After 12 stages of early breakaways and the intense but brief emotions of the sprints, as well as long, often boring days in the saddle, the 2019 Giro d'Italia is expected to finally explode into life on the next three stages, with their mountain finishes in Ceresole Reale on Friday and Courmayeur on Saturday, and then on the steep climbs and descents of the Il Lombardia route to Como on Sunday.
Grand Tours are always long, tactical affairs but this year's Giro d'Italia, due to a number of factors, has failed to ignite. So far, the biggest drama has come from Sunweb leader Tom Dumoulin's crash, a fast stage to L'Aquila, the significant time gaps created by the time trials, and little else.
Early race leader Primoz Roglic's consistency has instilled fear in his rivals, and the Jumbo-Visma rider's time trial ability has given him a significant lead in the overall classification on his genuine overall rivals.
The Slovenian is 4:07 down on new race leader Jan Polanc (UAE Team Emirates) after the breakaway stayed away on Thursday's stage 12 to Pinerolo. Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) is 1:44 behind Roglic, with Trek-Segafredo's Bauke Mollema at 1:55, Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) at 2:53 and Movistar's Richard Carapaz 3:16 down on Roglic.
After his terrible time trial, Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) is a significant 3:46 behind Roglic, with Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) at 4:01, despite gaining 28 seconds on the road to Pinerolo. Carapaz's Movistar teammate Mikel Landa, meanwhile, is at 4:24, and so heads into the mountains with an even heavier handicap.
There's a real sense of despair amongst the race organisers and Italian tifosi. They're hoping that the race will finally come alive when the cork is popped and the pent-up emotion and aggression are released in the mountains. They hope that Nibali can rise to the occasion, perhaps one last time in his career, and take on Roglic, using his age and experience to crack the Slovenian with a display of courage and panache.
Nibali seems up for the fight, despite the turmoil inside his Bahrain-Merida team. He has been living in his own little world, with his own entourage, for months, and can't wait to serve out his time and confirm his move to Trek-Segafredo for 2020.
Nibali has promised some carpe diem racing, hoping the fatigue of Grand Tour racing will allow him to seize the day.
"I don't know what I can come up with. It can all happen in a split second: something happens and you grab it, or not," he told French sports newspaper L'Equipe.
"After all the fatigue we've accumulated, things will soon be clearer. Then, in the third week, everything will depend on how people recover. Only the riders with lots of endurance will survive. But I'm not worried, as I recover pretty well."
A testing trittico of Giro stages
Nibali's real opportunities start on stage 13 to Lago Serru on Friday: the first of the testing trittico of Giro d'Italia stages.
It could be a promise of what is to follow, both this weekend and next week over the Passo Gavia and Passo del Mortirolo, up to Anterselva, San Martino di Castrozza and finally the Croce d'Aune.
The Giro d'Italia has been starved of mountains in the first half of the race. Now there's a real need to savour them all, and be inspired by them all, and to go on the attack.
Friday's 13th stage is 196km long and goes deep into the Italian Val d'Aosta region via the 14.9km Colle del Lys after 50km, and then the steeper but much shorter Pian del Lupo after 125km. However, it's the long haul up to the finish near Lago Serru, just below the summit of the Colle del Nivolet, that will surely see the decisive attacks and produce a significant shake-up in the overall classification.
The final climb is officially 20.3km long. It kicks up early at 8.7 per cent after Noasca, eases along the edge of Lake Ceresole and then kicks up again at eight, nine, 10 and even 11 per cent in the final twists and turns to the line. For logistical reasons, the finish has been placed near Lake Serru at an altitude of 2,247m. The Passo del Nivolet goes even higher, up to 2,534m, where the stolen gold of Michael Caine and his fellow thieves hung on the precipice overlooking the stunning mountain ranges in The Italian Job. The tifosi will be hoping the stunning landscapes can inspire and help Nibali start to pull time back on Roglic. Taking the pink jersey would be a real heist.
Twenty-four hours after this first mountain finish, a second comes after a shorter but harder 14th stage from Saint-Vincent to Courmayeur on Saturday.
The 131km stage follows the deep valley, but cruelly switches across different sides and different climbs to include five categorised climbs. The first, to Verrayes, tops out after just 13,8km of racing. It's followed by the 13.8km Verrogne, the 8.2km Truc d'Arbe, and the terrible 10 per cent, 10km-long Colle San Carlo. The descent and a late set of hairpins leads to Pre-Saint Didier for the final three-kilometre climb up to the north of Courmayeur and the base station of the Skyway Monte Bianco cable car.
Bicisport magazine's Giro d'Italia guide describes the stage as senza respiro – without a moment to catch your breath. The 131km of racing include 4,700m of climbing and will surely mean some riders fail to finish inside the time limit. It could also break the hopes of some GC hopefuls and further reveal the differences between the real overall contenders.
"I expect it to be a stunning stage to watch, but a terrible stage to have to ride," Giro race director Mauro Vegni admitted to Bicisport.
Before enjoying Monday's second rest day, the riders face a third consecutive day of suffering with the re-enactment of one-day Classic Il Lombardia for stage 15.
The stage distance is a little shorter than the end of season 'Race of the Falling Leaves' but is still 232km long and includes the climb up to the Madonna del Ghisallo, the easier side of the Colma di Sormano and then the 9.7 per cent Civiglio climb overlooking Como.
Il Lombardia usually explodes on the Civiglio, with the technical but fast descent to the finish on the Como lakeside proving decisive. All of Italy will be hoping Nibali can repeat his Il Lombardia exploits of the past and perhaps get away on the descent.
It would be the perfect ending to week two of the 2019 Giro d'Italia, and set up a dramatic final week to Verona.
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