After six days of suffering in the mountains, the sprinters have a final chance of a stage victory at the Giro d’Italia on stage 18 on Thursday in Santa Maria di Sala, near Venice, before the final mountain stages and the all-decisive Verona time trial on Sunday.
Arnaud Demare (Groupama-FDJ) and Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe) have dominated the sprint finishes this year after Elia Viviani (Deceuninck-QuickStep) struggled to fire on all cylinders, and the two are expected to fight for victory at the end of the 222km descent from Val Pusteria, close to the Austrian border, down to the heart of the Veneto region.
They are also locked in a battle for the points jersey, with just 13 points separating them and a sliding scale of points awarded on the line, with the stage winner scoring 50 points. The intermediate sprint after 159km could also turn into a battle for the cyclamen-coloured jersey, with the top three scoring 12, eight and six points.
With Viviani, Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal), Sacha Modolo (EF Education First), Jakub Mareczko (CCC Team) and Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates) already out of the race, Demare and Ackermann’s biggest challengers are likely to be the ever-hungry breakaways. With fatigue taking its toll in the peloton, many riders are happy to let a move go away early and stay away all the way to the finish.
It will be up to Bora-Hansgrohe and Groupama-FDJ to lead the chase as the stage descends from Valdaora at 1,096 metres to Santa Maria di Sala at just 13 metres above sea level. The only climbs of the long day in the saddle are up the gentle valley road to Cimabianche in the opening 30km and then the category 4 climb of Pieve di Alpago after 118km. From Conegliano – the home to Italian prosecco, the final 65km are pan flat, passing north of Treviso and on towards Padova.
Santa Maria di Sala has never hosted a Giro d’Italia stage before and is the home to just 17,000 in habitants. However, it has a special link to the Corsa Rosa as the birthplace of Antonio ‘Toni’ Bevilacqua, who won 11 stages at the Giro d’Italia between 1946 and 1952. He was also a talented track rider, winning two individual pursuit world titles and the 1951 edition of Paris-Roubaix, when he won alone, ahead of giants of the sport Louison Bobet and Rik van Steenbergen. Bevilacqua died in 1972, aged just 53, during a training ride on roads near his home.
Demare and Ackermann both won their first Giro d’Italia stages in this year’s race – the German national champion impressing early on with victories in Fucecchio and Terracina and placings in Orbetello, Frascati and Pesaro, while Demare won in Modena on stage 10 and was second the day after in Novi Ligure.
The Frenchman seems on the rise. He took the points jersey in Pinerolo, while Ackermann has been suffering after crashing hard in the Modena sprint. He needed help from teammates Rudi Selig and Michael Schwarzmann during stage 17 to Anterselva on Wednesday after being distanced early from the peloton. He finished second-to-last, fighting to finish inside the time limit and hopefully saving every drop of power and speed for Thursday’s sprint.
Demare knows he will not have a place in the Groupama-FDJ Tour de France team, and so is keen to finish the Giro d’Italia with a second win and the points jersey. He is a lot more upbeat about his form and his ambitions for the final sprint of the 2019 Giro d’Italia.
“I’ve come through the mountains quite well. My legs are good and psychologically I feel ready. Although I know it will be a stressful day,” Demare admitted to Cyclingnews after the points jersey podium ceremony on Wednesday.
“With the team, we’re a bit surprised by my good sensations at this point in the race. I’ve been recovering quickly, so there are a lot of things that so far have been going well. I hope that continues.”