As Cadel Evans settles into life in the maglia rosa, the strength in depth of his BMC team will doubtless be put to the test at this Giro d'Italia, but on the race's first category 1 climb, the most prominent unit on show was a surprising one, the Ag2r-La Mondiale squad of Domenico Pozzovivo.
When the peloton hit the foot of the Carpegna, the expectation was that the Movistar team of Nairo Quintana would begin forcing to prepare the terrain for the Colombian climber. Instead, it was Ag2r's former mountain biker Alexis Vuillermoz who took up the initiative, his mouth opening wide and then clenching to a grimace in harmony with each pedal stroke
Aided by Matteo Montaguti and Hubert Dupont, Vuillermoz's forcing helped to whittle down the group of favourites to just under twenty by the summit of the Carpegna, while Pozzovivo bobbed along on his wheel. The intention was to divest Quintana and Evans of their teammates, but it bore an additional dividend when Michele Scarponi (Astana) began to suffer, and the Italian was dropped irretrievably come the penultimate climb, the Villaggio del Lago.
"We forced the pace on the Carpegna because that was the climb best suited to my characteristics. We wanted to try and shed the teammates of my rivals there because we knew that the last two climbs were strappi rather than real mountain passes," Pozzovivo told Cyclingnews after the stage.
Indeed, no rider was able to break the deadlock on the short haul to the line at Montecopiolo, and the in-form Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida) unleashed a finisseur's move to ghost past Robert Kiserlovski (Trek) for victory at the summit. The leading group fragmented under that impetus, and Pozzovivo crossed the line in 7th place, 8 seconds down on Ulissi, and just behind Evans and Rigoberto Uran.
"The team did some great work. I tried to finish it off in the finale, but with in Ulissi in that condition it was impossible to win," Pozzovivo explained. "But it was the first mountain stage and there was a decent selection, so I'm happy with how it went."
Pozzovivo demurred when it was put to him that Ag2r had been the surprise package of the day, grabbing the race by the scruff of the neck when others might have been expected to set the tempo on the Carpegna.
"I wasn't surprised by what my team did, it was more that it was a bit of a negative day for some of the other teams. I knew that my team would be up there on the climbs at this Giro and they confirmed that for me," he said.
If Ag2r were the most impressive team on Saturday – and both Ulissi and Evans praised their forcing – the principal overall contenders, with the exception of Scarponi, fought out something of a stalemate on the final climb. Pozzovivo agreed with Ulissi's assessment that the general level in the leading group was very similar.
"It was very even on that climb and I think it's still a bit early to say who is the strongest," said Pozzovivo, who now lies in 10th overall, 1:50 off the maglia rosa.
As he warmed down across the way from the Ag2r bus, BMC's Steve Morabito noted that a number of teams had kept close tabs on the day's early break to ensure that Evans' men would have to carry the pink jersey and the weight of controlling the race in the coming days, a task that will undoubtedly exact a toll. "I think it will be difficult for them, and it might well be the case that they try and give the jersey to another team, maybe during next week," said Pozzovivo.
Sunday's stage from Lugo to Sestola seems designed primarily for the escape artists and puncheurs to shine, and while Pozzovivo acknowledged that the overall contenders will have to be vigilant in the finale, he maintained that the race will be decided in earnest when it reaches its crescendo in the final week.
"I think the final climb tomorrow is better suited to me than today at least in the part before the final four kilometres," he said. "We'll see if I can stay up there with the leaders because we're not on the climbs that suit me best yet."