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Riders on le strade bianche
Stage seven could be significant for overall contenders
While the gaps between the overall contenders of the Giro d'Italia may be quite significant after six stages despite the race not passing any mountains yet, stage seven could possibly open those gaps even further.
And while this year's Tour de France features pavés in stage three, Saturday's stage seven in the Giro d'Italia includes two sections of the dirt roads known as 'Strade bianche' (white roads) as the race heads through the iconic Tuscany region.
The first 'white road' is tackled after the town of Murlo is 5.5km long, coming 195km into the stage. The second one leads up to Poggio Civitella. It's 14km long including six kilometres uphill. Once the riders will finish with this section, there will be only five kilometres remaining until the end of the stage in Montalcino, a small town famous for its Sangiovese wine (Brunello or Rosso di Montalcino).
"Most importantly, it comes after 200 kilometres," said David Millar, who doesn't include himself in the list of the overall contenders of this Giro d'Italia despite laying in seventh position after one week of racing.
Cadel Evans is one of the very few general classification contenders who knows these roads. "I've seen a couple of them," he told Cyclingnews at the start of stage six in Fidenza Village. "I rode the Strade bianche to get a bit of a feel for them. I was a bit sick that day so I couldn't really be in the front and see how it was. It's a pretty solid stage. It could be a good re-shuffle of the GC."
Alexandre Vinokourov's has a different view: "I don't think it's possible to win the Giro d'Italia on such a stage," said Astana's captain. "I might try and win the stage though. This is not my speciality and I haven't ridden the Strade bianche before. It's Maxim Iglinsky's race (the winner of this year's event). He told me the roads are like in Kazakhstan."
That may not count for much however, as the second gravelled road used for stage seven isn't one of the ones on the course of the Strade bianche race.
Another favourite for the overall title, Carlos Sastre, doesn't feel this stage will be any different from the other transition stages. "At the Giro, you must be in the front all the time," the Spaniard said. "In this race, you're likely to lose time any day."
The perspective of this special stage doesn't stress Vladimir Karpets, who has started the race pretty well (fifth on GC). "I just know the roads of stage seven have the characteristics of the Eroica [the race now known as the Strade bianche]," the lanky Russian explained.
"I have never done it, neither have I asked for information from my team-mate and compatriot Alexandre Kolobnev, who won it before . He's a rider for the Classics anyway and here we're in a stage race. I don't bother much about this stage. It's in the last week that everything will happen."
Michele Scarponi sees it differently: "I'm very afraid of that stage," said the captain of Androni-Diquigiovanni who has already lost a bit of time overall courtesy of the team time trial. "I don't feel at ease on the roads of the Strade bianche. That's not where I'll regain the time lost in the team time trial. There could be more damage and time difference in Montalcino than in any mountain stage."
His opinion is shared by Damiano Cunego. "I know a little bit of the Strade bianche, but only because I've seen the race on TV," said the 2004 Giro d'Italia champion. "In this stage, it's possible to get 'drunk without drinking'. If it rains, it will be even worse.
"In any case, it will be a nervous race. Teams will get mad. I don't have any plans for making up time in Montalcino. My experience in the classics doesn't matter. I'm at the Giro as a free agent."
Will the experience of Sébastien Hinault in the classics help? The Ag2r-La Mondiale veteran is the second rider from the top 10 of this year's Paris-Roubaix after Filippo Pozzato riding the Giro. "I'll try to do something in that stage for sure," the Frenchman said.
"It inspires me. But I'm afraid the last dirt road section is too hard for the riders of the classics. This is not the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix. There's almost a mountain at the end, the hill is six kilometres long! I bet the climbers will be in the front."
One of those climbers, Rabobank's Bauke Mollema, will approach stage seven with real interest. "I have seen a movie of the Strade bianche but I've never ridden on these roads," the young Dutchman explained. "I feel good and I'll try to be up there. I think this is more for general classification contenders because not many specialists of the classics can go uphill."