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Will Michele Scarponi confirm his great form by winning the first of the two big stages in the Alps?

Photo: Sirotti

GIRO D'ITALIA

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NEWS
26.05.2016 @ 19:25 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

No one dared to test themselves on the Pramartino climb and so stage 18 ended as a ceasefire between the overall contenders. However, there will be no holding back when the race enters the Alps for the final two battles on Friday and Saturday and even though everybody seems to have admitted Steven Kruijswijk’s superiority, the fight for the podium will be fierce when the peloton climbs the mighty Colle Dell’Agnello and the climb to Risoul in tomorrow’s first of two big days in the mountains.

 

The course

In the last two years, there have been three consecutive mountain stages before the final flat stage. This year the climbers will have again have the final say but this year there will only be two opportunities for them to make a difference. However, both of them are very tough and as they offer the only two summit finishes in the high mountains, they are probably the most important days for the climbers in the entire race. Their first chance will come in stage 19 which includes the Cima Coppi of this year’s race and sees the race enter France for a finish at the ski resort of Risoul which has been increasingly popular for race organizers in recent years.

 

The stage brings the riders over 162km from Pinerolo to Risoul. It is is a high mountain stage featuring a summit finish and it is home to the Cima Coppi. The route runs constantly uphill (on deceptively flat roads) over 80 km as the riders head south and then head west into the Alps all the way up to Casteldelfino. Along the way, they will contest the two intermediate sprints at the 49.7km and 74.7km marks.

 

Here the road starts to climb up Colle dell’Agnello which is the Cima Coppi at 2744 m. It is a 21.3km climb with an average gradient of 6.8% and a maximum of 15%. The numbers are deceptive as the first 10.8km are easy at mostly 3-5%. The final 10.5km are much harder as they average 9.3% and leaves no room for recovery.

 

The top comes at the 106.4km mark and marks the Italian-French border. The following 40km run mostly downhill and lead to Guillestre at the bottom of the final climb. There are a few tunnels around km 135. The last 12.85km run entirely uphill, with an average 6.9% gradient and 15 hairpins, leading to the finish at the top of the category 1 climb. The roadway is very wide and well surfaced and the climb is pretty regular with 6-7% gradients for the first 9.5km. The final 3.35km are harder as they average 8.2%, with the steepest 10% section coming just after the 2km to go mark.. The home straight, 150 m in length, on 6m wide asphalt road, has an 8% uphill gradient. 

 

The winner of this stage that includes the Cima Coppi, will receive the Trofeo Torriani.

 

Risoul has never hosted a Giro stage before but it has been a popular venue for the biggest French races in recent years. It made its debut at the 2010 Criterium du Dauphiné where Nicolas Vogondy rode to a surprise solo winning by riding away from the likes of Alberto Contador and Janez Brajkovic on the final climb. In 2013, Alessandro De Marchi narrowly held off the comeback from Chris Froome in the same race after having spent a very wet day in the breakaway while Rafal Majka won from a breakaway in the 2014 Tour de France. Nairo Quintana also has fond memories from the city as he won both a mountain stage and mountain time trial on his way to overall victory at the 2010 Tour de l’Avenir.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The weather

Unfortunately, the weather forecast has changed, meaning that the bad weather that was set to arrive for the final stage, may already come on Saturday. That can potentially put stage 20 under threat but there will be no issues for Friday’s stage. The riders can expect to enjoy a nice day in the sunshine and the maximum temperature in Risoul will even be 24 degrees.

 

There will be a light wind from a southerly direction which means that the riders will first have a headwind and then crosswind after the first intermediate sprint. It will be a cross-tailwind on the Colle delløAgnello and then a cross-tailwind on the first part of the descent. Then the riders will turn into a cross-headwind and it will be a full headwind on the final climb.

 

The favourites

As expected, the GC riders all wanted to save their teams for the big mountain stages and stage 18 was always going to be one for a breakaway. The fear for the Alps also made for some conservative racing on the Pramartino climb where nobody tried to test each other and potentially see whether one of the podium candidates had a bad day. Hence, the only real loser was Jakob Fuglsang who was dropped on the steep climb which promoted Dimension Data to up the pace in the finale, with Igor Anton making sure that Kanstantsin Siutsou solidified his top 10 spot.

 

The composition of the break clearly reflected the flat start to the stage as it was made up of lots of powerhouses who never had a chance in this difficult finale. Many climbers were probably left off-guard when the break was established much earlier than anyone had imagined. Hence, it became clear right from the beginning that it would be a battle between Moser and Brambilla on the final climb, with the pair clearly being the best climbers in the front group. However, Trentin proved his huge class by limiting his losses and then benefited from the team game to take the victory and so confirm that he is one of the best stage hunters in the grand tours.

