Oropa and Montecampione finishes will test Uran's leadership
After thirteen stages of racing, a new Giro d'Italia begins this weekend, as the race heads into the high mountains and the fight for the pink leader's jersey becomes far more serious.
While the team time trial, the crashes and the polemics on the day to Montecassino, the skirmishes in the Apennines and the Barolo time trial have left their mark, the real race begins with Saturday's stage 14 to Oropa.
Between now and the final parade stage into Trieste on June 1, there is just one other flat stage on the roads of the Veneto region. Every other of the six stages is in the mountains, with five testing mountain finishes and a mountain time trial.
22 riders are currently within ten minutes of race leader Rigoberto Urán (Omega Pharma-QuickStep). By the third rest day on Monday, the gaps are expected to be much wider and will become huge and decisive by the time the riders climb the Zoncolan on stage 20 next Saturday.
Cadel Evans and his BMC team seemed in total control of the maglia rosa until the Barolo time trial but Uran's smash and grab performance made him the first ever Colombian to wear the pink jersey.
He may smile at life but now has the weight of the race on his shoulders. Evans, Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and any other pretenders for a place on the final podium will have to go on the attack to pull back time. Grand Tour racing is complex and intriguing in its simplicity.
So far riders have raced cautiously to avoid losing any chance of success. Now they will have to start thinking where and how they can win the Giro d'Italia.
Oropa and Montecampione
Everything begins with the stage to Oropa on Saturday, where Marco Pantani recovered from a mechanical problem and passed most of the peloton to win the stage in 1999 and Sunday's climb to Montecampione, where Pantani famously dropped Pavel Tonkov in the 1998 Giro d'Italia.
The stage to Oropa is only 164km long but includes three major climbs. The Alpe Novies has a steep middle section but comes too early for important attacks, the Bielmonte climb is 18km long but is constant, meaning the final climb to the Oropa Sanctuary is likely to inspire any attacks. The middle section kicks up at 8.5% for 2.5km, with the remaining four kilometres at 7.6%.
Sunday's 15th stage is a long ride across central Lombardy before the 19.3km, 8% climb to Montecampione spikes up at the of the stage profile The stage is officially the 'Montagna Pantani' the Pantani Mountain that remembers the exploit of 'Il Pirata' in 1998.
The road twists up the side of the mountain, rising from 203m at the start to 1665m at the finish. The gradient is constantly painful, with a first half at 8.1% and then the second half at 8.7%. The 2.5km mid-section at 3.8% offers just a few moments of respite.
It would not be a surprise to see Evans attack on both final climbs, with Pozzovivo and others ready to go with them. Their problem is that Uran seems in his best ever form. Evans and Pozzovivo were on form at the Giro del Trentino in late April, while Uran has timed his best form to perfection and seems ready for a weeklong showdown in the mountains.
However Uran lacks one vital factor needed to win a Grand Tour: experience. He is 27 and has built a solid career to date and was second overall in the 2013 Giro d'Italia. Yet leading a Grand Tour is new to him and to his Omega Pharma-QuickStep team.
Italian directeur sportif Davide Bramati does not have the support of Brian Holm or Rolf Aldag but is confident he, Uran, and the team are up the task of winning the 2014 Giro d'Italia.
"We'll see what happens in these two mountain stages and in the rest of the race but we're not afraid," Bramati said with a shrug of the shoulders and the air of someone who is trying to bluff at a game of poker.
"We'll take things stage by stage and day by day. Saturday is a hard stage and then Montecampione is a hard climb. But Rigoberto has seen both stages."
"It's true we've never had to defend a Grand Tour lead like this but we've got some good guys in the team. It's easy to talk now but it'll be about the legs you have on the climbs to the finish."
Eliminating Quintana before he recovers
Evans has promise to fight back after losing time in the Barolo time trial, while Pozzovivo, Rafał Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo), young Fabio Aru (Astana), Robert Kiserlovski (Trek Factory Racing) and even Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) will be out to take back time.
Everyone will be hoping to put Quintana on the ropes and even possibly eliminate him as an overall contender before he recovers from his viral problems that slowed him in the time trial and forced him to take antibiotics.
Quintana is sixth overall, 3:29 behind compatriot Uran. That is a significant gap behind a strong looking Uran but if he manages to avoid losing further time on the climbs to Oropa and Montecampione, then he could give this Giro d'Italia a further twist during the three remaining mountain stages.
The fight for pink at the 2014 Giro d'Italia is far from over. Indeed it has only just begun and is finally about to get very serious.
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