For three days, the leading characters in this Giro d'Italia have been in search of a theatre. The windswept roads of Sardinia provided some frissons, of course, but the general classification contenders were, by and large, playing out something akin to a dress rehearsal. When the Giro resumes in Sicily on stage 4, it is hard to shake off the sense that the curtain is being raised in earnest on the corsa rosa. Mount Etna awaits.
Tuesday's visit to Iddu, the mighty volcano that broods over Sicily's eastern coast, will be the fourth in Giro history. As in 2011, the stage will finish at Rifugio Sapienza, 1892 metres above sea level, but this time the race tackles a more arduous road up the mountainside from Nicolosi.
17.9 kilometres in length with an average gradient of 6.6% and a maximum of 12%, this ascent of Mount Etna could well provoke some telling gaps among the favourites.
Local eyes will, inevitably, be on Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), who is racing in his native region for only the third time in his entire career, and the first since his Giro d'Italia and Tour de France victories extended his renown beyond the tifosi and into the mainstream. Ancient lore places the cyclops on the slopes of Mount Etna, and the volcano is also an intrinsic part of the origin myth of Lo Squalo – as a ten-year-old, Nibali reportedly rode to the summit from Linguaglossa, becoming so weary that he had to be towed by his mother's car in the final kilometres.
There will be no such concessions on offer this time around, as Etna provides Nibali with his first chance to measure himself against the consensus favourite for overall victory, Nairo Quintana (Movistar). Sunday's La Gazzetta dello Sport breathlessly reported news of supposed enmity between Quintana and Nibali, only for Monday's edition to convey Nibali's exasperated denial, appended by a retraction of sorts from La Gazzetta. No matter, the ascent of Mount Etna will bring some genuine dramatic tension to the tale of Nibali and Quintana, and might also indicate whether theirs will the defining duel of this Giro.
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"It's inevitable that something will happen – Etna is a real climb," Nibali said on Sunday evening. The seconds won and lost on Etna will hardly be decisive, but the ascent will lend some shape to the general classification and could set the tone for some of the subplots of this race. Most notably, the leadership picture at Team Sky might be a little clearer once Geraint Thomas and Mikel Landa have reached Rifugio Sapienza on Tuesday afternoon. "I think once you're on it, everybody will be going full gas," Thomas said.
Stage 4 sets out from the shadow of Cefalù's fortress-like cathedral and hugs the coast for 70 kilometres before swinging inland to tackle the category 2 Portella Femmina Morta. At 32 kilometres in length, it seems to stretch on forever, but with an average gradient of 4.5%, it should serve as little more than a preamble to the main event on Etna's arid slopes.
The descent brings the race as far as Bronte and then the route then circles around the base of Etna as far as Nicolosi, from where the assault on the summit begins. The Via Etnea begins gently, but the gradient stiffens to 8.9% even before the route leaves Nicolosi proper, and riders will already be jettisoned off the back of the peloton ahead of the 15-kilometre to go banner.
There is something of a respite when the route reaches Casa Torre with 11 kilometres to go, but the road kicks up again shortly afterwards as it tackles the switchbacks that lead towards Rifugio Sapienza. Hostilities among the general classification contenders ought to commence in full at Salto del Cane – the Dog's Leap – with 8 kilometres to go, where the gradient pitches up to 12%, and it rarely drops below 8% in the four kilometres that follow.
In 2011, the ascent of Etna was slightly more gradual and the gusting winds on the day meant that few expected any major offensive from the favourites. Instead, Alberto Contador tore the race apart with a fierce acceleration six kilometres from the summit, all but sealing the overall victory that would later be stripped from him by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. This time around, the varying gradients in the final five kilometres provide a more obvious springboard for willing attackers.
One rider who will not be lacking in motivation is Paolo Tiralongo, who at 39 years of age is riding the final Giro of his career. A native of Avola on Sicily's Ionian Coast, Tiralongo has used Etna as his altitude training base since 2004. Like the rest of his Astana team, he is seeking a stage win on this Giro in remembrance of the late Michele Scarponi.
"I've already won three stages of the Giro but never in Sicily. It would be beautiful to repeat the feat of Mario Fazio, a native of Catania who won there in 1949," Tiralongo told Gazzetta. "Etna is my mountain. I'm in my thirteenth and final Giro. Finishing with a victory up there would top it all."