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Preview: Stelvio set to define a most uncertain Giro d'Italia

Stage 16 of the Giro d'Italia 2017 Stelvio
Stelvio as seen on Stage 16 at 2017 Giro d'Italia (Image credit: Bettini Photo)

Like all the great mountain passes, the numbers say everything and nothing at the same time. On paper, the Passo dello Stelvio is imposing. In practice, it can be overwhelming. Statistics are all well and good, but mystique is earned rather than measured.

Few mountains in the Giro d’Italia – or, for that matter, in cycling at large – are treated with quite the same mix of trepidation and veneration as the Stelvio. It helped, of course, that the climb was immediately consecrated as blessed ground on the race’s first visit in 1953, when Fausto Coppi dropped Hugo Koblet on the snaking hairpins to turn the Giro on its head a day before the finish in Milan.

That same year at Wembley, Ferenc Puskas’ Hungary produced an equally eulogised, epoch-defining performance to beat England 6-3 in the so-called ‘Match of the Century,’ but the famous old stadium was torn down at the turn of the century and replaced by a sparkling, modern edifice that stands in the same spot yet dusted with none of the same magic.

On stage 18 of the Giro on Thursday, by contrast, the gruppo will climb through the same, natural amphitheatre scaled by Coppi all those years ago, counting off the 48 hairpins as they climb for 24.7km to an altitude of 2,758 metres. 

The echoes of history will be drowned out by the urgency of the here and now during the stage, of course, and the immediate importance of this ascent of the Stelvio increased still further on Wednesday evening, when Giro director Mauro Vegni confirmed that the race will not cross into France via the Agnello and Izoard on stage 20 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Before the Giro, there were two contenders for the title of tappone, the most important of the race. Now, there is only one, Thursday's 207km leg from Pinzolo to the summit finish at Laghi di Cancano, by way of the mighty Stelvio.

"Clearly tomorrow's stage becomes the queen stage and takes on considerable importance," Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo) said on Wednesday evening after the change was confirmed. 

"The profile of the stage is clear, but everything depends on the pace with which it will be faced. Expectations are high, but to make predictions, for what has been the Giro so far, is a gamble."

The last dance

At the beginning of the second week, when it looked as though the COVID-19 pandemic might cut the Giro abruptly short, there was briefly a sense that riders were starting to race as though there were no tomorrow. This tumultuous corsa rosa will now almost certainly reach Milan, but after the tappone to Laghi di Cancano, there might not be any viable tomorrows left for the men hoping to recoup their deficit on race leader João Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep).

The 22-year-old carries the maglia rosa into stage 18 with a slender 17-second lead over Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb) and an advantage of almost three minutes over Jai Hindley (Sunweb) and Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers), while Nibali lies 3:31 down in seventh place overall.

For men like Nibali, the combination of the Stelvio and Laghi di Cancano always seemed to mark the last chance to turn a trying Giro in their favour. The stage is suddenly of paramount importance for Kelderman, who couldn’t distance Almeida at Madonna di Campiglio on Wednesday and certainly can’t rely on the altered penultimate stage to put himself in a position to win the Giro in Milan on Sunday.

Almeida, in short, will surely face attacks from all quarters on the Stelvio, and perhaps even beforehand. The Portuguese youngster has passed every test thus far in his debut Grand Tour, but this will be the most severe examination he will face between here and Milan. His Deceuninck-QuickStep team, meanwhile, already has bitter experience of losing the maglia rosa on the Stelvio in the third week of a Giro, when Rigoberto Uran was divested of the lead during the contentious ‘non-neutralisation’ of the descent in 2014.

“I just hope on the Stelvio, it won’t be like a few years ago,” Deceuninck-QuickStep Directeur Sportif Davide Bramati told RAI on Wednesday. “I hope the weather is better.”

Wintry welcome at Stevio

The Stelvio dominates Thursday’s stage, but the high point of the entire Giro is far from the only difficulty on the long road to Laghi di Cancano. The stage begins at the base of Campo Carlo Magno, which is essentially the climb of Madonna di Campiglio rebranded with a different name. The ascent is not especially difficult – and is even downgraded to category 3 here, having been category 1 on stage 17 – but the road rises even before the race hits kilometre zero, which means that early attacks are inevitable. It is unclear if Deceuninck-QuickStep, or anyone else, has the firepower to control an unruly peloton in a Grand Tour in the third week of October.

The new ascent of the Passo Castrin is next on the agenda, and the climb is stiff enough (8.8km at 9.1 per cent) to leave its mark on the men in the maglia rosa group. The valley that follows is a long false flat, and a wearying antechamber to the Stelvio itself. 

There are still 63km of the stage left at the base of the Stelvio, but on a day like this, during the Bermuda Triangle that is the Giro’s third week, distance and time can seem distorted. The riders with the strength to attack will try to do so. The riders who don’t have the strength to follow will not be able to do so.

The Stelvio is already forbidding enough in early summer, but in mid-autumn, the single-digit temperatures at the summit will serve to accentuate its difficulty. Early and abundant snowfall two weeks ago put its very inclusion in the race at risk. The road has since been cleared and no rain is forecast for Thursday, but the descent will, inevitably, be a freezing one, particularly when the windchill factor is considered. A temperature of 4°C will feel rather more biting at a speed of 70 kph. The Giro's cold mountain should define the race.

“Tomorrow will be a hard day – and cold – but it’s the same for everyone,” Almeida said. “You just have to take a jacket and protect yourself. The weather could be worse, I think.”

After that frozen descent, there is another obstacle to come, the hauntingly beautiful but harsh ascent of the Laghi di Cancano (8.7km at 6.8 per cent), whose own 21, steeply-packed hairpins might yet enter Giro lore. The climb has twice featured at the Giro Rosa, but it is included in the men’s event for the first time. The road flattens out in the final two kilometres, but on a day like this it might barely feel like a respite.

In a season like this, in a Giro like this, and in a stage like this, it seems unwise to make any firm predictions about the state of the overall standings come 5pm on Thursday evening. Astana Directeur Sportif Giuseppe Martinelli summed up the situation neatly.

“With the Stelvio, something important will happen,” Martinelli told RAI. “A climb like that in October, in a stupid season like this… anything could happen.”