Following last Saturday's Giro di Lombardia, the one-day Italian classic known as "the race of the falling leaves" that traditionally marks the end of the pro season, the peloton turned its attention to 2012 at the official presentations for next year's Giro d'Italia and Tour de France. Both races will return to more traditional and less arduous parcours than in recent years, and both look set to shake up the status quo among the favorites.
At a gala event on Sunday in Milan, Giro organizers showed off what looks like a difficult parcours, but one that they stressed is more approachable than the courses of recent years. Remember that Giro officials, especially ex-race director Angelo Zomegnan, have butted heads with riders in the past three editions over long transfers between stages and courses that provided great spectacle but that some racers said verged on perilous (dirt road climbs, hairy descents). With the exception of an international transfer after the first three stages in Denmark, which get underway on May 5, the 2012 Giro should cut down on post-stage bus rides by following a fairly linear clockwise route around the country. The race features a largely flat first half and a last week stacked with mountain stages, most notably the penultimate stage over the Mortirolo and up the fierce slopes of the 9,045-foot Stelvio Pass. And though there's a 31.5-kilometer time trial on the final day in Milan, the difficult climbing in the previous days will likely have decided the overall.
While we'd love to see Contador pull a Giro-Tour double, the reigning champ announced that he will forgo defending his 2011 title for a concerted run at the Tour de France (pending the outcome of his doping appeal). That means that the Giro mantle will necessarily change hands this year, with the Liquigas-Cannondale duo of Ivan Basso and Vincenzo Nibali, who are both excellent climbers with solid time trialing pedigrees, looking like good bets. Lampre-ISD also appears well equipped for 2012, with 2004 Giro winner Damiano Cunego reinvigorated following his seventh-place finish at the Tour de France last year as well as Michele Scarponi, who took second in the 2011 Giro.
The Tour de France, on the other hand, looks tailor-made for GC contenders with strong time trial pedigrees, as the course includes 96.1 kilometers of time trialing over three separate stages. That's more than double the ITT mileage than in 2011 and the most since the 2007 edition, when Contador claimed his first Tour title. There's one fewer mountaintop finishes than last year (three in 2012 vs. four in 2011), which seems to tip the balance away from the pure climbers. Having said that, a smattering of never-before included climbs could make even the middle mountain stages interesting, and it's also worth remembering Stages 16 and 17 from the 2011 edition, when Contador, Samuel Sanchez, and Cadel Evans shook things up and netted reasonable time gains on back-to-back downhill finishes.
If the individual time trial is the race of the truth, the truth is the Schlecks don't have much of a chance in 2012. Given that they both lost huge chunks of time in just 42 kilometers of ITT in 2011, at least one of the Luxembourgers should really turn their attention to the more climbing-friendly Giro course. Defending champ Evans has to be smiling after the presentation of this course, which suits him well, as does TT-specialist Wiggins, especially in light of his encouraging third place at this year's Vuelta. The biggest wildcard is three-time Tour winner Contador, who has all the experience and skills necessary to win in 2012 but whose bid to do so won't take hold until after the appeal to his Clenbuterol trial is decided.
Let the speculation and prognosticating begin.