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Last year Roche salvaged Sky's Vuelta by winning stage 18 from a breakaway. Will he do so again in the Giro?

Photo: Sirotti




25.05.2016 @ 19:35 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

The sprint teams failed to control an exciting finale of stage 17 and so whetted the appetite for the many attackers that have eyed tomorrow’s stage 18 as their final chance to go for the win. While a breakaway is likely to decide the longest stage of the race, the GC riders will have to be attentive as a battle between the best climbers can be expected on the brutally steep Pramartino in the finale


The course

There’s a long way from the Dolomites to the French Alps where the race will be decided so the riders need a long stage to cover most of the distance. Many will be pleased to know that the organizers have chosen the flat Po Valley as the way to cover the massive 240km from the Milan suburb of Muggio to Pinerolo on the outskirts of the Alps and it could very well have been another day for the sprinters. However, as it is so often the case in the Giro d’Italia, the route planner has decided to include a tough finishing circuit that will make it impossible for the sprinters to have their say and so opens the opportunity for escapees to battle it out for the win.


The 240km stage will bring the riders from Muggio to Pinerolo. Flat for 170 km, the stage will have a more challenging finale. The route initially runs across the entire northwestern Po Plain from Milano to Torino along mainly straight and wide roads, making it almost like a copy of Milan-Turin albeit without the Colle Superga climb in the finale. The stage course cuts across a few major cities, where the common traffic calming devices will be found. They will be travelling in a southwesterly direction all day and along the way, they will contest intermediate sprints at the 124.5km and 164.2km marks.


The terrain gets lumpier as they approach Pinerolo and the riders will have to tackle the small Colletta de Cuminana climb after 182.4km of racing. After reaching Pinerolo, the route takes a first passage over the finish line and then takes on a 28.1km finishing circuit. It climbs up the steep Via dei Principi d’Acaja stretch, tackles the category 2 Pramartino climb and goes back to Pinerolo. The climb averages 10.5% over 4.7km and is very regular, with a maximum gradient of 17% at the midpoint.


The top comes with 19.5km to go and then there’s a descent followed by a slightly descending section back to Pinerolo. 2,500m before the finish, the route turns left and climbs up Via Principi d’Acaja (540m at an average 14% gradient and peaks of 20%, on setts-paved and narrow road). Next is a steep and harsh descent leading into Pinerolo. The last 1,500 m run on level roads, with just a three sharp turns and a short stretch on stone-slab paving.  The final turn comes with 400m to go.


Pinerolo has hosted stage finishes five times in the past. Fausto Coppi was the first to win here in 1949 while Bitossi was the strongest in 1964 and Giuseppe Saronni in 1982. In 2007, Gabriele Balducci won a bunch sprint here while Franco Pellizotti took a solo win in 2009 when the stage also included the Pra Martino climb in the finale. The city also hosted a stage in the 2011 Tour de France where Edvald Boasson Hagen emerged as the strongest from a breakaway after a tough day in the mountains.








The weather

As said yesterday, the weather is likely to be nice until the weekend and the riders will be pleased to know that they will have great conditions for the longest stage of the race. It will be a sunny morning and even though it will be cloudier in the afternoon,  a maximum temperature of 24 degrees will make it a pleasant affair.


There will be a light wind from an easterly direction which means that it will be a cross-tailwind almost all day. On the finishing circuit, it will be a tailwind on the climb and the descent and a headwind in the final flat section. The riders will turn into a crosswind for the wall and then it will mainly be a headwind until the riders take the final turn. It will be a tailwind on the finishing straight.


The favourites

Stage 17 again proved that stages are very hard to control in the third week of a grand tour. There was a great alliance between Lampre-Merida, Trek, Dimenion Data and Nippo-Vini Fantini throughout most of the stage and everything seemed to be under control. However, they all blew up in the finale and they had to dig into their lead-out trains to bring the strong sextet back. It was even Roberto Ferrari – the rider that most expected to lead the peloton through the final turn – who had to close the final bit up the gap so when Lars Bak went again and was joined by Filippo Pozzato, there was no one left.


Only a late effort from Viacheslav Kuznetsov brought the sprinters back into contention but it was Manuel Belletti who destroyed the part. Slowing down in the final turn to allow Pozzato to increase the advantage, Roger Kluge got a gap and became the unexpected hero who salvaged IAM’s Giro. It’s another confirmation of how well he is riding in the third week of a grand tour. Last year he was the surprise winner of the bunch sprint on the final stage but it was only good enough for third as Iljo Keisse and Luke Durbridge had stayed away.


