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Photo: Sirotti






25.05.2015 @ 12:50 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

The first two weeks of the Giro d’Italia have been brutal but the hardest part is yet to come. The final week is loaded with mountain stages and kicks off with the queen stage of the race. The 174km ride from Pinzolo to Aprica may not end with the hardest climb but as it has virtually no flat roads at all and includes the brutal Mortirolo climb, it has the potential to do more damage than any other mountain stage of the race.


The course

One day after a rest day, many riders are a bit nervous about how their legs will react and so there will be a very tense atmosphere when they gather in Pinzolo for the start of stage 16. For the second year in a row, the organizers have made stage 16 one day after the second rest day the hardest of the entire race. After a two-year absence, the legendary Mortirolo will be back but like in the previous stage, it is the penultimate ascent that is the hardest while the climb to the finish is a pretty easy affair.


The stage brings the riders over 174km from Pinzolo to Aprica and is a high mountain stage with as many as 5 KOM climbs and a total difference in altitude of 4,500 m. The route starts uphill in Pinzolo, clears the Campo Carlo Magno climb (category 2, 13.0km, 6.7%, max. 12%, this is largely the same ascent as the previous stage), takes a fast-running descent into Dimaro and goes up again, towards Passo del Tonale (category 2, 15.3km, 6.1%, max. 10%, very regular before it levels out near the top) where Johann Tscopp won a stage in 2010. The stage course drops down into Ponte di Legno and Edolo, then takes in the first climb towards Aprica (category 3, 14.0km, 3.5%, max. 15%) through the village of Santicolo (with gradients of roughly 15% in the first stretch). After rolling past Corteno Golgi, the route takes the ss. 39 and heads for the first passage on the finish line. The following descent is initially wide and fast and gets narrower and more technical all the way up to Stazzona. The route levels out briefly while running through Tirano (the only flat sector of the stage), then it tackles the Mortirolo climb along the traditional Mazzo di Valtellina slope (category 1, 11.9km, 10.9%, max. 18%, with a 12.2% gradient along the 6 kilometres of the central sector that always has two-digit gradients and peaks of 18%). This is followed by a technical descent (on narrowed roadway in the first part),leading to Monno and then to Edolo, where the route will cover once again the 14 km leading to Aprica.


The final 14km runs entirely uphill, with remarkable gradients between Edolo and Santicolo (max. 15%), but flattens out gradually while approaching the finish, dropping to 5% with 5 km to go, and to less than 2% over the last 500 m. The finish line lies on a 7.5-m wide asphalt road, running gently uphill. There are no major technical challenges as it is just a long, slightly winding road.


Aprica has hosted a stage finish 8 times in the past, most recently in 2010 when Michele Scarponi, Ivan Basso and Vincenzo Nibali distanced their rivals on the Mortirolo before Scarponi sprinted to the stage win. In 2006, Ivan Basso crested the summit of the Mortirolo alongside Gilberto Simoni before distancing his companion on the final climb to Aprica. In 1999, Robert Heras beat Simoni and Ivan Gotti in a 3-rider sprint on the day when race leader Marco Pantani had been taken out of the race due to an elevated hematocrit level. Mortirolo last featured on the course in 2012 when the riders tackled the Stelvio climb in the finale and here it was Thomas De Gendt who rode away to a solo victory and almost took the overall win in the process.







The weather

Last year the queen stage was raced in snowy and cold conditions that made it a hugely controversial affair. Luckily we should have no repeat of that kind of drama tomorrow as this year’s queen stage will be held in much more pleasant weather. At the start, the riders will have a bit of sunshine but as the day goes on, it will get significantly cloudier. All day there will be a risk of showers and the temperature at the finish in Aprica will reach a maximum of 10 degrees.


There will barely be any wind as only a very light breeze will be blowing from a northerly direction. This means that the riders will have a headwind on the first climb and then turn into a crosswind as they go up the Tonale and Aprica climbs. There will be a cross-tailwind on the descent and in the valley that leads to the Mortirolo on which the riders will have a combination of cross- and headwind. It will be a headwind on the descent before the riders again turn into a crosswind for the final climb.


The favourites

The third weekend of the Giro was always set to produce a major shake-up of the GC but few would have expected it to change so dramatically twice. The time trial created massive time differences and seemed to have given a small indication about a final top 10 in Milan. However, the first battle in the big mountains turned the overall standings on its head again and while a few riders dropped out of the top 10, several others delivered great performances that put them firmly within reach of a final result among the 10 best riders.


