For the second year running, the question is the same: how far can Bob Jungels go on leading this Giro d'Italia? For the second year running, after all, the Quick-Step Floors man is in possession of the maglia rosa and riding with considerable assurance.
12 months ago, Jungels weathered the high mountains well enough to place sixth overall in Turin and claim the white jersey of best young rider. A year stronger and sager – and, lest we forget, still shy of his 25th birthday – he could reasonably expect to finish higher this time around, though he is circumspect about his prospects.
Jungels' second spell in the pink jersey is largely a by-product of his forceful efforts at the head of the Quick-Step Floors-driven echelon that secured stage victory for Fernando Gaviria in Calgiari on stage 3. When the Giro resumed in Sicily on stage 4, Jungels finished with the favourites on Mount Etna to divest his teammate of pink, but he maintains the Giro's opening mountain test was inconclusive.
"It's pretty hard to compare myself to the others because I don't know how they felt. It was a hard climb but there was a lot of wind," Jungels said. "I ended up on the podium in the pink jersey and I didn't think too much of how the others felt."
Sunday's second summit finish at the Blockhaus should provide a more robust test of Jungels' credentials as a podium contender at this Giro, particularly as Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) et al will surely be keen to build a buffer on the Luxembourger ahead of the Montefalco time trial.
"On Blockhaus I will see how I feel compared to them and then I'll know if I see myself as a contender for GC," Jungels said. "I want to do a good GC because last year I was 6th, but this year the field is stronger so if I can finish in the top 10, I will be very happy."
Some in the sala stampa, however, suspect that Jungels is quietly nurturing rather loftier aims for this Giro than simply trying to replicate his performance of a year ago. "Confirming is harder," Jungels protested earlier in the week. In Terme Luigiane on Thursday, he was succinct, if not quite incredulous, when asked if he would settle now for a place in the top three in Milan. "Yes," he said simply.
For all the anticipation about those 13 kilometres of climbing in Abruzzo on Sunday, it is worth recalling that almost a thousand kilometres of racing separates Mount Etna from the summit finish atop the Blockhaus on stage 9. As the Giro navigates its way through Italy's south, from the Strait of Messina, along the Ionian coast and northwards from Puglia, there are pitfalls aplenty for those with ambitions of carrying off the biggest prize of all in Milan. Saturday's dramatic leg along the Gargano Peninsula to Peschici may be the most obviously demanding of the supposed transition stages, but there are, so the truism says, no easy days in a Grand Tour.
Though Jungels looked comfortable on the road to Terme Luigiane on Thursday, he said the stage had proved more fraught than anticipated. Quick-Step Floors gladly rubber-stamped a day pass for stage winner Silvan Dillier (BMC) and the five-man early break, but they hadn't counted on Cannondale-Drapac making a concerted attempt to peg back the move.
"It was tougher than I hoped for," Jungels said. "We were happy when the break went because the start was very hectic. It was tricky in the city and it was hard to keep things under control. Then when the break went, there were still some teams who wanted to chase the it down, and in the final a lot of the GC teams wanted to be in the front, so it was a bit more stressful than I expected."
Last year's spell leading the Giro has stood Jungels in good stead. He evinced calm throughout the sinuous finale to stage 6, and he seems utterly unperturbed by the demands of podium ceremonies and media duties that follow each stage. The burning question, of course, is how much his experience at the 2016 Giro will stand to him this time out, once the road begins to climb in earnest. As was the case twelve months ago, the final week of this Giro is a brute, starting with the tappone to Bormio on stage 16.
"The only thing I can say is that I have progressed on the climbs," Jungels said. "How much I have progressed on the long climbs, I can only assess after stage 16."
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