Stage 6 is relatively short at 157km but includes the long-but-gradual early climb to Bocca della Selva after 54km. The descent takes the race into the Molise and Abruzzo hills, passing Isernia on the way to Castel del Sangro.
The small town, made famous by Joe McGinniss' book about its football team, sits at 797m and marks the start of the climb to the finish. Il Garibaldi, the Giro roadbook, describes the climb as being 17km long with an average gradient of 4.8 per cent, but that fails to explain that the road to the finish is divided in two. After seven kilometres at seven per cent, there is a four-kilometre flat section that breaks up the climbing, which then resumes with three kilometres at 7.5 per cent followed by an easier gradient of 3.5 per cent in the final few kilometres to the finish. The stage ends with the final 500 metres at eight per cent, offering a chance for a final attack to try to take the 10-6-4 time bonuses.
As Gazzetta dello Sport journalist Claudio Gregor recalls in today’s newspaper, the climb has long been part of the Giro d’Italia, and was the high point of the 1909 race. Back then it was a dirt road when bikes weighed 15kg. The first ever finish in Roccaraso was in 1952, with Giorgio Albani – later to become Eddy Merckx's directeur sportif at Molteni – winning the stage. Bernhard Hinault won his first ever Giro d’Italia stage in Roccaraso in 1980, with Moreno Argentin wining the most recent finish in 1987.
This year the climb to Roccaraso will host the first showdown between the overall contenders and also test Tom Dumoulin’s form as he tries to retain the pink jersey.
The wide roads and steady gradients will make for a fast race, with a strong team vital if an overall contender wants to make a selection on the climb. We can expected to see Vincenzo Nibali’s Astana squad try to test the collective strength of Alejandro Valverde’s Movistar team and Mikel Landa’s Team Sky henchmen.
Nibali is in sixth place overall, still 26 seconds down on pink jersey Dumoulin after losing four seconds to Valverde in the hectic finish in Benevento on stage 5. After seeing former teammate Landa seemingly struggling on stage 4's late climb to Praia a Mare, the Sicilian may be tempted to test his rivals’ form and try to gain some time.
“The Roccaraso stage could tell us something and it could tell us nothing,” Nibali warned after the finish in Benevento. “I won’t say that I’d prefer it to be raining but maybe it would suit me. We’ll just keep trying to ride like we’ve ridden up to now. We’ve been going well as a team.”
Domenico Pozzovivo (AG2R-La Mondiale) has often won the mountain stages in the south of Italy and knows the climb to Roccaraso.
“I’ve ridden it in training. It’s really two climbs in one and so needs to be ridden with intelligence,” he warned when speaking to Gazzetta dello Sport.
“It’s the first tough day of the first week, so I’ll try to come up with something, especially if the racing is as aggressive as on the stage to Praia a Mare. I was surprised to see that Landa was caught out there. He’s a pure climber and so will no doubt come good in the final week. The Astana team seems really strong and so does Dumoulin. He keeps saying he’s not at the Giro d’Italia to target the overall classification but he’s always up there.”