Giuseppe Martinelli's absence from the finish of stage 11 of the Giro d'Italia in Novi Ligure was a quiet statement of intent. Rather than watch Wednesday's inevitable bunch finish, the Astana directeur sportif opted to drive a day ahead of the race to reconnoitre the new climb of Montoso and the finale of stage 12 to Pinerolo.
With Miguel Angel Lopez languishing some 4:29 down on Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) after a calamitous display in the San Martino time trial, it was not a question of whether Astana would go on the offensive, but when.
In Thursday morning's La Gazzetta dello Sport, mind, Martinelli was quoted as saying that nothing much would happen on the Giro's first mountain stage, even if the newspaper warned its readers to take those words with a grain of salt. "This is a pure bluff from Martinelli," it wrote. "It won't be surprising if his riders make a move."
So it proved. Dario Cataldo and Manuele Boaro were delegated to enter the day's early break of 25 riders, which at one point established a lead of 15 minutes over the peloton. Once the bunch hit the Montoso, the first category 1 ascent of the Giro, Astana moved swiftly to the front.
Jan Hirt surged forcefully on the lower slopes of the climb with the clear aim of teeing up an attack from Lopez. The Colombian duly obliged with a rasping acceleration of his own that only Richard Carapaz (Movistar) and Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) could follow.
After that move petered out, Mikel Landa (Movistar) – another man with acres of ground to recoup – launched his offensive. Lopez responded immediately, and this duo quickly established a sizeable advantage over a dwindling group of favourites that included Nibali and Roglic.
"It wasn't planned, but I have to try to take back time whenever I can," said Landa, who found a redoubtable ally of circumstance in Lopez.
By the summit of the stiff ascent of the Montaso, they had 30 seconds in hand on Roglic et al, and they found useful reinforcements over the other side as they each had a teammate drop back from the break to help with the pace-making. Boaro waited for Lopez, while Landa had Jasha Sütterlin for company, and at one point, the quartet had a lead of almost a minute on the favourites.
Cataldo would later drop back to provide what help he could as Landa and Lopez worked their way through the remnants of the day's early break. They reached the finish line in Pinerolo 7:35 down on the stage winner Cesare Benedetti (Bora-Hansgrohe) but picked up 28 seconds on Roglic, Nibali and Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott).
In the overall standings, Lopez is now 16th overall, 8:08 off new maglia rosa Jan Polanc (UAE Team Emirates) but has reduced his deficit on Roglic to 4:01. Landa, meanwhile, is 4:24 down on Roglic, the best-placed of the GC favourites.
On Monday's rest day, Landa hinted that his Carapaz, fourth overall a year ago, was now more likely to lead Movistar's GC challenge on this Giro. The time gained by Landa on Thursday leaves him just over a minute down on his teammate, but he suggested that the podium might be the summit of his ambitions after his losses in the opening week.
"Every time gain is welcome, you always want more but we are a lot of riders, 10 riders, defending the GC and there's always going to be someone working behind to close the gap," Landa said. "But we got a bit of time back and I had good sensations. It's something, but I am very far back. There are a lot of mountains coming up, so let's see if I have good sensations. The dream is always to win, but right now, I'd be happy with the podium."
The view from the Astana camp has been rather more bullish in recent days. Speaking to Cyclingnews on the eve of the Giro's entry into the Alps, directeur sportif Stefano Zanini refused to rule out a challenge for the maglia rosa. After placing third overall at both the Giro and the Vuelta a España in 2018, Lopez arrived at this race with no limit on his ambition.
"If you fight, you have to fight for the maximum. We'll see what we can do. We'll do our best for the maximum objective," said Zanini, who did not dispute the consensus that his Astana team is the strongest in the race.
"It seems like that because everyone is saying it. There's no point in hiding it. They're strong riders, they're going well, and now we need to invent something."
Astana and Movistar will doubtless draw confidence, too, from how quickly Roglic was isolated from his Jumbo-Visma teammates once they began their offensive on the Montaso. The Giro may have passed its midway point, but it has been above 1,000 metres only once and already there are glimmers of encouragement for the climbers. Friday's summit finish at the 2247m-high Ceresole Reale and Saturday's mammoth leg to Courmayeur should reveal more.
"I think that these things give us some energy and more morale to attack again and try to find some strategies with other teams," Landa said. "It's going to be a nice weekend."
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