Cycling Weekly's guide to the biggest women's stage race, the Giro Rosa, which begins tomorrow.

The Tour de France isn’t the only major stage race starting this week: tomorrow sees the start of the biggest multi-day event in the women’s calendar, the Giro Rosa.

The 10-stage race sets off from the ancient city of Caserta, situated 35km north of Naples, with a two-kilometre prologue tomorrow. However, that belies what awaits the riders, particularly towards the end of the race.

Twelve months ago, American climber Mara Abbott took her second victory in the Giro d’Italia Internazionale Femminile.

She returns with her UnitedHealthcare team, who may struggle to support her on the challenging parcours, especially against the likes of the Rabo-Liv and Boels-Dolmans teams.

Contenders

womens-tour-2014-st4-Vos-wins-stage-4Rabo appear to be the team to beat this year. 2011 and 2012 winner Marianne Vos has said the team will race with three GC leaders – herself, unsung hero Anna van der Breggen and French road race and time trial champion Pauline Ferrand- Prevot. This trio dominated the Emakumeen Euskal Bira last month, finishing one-two-three on GC having ridden away from everybody else on stage one.

Defending champion Abbott has enjoyed a good season with UHC, with wins in the Vuelta a El Salvador and the Tour of the Gila, the latter of which is not a UCI-ranked event. Her two wins in the event have come riding for an American National team; speaking about racing in the UHC colours at the event, she recently said: “It is so exciting to be going this year with a group of girls who have been racing together all year, and to be able to enjoy the level of support that we have already had on the team throughout the season.”

Recently-crowned Belarussian road race and time trial champion Alena Amialiusik (Astana-BePink) showed glimpses of form at the Bira, and the hilly parcours is likely to suit the Italian-based rider.

Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (Hitec Products) was best of the best behind the Rabo-Liv trio at the Bira, and may get a chance to sign if team-mate Elisa Longo-Borghini loses time in the mountains.

Other possible GC threats include Evelyn Stevens (Specialized-lululemon), and 40-year-old Fabiana Luperini (Estadio de Mexico-Faren), who won the race between 1995 and 1998, then again in 2008, with an doping-related ban in between.

British riders
pooley-giro-donne-09.jpg
National Time Trial Champion Emma Pooley (Lotto-Belisol) finished second behind Vos in 2011 and 2012, and appears to be in excellent condition.

“Time trials are a perfect measure of form, but they’re a different kind of form [compared to road races],” she said after winning the British title in Celtic Manor last week. “I haven’t done many road races this year, and the ones I have done have been dominated by Rabobank riders!”

Sharon Laws and Hannah Barnes finished sixth and ninth in the National Road Race Championships on Sunday, which bodes well as they gear up to support team-mate Abbott in her title defence. Barnes is making her debut in the race: “stage one looks nice,” she told CW, referring to the opening day’s two-kilometre prologue!

Another debutant is Lucy Garner, who could be one to watch in the race’s flatter stages. When the terrain becomes hilly, the Giant-Shimano rider is likely to ride in support of German climber Claudia Lichtenberg, who won the Giro in 2009 under her maiden name of Häusler.

Lucy Martin completes the list of British riders in the race. Her Estadio de Mexico-Faren roster also contains Friends Life Women’s Tour stage winner Rossella Ratto.

Stages
Prologue (July 4): Caserta, 2km
A short, pan-flat, out and back time trial gets this year’s race underway. Could Hannah Barnes, a former Junior National 10 champion, cause a surprise here?

Stage one (July 5): Santa Maria A Vico – Santa Maria A Vico, 95.2km
Riders will tackle 11 laps of a circuit around the agricultural village, but with only one notable climb per lap, this could be one for the sprinters.

Stage two (July 6): Frattamaggiore – Frattamaggiore, 120km
Another circuit race, although the day’s loop is considerably bigger than stage one’s, measuring 18.7 kilometres. The final kilometre starts off technically challenging, before ending with a 700-metre straight.

Stage three (July 7): Caserta – San Donato Val Di Comino, 125.3km
This day is likely to see the first shake-up of the GC, as there is a five-kilometre climb up to the finish.

Stage four (July 8): Alba Adriatica-Jesi, 118km
The largely flat leg along the east coast is interrupted by the third-category climb of Via Macerata 10 kilometres from the finish. While not particularly challenging, its positioning and technical run-in could provide the springboard for an attack to succeed.

Stage five (July 9): Jesi – Cesentico, 118.3km
Crosswind alert! Virtually all of stage five takes place along the Adriatic coast, with riders heading north via Pesaro towards Cesentico. One fourth category climb is unlikely to split the peloton significantly –a strong sea breeze could, however.

Stage six (July 10): Gaiarine – San Fior, 112km
A stage that looks like it was designed by Belgian race organisers, particularly since there is a circuit within a circuit. Joking aside, this is the first Alpine stage of the race, with the category one La Crosetta climb positioned 28km from the finish.

Ivan Basso attack, Giro d'Italia 2010, stage 19Stage seven (July 11): Aprica – Chiavenna, 91.8km
Best known for its ski-slope, Aprica memorably hosted a Giro d’Italia stage finish in 2010, when Liquigas duo Ivan Basso and Vincenzo Nibali were outsprinted by Michele Scarponi in a three-up (right).

This stage is fairly unremarkable, although the stretch along the Mezzola Lake will look spectacular.

Stage eight (July 12): Verbania-San Domenico Di Varzo, 90.3km
Riders will finish atop the first-category climb of San Domenico, which is only a few kilometres away from the Italian-Switzerland border. Last year, Abbott won solo on this climb, which averages around 9 per cent.  This stage passes through Elisa Longo Borghini’s hometown where last year, instead of being in the race, she watched roadside in a wheelchair after breaking her hip & ripping open her stomach after crashing under a barrier in nationals – so lots of motivation for her.

Stage nine (July 13): Trezzo Sull’Adda-Madonna Del Ghisallo, 80.1km
Situated near Lake Como, the climb to Madonna Del Ghisallo has been a feature of Il Lombardia since after world war one. Riders will tackle the first-category climb in the same north-to-south direction, before finishing outside its famous sanctuary.