Esteban Chaves hopes his upbringing - and especially his training - in the high altitude of homeland Colombia will play in to his hands in Saturday's 14th stage of the Giro d'Italia. But the Orica-GreenEdge rider still expects a brutal day that should last "close to seven hours."
After Friday's 170km 13th stage from Palmanova to Cividale del Friuli, Chaves was eighth overall at 2 minutes 19 seconds to new race leader Costa Rica's Andrey Amador (Movistar) who rose from second place to depose Luxembourg's Bob Jungels (Etixx-QuickStep) whose 17th at 2 minutes 7 seconds to Spanish stage winner Mikel Nieve (Sky) cost him the lead.
Chaves, 13th in the medium mountain stage, finished in a group of 14 at 1 minute 17 seconds and with fellow contenders Italian Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Spaniard Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Poland's Rafal Majka (Tinkoff), Russian Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) and Dutchman Steven Kruijswijk (Lotto-Jumbo).
The Giro faces a punishing and critical weekend. Saturday's mountainous 14th stage, 210km from Alpago to Corvara includes six categorised climbs with five over 2000m in altitude. While Sunday's 14th stage is a 10.8km mountain time trial from Castelrotto to Alpe di Siusi.
When Chaves was asked outside his team bus after Friday's stage if he expects his experience at high altitude in Colombia where he lives in Bogota will help, he said, laughing: "I hope it is an advantage for us. It is true, it is altitude but more important is keeping warm in the descents, to keep eating and drinking. It's a long, long day. I think it is close to seven hours."
Pressed on which climb he thinks will be the most decisive of the stage, Chaves, who has undertaken reconnaissance of the course, said: "I think the race will be broken in the Passo Gau [the second last climb, rated first category to 2,236m at 168.8km]. It is the hardest one and not so far from the finish. Also the last climb [the Passo Valparola, rated second category to 2,220m at 190.6km] is hard. If you have legs … you can try [to attack] there."
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Orica-GreenEdge head sports director Matt White believes the race could turn on any part of the stage, so was reticent to point a finger to one particular climb as the most crucial.
"It's probably the hardest day you will see on paper in this year's calendar," White said.
"A lot of different things could happen ... [But] there is certainly not one point of [stage 14] that is pinpointed a crucial point because it depends how the race is ridden."
Team confidence in Chaves riding high
White also did not wish to forecast how well Chaves might fare in the Giro based on how the Colombian has ridden so far and with eight stages to go, saying: "We have so much racing to go, it would be pretty unrealistic to make a target now. By Sunday we are all going to have a better idea of who has really got legs and who hasn't. [Saturday] on paper, is the hardest day of the tour. Then you have to back it up with an incredibly hard individual time trial. Sunday night we will know how we can attack the last week and what's realistic and what's not."
However, White was pleased with Friday's 13th stage that saw Chaves tested his main rivals for the first time so far in this Giro on the last climb - the second category Valle after which there was 14km to go - with a surge at the front of their group that saw Jungels dropped.
"Esteban had a good day," White said. "There were a couple of guys who didn't have the best of days. People make big comebacks in 24 hours but tomorrow … there is a lot of confidence with Esteban going into the hardest day of the Tour."
Chaves was also pleased with his race, but reminded that the stage was just "one of the three-day block. It was a really important day. I had no breath. All day it was full gas.
"The important thing is that we arrived with the front group [of favourites]. Astana and Movistar showed a really good performance … these are the big teams for the what's ahead."
Asked about his surge on the last climb, Chaves said: "I tried once to see how the others were, but everyone was with me, so I stopped. But everyone did the same – Nibali, Valverde … everyone showed but everyone waits. [Saturday] is a harder stage so we will see."
So who was strongest? Chaves cited the Astana and Movistar teams of Nibali and Valverde respectively, but said Majka and Kruijswijk (Lotto-Jumbo): "look really good pedalling."
White believes Astana are not the same force as they were last year when they raced with a different line-up for Italian Fabio Aru who placed second behind Spaniard Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) who are both not in this year's Giro with their focus being on the Tour de France.
White said he expected the Giro to have been more aggressively raced than it has been since it started on May 9. "I think it's been quite a negatively raced tour so far," White said.
"It's a very solid last week, but I suppose we are used to Astana really doing a lot of damage when they wanted to. They are going strong. Who knows their tactics for the last week?
"It's surprising. But it's a different Astana that was here a year ago … it's a different group of riders. There's still a long, long way to go and a hell of a lot of climbing to come."
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Rupert Guinness first wrote on cycling at the 1984 Victorian road titles in Australia from the finish line on a blustery and cold hilltop with a few dozen supporters. But since 1987, he has covered 26 Tours de France, as well as numerous editions of the Giro d'Italia, Vuelta a Espana, classics, world track and road titles and other races around the world, plus four Olympic Games (1992, 2000, 2008, 2012). He lived in Belgium and France from 1987 to 1995 writing for Winning Magazine and VeloNews, but now lives in Sydney as a sports writer for The Sydney Morning Herald (Fairfax Media) and contributor to Cyclingnews and select publications.
An author of 13 books, most of them on cycling, he can be seen in a Hawaiian shirt enjoying a drop of French rosé between competing in Ironman triathlons.
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