The opening stages of a Giro d’Italia are often like the first rounds of a title fight. The contenders shadow one another, they prod and they probe, but rarely does the chance to land a telling blow present itself.
As the gradient stiffened to 18% on the slopes of the Fortino in the finale of stage 4 to Praia a Mare, however, Vincenzo Nibali and his Astana team suddenly spotted a chance to lay a glove on Mikel Landa (Sky), when the Basque was unable to follow the pace at the head of the peloton and was distanced.
Watching the images from the team car behind, Astana directeur sportif Giuseppe Martinelli reached for his radio receiver, and moments later, Nibali’s lieutenant Jakob Fuglsang danced to the front of the dwindling group in a bid to put daylight into Landa.
Crashes notwithstanding, an overall contender rarely ends up on the canvas at this early juncture, but it briefly seemed as though there was an opportunity to claim the round at the very least, and gain a handful of seconds on Landa.
“It wasn’t premeditated, but we saw in that moment that Landa wasn’t in the front group anymore so we accelerated a bit. But really it was a question of staying in front and stretching out the group, we weren’t really trying anything,” Martinelli told Cyclingnews after the finish.
Indeed, once Landa bridged his way back on over the top, Fuglsang relented at the front of the group, and Martinelli was quick to downplay the lasting significance of his former rider’s moment of apparent weakness.
“It was a difficult stage and it was hot too, and that can be tougher when it’s only the first few days of the race,” Martinelli said. “But today wasn’t a real test for Landa. We didn’t manage to gain any time and he managed to save himself without problems. So I wouldn’t be thinking about what happened on the stage today, I’d be looking to tomorrow and the day after tomorrow.”
Valverde puts little importance on Via del Fontino climb for GC contenders
Landa finished safely in the same group as Nibali, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and the other principal favourites in Praia a Mare, six seconds down on stage winner Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida).
Valverde admitted that initially he had not even been aware that Landa was unable to follow the pace on the Fortino and, like Martinelli, he was reluctant to extrapolate too much from the short, sharp climb. “I only realised when the Astana riders told me he was missing, but you can’t really tell too much from a steep slope like that, especially when it’s only a kilometre and a half long,” Valverde said.
Nibali, meanwhile, appeared comfortable on the rugged finale in Calabria, another welcome augury to follow his solid outing in the Giro’s opening time trial in Apeldoorn on Friday. While restored pink jersey Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) remains coy about his overall ambitions, Nibali (sixth at 26 seconds) remains the best placed of the top tier of favourites, five seconds up on Valverde and 21 ahead of Landa.
“For me today was above all a nervous stage, and when you get to the finish, you’re just glad not to have lost anything. The team is good, Vincenzo too, so it went well,” Martinelli said, adding that he had even given the green light to Michele Scarponi to abandon Nibali’s side in the closing kilometres in a forlorn bid to peg back Ulissi.
“The lads are always working and don’t often get opportunities of their own in a race like this. But when we saw we had four or five riders up there, we decided to have a go.”
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