The Tour de France is Grand. But Is the Giro Tougher?

106th giro d'italia 2023 stage 10
Is the Giro d’Italia the Tougher Grand Tour?Tim de Waele - Getty Images

It’s not debatable that Tadej Pogačar is the best all-around cyclist in the pro peloton. The 25-year-old Slovenian’s ability to win one-day classics and three-week Grand Tours justifiably compares with Eddy Merckx, the greatest racer of all time. However, Pogačar has never ridden the Giro d’Italia—the first Grand Tour of the season preluding the Tour de France. But he is thinking about it.

Each of the three Grand Tours has its own flavor and unique challenges. The highly anticipated and widely followed Tour de France follows a tried-and-true formula of an opening week of relatively flat stages, a brief stint in the mountains, more flat transition stages, another brief stint in the mountains, and then a short run into Paris.

But the Giro d’Italia offers a thrilling blend of diverse terrain, technical challenges, and mano-a-mano racing, creating a more dynamic experience for riders. With reduced pressure from teams and media, the Italian Grand Tour stands out as a race where athletes can test their limits while savoring the joys of Italian cuisine and scenery.

Lots of climbing

“The Giro is much more surprising because it doesn’t follow a general formula,” explains Andy Hampsten, the first and only U.S. American to win Italy’s grand tour. “There can be mountains in almost any region of Italy. What surprised me the first Giro I ever did, and I kept an eye peeled for it later, were just incredibly hilly days, usually in central Italy in the Marche or Umbria or even further south in Campania or Calabria.”

Easy stages in the Giro where racers can rest and relax can be hard to find. “A stage without categorized mountains can still be up and down every kilometer of the race,” adds Hampsten. “Those days that usually aren’t highly rated might finish in a reasonably leveled area, and a sprint finish will be the prediction. But they could have 2,000 meters of climbing throughout the day, which could really shatter the field.”

Chaotic finishes

After all the ups and downs, the difficulties aren’t over when a stage reaches the finishing town. The towns that pay to host the finish don’t want to waste their investment. “They want to highlight the best parts of the towns, usually through some gates that emperors in the Roman Empire built. That might be in the final kilometer, and it might get down to a lane and a half or two lanes,” notes Hampsten, who lives and runs Cinghiale Cycling Tours out of his home base in Tuscany.

“When I did the Giro in 2009, you would be close to the finish because you were entering the town, but they would find ways to send you around the neighborhood and through the shopping district just to make it total chaos before the finish,” remembers former NBC Tour de France analyst and grand tour winner Chris Horner. “It was technical. You could crash in the middle of it. I was scared for my life on a few of those finishes.”

“In the Tour, you will come into the finishes on much bigger, wider roads. There are still crashes at the Tour, but there are other reasons for that. [The Giro is] a little scarier in terms of the towns, but the Tour is scarier in terms of the fight for position. Every team has their A team riders, so the level of the peloton is super fast and curb to curb the whole time,” adds Horner.

A grand tour for the neo-pros

Italian cycling fans, known as ‘tifosi’, go wild for the Giro, but the Tour de France is more popular worldwide. Results at the Grand Boucle can make or break a team’s sponsorship, which goes a long way in explaining the composition of the teams for each race. “Normally, what happens when the riders show up at the Giro is that they are bringing A guys mixed with B guys and C guys,” notes Horner. “Typically, when you go to the Tour de France, it is your whole A team.”

“The Giro and the Vuelta [a España] are where you will bring in your neo-pro guys or your one- or two-year guys who haven’t done their first grand tour,” explains Horner. “Even Visma-Lease a Bike has to bring in a neo-pro sooner or later!”

But not having a team composed of all your best riders has some interesting side effects. Horner notes that at the Giro and Vuelta, you see much more ‘mano a mano’ racing in the stage finales, whereas on the tour, the teams are so stacked that it is common for the top teams to have five or six guys on the front on the last climb.

Lower stakes

Another side effect of the difference in popularity between the Giro and the Tour is the pressure on the racers. “It is so much easier for a foreigner or a racer on a foreign team to do your seven or eight hours of race and podium, and interviews then get to the hotel and relax in a delightful country without the towns being completely overrun like it would be at the Tour de France,” recalls Hampsten. “At the Tour, it is hard to get away from the pressure for the racers. I would say they recuperate better at the Tour of Italy than the Tour de France.”

“He’s [Tadej Pogačar] going to realize that it is not as stressful and the press is a little bit easier. He is going to realize that the Giro is fun compared to the Tour,” agrees Horner. “When he gets off the bike, I mean, he is Pogačar, so he is going to be swarmed a little bit, but it’s not going to be the all-demanding every member of the world press in your face.”

Unpredictable weather and great food

The weather in the Giro can be horrendous. Hampsten won his Giro after attacking the peloton and surviving an epic blizzard on the Gavia Pass on the stage, known as ‘The Day Strong Men Cried.’ “It’s rare to have terrible weather in the Tour in July. Certainly, in any hilly area [in Italy], it could be snowy or cold rain, which is just about as bad as snow,” explains Hampsten. “People are demoralized. Any wet day. It’s more nerve-wracking because there are more crashes with the bad traction.”

Hampsten, the first American to win the Tour stage to l’Alpe d’Huez, is a true gourmand. “And don’t even get me started on the food. It is much nicer for all racers to have good food in Italy than in France. The Italians are just so proud of their food. It makes so much difference for any racer’s morale to have wonderful, healthy, easy-to-digest food that’s tasty. It is a delight for the racers.”

Whether it’s the Giro or the Tour, the riders will give 100 percent, and the racing will be exciting. But the Giro has its own unique qualities and challenges, and it seems to always provide a worthy winner; this year’s might be Tadej Pogačar. So don’t wait until July to be excited about bike racing.

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