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2014 Giro d'Italia stage 8

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To Marche for the first big sort-out amongst the GC bunch. The 20 kilometre haul to Cippo di Carpegna will ask serious questions of their respective constitutions, but it doesn't end there. The final 4 kilometres on Eremo Madonna del Faggio are extremely tough. Of course we're a long way from home, but we'll start to get some insight into who's hot and who's not.

Just ask Enrico Paolini, from nearby Pesaro. In the 1970s he was an idol amongst Italian fans, and little wonder. The archetypal sprinter-roadman, he was three times national champion, and helped himself to no less than seven Giro stages. He finished on each of the eleven occasions he competed, and never once changed team. Back then a plethora of kitchen manufacturers sponsored cycling teams, amongst them his SCIC outfit. They were handsomely rewarded for their patronage, but planet cycling was very much a parochial affair. When Paolini won two stages at the 1974 Giro only two foreign teams made the trip. What's more just three non-Europeans (a New Zealander and two Colombians) got to live the Giro dream. The peloton was much smaller, but the world back then very big and very, very wide…

Today's finish lies 20 kilometres south of San Marino, reputedly the world's oldest sovereign state. That's as maybe, but with a population of just 30,000 it's certainly one of the smallest. Vatican City and Monaco are actually smaller, but neither is a full parliamentary democracy. And neither could boast Abraham Lincoln, no less, as an honorary citizen.

Thousands visit annually for its Grand Prix, and tourism is the engine of the local economy. They estimate that some 2 million visited in 2012, more per head of capita than any other state.

José Manuel Fuente's 1974 ascent of Monte Carpegna represents the high watermark of his legendary struggle with Eddy Merckx. Day three had seen him drop Merckx on Monte Faito, and six days on he retained a 35 second advantage. Merckx, tired of Italian "wheelsuckers", vowed to ride more aggressively than ever. He'd carry the fight to Fuente and see what he was really made of.

In the event it was he who capsized. Fuente was stupendous on Carpegna and Merckx, powerless to stop his charge, shipped over a minute. When he lost another slug on the Ciocco it seemed like his monopoly was finally under threat.

Only not quite. The "Cannibal" reduced the deficit in the time trial before Fuente suffered the mother of all hunger flats on a humdinger of a stage to Sanremo. In atrocious weather conditions he lost over eight minutes, and Merckx' secured his fifth and final Giro.

This is where the cards are going to start being shuffled, and you're going to see some extremely nervous cyclists today. Carpegna is a mythical climb, but it's also an extremely hard one. It may be that nothing happens on it, but if any of the GC group start to lose contact on it you'll see attacks going off all over the place. Everyone knows this is the first big theatre. You can't win the Giro d'Italia here, but you can certainly lose it.

The last four kilometres are extremely steep as well, and there will be a battle there come what may. Obviously we're still a long way out, but anyone who can't go with it here can probably forget about fighting for the overall when we reach the Dolomites.

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