Back in 2015, when previewing the Giro d’Italia’s stage 14 Treviso time trial, Alberto Contador correctly predicted to Cyclingnews that “the Giro will start here.” And five years on, with a very similar time trial course coming this week on Saturday’s stage 14, you could easily argue the same.
Fans of Geraint Thomas (Ineos-Grenadiers) and Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) will rightly say that a lot has already happened in this year’s Giro. But as the two best-placed contenders after Sicily’s opening time trial, Thomas’ and Yates’ abandons have actually had a curious effect - to reset the counters back to almost zero for the rest of the overall contenders.
Almost all the pre-race favourites are now within a minute of each other, and although ambushes and skirmishes are not to be ruled out in the four stages between Tuesday and Saturday’s critical TT, the Giro’s second individual race against the clock will now provide the first set-piece feature of the ‘real’ battle for pink.
It’s worth bearing in mind that though the time trial ends in the same finish town of Valdobbiadene as in 2015, the 2020 TT is a fraction under 25 kilometres and is considerably shorter than five years ago, which was 34.1 kilometres.
But it is held on 80 per cent of the same, relentlessly hilly roads as the 2015 course, most notably the achingly long 4km grind of the Col de San Martino climb. The only real differences, in fact, are the insertion of a steep ‘muro’ di Ca’ del Poggio at kilometre 7.4, replacing the steadier haul of the fourth category climb of San Pietro di Feletto from five years ago, and a slightly easier final run-in after the Col de San Martino. Put it all together and the added difficulties will likely compensate for the drop in kilometres.
Back in 2015, in any case, the time trial’s effects were dramatic. Contador, third behind stage winner and World TT champ Vasil Kiryenka, recaptured the pink jersey that stage, putting a whopping 2:47 into the hapless former leader, Fabio Aru, in the process, and held onto the lead all the way to Milan. For those seeking references for today’s challengers, Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma) was one of the few GC racers to withstand the Contador onslaught that day, losing only 55 seconds.
Ambushes on climbs next week
Where the GC standings will be post-stage 14 is anyone’s guess. But given its potential significance, it’s a fair bet that the previous four stages will see some of the non-TT specialists attempt to crack open the overall so they can limit the damage inflicted by the time triallists on Saturday.
The best opportunities for those ambushes are undoubtedly Tuesday’s series of muri wall-like climbs, and Thursday’s ‘Pantani stage’ round Cesenatico. The finale of stage 10 from Lanciano to Tortoreto has no fewer than five climbs packed into 33 kilometres around the coastal finish town, all averaging around 10 per cent, and four with ramps ranging between 18 and a staggering 24 per cent. After the last near-vertical ascent through Tortoreto’s upper town, with a maximum gradient of 18 per cent, the road plunges down to the coastal seafront finish, 11 kilometres further on.
Positioning on such a technical, largely urban finale will be critical and if a favourite is caught napping, has a mechanical at the wrong moment, or suddenly finds energy levels ebbing low on these short but agonisingly intense efforts, there could well be some unexpected gaps. But it will be surprising if they are so large as to be unbridgeable.
If Tuesday will provide some bright, but short-lived fireworks, Thursday’s 204km stage 12 is a far more challenging prospect. Apart from covering the key parts of the route of the famous Gran Fondo Nove Colli [nine hills], appropriately enough for a stage centred on the hometown of Italy’s ill-fated climber and which finishes near Pantani’s monument in Cesenatico, only the opening and final 25 kilometres are flat.
The remainder, ranging from the unclassified Pieve di Rivoschio (km 59.6) and Passo delle Siepi (km 154.8) ascent to the nine-kilometer, the third category Madonna di Pugliano (km 140.4) will require five hours of solid concentration on treacherously narrow, sometimes poorly surfaced roads. A long-distance breakaway by none-favourites is almost certain, but late attacks by the main favourites can’t be ruled out. For the race leader to avoid getting worn out too early, this is a day when his domestiques will have a critical role to play.
Sandwiched between these two hilly days, both stages 11 and 13 seem destined for a bunch sprint, although two punishing fourth category climbs in the last 30 kilometres of stage 13 may prove unlucky for the out-and-out fastmen.
Summit finish in the Dolomites
But if the time trial has formed one key test for the GC racers, Sunday’s first incursion into the Dolomites, and the first summit finish in a week at the first category ascent Piancavallo, will, weather permitting, put the ball back in the climbers’ court with a vengeance.
At 185 kilometres long, stage 15 has three second category climbs that precede the Piancavallo, seemingly spaced far apart enough to allow any victims of early attacks to regain contact. The summit of the last, Forcella di Pala Barzana, is a good 27 kilometres from the foot of the Piancavallo and there are similar distances between the previous two, the curiously named Sella Chianzutan (km 65) and Forcella de Monte Rest (km 143.5). But on Piancavallo, as a brutally tough summit finish, no such reprieves will be granted.
Nearly 15 kilometres long, and with over 1,000 metres of vertical climbing, the steepest gradients, all ranging around the eight to 14 per cent mark, are virtually all in the first six or seven kilometres. It’s true that the mountain’s gradient eases slightly in the second half, with even a small descent to ease aching muscles a little. But enough damage will have been done early on to ensure there are some significant gaps by the summit. And although the last kilometre averages at a relatively benign four per cent, just when the finishing barriers are within sight, the last 100 metres cruelly rear up again to a 15 per cent ramp. To cap it all, if the weather proves as tough as is forecast for next week in northern Italy, on a single stage, the gaps between the favourites could suddenly yawn wide open.
The last time the Giro visited Piancavallo, it’s worth noting that of this year’s best-placed GC contenders, Pello Bilbao took fourth there in 2017, his best showing in an otherwise lacklustre Giro.
But that was part of a daylong break, on a stage where Mikel Landa took an emotional solo win he dedicated to his late, former teammate Michele Scarponi. GC-wise, Nairo Quintana narrowly gained an advantage on Tom Dumoulin that proved insufficient to stop the Dutchman regaining power in the final time trial two days later.
Given how dense the third week of the Giro is in terms of mountain climbing, not to mention a final TT in Milan, it would be foolhardy to say that whoever is in pink at the summit of Piancavallo will be wearing the same colour jersey seven days later.
But assuming the stage can go ahead - and there are already rumours that snowfall may cause a late cancellation - come next Monday’s second rest day with such a tough weekend program, the GC picture will likely have been whittled down to three or four candidates at most. And given the current, complete absence of clarity in the GC fight right now, that makes the Giro’s second week even more critical than usual.
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