Ever since the Giro d'Italia caravan crossed the Strait of Messina and reached the Italian mainland on Tuesday afternoon, the ascent of the Blockhaus on stage 9 has seemed to obliterate all else on the horizon. In the start village each day, the men with designs on the maglia rosa are sounded out for their opinions of the climb. On television and radio, ex-pros talk about how the Giro will really start in the Apennines.
Despite the torpor that characterised much of Friday's long trudge from Castrovillari to Alberobello, it would be mistaken to assume that the Giro is simply slouching towards the Blockhaus. The GC contenders were certainly alive to the danger when the peloton broke up in the rapid closing kilometres of stage 7, and they are aware, too, that further frissons await when the Giro visits the scenic Gargano Peninsula – if Puglia is the heel of Italy's boot, then this is its spur – on stage 8 from Molfetta to Peschici.
It is the quintessential stage of two halves. The opening 85 kilometres along the coast north of Bari are pancake flat, but the race takes on a rather different guise once it reaches Manfredonia, the gateway to the peninsula. The category 2 ascent of the Monte Sant'Angelo (9.6km at 6.1%) signals the beginning of hostilities. From there, the road twists and turns along the coastline, rising and dipping all the way, before cutting inland to tackle the category 4 Coppa Santa Tecla.
Although there are no further categorised climbs in the 46 kilometres that remain, it is the final hour of racing that might prove the most treacherous for the podium contenders. As a communique on the state of the roads from the race organisation put it so succinctly: "From kilometre 120 until the finish, the route is very curvy." Any breaks can disappear out of sight very quickly, and it was on similar terrain in the Cinque Terre that Astana blew the race asunder in 2015, ending the podium hopes of Ryder Hesjedal and Steven Kruijswijk in the process.
The closing kilometres, meanwhile, provide something of a classic puncheur's finale. The unclassified ascent of the Coppa del Fornaro comes just 6.2 kilometres from the line, while the finish on Peschici's Via Montesanto is an uphill one. The road kicks up throughout the final 1500 metres, with the gradient stiffening to 12% in the final 400 metres.
Danilo Di Luca scored victory on this finale in 2000, while another controversial finisseur, Franco Pellizotti took the spoils on the Giro's next visit in 2006. Two years later, Matteo Priamo won out, while Giovanni Visconti did enough to take the maglia rosa the same afternoon. Daniele Nardello was vying with the Sicilian for the tunic that day, and though he confessed that his precise memories of the stage were patchy, one thing was certain: "It was hard. It's definitely a tricky finale."
Nardello's words were echoed by a man who has never raced on the Gargano Peninsula, but who has studied the profile intently. "It's a very tricky final, so we need to watch out," Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) told Cyclingnews on Friday afternoon. The punchy finale ostensibly suits a rider of Dumoulin's characteristics, but the Dutchman insisted that his focus would simply be on trying to avoid losing time. "Normally I wouldn't be looking to attack on a stage like tomorrow, but we need to be sharp," he said.
Another rider with the ability to perform strongly on such a finale is Adam Yates, currently third overall and just 10 seconds – or one winner's time bonus – off the maglia rosa of Bob Jungels (Quick-Step Floors). "As far as we're concerned tomorrow, we're just looking after GC and we won't be taking any responsibility to chase for a sprint," Orica-Scott directeur sportif Matt White said.
White wondered whether the stage honours might fall, as they did at Terme Luigiane on Thursday, to an early break. In a Giro bereft of men like Diego Ulissi and Philippe Gilbert, it is possible that no team will wish to take up the chase. "I think it's an interesting one, because Fernando Gaviria's in super shape and he has climbed better than most sprinters so it could be a good stage for him, but the problem is that there's not a Gilbert type of rider here," White said. "There's some good guys here but I think it's pretty open tomorrow's stage."
No matter, vigilance will be the order of the day for the podium contenders. "With the gradient on the finish line, the GC guys have to be in the mix anyway," White said. "It's more for the punchier kind of guys, but the GC guys have to be there anyway because potentially there could be splits."
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