Wednesday's news that the route of the Giro d'Italia's final mountain stage – stage 20 – from Alba to Sestriere would be changed so that the race doesn't cross into France due to COVID-19 restrictions has elevated Thursday's stage 18 into this year's sole 'queen stage', according to Trek-Segafredo's Vincenzo Nibali.
Both the Colle dell'Agnello and the Col d'Izoard – the latter on French soil – have been cut from Saturday's route, with the noww 181km stage instead re-routed so that the Giro will now climb Sestriere three times, with the stage finishing at its summit after the third climb. The roads to Sestriere are wider, easier and at lower altitude, with a total of 4000 metres of climbing rather than the planned 5300 metres.
"The route modification for stage 20 radically changes the specific weight of the stage," Vincenzo Nibali said after hearing of the changes.
"The Colle dell'Agnello, which I've climbed only once before, was a really tough climb – breathtaking.
"Climbing Sestriere three times instead imposes a completely different approach," the Italian explained.
"Of course, it's a hard and an important climb but a lot will depend on the pace with which the circuit will be repeated, especially by the GC riders," he said.
Nibali is currently in seventh place overall, 3:31 behind Portugal's João Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep), who proved unshakeable since taking the race lead on stage 3 to Mount Etna. Wilco Keldermen (Team Sunweb) is also considered a favourite. He is just 17 seconds behind Almeida.
If the 22-year-old Almeida can finish Thursday's stage from Pinzolo to Laghi di Cancano via the Passo dello Stlevio with the pink leader's jersey still on his shoulders, he has a far better chance of being crowned the Giro's first Portuguese winner in Milan on Sunday.
The climbing on Thursday's stage starts early with the second-category Campo Carlo Magno, followed by the first-category Passo Castrin/Hohmandjoch.
The stage's high point – likely in both senses – comes next in the shape of the 2,758-metre-high Passo dello Stelvio: almost 25km long, with an average gradient of 7.5 per cent and featuring 48 hairpins.
Following the descent, the riders then face a summit finish at the Laghi di Cancano, where their day will finally end following a stage with a total vertical gain of 5,400 metres.
The experienced Nibali knows that stages are only made tougher or easier by virtue of how hard they're ridden, but he nevertheless seems to believe that Thursday's stage could be the final opportunity to try to unseat Almeida.
"On today's stage [Wednesday], there was a lot of expectation, and the start was full gas," he explained. "There were a lot of attacks in the first part of the day – and then we climbed at a regular pace. I expected the race to explode at any moment, but it didn't happen. On the final climb, the pace was then too high and there was little opportunity to attack.
"Clearly, in light of Saturday's changes and today's result [Almeida defending his lead], tomorrow's stage becomes the 'queen stage' and takes on considerable importance," Nibali said.
"The profile of the stage is clear, but everything depends on the pace with which it will be faced. Expectations are high, but to make predictions is a gamble judging by how this Giro has gone so far."
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