With the final week including four stages that could potentially create big time differences again, a lot can still be changed in what is a very exciting Giro d’Italia. The third part of the race is by far the toughest and the climbs the riders have done in the first two weeks are nothing compared to what’s in store in the final few stages.


Nonetheless, two facts that were already apparent after the time trial, were set in stone in yesterday’s queen stage. Alberto Contador confirmed his status as the strongest rider in the race and only bad luck will prevent him from adding another grand tour to his palmares. The Spaniard is probably the most consistent grand tour rider in the world and even though there are daily variations in his performances, he never has a really bad day in a three-week race.


Secondly, Astana again proved that they are by far the strongest team in the race and they firmly established their authority on the race. Contador may be the strongest rider and on paper he has a very strong team to support him. However, Ivan Basso and Roman Kreuziger are far from their best level and it was striking to see how Contador only had a suffering Michael Rogers at his side at the top of the Passo Daone while Fabio Aru was still surrounded by no less than four teammates who were riding comfortably near the front of the group.


That creates an interesting dynamic to the race as we go into the queen stage. Astana know that it will be very hard to make Contador crack and deny him the overall victory but they have clearly shown that they have not given up. With their strong team, they have a chance to put the race leader under pressure and that’s what they will try to do in the queen stage. A stage win and two riders on the provisional podium is the likely outcome of their efforts but their ultimate goal is still to see if they can elevate Aru or Landa to the top step of the podium.


To reach that goal, they may actually be favoured by the course. If the final climb had been very hard, Contador could use his good legs to just ride away from his rivals. With an easier finishing climb, tactics become a lot more important and this is clearly in favour of a team that has strength in numbers. Astana’s objective must be to isolate Contador on the Mortirolo and then try to attack him on the climb to Aprica where it will be hard for him to cover all moves as it is much easier to follow wheels.


This sets the scene for another very exciting battle that has a lot of possible outcomes. There is a big chance that the GC riders will battle for the stage win and the GC on the final two climbs but there is an equally big chance that the stage will be won by a breakaway. This kind of big mountain stage with constant climbing is almost impossible to control and as the riders go up a hard climb right from the beginning, a very strong group of climbers is destined to get away.


The riders will go uphill right from the gun and this means that the strongest climbers will simply ride away. We should be in for a huge battle similar to the one we had on the first climb in stage 15 an when we get to the top of that ascent, a formidable group will probably have gone clear. It is likely to contain a few riders that are firmly in contention for a top 10 on GC and such a strong move is very hard to control in this kind of terrain.


Alberto Contador still hasn’t won a stage in this race and even though he admitted that such victories may have to be given less priority with the overall goal of the Giro-Tour double in mind, there is no doubt that he desperately wants to win a stage at some point. A grand tour victory is always slightly less valued if the overall winner doesn’t come away with a  stage victory and Contador definitely wants to avoid getting less credit for his win. There is no doubt that the stage he would prefer to win is tomorrow’s as everybody wants to triumph on a day when the riders have been climbing the Mortirolo.


However, Tinkoff-Saxo are definitely not strong enough to control this kind of stage and so he will have to rely on Astana to get a chance to win the stage. If the Kazakh team decides to let the break ride away, the stage will be won by the escapee. However, Tinkoff-Saxo are likely to do their utmost to keep the break within a reasonable distance in the easier middle section to allow Contador a chance to take the stage win.


There is no doubt that Astana will go nuts on the Mortirolo and make the peloton explode like they did on the Passo Daone and Madonna di Campiglio. With their many climbers, they are destined to put a rider in the early break and Tinkoff-Saxo can do nothing to prevent it from happening. On the lower slopes of the Mortirolo, they will go full gas with the likes of Dario Cataldo, Diego Rosa, Paolo Tiralongo and Tanel Kangert and then all will be set for a big battle between Mikel Landa, Fabio Aru and Alberto Contador in the second half of the climb.


Yesterday the favourites rode conservatively on the steep Passo Daone but there is no doubt that we will see a different tactic tomorrow. The Mortirolo is such a trough climb that the favourites simply have to attack each other and the race is likely to explode to pieces. Differences can be maintained on the technical descent but we will see some kind of regrouping on the final climb to Aprica which is not really suited to attacks. In this kind of stage, the difference between the best riders is likely to be very small but for riders who lost contact with the best on the Mortirolo, the time losses can be huge.