It was another frustrating experience for Giacomo Nizzolo who now only has one chance to win a stage. The points jersey is almost guaranteed but he now need to wait until Turin to get an opportunity to take that elusive win. Tomorrow’s final climb is way too hard for the sprinters and as we can expect a battle between the GC riders on Pramartino, the fast guys will be left far behind.


Today’s outcome will have whetted the appetite of the attackers. Tomorrow’s stage was always likely to be one for a breakaway but having seen how the sprint teams failed today, they will only be even more hopeful that they will make it to the finish. Today the break went surprisingly early which was a clear indication of the fact that many saved energy for stage 18.


Tomorrow there will be no easy start and we will be surprised if the break escapes in the first hour. It will probably be more than 60 minutes of constant attacking and with the tailwind, it will be fast! With such a flat start, it will require a lot of luck to make it and many attempt will fail before the right move goes.


When the break has gone clear, it is time to take stuck. On paper, it’s a very good stage for Alejandro Valverde, Diego Ulissi and maybe Sonny Colbrelli. However, Valverde has his eyes firmly on the podium so he won’t use his team to go for another stage win. Colbrelli will be uncertain about his chances on the final climb so unless Bardiani have missed the break, we don’t expect them to do much work.


The jokers are Lampre-Merida. As he is in contention for the points jersey, Ulissi will have no chance to go in the break so if he wants to win the stage, he has to try in the finale. Lampre-Merida may give it a try but it’s a massive task to control 240km if they get no help. They already spent a lot of energy today and they failed to bring the break back. We doubt that they will be able to do so tomorrow where the break will probably be stronger and bigger.


What can change the outcome is if one of the smaller teams misses out. Most of them have no chance in the mountain stages or the final stage so there only real chance to win a stage comes tomorrow. Hence, they may join forces with Lampre-Merida. If they can narrow the gap, the break may be caught as the pace will be very fast in the run-in to the climb due to fight for position. In 2014, we had a very similar star that was won by Michael Rogers. Back then it took more than two hours for the break to get clear but as Androni had missed the move, they chased it down and it was left to the GC riders to battle it out on a similar climb in the finale before Rogers made a late move to take the win.


In any case, we expect a battle between the GC riders. There is no reason not to test Steven Kruijswijk but more importantly Ilnur Zakarin wants to gain time on Vincenzo Nibali. The Russian should try attack on this kind of steep climb. Alejandro Valverde will probably ride more conservatively but there are more signs of weakness from Nibali, he may try as well. It’s a long way to the finish from the top and no one is going to drop Kruijswijk so it’s not a stage to win the race. However, you can very well lose it here if you have a bad day and if one of the GC riders is not on top – Nibali is a likely victim – it will be a fast ride to the finish.


However, the odds are clearly on a breakaway to decide the stage but it is always hard to guess who’s going to make. A flat start makes it a bit of a lottery to get into the move. However, the final climb is so hard that only some of the very best climbers have a chance to win the stage. On paper, it may look like a good chance for some of the strong classics riders but due to the nature of the climb, we expect it to be won by one of the riders that will also be in contention for the wins from breakaways in the mountain stages. However, the flat start and flat finale means that the pure climbers will prefer to save themselves for Friday and Saturday.


Nicolas Roche fits the bill perfectly. The Irishman has all the skills to win this stage. After a solid start, he had a small dip in form in the second week but now he is back on track. He has been climbing well in the last few mountain stages and this kind of short, steep climb suits him well. He is strong on the flats and so has a solid chance to make it into the break and Sky will never let a group go without one of their riders. As he is also very fast in a sprint, Roche is their best card so they will do their best to get him into the right break. If he makes it, he has all the skills to finish it off in a finale like this. Last year Sky’s GC rider crashed out of the Vuelta and it was Roche who salvaged the race by winning a stage – stage 18! Why not do it again on Thursday?


Movistar will also be eager to join the break. They are battling for the teams classification win with Astana so either both teams will have a rider in the break or none of them will have. That can make things tricky but we expect both of them to be there. It’s a great opportunity for Giovanni Visconti who has been there in many mountain stages. This kind of short, steep climb suits him really well, he is a formidable descender and he can beat most in a sprint. The big question is whether Movistar prefer to save him for the weekend but if he is given the chance and makes the break, he will be almost impossible to beat.


