The Giro d'Italia cranks up its climbings challenges another notch or three on stage 9 this Sunday with its gruelling incursion into the Abruzzo mountains and one of its most venerable summit finishes at Roccaraso.
Cycling greats of the calibre of Fausto Coppi in 1953, Bernard Hinault in 1980 and Moreno Argentin in 1987 have all been former winners on the ten-kilometre ascent, which, while not overly tough in itself, culminates an arduous day of more than 4,000 vertical metres of climbing through central Italy.
Easily the hardest single stage of the 2020 Giro before next Sunday's Dolomites stage to Piancavallo, Roccaraso, somewhat enthusiastically categorized as first category, is preceded by another, much longer first category ascent, the Passo Lanciano and two second category climbs, the Passo San Leonardo and Bosco di Sant' Antonio. Quite apart from the mountains themselves, it's a lengthy day of racing at 208 kilometres and on top of that, rain is forecast to put in an unwelcome appearance, just as it did on the 2020 Giro's mountainous stages in Sicily and Calabria earlier this week.
Roccaraso is nowhere near as long as the 18 kilometres Etna climb that ended stage 3 or the 26-kilometre Valico de Montescuro that dominated proceedings on stage 5. Rather than being an unrelenting slog like these two ascents, its climbing difficulties are broken into two distinct parts.
The first part takes the race out of the town of Roccaraso, scene of some of the fiercest battles in Italy during World War II and on the opposite side of the valley to Pietransieri, the village that witnessed a horrendous massacre by occupying Nazi forces of Italian civilians in 1943. However, only the first, kilometre-long segment of Roccaraso, roughly nine per cent is notably hard and it quickly eases down to a much easier uphill grind of four to six per cent.
Any GC riders caught out by poor positioning at the foot of the climb should, in any case, be able to regain contact in the lengthy middle section of false flat and downhill that follows and which precedes Roccaraso's 'real' challenge. This is a much trickier final segment of steadily steepening roads, starting at a relatively benign three per cent, but getting harder and culminating with a real kick in the teeth of a 12 per cent ramp in the final kilometre.
Could such an ascent with such irregular gradients and a tough finale catch out the big favourites? Those arguing it won't point to the time differences at the top in 2016, the previous time the Giro tackled the Roccaraso, with a mere 25 seconds between the top GC names.
The key will probably lie in how aggressively the previous climbs are raced by the peloton. This year's stage is much tougher than in 2016, when the stage only featured a single second category ascent before Roccaraso and was 50 kilometres shorter, too. If it's a hard day's racing beforehand and if it's raining, then anybody already suffering could pay an unexpectedly high price on the final ascent.
There isn't much to be gained by looking back at 2016 in terms of how the current favourites fared back then. Apart from being an easier stage, in general, the approach road back then was different, with the start of the climb reached by a long uphill grind along a valley road. Then Roccaraso was tackled with a slightly different early segment and the finish was a little lower down than in 2020.
For the record, Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) was the best placed of the current contenders in second behind Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal). His then Astana teammate Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo) suffered something a rare off-day in a year when he won the Giro a second time, finishing in the main group. But with such small differences between the favourites, Roccaraso was hardly a major set up for Fuglsang - finally a highly creditable 12th in Milan, given he was working for Nibali that year - or a major defeat for Nibali himself.
"It will be a tough stage, an uphill finish, so it'll be a big fight," said Wilco Kelderman (Team Sunweb), the pre-Giro favourite who gained the most time at Mount Etna and who is currently third overall.
"I don't know what I can do there, because it's a totally different climb, and it will not be so easy for me to attack any more as the other guys will directly follow me up the road."
If the surprise factor will not be on Kelderman's side on Sunday, a rider who proved unexpectedly hard to dislodge at Etna is João Almeida, now in the Giro lead for the sixth day running.
"I've seen the climb a little bit, I know it's hard, and for sure tomorrow is a big day on GC," Almeida, currently 43 seconds ahead of Pello Bilbao (Bahrain McLaren) told reporters. "We're working really hard to keep this jersey and I'll do my best to keep it."
It's hard to know how realistic his options are to do that. Even if stage 8 was something of a day off for the main GC favourites, Almeida has come through some tough challenges so far, including the rain-soaked ascent of the Calabrian mountains and the crosswinds and crashes of stage 7.
But stage 9's climbing is a whole different game altogether and in a Giro d'Italia already bereft of two top favourites - Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) and Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers) - and two key outsiders, Alexandre Vlasov and Miguel Angel Lopez (both Astana), the race is currently looking wide open. For those looking to grab a chance to shine in pink in Milan, Sunday might well be where they try to take a fresh down payment on their options for doing so.
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