After the time trial, we had expected Contador to be in a class on his own in the mountains but that turned out not to be the case. He managed to stay with Landa on the Madonna di Campiglio climb until the Basque escaped in the finale. However, the race leader was clearly on his limit when he tried to follow Landa when the Astana rider attacked for the second time with less than 2km to go and it seemed that Landa was the strongest rider in the race.


The Mortirolo suits Landa even better. The Basque has always liked very steep climbs where he has often excelled in the past. As opposed to this, Contador has never been completely comfortable on those ridiculously steep climbs. Apart from a win on Angliru in the 2008 Vuelta, he has always come up slightly short on the steepest of ascents. In last year’s Vuelta it was remarkable how he only lost ground to Chris Froome on the two occasions when the stage finished on very steep climbs.


Contador has already indicated that the best strategy for him will be to attack and there is no doubt that he wants to get rid of as many Astana riders as possible on the Mortirolo. However, while there is no doubt that he will be able to distance Aru, we don’t think he will be strong enough to get rid of Landa. This will create a very interesting tactical situation as Landa can allow himself to follow wheels. Of course Contador will try to ride on the Mortirolo where drafting is less important but when he gets to the climb of Aprica, he can’t have Landa as a passenger all the way to the finish. This means that a regrouping is likely to take place and Contador, Aru and Landa are likely to find themselves together on the final slopes. With a rider in the early break, Astana may have some firepower to set a hard tempo and keep other riders at distance before they can attack Contador in turns. As it was the case on the Madonna di Campiglio, it will be very hard for Contador to respond to everything and this will make it difficult for the race leader to win the stage.


With Astana and the GC riders likely to ride hard on the Mortirolo, we expect them to be able to bring back the early break and so the stage is most likely to be won by a GC rider. On the climb to Aprica, Contador will have to play it wisely. On the Madonna di Campiglio, he decided to focus on Aru and even though Landa is clearly the strongest Astana rider, the time gaps in the GC suggests that he will make the same choice again. In the finale, he may have to let Landa go and this makes the in-form Basque our favourite to win the stage.


However, Contador may also make a different choice. With Landa being the strongest, he may actually fear the Basque a bit more. Aru is still far behind in the overall standings and it would be no disaster if the Italian gains a few seconds in this stage. Furthermore, there is no doubt that Astana would prefer their home star to get a stage win and they may actually adjust their tactic accordingly. They may even try to keep it together for a sprint between the favourites and if that is the case, there is little doubt that Aru will come out on top. Aru is clearly not as strong as he was earlier in the race but the tactical situation is clearly in favour of the Italian and so he may actually take the stage win that has so far eluded him.


A stage win for Contador cannot be ruled out either. The Spaniard seemed to be slightly below Landa’s level in stage 15 but there is no doubt that he probably went a little bit deeper than his compatriot in the time trial. Furthermore, Contador is always hugely consistent in grand tours while Landa is an untested card in the third week of this kind of race. Contador’s only real chance to win the stage is to get rid of everybody else on the Mortirolo and then time trial his way to the finish. It will be a difficult feat to achieve but if anyone is strong enough to do so, it has to be Contador.


As said, the early break definitely has a chance in this stage and an early escapee can actually win in two different scenarios. The break may stay away but even if they are reeled in, the attackers may still have a chance. If they can just survive the Mortirolo, they will get a chance to recover on the climb to Aprica and then they will be free to attack in the finale. With the favourites being focused on each other, they will be less concerned with less important rivals who will still be able to make a difference on this kind of climb even if they have been on the attack all day.


One rider is almost guaranteed to be in the break. Benat Intxausti is no longer in GC contention but he actually seems to be better than ever. The in-form Basque is clearly one of the strongest riders in the race and he has both been in almost every break that matters and been able to stay with the favourites in the hardest moments. By going on the attack in this stage, he can virtually secure himself the mountains jersey and he will still be able to go for the stage win. He is no danger to the GC riders and is pretty fast in a sprint which gives him lots of cards to play on this kind of easy finishing climbs.


Another rider who is almost destined to join the break is Carlos Betancur. The Colombian is getting better and better and is close to the level he had in 2013. He is comfortable on the very steep climbs and should find the Mortirolo to his liking. Furthermore, he is very punchy and will be very difficult to beat on the final climb where sprinting skills are important. If he can join the early break and get over the Mortirolo, tomorrow may be the day when Betancur finally takes that elusive grand tour stage victory.


