The Giro d’Italia, as is its wont, begins all over again in the third week, and the three hardest stages of the entire race are still to come in the next four days. But will the new Giro be any different to the old Giro?
Stage 17 to Madonna di Campiglio should provide some indications, given that the terrain is more arduous than any faced on the race to this point. The gruppo faces the interminable Forcella Valbona and Monte Bondone before tackling the Passo Durone and the final haul to Madonna di Campiglio. The Giro won’t be decided on Wednesday but the lie of the land for the remainder of the race should be clearer.
At Piancavallo on Sunday, Wilco Kelderman marked himself out as the favourite for overall victory while his Sunweb team had all the appearances of the strongest outfit in the race, with Jai Hindley leading all the way to the top and moving up to third overall in the process, while stage winner Tao Geoghegan (Ineos) also moved into podium contention.
Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo), meanwhile, was among the riders to struggle, and he is now 7th overall, 3:31 off maglia rosa João Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep) after he was distanced on the day’s final climb.
If Nibali has built a reputation as a man with the ability to outlast the opposition, it rests primarily on his remarkable late turnaround at the 2016 Giro, when he clawed back a seemingly insurmountable deficit on first Steven Kruijswijk and then Esteban Chaves in the dying days of the race.
2016 has been evoked repeatedly since Nibali’s travails at both Valdoddiadene and Piancavallo at the weekend, but while the terrain is there for this Giro to be turned on its head, it is not clear if the Sicilian has the wherewithal to do so.
“It’s not easy. It’s been a hard year for everyone, me included, I can’t deny that,” Nibali said after stage 16 in San Daniele de Friuli. “We saw it at the Tour. You have to accept things as they come, but I feel good. So if you have a good day, you have to try something.”
At Valdoddiadene and again at Piancavallo, Trek-Segafredo coach Paolo Slongo insisted that his rider’s power data was in line with recent performances that placed him on the podium of Grand Tours. The problem, Slongo added, was that riders like Kelderman and Hindley were simply producing efforts of an intensity that Nibali couldn’t match.
“For now, they’re going faster, there’s little to say,” Slongo told La Repubblica, though he continues to place trust in his rider’s ability to last the course better than anyone else. “The Giro isn’t won by those who do amazing things for a while, but by those who are consistent and don’t fade. We have seen it many times in the past, sudden collapses have always been there, and especially in recent years.”
Although Nibali’s deficits to both Almeida (3:31) and Kelderman (3:14) are hefty, he is just over half a minute off third place. The situation is not altogether irretrievable, though – unlike with Astana four years ago – Nibali’s depleted Trek-Segafredo squad will surely be of limited strategic use. No matter, Slongo insisted that Nibali was not content to settle for extending his remarkable sequence of placing on the podium in each of his past six Giro appearances.
“We wouldn’t sign for a stage win and the podium, no, we would not sign,” Slongo said. “Vincenzo wants to win the Giro. And we still have the chances to do it. It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible.”
Giuseppe Martinelli was in the team car for Astana during Nibali’s remarkable late transfiguration four years ago. Although he has already suggested that this Giro will be won by a younger rider, he acknowledged on Tuesday that the terrain ahead would reward endurance over explosiveness.
Martinelli's own Jakob Fulgsang (12th at 5:09) is among those who need to recoup ground on a younger generation - chiefly, Almeida, Hindley and Geoghegan Hart - who have usurped them thus far. Somewhere in the middle stands the 29-year-old Kelderman, on the cusp of the biggest victory of his career, but with many hurdles still to pass.
“There’s still space. At this moment, the older riders seem in difficulty, but the stages that could change everything have still to come. On the stages tomorrow, Thursday and Saturday, people will have to risk a bit more,” Martinelli told RAI. “They’ll have to ride a bit like there’s no tomorrow.”
Nibali still has another year on his contract with Trek-Segafredo, but with his 36th birthday approaching, he has more yesterdays than tomorrows as a Giro contender. On Tuesday’s short uphill finale in San Daniele del Friuli, he came home on Hindley’s wheel, two seconds down on Almeida. The road ahead is, in theory, more amenable.
“Today I was up there,” Nibali. “But tomorrow is completely different, there are some interesting climbs. You have to stay attentive.”
Stage 17 is some 203km in length, and the first two ascents of Forcella Valbona (21.9km at 6.6%) and Monte Bondone (20.2km at 6.8%) will leave their mark on the contenders ahead of the day’s final ascents of the Passo Durone (10.4km at 6%) and the summit finish at Madonna di Campiglio (12.5km at 5.7%).
“Paradoxically, the final climb is the easiest,” race director Mauro Vagni told BiciSport. “Forcella Valbona and Bondone are more complicated because of their length and their gradient. In the final kilometres, riders will feel that.”
The stage also links two climbs indelibly linked with two of the most romanticised figures in Giro history, Charly Gaul and Marco Pantani. While Madonna di Campiglio will forever be associated with Pantani’s fall from grace on the final weekend of the 1999 Giro, Monte Bondone was the site of Gaul’s greatest triumph, when he turned the 1956 Giro on its head two days from Milan with a stirring solo effort beneath the snow. Federico Bahamontes, meanwhile, was one of many to abandon that same day.
"It was impossible to race. There had been landslides and stones as big as a cupboard were all over the road,” Bahamontes told Alasdair Fotheringham in The Eagle of Toledo. "Charly Gaul ended up partially deformed by the cold and I had frostbite in my hands and feet. I couldn’t use them properly for a month.”
The forecast is rather more agreeable for Wednesday afternoon, though temperatures will be in single digits at the summit of the climbs. The double-digit length of the ascents, meanwhile, will test Almeida, who is riding his first-ever Grand Tour. He extended his lead to 17 seconds with a plucky late attack in San Daniele del Friuli on Tuesday, but the interminable climbs of Forcella Valbona and Monte Bondone will provide an altogether different kind of examination.
“I see him in difficulty on the long climbs tomorrow, and on Thursday and Saturday,” said Martinelli. “I think he’s a rider to consider but in climbs of more than an hour he’ll have difficulty.”
Almeida has defied expectations to this point, however, and in a season of such uncertainty, anything can happen. In the third week of the Giro, it usually does.
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