High stakes, tight margins – Can Monte Bondone break Giro d'Italia deadlock? Stage 16 preview

For much of the Giro d'Italia's modern era, the infamous third week has formed a large part of its mystique. At the route presentation each Autumn, everyone would hush and marvel at just how many mountain passes the organisers had managed to shoehorn into the race's dying days.

The last week of the Giro became something akin to the final six miles of a marathon, and the race's history is peppered with early pacesetters who spectacularly hit the wall just as they reached the final stretch. As riders from Alex Zülle to Simon Yates could testify, even the smoothest of strides can break down on Heartbreak Hill. Last twists seemed to be hardwired into this race.

It is possible, however, to have too much of a good thing. In the past, the Giro's extreme third week has often overshadowed the rest of the race for the pink jersey. This year, like last, it has gone further by neutralising it altogether. With such demanding days still ahead in this race of endurance, the GC contenders have been understandably reticent to expend any more energy than is necessary.

Ahead of stage 16 to Monte Bondone, the Giro has covered 2,470km through rain, hail and (very intermittent) shine since the Grande Partenza on May 6, taking in climbs of over 2,000 metres, fraught city centre finales and everything in between. And yet, after all that, only two seconds separate Geraint Thomas (Ineos) and Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma), the two men most likely to carry the final maglia rosa to Rome.

There have been fifteen stages thus far on this Giro, but the difference between the two favourites has been created entirely by the two time trials in the opening week, as well as by a two-second time bonus collected by Roglic on stage 3. Thomas and Roglic have finished on the same time on thirteen out of the thirteen road stages to date.

"It's difficult to really make a big difference between the guys. It's just waiting for the last week," Jumbo-Visma directeur sportif Marc Reef admitted in Bergamo on Sunday. The point was echoed by Thomas, even if the Welshman expressed the belief that the Giro would "explode" at some point in the coming days.

A year ago, when Richard Carapaz and Jai Hindley found themselves locked in a similar duel, each arduous day in the final week was presented as a likely tiebreaker. Nothing, however, would separate them until Hindley danced clear in the last 3km of the last mountain pass of the Giro on the last weekend of the race.

The balance was too delicate and the stakes were too high for either man to try anything risky before then, and it's all too easy to envisage a similar situation unfolding here, despite three stages with 5,000m of climbing in the next four days.

Bruno Armirail (Groupama-FDJ), the man wearing a maglia rosa that neither Ineos nor Jumbo-Visma wants for now, explained the predicament neatly during his press conference on Sunday when an almost affronted local journalist decried the lack of spettacolo among the GC contenders.

"For sure, the public would like to see attacks, but when you're on the bike, it's different," Armirail said. "The stakes are high at the Giro, so the leaders can't just attack for the sake of it at any moment."

Monte Bondone

Something has to give eventually at this Giro, but it remains to be seen if stage 16 to Monte Bondone, the first instalment of this race's eye-wateringly mountainous finale, will begin to move the dial.

In principle, the terrain is there, with the climbs of Passo di Santa Barbara (12.7km at 8.3%), Passo Bordala (4.5km at 6.7%), Matassone (11.3km at 5.5%) and Serrada (17.7km at 5.5%) preceding the category 1 haul to Monte Bondone (21.4km at 6.7%).

In practice, however, the conditions that led to the stalemate of the past week remain stubbornly in place. Even though Wednesday's flat run to Caorle offers some respite ahead of the rigours to come, the thought of the 5,000m climbing days to Val di Zoldo and Tre Cime di Lavaredo later in the week doesn't encourage too much adventure from Thomas, Roglic et al.

"All the talk of the last week is part of it too," Thomas said during Monday's rest day when asked about a race where crashes and COVID-19 cases have changed the complexion atop the standings more than events on the road. "I want to race but I don't just want to attack for entertainment, blow up and someone else profits from it."

That line of thought also contributed to Ineos' decision to allow Armirail to move into pink after his stint in the day-long break on stage 14 to Cassano Magnago. The Frenchman's Groupama-FDJ squad performed much of the policing at the head of the peloton on the following stage to Bergamo, which allowed some respite for Thomas' depleted squad, who have lost Tao Geoghegan Hart and Filippo Ganna.

Armirail holds a lead of 1:08 over Thomas, 1:10 over Roglic and 1:30 over dangerman João Almeida (UAE Team Emirates) ahead of the third week, but his prospects of holding pink on the road to Monte Bondone appear slim, and their focus will instead be on sending Thibaut Pinot (11th at 4:23) up the road, which means Ineos might be called into action to control affairs sooner rather than later on stage 16.

While Ineos were the strongest team in the race through the opening ten days, they have been hindered since by the crash that forced Geoghegan Hart to abandon and saw Pavel Sivakov drop out of the GC running.

In the meantime, Roglic's Jumbo-Visma squad, subject to so many revisions ahead of the race, has given the impression of hitting its stride. Men like Rohan Dennis and Thomas Gloag, brought to this Giro at short notice, look ever more comfortable as the race progresses, and Jumbo-Visma's yellow jerseys are beginning to outnumber Ineos at critical moments.

On the Roncola on Sunday, Jumbo-Visma briefly looked to be considering putting those numbers to use, but it was a false alarm. They may find more fertile terrain on Tuesday, while Roglic, so cautious so far, might – might – be tempted into action by the steepest ramps of Monte Bondone, which begin with 5km to go.

Thomas, however, was able to respond when Roglic tested the waters on similar gradients at I Cappuccini on stage 8, and he will back himself to do the same here. The deadlock might remain bolted shut for a few days yet.

The outsiders

Image from the mountains of the Giro d'Italia

(Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

While Thomas and Roglic understandably dominate most considerations, this Giro is not a two-horse race just yet. Almeida is within touching distance, only losing ground at Fossombrone, and his UAE Team Emirates squad is among the best in this race. He tested his rivals with an acceleration in Bergamo on Sunday, though he was cagy about his level of aggression in the final week. Caution, it seems, will be his byword.

"I'd already be very happy with a podium place, but I'll definitely try to go for first if there's a possibility," said Almeida, who insisted that the sheer difficulty of Tuesday's stage would see differences among the GC men. "There's a lot of climbing but we don't go to too high an altitude. For now, we've been all very patient, but let's see what happens tomorrow."

Behind Thomas, Roglic and Almeida, men like Damiano Caruso (6th at 2:36), Lennard Kämna (7th at 3:02) and Eddie Dunbar (8th at 3:40) theoretically have a little more leeway to attack, but in practice, the strength of Jumbo-Visma and Ineos has acted as a deterrent – as, indeed, has the thought of this arduous third week, where everything could change.

Monte Bondone, of course, is a place synonymous with late turnarounds on the Giro. In 1956, on the 21st stage of an edition criticised for its relative lack of excitement in the absence of Fausto Coppi – sound familiar? – Charly Gaul soloed to an indelible stage victory beneath the snow, on a day where the extreme conditions saw only 42 of the 83 starters reach the finish.

Gaul had begun the day 24th overall, more than 16 minutes down on maglia rosa Pasquale Fornara, but two days from the finish in Milan, he turned the race on its head with an impresa that left an imprint on the race like few others. When traditionalists decried the shortening of stage 13 to Crans Montana, for instance, much of their outrage was informed by the legend of Monte Bondone.

Conditions, mercifully, will be rather gentler on the 1,632m ascent this time around, and the gruppo will follow the full 203km course from Sabbio Chiese for a total of 5,200m of climbing. But despite those outsized numbers, the margins might yet remain tight on Tuesday evening.

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Barry Ryan
Head of Features

Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.

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