The strongest quick men managed to survive the rolling terrain of Stage 3 and Orica-GreenEDGE successfully retained their race lead with a stage win. Michael Matthews demonstrated his ability to get over the necessary lumps and bumps in order to contest the finish, where he edged out Fabio Felline and Philippe Gilbert with a ruthless late attack. Stage 4 could offer a similar format to the previous day, but with the unexpected pace set my Tinkoff-Saxo en route to Sestra Levante, it might have cooked several riders before they have even turned the cranks to La Spezia.
Though Stage 3 did conclude with a sprint finish, it required immense effort in order to stay in touch of the peloton and ensure the breakaway of 25 riders did not decide the outcome amongst themselves. Stage 4’s 150km route from Chiavari to La Spezia encompasses similarly rolling terrain, but sets the rate of attrition higher with three climbs on a technically demanding route. With sinuous roads tracing a path from ascent to descent repeatedly throughout the day, a nervous bunch will aim to keep their leaders out of trouble as narrow roads require teams to stay on their toes.
Heads will be tilted upwards immediately after the peloton have rolled out of Chiavari with the Category 3 Colla di Velva posing the first challenge of the day. The 14.2km ascent is relatively tame at an average gradient of 3.5%, but will reach a maximum of 9% as they make their way to the top, before descending and starting to climb again after 30km or so. Though uncategorised, they will need to climb Passo del Bracco next, this is followed by twisting roads which take them down to Levanto. The second Category 3 climb of the day then begins as they make their way to the summit of the Passo del Termine. This is a harder affair at 6.1% average gradient over 8.8km; where it tops out at 10% we might see cracks beginning to form within the peloton. Once completed, they hit a mild plateau before dropping down past Riomaggiore and subsequently rising momentarily en route to La Spezia where they pass the finish line ahead of the finale.
A 17.1km circuit then begins which will send the riders up the final climb and back round to La Spezia in order to contest the finish. This lap is particularly demanding due to tight bends, cobbles, narrow roads and the ascent of the Biassa. Assuming the climb is hit at a ferocious pace by a chasing group or the likes of Team Sky and Tinkoff-Saxo trying to keep their general classification hopefuls safe at the front, the gradients will shell riders from the back. It is 3.4km in length and averages a draining 8.9% gradient, it then deals greater damage as its slopes in the final kilometre stay constant between 10% – 14%. Approximately 7km of technical descending will return them to the flat by the 3km marker, setting up the finish which will navigate a number of difficult bends before hitting the final straight with 700m remaining.
Stage 4 appears to be a tougher affair, likely to be decided by a smaller bunch comprising the stronger classics style riders present in the peloton. Michael Matthews did well to take the win on the previous stage and will be aware how fortunate he was to see the 25 man break crumble, before getting reeled in by an extremely keen Tinkoff-Saxo. Orica-GreenEDGE have yet another chance to keep the maglia rosa within their ranks in the shape of Simon Gerrans. He has made his return to racing at this year’s Giro d’Italia and certainly looked in good form when leading Matthews out for his win in Sestri Levante. Questions over his condition have evaporated after that performance and he will be viewed as a favourite to dominate in a reduced sprint or small breakaway. The climb of Biassa with only 10km remaining favours him more than Matthews, but his teammate still has a strong chance of staying in touch in order to lead Gerrans out if required.
Michael Matthews will hope for the bunch to hit the final few kilometres of flat together, as he is unlikely to be able to follow a breakaway on the final climb, but will be a big threat if present in a bunch kick. At this point in time, it is hard to establish what the limits are for this young Australian and you just cannot be certain of him being overwhelmed on this course it seems. He is faster than Gerrans and that might decide who receives the leadout from the other if the race looks to be won from a reduced sprint similar to the previous day.
In terms of strong riders, Philippe Gilbert must be considered for a stage which suits his attributes very well. Having taken a strong 3rd place behind Matthews and Fabio Felline on the third stage, Gilbert is another man who looks to have arrived here in good form after a nasty crash in the spring. However, he did spend a large majority of time present in the breakaway and is surely set to feel some of this effort as a consequence heading into Stage 4. With a climb so near the finish, Gilbert will look to make this count with a breakaway move in order to reduce the chances of having to sprint against the likes of Matthews or Gerrans at the finish. He is more than capable of delivering a stage winning sprint, but in the presence of expected faster finishers, his work will be cut out in a bigger bunch kick.
Spokenforks backed Fabio Felline to take his debut grand tour win in Sestri Levante and he almost did just that with a great sprint having survived the day’s climbing. It was only Michael Matthews who could beat the Italian; doing so by following Felline’s wheel and sprinting very late for the line. Unlike Matthews, Felline will struggle to come to the last 10km with anything in the way of support, but this did not stop him from competing well on stage 3. During this season he has demonstrated that he can cope with the more testing of days (Strade-Bianche, Criterium International and Pais Vasco) so shall feel confident of making it into the stage winning bunch. He will need the leading pack to stay together on the final climb, but if so, he cannot be discounted from going one better in La Spezia.
Some commentators are marking this stage as a surprisingly difficult day which could catch some overall contenders out and impact upon the general classification’s bigger picture. Should this happen, many will tip Rigoberto Uran to make a gain and work his way into the pink jersey. During the Volta a Catalunya (Stage 3) he was just beaten by Domenico Pozzovivo for the win having attacked on the final day’s climb; a move which saw Fabio Aru, Alberto Contador, Richie Porte and Diego Rosa chase him down. The Colombian is known for a fast finish and can win against some tough opposition, though the conclusion of this stage might not be tough enough for us to see a repeat of Catalunya.
During February, Nippo-Vini Fantini’s Damiano Cunego made a documented reconnaissance trip to this area in order to gain insight as to the testing parcours. The Italian secured a 3rd place behind Richie Porte and Mikel Landa during a similar stage of the Giro del Trentino, but this concluded with an uphill finish unlike today. Regardless, he is clearly a danger to watch out for and could attack on the final climb solo or as part of a strong group.
The performance so far of Astana’s Paolo Tiralongo has taken spectators by surprise, managing a 10th and 5th place in the two sprints so far. This terrain perhaps plays even more to his strengths than expected and Stage 3 taught us that Astana are not afraid of risking their riders in order to offer him a powerful leadout in the sprints.
Yesterday Giovanni Visconti was highlighted as a possible contender, but he failed to put his face into the wind much and is likely to have kept his powder dry for Stage 4 instead. As mentioned previously, his skill set is diverse, allowing him to join a break, make a move on the final climb (solo or with a group) and capable of delivering a solid sprint to take the win if required. Movistar will be able to support him in this tougher stage and he could be a protagonist worth watching for those reasons.
The conclusion to the day is relatively open and we will not have a clearer idea of how it will play out until a break has formed and it becomes apparent who is interested in chasing. If the peloton stay together on the final climb to Biassa then the likes of Matthews, Felline and Gilbert could all play out a similar finale to the previous stage. If a move occurs on the final ascent however, Gilbert could push on with the likes of Simon Gerrans, Damiano Cunego and Giovanni Visconti who could all contribute to a powerful breakaway. If this does turn out to be a much more difficult affair than expected, eyes will be on Rigoberto Uran to finish well placed and find himself in pink by the end.
1st Fabio Felline 2nd Simon Gerrans 3rd Philippe Gilbert
Outsider: Damiano Cunego