As said, Astana will also have their eye on the teams classification so they will try to join the break. To win the stage, it has to be one of their best riders and they have Tanel Kangert as a formidable option. The Estonian proved his huge class on Tuesday when he powered the group of GC riders and with his strength on the flats, he has a solid chance to make the break. In Trentino, he proved that he has a solid sprint but more importantly, he is one of the best climbers. If he is solo at the top, he won’t be easy to bring back.


Ag2r are targeting a stage win and they have a great candidate in Matteo Montaguti. The Italian is a master in hitting the right breakaway and he seems to be getting better and better throughout the race. He is strong on the flats, a reasonable climber and one of the best descenders in the peloton. Furthermore, he is fast in a sprint. The big challenge is if the group contains some of the top climbers as the final climb may be too hard for him.


In the stage won by Rogers a few years ago, Georg Preidler was a great protagonist and he could very well be so again tomorrow. The stage suits him really well. He is a diesel engine so the distance suits him and he is a good climber with a fast sprint. He is still not showing sign of fatigue. There are probably better climbers than him but he never gives up as he proved in stage 13. If he can make it back for the finale and stay a little calmer than he did last Friday, it’s a good stage for him.


Etixx-QuickStep have Gianluca Brambilla for the stage. The Italian is clearly not as strong as he was earlier in the race but he is not riding too bad. This is a perfect stage for him as he climbs well, is a fantastic descender and one of the fastest riders in a sprint. The flat start will be a challenge though and it remains to be seen if he is fresh enough to stay with the best on the climb.


A few days ago it looked like Sergey Firsanov was completed dead but he has really bounced back. He did a great mountain time trial and he followed the GC riders in stage 16. If he joins the break, he is very likely to be the best climber. However, he has to arrive solo at the finish as he can’t sprint.


Moreno Moser is in the opposite position. The Italian may struggle to keep up with the best on the climb but he will be very hard to beat in a sprint. Cannondale are here for a stage win as Uran is ill so Moser will be given his chance. If he joins the break and can limit his losses on the climb, he can make it back on the descent and sprint for the win.


Sky will save Sergio Henao and Mikel Nieve for the mountain stages so it will be up to David Lopez and Roche to cover the attacks here. Lopez is riding himself into form and was really great in yesterday’s stage. He is clearly one of the in-form riders at the moment and he is a great climber. He is solid on the flats too but he is not fast in a sprint.


Lampre-Merida won’t be allowed to send Ulissi in the break so they may try to send Valerio Conti on the attack. The Italian is riding really well at the moment and is suited to this kind of stage. He is a good climber and has a good sprint. He won’t be far behind the best on the climb so if he can make it back, his fast finish will bring him far.


Rein Taaramae has been his usual inconsistent self but after a small dip in form, he is again riding well. However, he may be asked to save energy for the weekend as he is Zakarin’s key domestique so he is unlikely to be given his chance. If he is allowed to go, he will be a good option as he is strong on the flats and one of the best climbers.


Davide Formolo has been far from his best level so he is not in GC contention. He will try to win a stage and so he will probably give it a go in stage 18. The flat start and flat finale doesn’t suit him well but he is likely to be one of the best climbers if he gets into the right break.


In the unlikely case, that the GC will battle it out, Alejandro Valverde is the favourite. As said, we expect a battle between the GC riders so there won’t be many riders left in the final. Among the best climbers, Valverde is the fastest. The challenge will be to keep things together for a sprint but if he has Amador and Visconti there, it won’t be impossible.


Diego Ulissi is the only rider that can challenge Valverde in a sprint. The Italian is usually not as fast as the Spaniard in a flat sprint but he is not far off. The final climb could be a bit too hard for him but there will be time to get back. Unless a key GC contender has missed out, he will probably be able to rejoin the group and then he will be going for the sprint.


Finally, Sonny Colbrelli deserves a mention. The Italian is climbing better than ever but Pramartino should be too hard for him. However, it won’t be impossible to get back on the descent and if so, no one is going to beat him in a sprint. Furthermore, he can join a breakaway where he will try to limit his losses on the climb and then get back in time for a sprint.


CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Nicolas Roche (breakaway)

Other winner candidates: Giovanni Visconti, Tanel Kangert (breakaway)

Outsiders: Matteo Montaguti, Georg Preidler, Gianluca Brambilla, Sergey Firsanov, Moreno Moser, David Lopez (breakaway)

Jokers: Valerio Conti (breakaway), Rein Taaramae (breakaway), Davide Formolo (breakaway), Alejandro Valverde (sprint), Diego Ulissi (sprint), Sonny Colbrelli (sprint or breakaway)



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