Forget about the upcoming ascent of Mount Etna on Tuesday, with barely a metre of flat ground all day, stage 2 of the Giro d'Italia in Sardinia on Saturday represents the race's first real climbing challenge.
In its preview of the Giro d'Italia's 575 kilometres and three stages in Sardinia, official race newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport pointed out that 49 years ago the highpoint of stage 2, the second category Genna Silana, acted as the centrepiece of a stunning attack by Eddy Merckx in 1968. But not in the Giro d'Italia.
During the now-defunct early season Tour of Sardinia, Merckx broke away over the Genna Silana, eking out an advantage during a blizzard to claim a solo win in the town of Nuoro and further increase his already massive overall margin of seven minutes.
Neither blizzards nor solo attacks are predicted for Saturday's 221km stage, the fourth longest in this year's race, between the stage 1 finish town of Olbia and another coastal town, Tortoli. But the long slog through the hills of eastern Sardinia, despite featuring only one third-category climb to Nuoro - the scene of that Merckx solo win 49 years ago - and one second category ascent, the Genna Silana, 47 kilometres from the finish, could be a harsh wake up call for the peloton.
"Probably the first word that comes to mind to describe it is 'relentless'," Orica-Scott sports director Julian Dean, who's reconnoitred the whole stage route with team director Matt White, told Cyclingnews on Friday. "It's going to make for a very hard day.
"You're not going to win the Giro d'Italia there, and it'll probably not be a hard day for the big favourites, but it's going to be hard for the sprinters to make the time cut. They're going to have to fight for quite a long time before they can get their group together. There's a lot of up and down, it'll be a long time before the race settles into a pattern."
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The first really flat section, in fact, is only nine kilometres from the finish, as the route finally wends its way out of the Sardinian hills en route for the coast.
The second-category Genna Silana, Dean says, which caps out at 1,002 metres above sea level, is "not excessively hard. But it's very likely we'll see a breakaway of none-favourites, maybe 10 or so get away early on, go for the win then hold the jersey until Etna. And there's a lot of smaller teams who will want to take that opportunity."
The roads are, he says, "really good in general, maybe a few technical bits and pieces. I think the wind, though, which is supposed to really pick up over the next couple of days, could be more of a factor." So, too, could the heat, if temperatures continue to rise as they have done in the last few days.
"So the climbs are long, they are not particularly steep, but they are relentless. It's not very often you get a day that hard so early in a Grand Tour. Amongst the big favourites, I don't think we'll see too much movement, maybe 40 or 50 guys in the main group when it reaches the finish. But it'll be a good day for opportunists."
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 Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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