has turned into reality we are pleased to report a few of our favourite findings from the 2019 Giro d’Italia race route.

In 2019 the Tour de France will pay a special homage to Eddy Merckx with two initial stages in Belgium. The Giro d’Italia, not wanting to miss out, has also prepared a nostalgic itinerary for its 2019 race edition. Giro #102 features three legendary climbs in the final week of racing (Passo di Gavia, Mortirolo & Passo Manghen) and a Stage 21 individual time trial for Verona and its Roman Amphitheatre.

Giro 1949: Cuneo to Pinerolo – A Solo Victory for the Ages!

Going back to 1949 and Fausto Coppi rode alone for 192km as he attacked through the Alpes during Stage 17 to claim his third pink jersey! During the 2019 Giro d’Italia the race will honour the 70th Anniversary of this remarkable solo victory with the stage also starting and finishing in Cuneo and Pinerolo like all that time ago. The 2019 Giro stage in no way resembles what Coppi endured but expect a true Italian celebration as the towns are ‘dressed in pink’ for what was arguably Coppi’s finest ever victory! Check out this short video of Coppi’s great feat in 1949!


Fausto Coppi tribute on Col d’Izoard after his 1949 Giro d’Italia heroics!

Verona ITT – Sabotage at the 1984 Giro?

To continue our ‘ride down Giro memory lane’ and we go back to Stage 21 of the 1984 Giro d’Italia. It was during the Stage 21 individual time trial around Verona that Italian hero Francisco Moser finally won his only Grand Tour title over French cycling star Laurent Fignon. The entire 1984 Giro d’Italia was a battle between Moser and Fignon and they were the only two riders to actually wear the Maglia Rosa that year. Despite many stories of sabotage during the 1984 Giro (time penalities for Fignon, roadside assistance for Moser on the big Dolomites cycling climbs, removing the Stelvio Pass to Fignon’s disadvantage when in fact there was no snow …..) the most intriguing story we think surrounds the Stage 21 time trial in Verona.

Moser took more than 2 minutes over Fignon during the Stage 21 time trial to reclaim the pink jersey but it was later alleged that the official race helicopter had flown directly in front of Fignon and behind Moser creating a headwind and tailwind respectively! Whatever the case the photos of the 1984 Giro d’Italia victory for Francisco Moser inside the Verona Roman Amphitheatre are now part of Italian cycling folklore. Three second Giro d’Italia places during the late 70’s were finally rewarded with victory for Moser in 1984! Follow here for a short video from the 1984 Giro d’Italia Stage 21 time trial!


Francisco Moser celebrating his 1984 Giro d’Italia victory in Verona

Mortirolo & Giro 1994 – A legend is Born!

To finish up, Mortirolo in our opinion, would have to be in the top three climbs for difficulty when it comes to European pro cycling. Monte Zoncolan (Italy) and El Angliru (Spain) are the other beasts which have average climb gradients soaring above 10%. Relatively speaking it’s a new Giro climb as it wasn’t until 1990 that the road to Mortirolo was asphalted and included in the Giro route. 2019 marks 15 years since a young Marco Pantani came to prominence as the then ‘gregario’ executed a solitary Mortirolo escape during Stage 15 of the 1994 Giro.  The ‘Pirate’ left Miguel Indurain and Claudio Chiappucci in his wake. It was not enough to win the Giro d’Italia but he found himself second on the podium and the legend of Marco Pantani was born that very day on the Mortirolo. Stage 16 of the 2019 Giro d’Italia will again scale the summits of Mortirolo just before the finish line in Ponte di Legno so be sure to be watching as the Giro is set to be ignited yet again. A successful breakaway on the Mortirolo in 2019 is likely to deliver a career defining stage win! Here is a short video of the 1994 battle between Pantani & Indurain on the Mortirolo!

So who will win the 2019 Giro d’Italia?

25 years after Francisco Moser was crowned Giro d’Italia winner and the burning question today surrounds whether another Italian hero can claim the main prize inside the Verona Roman Amphitheatre? The 2019 Giro final stage time trial only measures 15.6km and it would have been nice to see something a bit longer, a stage closer to the 42km raced by Moser and Fignon back in 1984. Perhaps the 2019 Giro d’Italia has been prepared with Vincenzo Nibali in mind? Stage 15 of the 2019 Giro route, for example, is a replica of ‘Il Lombardia’ cycling monument race which Nibali has won twice before. It is still a long way out to make big predictions but with Chris Froome and Tom Dumoulin most likely to focus 100% on the 2019 Tour de France, Vincenzo Nibali looking for his third Giro d’Italia crown and Simon Yates fresh from his 2018 La Vuelta a España success are our two top picks right now. No point sitting on the fence though so we have Nibali ahead of Yates by a wheel length!