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Nowhere to hide: Sestola finale offers first test for Giro d'Italia GC contenders

The peloton raced into Sestola during stage 10 of the 2016 Giro d'Italia
The peloton raced into Sestola during stage 10 of the 2016 Giro d'Italia (Image credit: Getty Images)

The Giro d’Italia is a race of many beginnings. Officially, the race began in Turin last Saturday, but the Grande Partenza is always followed by a succession of other, intermediate starts as the general classification gradually begins to take shape.

Stage 4 through increasingly rugged terrain to Sestola won’t change the course of this Giro irrevocably, but it does feature the first tough finish and ought to provide the first firm indications of the condition of the overall contenders. It marks the start of a new phase of the race.

“I think tomorrow we’re going to find out who’s come into the race in good shape,” BikeExchange directeur sportif Matt White told Cyclingnews at the stage 3 start in Biella on Monday. It seems evident that his leader, Simon Yates, has arrived in Italy on form, given his exhibition at the Tour of the Alps barely two weeks ago.

“Some guys like to build a little bit through the Giro and I think tomorrow there’s going to be nowhere to hide,” White said. “I don’t expect the gaps to be big, but it will give more of an indication of where the GC guys are sitting at early in the race.”

With few exceptions – notably Aleksandr Vlasov (Astana Premier Tech) and the Deceuninck-QuickStep duo of Remco Evenepoel and João Almeida – the pre-race favourites by and large broke even in the short and flat opening time trial in Turin. The short but relentless kick up the Colle Passerino on Tuesday afternoon should provide a greater degree of separation among the men with designs on the maglia rosa, which is in the temporary possession of Filippo Ganna (Ineos) after three stages.

At the very least, the stage to Sestola will allow them to gauge one another’s condition, and particular attention will be paid to those who have raced sparingly – or not at all – in recent weeks, chiefly Evenepoel, Egan Bernal (Ineos) and Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo).

Ever since he first raced a bike in the spring of 2017, Evenepoel has been a young man in a hurry, bounding from the status of absolute beginner to the most precious commodity in professional cycling in barely two years. The impatience that seems to define his cycling life has already been on show at this Giro, his first race since breaking his pelvis at the Tour of Lombardy last year.

On the flat run-in to Novara on Sunday, Evenepoel battled for bonus seconds at the intermediate sprint, a sure sign of a man with designs on claiming the pink jersey as soon as he can. He begins stage 4 in third overall, just 20 seconds off Ganna’s lead.

“Remco threw all the cards on the table in that second intermediate sprint on Sunday afternoon,” Axel Merckx told Het Nieuwsblad. “For me it’s once again proof that he is going for the victory in this Giro.”

In his post-stage press conference on Monday evening, Ganna noted that he had spotted Evenepoel churning his big ring on the stiff climb to Guarene on stage 3, almost as though he were warming up for Sestola. Deceuninck-QuickStep directeur sportif Davide Bramati played down those expectations, noting that Tobias Foss (Jumbo-Visma), second at 16 seconds, was the man best placed to benefit should Ganna falter.

“Ganna is certainly in condition, but the last climb won’t be easy,” Bramati told RAI. “But we also saw the young rider from Jumbo [Foss] do a good time trial, so they might be the team trying to control the race to take the jersey. We’re just behind them, so if there’s a chance, then why not try to take it.”

For Bernal, meanwhile, the climb towards Sestola – and, indeed, the demanding final 100km in their entirety – will be a further test of the back injury that ended his Tour de France defence last Autumn and has seemingly continued to nag him ever since. “Tomorrow will be hard, it’s the first important test,” said Ineos directeur sportif Matteo Tosatto.

The route

Stage 4 takes place entirely in Emilia-Romagna but comes in two distinct parts, beginning with a flat preamble after the gruppo is flagged away from Piacenza on the banks of the Po. The first 85km or so along the Emilian plain are almost entirely flat, but the route begins to climb towards the first sprint at Rossena, and the road rises and dips continually thereafter.

Officially, the first climb is the category 3 Castello di Carpineti (3.5km at 8.6 per cent) after 109km, followed by the category 3 Montemolino (8.6km at an average of 5.7 per cent and maximum slopes of 18 per cent) after 141km, but there is unclassified climbing aplenty as the race makes its way through the Apennines. The effects of those efforts, meanwhile, could be amplified by the weather condition, with the forecast for rain on Tuesday afternoon.

“Tomorrow will be the first real test of this Giro. It won’t be easy, because it’s going to be a very nervous finale over the last 100km, where there’s barely a metre of flat,” said Bramati. “It’s going to be important to wait and see what the weather conditions are too.”

Even the rain holds off, the final climb of the day is difficult enough to provoke an elite selection and perhaps even to force early gaps among the general classification contenders. Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo) won on the Giro’s last visit to Sestola five years ago, but the corsa rosa takes a different and more demanding road towards the finish.

The climb of the Colle Passerino begins immediately after the bonus sprint at Fanano. Although just 4.2km in length, the ascent has an average gradient of 9.9 per cent, including pitches of 16 per cent around midway up. Men like Yates, Vlasov, Hugh Carthy (EF Education-Nippo) and Dan Martin (Israel Start-Up Nation) might sense an early chance to test their rivals, and the first man to the top has every chance of holding his advantage on the rolling 2.5km plateau that leads to the finish. 

“Tomorrow it’s a hard climb and it will come at the end of a day of rain and cold, so those four kilometres at 10 per cent will hurt. It’s explosive. And in the first week of the Giro, with so much stress, we’ll go up it very, very hard,” Ciccone told Cyclingnews in Canale on Monday. “It’s a climb where explosive riders can hurt the others, and those who aren’t yet 100 per cent might struggle.”