It was the day for Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) on Tuesday's stage 5 of the Giro d'Italia Internazionale Femminile. When the defending Giro Rosa champion and current leader of the UCI Women's WorldTour crested the first climb of the day in first position, this was a sign of things to come. On the finishing climb of the Passo Fraele, she took the race by the horns, attacking solo to finish 2:57 minutes ahead of her nearest competitors.
"It was epic suffering," Van Vleuten said. "Gavia would have been great but [Passo Fraele] was a beautiful climb if you go full-gas from the bottom - really hard. I was very prepared for the Gavia by training at altitude, and I am in good shape, so I had to take as much time as I could. This was my opportunity and I grabbed it."
Van Vleuten came to this Giro Rosa with only one intention: to win the overall title.
She made major grounds when she took over the maglia rosa on stage 5 and now holds an overall lead of 2:16 minutes over Canyon-SRAM's Katarzyna Niewiadoma. South African climber Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (CCC-Liv) in third place is over three minutes behind already, with smaller gaps between the rest of the top-ten.
In Van Vleuten's favour, there is a 12km uphill time trial for stage 6 on Wednesday from Chiuro to Teglio. She is the reigning world champion in the time trial discipline and will be expected to gain even more time on her rivals in the overall classification.
Her success on Passo Fraele has been many months in the making. Having injured her knee in the road race at the UCI World Championships in Innsbruck in September 2018, Van Vleuten had to wait for her body to heal before starting to train again in the off-season. She joined the men's stage race squad of Mitchelton-Scott for an 11-day training camp in January, she went on an altitude training camp on the island Tenerife in February.
After winning the Strade Bianche in early March, the 36-year-old returned to Tenerife for three weeks. In April, she won Liège-Bastogne-Liège with an attack from the bottom of the Côte de La Redoute that turned into a 32-kilometre solo. And the Emakumeen Bira in May was followed by another 17 days at altitude on Tenerife's Pico del Teide.
From Tenerife, Van Vleuten travelled directly to Northern Italy for a final week of altitude training and route reconnaissance around Livigno. She was joined by Mitchelton-Scott teammates Amanda Spratt and Lucy Kennedy as well as Team Sunweb's Lucinda Brand – who finished second behind Van Vleuten on Tuesday.
Climbing the Passo di Gavia was a key point of this training camp as the climb to 2,652 metres was to be crucial in the Giro Rosa, with a summit finish planned there for stage 5. Months of altitude training were designed to accustom Van Vleuten to the thin air – but landslides on the road to the pass meant that the stage 5 had to be re-routed to finish at the Lago di Cancano instead, with the substantially lower Passo Fraele (1,936 metres) becoming the defining climb instead.
"After they took out the Gavia, I knew it would be harder to take a lot of time. I needed to attack from the bottom. Tonight, I can sleep a bit more relaxed, knowing that I gained time and have good legs. I put out a big effort, but to finish almost three minutes ahead is more than I expected."
In 2018, Van Vleuten gained more than half of her winning margin at the Giro Rosa in the mountain time trial. The only rider to choose a time trial bike for the 15.4 kilometres from Lanzada (990 metres) to Diga di Campo Moro (2000 metres), she took 2:28 minutes off runner-up Moolman-Pasio.
This year's climbing time trial is shorter at 12.1 kilometres and only climbs 500 metres of altitude – but if anything, that suits the the time trial world champion even more.
"Last year, I kept it a secret that I wanted to use my time trial bike," she told Cyclingnews. "This year, it won't be a surprise to anyone that I will use my time trial bike again. I also have a new time trial bike that I rode for the first time at the national championships, it's a brand-new design, and so cool, so I want to use it."