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White 'expecting fireworks' when Giro d'Italia tackles Mount Etna - Preview

Esteban Chaves and Simon Yates atop Mount Etna on the 2018 Giro d'Italia.
Esteban Chaves and Simon Yates atop Mount Etna on the 2018 Giro d'Italia (Image credit: Mitchelton-Scott)

When the Giro d’Italia reaches the first of the lava-blackened slopes of Mount Etna on Monday, it will be the fourth time in the last nine years that the race has tackled Western Europe’s highest active volcano - meaning a large majority of the 2020 Giro peloton will have at least some idea of what they are facing.

However, the team with the best recent memories of Etna is undoubtedly Mitchelton-Scott, given that in 2018 the Australian squad took a spectacular two-up victory there, with Esteban Chaves claiming the stage win and Simon Yates capturing the overall lead. The two Mitchelton-Scott racers also put nearly 30 seconds into a group of chasers that day, enabling Yates to gain a solid hold on the maglia rosa, which he then cemented for another two weeks.

Yates himself has said he does not want to make such an aggressive start to the race as in 2018, preferring to keep his powder dry for the final week in the Alps and Dolomites, and hopefully avoid his cataclysmic collapse just days before the finale of that year.

But as sports directeur Matt White told Cyclingnews, on a climb as tough and as long as Etna’s 18.9km ascent, even coming so soon in the race, it will inevitably be a test of form for general classification favourites. Or, as White put it, appropriately enough when racing up a volcano like Etna, “there will be fireworks for sure.”

However, as the Australian directeur points out, there is one unprecedented element to the ascent of Etna, for all this is the sixth time the Giro heads up the volcano since its initial 1967 assault. While the previous five have been on its southern slopes, passing close to the  Refugio ‘Sapienza’ hotel, this ascent on its northern face is a different one altogether.

“I would say in general the climb is an easier side to 2018, it’s very different, totally the other side of the mountain and probably more regular,” White said.

“In 2018, there were descents up and down and steep ramps that levelled off and went up again, whereas this one is very consistent. I can’t remember exactly, but in the last two kilometres it kicks up quite hard [averaging between nine and 10 per cent, with one segment of 13 per cent], before easing slightly in the last segment of all.

“I don’t think there’ll be too much breaking up of the bunch until those final two kilometres,” White predicted.

Furthermore, this is the earliest stage in the last decade that the Giro has tackled such a major climb with a summit finish. In the specific case of Etna, it was reached on stage six in 2018 following the Israel Grand Depart, on stage four in 2017 and on stage nine in 2011. 

Test for GC contenders 

But for all its hype as an early wake up call, White says the GC riders will have no choice but to do battle - particularly given the previous 130 kilometres of the short stage through central Sicily are relentlessly hilly, even if there are no classified climbs prior to Etna itself.

“It’s going to be a test for the GC guys tomorrow, there’s no hiding on a climb that length and at altitude in the run to the line,” White said. “You’ll see fireworks tomorrow, you’ll see some small gaps, but whether that results in us taking the jersey or Geraint [Thomas] taking the jersey, whatever happens, I think all the GC guys will be feeling each other out.”

Nor will it only be about Yates, of course. If the Bolton-born rider was second in 2018, it’s worth remembering Thomas was third in 2017 on Etna, leading in the main group of favourites behind lone winner Jan Polanc.

The height of the summit finish, 1793m above sea level, is also going to have some effect, although the altitude is similar to previous years - around 60 metres higher than in 2018 and some 100 metres lower than 2017.  But as White noted, the wind, unlike on Saturday and in 2017 when a strong headwind pounded the race on the Etna ascent, will likely not be so important.

“I did the climb in December and from memory it’s a lot more protected on that side, a lot of the climb is in the forest, so it’s not as open and exposed,” said White.

“Plus it’s the other side of Mount Etna so there will be different wind conditions to this side of the island, even the final couple of kilometres, it’s still very forested. It only opens up once before you turn right at two k’s to go and again in the last 200 metres.”

Regardless of which ascent it is, recent Giro history on the Etna is on Mitchelton-Scott’s side. But what’s more important is that Yates is currently in a good place after his promising opening time trial, where he only lost 26 seconds to Thomas, the best of the GC challengers relative to the Welshman.

“He came through pretty good,” White said. “I was thinking around 30 to 40 seconds would be a decent loss to Geraint Thomas so 26 seconds -  we’ll definitely take it. 

“Then I think some of the guys who went up in the later waves were slightly at a disadvantage in the wind conditions because the wind did a 180-degree turnaround later on.”

“But at the end of the day Geraint was our marker, because he’s the best TTer here of the GC guys. And he was off within 30 minutes of us so we were racing in the same conditions. So to lose 26 seconds is a really nice start for us.” 

On Etna, White is hoping that a good beginning will continue for Yates. But the climb also represents the first main chance for those who lost time in Palermo’s time trial to set the record straight - before they leave Sicily. And that may well not be a chance anybody wants to miss.

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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.