 

Trentin will now take a back seat as the peloton heads into the Alps where the final two battles will unfold. This time there will be no ceasefire and the next two stages will decide the race. However, Steven Kruijswijk has never appeared to be in trouble and as he has one of the best track record in the third week of a grand tour – he has never had a bad day and has always become stronger and stronger – it seems that all his rivals have already admitted defeat. Today Enrico Battaglin even returned to the level that allowed him to win a mountain stage at the 2014 Giro and so Kruijswijk can even feel well-supported and approach the mountains with confidence.

 

Kruijswijk’s superiority is massive and so we don’t expect anyone to have their eyes on the Dutchman. It will all be about the fight for the podium which is pretty close. Hence, we expect the race to be pretty conservative and we won’t see any long-distance attack to try to dethrone Kruijswijk. Valverde has done nothing to hide that his goal is the podium so he will definitely have a defensive approach. Furthermore, he is always suffering at altitude – he has done so in every grand tour he has done – so he wants to survive Colle dell’Agnello before potentially trying something. Vincenzo Nibali has attacked a lot only to come up short in the finale so this time he will probably ride a lot more cautiously to make sure that he has something left for the finale.

 

The two riders who could potentially decide to do some damage are Esteban Chaves and Ilnur Zakarin. Chaves may still believe in victory but we doubt it. He will be more concerned with second place and a potential stage win so he will probably save his forces for the finale. Zakarin may want to test Valverde at altitude and trying to get rid of him on Colle dell’Agnello but as it’s a long downhill section to the final climb, we doubt that anyone will make a move early in the stage.

 

This kind of defensive approach means that the stage is likely to be decided by a breakaway. Movistar and Orica-GreenEDGE already have their stage win and LottoNL-Jumbo want to save as much energy as possible for Saturday – and they are not strong enough to control the stage. Astana will probably go on the attack with some of their good climbers. Maybe Zakarin wants to win the stage but we doubt that Katusha can control the stage. Hence, we expect a breakaway to win the stage.

 

This also means that it will be a very fast start with lots of attacks. Like today it’s a flat start so it’s difficult for the good climbers to join the break. They hope that the attacking will continue for a long time until we get to the bottom of Agnello where they can make their move. If a group goes earlier, teams like Sky and Cannondale may try to keep the gap relatively small so that their climbers can bridge across on the ascent.

 

One of the teams that want to go on the attack is Astana. The Kazakh team still have Nibali in fourth place and have virtually won the teams classification but it’s still a meagre outcome. A stage win would make a big difference and today they saved their climbers for tomorrow. They had Davide Malacarne in the break to make sure that they gained time for the teams classification and then Fuglsang, Tanel Kangert and Michele Scarponi were kept fresh for stages 19 and 20.

 

Michele Scarponi has been outstanding in this race. The Italian has been spending enormous amount of time on the front and been a lot stronger than most GC riders. After dropping off, he has often stayed pretty close to the best and his fifth place in the mountain time trial just confirms how well he is riding. The team are likely to regret that they didn’t keep him in GC contention as he would probably have been a podium candidate.

 

Now he is free to go for a stage win. The flat start doesn’t suit him but he has tons of experience and knows how to time his move. If he can wait to Agnello for his move, he will have an even better chance and if he joins the right group, we can’t imagine that anyone will beat him. Saturday’s stage suits him better but there is no reason not to try tomorrow. The headwind on the final climb will make it harder to make a difference but he is climbing so well that he is our favourite to win the stage.

 

Joe Dombrowski has been climbing extremely well in this race and is finally showing why he beat Fabio Aru at the Baby Giro before he turned professional. In the last few stages, he has been with the GC riders and is still ruing his costly mistake on the flats in stage 16. The long climbs should suit him really well and as he has been good at the USA Pro Challenge, he has proved that he can handle the altitude. Like Scarponi, he is not fond of the flat start but if he can join the move on the Colle dell’Agnello, he will be one of the best.

 

The same goes for Mikel Nieve. The Basque has already won a stage but he is still ambitious. Sky won’t allow a group to get clear without one of their riders and Nieve is their best card. The long climbs are great for him and he loves a long, testing day in the saddle. The headwind on the final climb is definitely not ideal and the same goes for the flat start. However, Nieve is riding so well that he could very well take a second win for Sky.

 

Darwin Atapuma was agonizingly close to victory on the queen stage and so he is very hungry for success. He is just getting better and better and has now even decided to see what he can do on GC. However, his main goal is a stage win so he will definitely try to attack. The long climbs at altitude are great for the Colombian and he is not showing any sign of fatigue yet. Furthermore, he is fast in a sprint so if the headwind makes the final climb less selective, he will have options.

 

Sergey Firsanov hoped to go for GC in his grand tour debut but after a strong start, he faded in the second week. Now he is back at a high level. He was really strong in stage 16 and was fourth in the mountain time trial. However, the longer climbs are not ideal for him and he seemed to suffer at altitude in the Dolomites. He still has to prove that he can handle these very big mountains but he is clearly riding very well at the moment.