Movistar have several cards to play in this stage. Giovanni Visconti finds himself in the surprising position of being in GC contention at the end of the second week but his big goal is still to win a stage. While many were surprised to see him not to for glory in the medium mountain stages that were tailor-made for him, he has always made it clear that he was aiming for a big ride in the high mountains. He tried his hand in stage 15 and tomorrow he will again give it a go. He may a GC danger but for Astana he is no major issue. With a big ride, he can both gain time and win a stage and he will definitely try to do so. If he can just make it over the Mortirolo, he will be the obvious favourite as he is very fast in a sprint.


In stage 15m Ilnur Zakarin again showed that he is riding really when he managed to escape in the very hectic and hard first part of the race. In the end it came to nothing but he will be eager to try again. In this kind of stage with constant climbing, it will be more about legs than tactical considerations which should favour the strong Russian. Furthermore, he is fast in a sprint which is a clear advantage in this stage.


Steven Kruijswijk saw his big GC goals being crushed in the first week but the Dutchman is probably riding better than ever. He has been in several breaks even before we have reached the terrain that really suits him. In stage 15, he even managed to finish 5th after he had stayed with the favourites for a long time. He is far behind in the overall standings and will definitely try to attack on the first climb in tomorrow’s stage. He has proved that he is very hard to catch and he could very well find himself as the lone leader at the top of Mortirolo. His main disadvantage is the fact that he is not fast in a sprint and so he will probably have to take arrive solo at the finish to take that elusive win.


Sebastien Reichenbach was denied a big win on the Campitello Matese climb when he allowed Intxausti to sit onto his wheel way too much. However, the young Swiss can still be very pleased with his performance as he is climbing excellently well. Yesterday he was comfortable in the lead group on the Passo Daone but lost contact on the descent. He is definitely strong enough to do a big ride in the mountains and he is likely to find himself in the early break tomorrow.


Ryder Hesjedal and Jurgen Van Den Broeck were both in the group with the best at top of Passo Daone but both lost contact on the descent. While the Belgian went down and may be hampered slightly by his crash, the Canadian showed excellent condition by doing a great solo effort on the final climb. Both have lost a bit of time in the GC and will definitely try to make up for it with a big ride in the mountains tomorrow. Both are among the best climbers in the race and are strong enough to win from a breakaway in this stage.


Sky are eager to bounce back from the loss of Richie Porte. Leopold König will focus on the GC but the rest of the team will be ready to go on the attack. Mikel Nieve is a master in long-distance breakaway and he will be keen to try his hand in this stage. The same goes for Sebastian Henao who has quietly ridden himself into form for the final part of the race. Nieve is probably the strongest of the pair but Henao is the fastest in the sprint. However, both are good enough to win this stage if they join the right break.


Sylwester Szmyd finds himself in the very unusual role of being free to ride for himself in a grand tour. He suffered from an early crash in the first part of the race but now he has found his legs for the stages that really suit him. He will be eager to attack in tomorrow’s stage to profit from the good condition he showed on the Passo Daone where he only lost contact on the descent. A grand tour veteran, Szmyd has never won a stage in a three-week race. Most of the cycling world would love to see that change tomorrow.


Igor Anton is another grand tour veteran who has had a slow start to the race. However, he suddenly found his best legs in stage 15 before he crashed on the descent from the Passo Daone. He loves the steepest climbs and so should be very comfortable on the Passo Daone. The Basque will be eager to finally show himself in a grand tour stage after a few years of suffering.


Yury Trofimov and Damiano Caruso were both among the best climbers in the previous stage. They are too much in podium contention to be allowed to attack early in the stage and they are unlikely to follow the best on the Mortirolo. Due to the tactical battle, they may be given a chance to rejoin the main group on the Aprica and then they can benefit from the situation to take the win. Caruso is very fast in a sprint while Trofimov proved in stage 15 that he has the tactical nous to find the right situation to attack.


CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Mikel Landa

Other winner candidates: Fabia Aru, Alberto Contador

Outsiders: Benat Intxausti, Carlos Betancur, Giovanni Visconti, Ilnur Zakarin

Jokers: Sebastien Reichenbach, Ryder Hesjedal, Jurgen Van Den Broeck, Mikel Nieve, Sebastian Henao, Sylwester Szmyd, Igor Anton, Yury Trofimov, Damiano Caruso, Ion Izagirre, Tanel Kangert, David de la Cruz, Stefano Pirazzi



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