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Preview: Montalcino gravel stage to shake loose Giro d'Italia GC battle

Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers)
Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) (Image credit: Getty Images)

Torrenieri was a staging post along the Via Francigena, the old pilgrim route that ran from Canterbury cathedral to Rome. On Wednesday afternoon, the village will double as the alpha and omega of stage 11 of the Giro d’Italia, serving both as the day’s preliminary finish line and the point where it all really begins.

The first sector of gravel comes here, with 69.2km remaining to the finish in Montalcino, and the sense of urgency in the peloton will be palpable long beforehand. The four sections of sterrato that follow will provide the day’s enduring images – riders caked in mud, plumes of dust rising above the race – but the smooth stretch of Strada Statale 2 that descends from San Quirico d’Orcia to Torrenieri could provide the most fraught action of the Giro’s most stressful day. Like on the cobbles of the north, positioning is nine-tenths of the law on the entry to the strade bianche.

“Knowing how certain teams are riding here, the first section of the gravel will be like the first cobbled section at Paris-Roubaix, of even the forest of Arenberg,” Team BikeExchange directeur sportif Matt White told Cyclingnews. “We’re expecting a bunch sprint into the first section.”

The 9.1km stretch of gravel that descends to Buonconvento is the first of four sectors that account for half of the stage’s final 70km, and it is perhaps the most complicated. On the largely uphill sectors later on, and in a pared-down front group, raw strength should be decisive. On this fast and largely downhill section, positioning, technical ability and simple good fortune will all be pivotal.

“The first section is long and technical, and the whole bunch won’t be coming out the back end of it,” White said. “The next two sectors are a lot more selective and with a smaller bunch, it will be a lot easier to control and a lot easier to assess how you’re going to play your tactics on those next two sectors.”

For the most part, the podium contenders have been paying for mistakes or shortcomings in small denominations through the opening 10 days of the Giro. The top end of the standings indicates as much: just 56 seconds separate the maglia rosa Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) from Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange) in ninth place.

That could all change here. After 10 days of fermenting gradually, the Giro looks destined to take on a radically different guise once it tackles the sinuous route through Brunello di Montalcino wine country. Errors, misfortune or a simple lack of form should prove far more costly on such a tumultuous stage.

“It’s not just about the steep gradients going uphill. The descents are going to be a test of technical ability too,” Daniele Bennati, a Tuscan native who knows these roads well, said this week on RAI. “We can expect big gaps in the general classification.”

In vino veritas?

Bernal and Remco Evenepoel’s joust for the bonuses on Monday was presented by some as a microcosm of the entire race, though it seems premature to pitch this Giro as a straight contest between the top riders on GC when so many other danger men are still so close at hand. That said, if both riders still occupy the top positions in Montalcino on Wednesday evening, then talk of a duel might not be entirely misplaced.

The stage certainly has the feel of an acid test for Evenepoel’s credentials. His outlandish strength has never been in doubt, but there have been reservations expressed about his technical ability, if only because he entered the WorldTour barely a year and a half after his first-ever bike races. Mastering the gravel, just months on from his horrific crash at Il Lombardia, would be a significant statement from the Deceuninck-QuickStep youngster.

Bernal, of course, already made a statement of his own in the spring, when he placed third at a tumultuous Strade Bianche, and he will draw considerable confidence from the experience. Men like Filippo Ganna and Gianni Moscon should ferry him to the first gravel section and his maglia rosa also presents a useful insurance policy in the event of mechanical mishap, as it means the Ineos Grenadiers team car occupies first place in the convoy.

The third man, Aleksandr Vlasov (Astana-Premier Tech), has scarcely put a pedal stroke askew to this point, leaving him just 22 seconds off pink. He may insist that the Giro really begins at the Zoncolan on Saturday, though if he really believed that, he wouldn’t have travelled to reconnoitre the Montalcino stage this spring.

Of the other GC contenders, Romain Bardet (Team DSM) – currently 13th at 1:21 – has had the best showing at Strade Bianche, taking second in the snowbound edition of 2018, and he will view the stage as a chance to reboot his challenge after shipping seconds through the first week. Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo) might take a similar view, even if he lost the maglia rosa on the corresponding stage in 2010, though one imagines his primary duty might be shepherding Giulio Ciccone (fourth at 37 seconds).

Simon Yates and Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) both raced Strade Bianche this spring without making an impact, but the experience should stand to them here. Perhaps more importantly, they have teams with the ability to guide them through that fraught first section. The later, steep inclines of the Passo del Lumo Spento, should be more to their liking, as they will to Dan Martin (Israel Start-Up Nation) and Hugh Carthy (EF Education-Nippo), but getting there will be the first battle.

The route

The stage begins in Perugia, which welcomes the Giro for the first time since it hosted the Grande Partenza in 1995. The first 90km or so will serve as a long prologue to the finale on the strade bianche. The dirt roads account for 35km of the stage – double the amount of gravel that featured on the famous Montalcino stage of 2010, fought out beneath a deluge. Conditions are expected to be dry this time out, but the impact on the general classification might be even greater given the volume of gravel.

As when the Tour de France makes its occasional excursions onto the pavé, anything is possible on the road to Montalcino. The best approach, it seems, is to be braced for the worst. Chaos will inevitably be unleashed on that first sector of gravel, but the situation is not entirely irretrievable for those caught behind.

After 12km on smooth roads, the second sector is 13.5km in length, and sees the route climb towards the category 3 Passo del Lume Spento, where the final kilometre hits double-digit gradients and the lights could go out on many challenges, for stage honours and more.

“That second sector is long and if you’ve got legs, you can get across a 30-second gap,” White said. “But I highly doubt all the GC guys are going to get through that first sector unscathed, and nobody is going to be waiting for anybody, so you will need some luck in that last 60k.”

After a smooth descent to the bonus sprint in Castelnuovo dell’Abate, the race tackles the third gravel sector, which climbs steadily for 7.6km towards Sant’Angelo in Colle. There is no let-up, with the final gravel sector arriving soon afterwards. It’s just 5km in length and levels out after an uphill start, though the day’s difficulties are not yet over.

A little under 9km remain when the front-runners come off the gravel at Tavarnelle, but most of them are uphill, as the race makes another ascent of the Passo del Lume Spento, this time on smooth roads. The first rider to the top will be in the box seat to claim the spoils in Montalcino 3km later.

“It’ll be possible to gain time but easy to lose time,” Evenepoel warned during Tuesday’s rest day. 

His words were echoed by Ciccone: “It’s a day that can smile on you, but it can also take away all the good things you’ve done to now.” 

In other words, few metres in Torrenieri could translate into minutes in Montalcino.