 

Movistar will go on the attack with Giovanni Visconti who also has his eyes on the mountains jersey. There are tons of points on the Colle dell’Agnello so he has to be in the break if he still wants to win the blue jersey again. He is still riding well in this race but as he is not a pure climber, the long climbs may be a bit too hard for him. However, if he is still there at the bottom of the final ascent, his explosiveness and the headwind make him a dangerous contender.

 

 

Tanel Kangert is a second Astana card. The Estonian seems to be getting stronger after a relatively slow start and his work for Nibali in stage 16 was impressive. Today he looked comfortable when he stayed with the GC riders and unlike many climbers, he is also powerful on the flats which will make it more likely that he can get into the right break. He even has a decent uphill kick which will make him a contender if the headwind makes the final climb less selective.

 

If the GC riders have to decide the race, Steven Kruijswijk is the obvious favourite. The Dutchman has been the best climber in the race and he would love to grab the victory if the opportunity presents itself. However, compared to the steep Italian climbs, the final ascent is not very tough as it is a typical French climb. History proves that it is hard enough for the best riders to make a difference like Vincenzo Nibali and Jean-Christophe Peraud did when they put around 25 seconds into Thibaut Pinot, Romain Bardet and Tejay van Garderen at the 2014 Tour de France but the headwind will make it less selective. Kruijswijk is still the best climber so he must be the favourite.

 

However, Esteban Chaves looms as a threat. The Colombian was actually 3 seconds faster than Kruijswijk in the steep part of the mountain TT and has been very strong on the climbs. He claims that his time loss on stage 16 was due to a tactical mistake, not bad legs, and it is definitely true that he was strong on the final climb. Nonetheless, history shows that he is always fading a bit in the third week and we can’t imagine that he will be able to drop Kruijswijk. However, he may be able to keep up with the Dutchman and then he will be the fastest in a sprint.

 

Usually, Alejandro Valverde would probably suffer on these long climbs but the conditions favour him. As said, we expect the race to be conservative and this could allow him to survive Colle dell’Agnello. The final climb is not very hard and the headwind will make it less selective. This may allow him to stay in contention for a sprint win.

 

Ilnur Zakarin also looms as a candidate. It was always doubtful whether the Russian would maintain his level in the third week but he actually seems to be getting stronger and stronger. In stage 16, he was maybe the second best behind Kruijswijk and he is clearly riding very well. However, the longer climbs in the Alps probably suit him a bit less. On the other hand, he is fast so if he can keep up with Chaves and Kruijswijk and get rid of Valverde, it won’t be impossible to win a sprint.

 

Sky have more candidates. Nicolas Roche, David Lopez and Ian Boswell are all getting stronger and stronger after a relatively slow start. Today Roche stayed with the GC riders, Lopez was very strong in stage 16 and Boswell did a great mountain time trial. The long climbs are not ideal for Roche but compared to many climbers, he is stronger in the flat start. He is also fast in an uphill sprint. Lopez has tons of experience and is great at hitting the right break and Boswell proved in the queen stage at last year’s Vuelta that he can be up there in this kind of stage.

 

Jakob Fuglsang lost a bit of time in today’s stage as he wants to go on the attack tomorrow. The Dane was flying at the start of the race but like so often before he has been unable to maintain his level. Furthermore, Dimension Data and Ag2r will mark him as he is a top 10 candidate. As he is not a strong as he once was, we don’t have too much confidence in him but a win for the Dane can’t be ruled out.

 

Ag2r still hope to win a stage and their best candidate is Hubert Dupont. The Frenchman is back at the level that made him a top 10 candidate a few years ago. Until now, he has stayed with Pozzovivo but he actually tried to escape in stage 16. That proved that he has the freedom to try and as he is one of the best climbers here, he will be hard to beat if he joins the right break.

 

Finally, Alexander Foliforov deserves a mention. The Russian has always been known as a talented climber but few had seen it coming that he would crush the likes of Kruijsijk and Chaves in the steep part of the mountain time trial. He has not been at the same level in the road stages but he still rode strongly in stage 13 where he bridged across to the break with eventual winner Nieve and was one of the last escapees to get caught. He may lack the engine to win the stage but we are curious to see what he can do.

 

CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Michele Scarponi (breakaway)

Other winner candidates: Joe Dombrowski, Mikel Nieve (breakaway)

Outsiders: Darwin Atapuma, Sergey Firsanov, Giovanni Visconti, Tanel Kangert (all from a breakaway), Steven Kruijswijk, Esteban Chaves, Alejandro Valverde (all from a GC battle)

Jokers: Ilnur Zakarin (GC battle), Nicolas Roche, Jakob Fuglsang, David Lopez, Ian Boswell, Hubert Dupont, Alexander Foliforov (all from a breakaway)

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