Alberto Contador saw his opportunity to exact revenge during Stage 18 and now finds himself sitting pretty at the top of the general classification with a very healthy lead of 5′ 15″. Nobody seemed able to keep pace with the Spanish rider as he launched himself up the day’s sole climb, eventually only finding company in the shape of Ryder Hesjedal, who was evidently having a good day as he aims to climb the general classification in the concluding days of this year’s Giro d’Italia. From the breakaway which animated the charge to Verbania, it was Philippe Gilbert who ended up stealing the victory away from his escapees; notching up his second win at this edition of the Giro. High mountains only remain on the race profiles for two further stages, the sole stumbling block between the riders and the final day’s parade into Milano on Sunday.
The first of these two days which stand between the peloton and a parade lap into Milano is the 236km juggernaut from Gravllona Toce to Cervinia, featuring a jagged triumvirate of mountains set to discover the strongest rider remaining in this three week long race. Possessing the hardest conclusion of the two final days spent in the mountains, the final 80km should act as a backdrop to the expected fireworks from the riders still wishing to reshuffle the general classification late in the day. These Alpine climbs are long, arduous and include ramps which could blow the doors of those earmarked to finish in the top ten overall, it is a day for survival as much as it is a chance to attack rivals.
Almost 80km of reasonably flat riding open the mammoth day in the saddle, at which point they will ride onto the easiest climb of the stage, Croce Serra. A blip on the map compared to what follows later on, the ascent is 6.9km in total and shall be ridden at a steady gradient of 3.8%, though on occasion it will rise to 9%. From here they ride onwards to Fenis, after which they shall begin tackling the first of the day’s big climbs around the 151km marker. St. Barthélemy’s ascent is 16.5km and ticks over at an official average gradient of 6.7%, though extended periods above 7% and 8% are apparent throughout. The steepest ramps they will encounter on the Category 1 St. Barthélemy are set at 13%, these coming within the first couple of kilometres from the start.
Having completed this, the riders will then proceed down into the valley towards Chambave, the second monstrous climb beginning shortly afterwards, having already completed 190km. Another Category 1, St Pantaléon is a more challenging affair with a steeper average of 7.2% and 12% ramps which come nearer the top than the previous climb. In total, it will take 16.5km of riding to haul themselves over the summit, subsequently dropping downwards once again, this time for a short descent only. With little respite between the start of the following climb, it seems certain that the attrition rate will have already taken a toll, a shelling of the peloton have already occurred before the decisive finale.
A total of 19.2km will separate the bunch from reaching their finish line at Cervinia, all of which will be ridden upon the eponymous Category 1 climb to the Alpine resort. Though not necessarily as tough as the two which have already preceded it, the fact the climb to Cervinia comes after over 210km will ensure this feels hellish beyond belief. Despite having a comparatively modest gradient of 5%, it fluctuates constantly throughout its entire distance, making it extremely difficult for any riders simply wishing to sit and spin the same gear from bottom to top. Relistically the peloton will spend more time upon gradients between 6.6% – 7.8%, all of which come alongside another maximum of 12% once again, this time situated around the midpoint of the mountain. There are plenty of opportunities to launch an attack on this final climb, the varying slopes acting as the perfect launchpad for a variety of talented riders to light the fuse and aim for the win. Some on the other hand might simply try to limit their losses and save any big efforts until the final 2km which almost flatten out entirely to the line; a quick finishing climber likely to benefit here if given the chance.
Such a long and testing time will limit the amount of riders likely to feature in the brutal conclusion to this penultimate day in the Alps. The attention for many will fall upon that of maglia rosa Alberto Contador, a man now placed over five minutes beyond that of his nearest rivals, but still bereft of a stage win during this edition of the Giro d’Italia. Contador is well versed in how to approach these testing stages at the tail-end of a grand tour race and will consider himself to be one of the best in terms of condition on a course including three category one climbs and a total distance of 236km. The finish of Stage 19 is much more suiting to his attributes than that of the following day, fluctuating gradients often seen as a positive for a man who enjoys repeated digs in an attempt to drop everyone around him. Ultimately, neither chance of a stage win is a perfect fit for the Spaniard, but today looks a better use of his efforts on a tougher finish where many are likely to be frayed before they even approach the decisive climb.
Much has been made of the level at which Mikel Landa has been climbing at during this Giro and will subsequently be the favourite once again for many on the road to Cervinia. Having already taken two stage wins in the mountains, the last two days in the Alps offer Landa the chance to complete a hat-trick at the very least. He has invested huge amounts of energy into these successes and it is unknown as to what condition he now finds himself in exactly, especially on a day which is as much about distance as it is climbing. When he has got the better of Contador so far, it has been easy to see why the majority of pundits claim him to be the best climber here right now, though it does not feel as if Contador has given everything in stopping his compatriot from winning. Regardless of who comes out on top, it seems destined that the two Spanish protagonists shall lock horns once again in the mountains and are likely to decide the stage outcome amongst themselves.
Yury Trofimov has had a great time in the mountains as of late and he should be present in the shake up for the win on Stage 19 as well. He looks to have coped well with the pacing set by the likes of Mikel Landa and Alberto Contador on these big climbs, but has often come unstuck just at the point it matters most. For Trofimov it might be worth trying to steal a march on the favourites by attacking sooner than expected, providing himself with a cushion and forcing either Landa or Contador to concede to the other and chase him.
A man who really does deserve to walk away from this year’s Giro d’Italia with a stage win is Steven Kruijswijk, a rider who has animated this race consistently throughout the three week entirety. He was incredibly strong on the Queen Stage where he finished second and must surely have felt aggrieved after Mikel Landa contributed almost nothing to the breakaway before counter-attacking and stealing the win from the Dutchman. Like Landa, he has invested a lot of effort into being active at this Giro and could well begin to start feeling the effects now we enter the brutal crescendo to this race. However, if he manages to reclaim the form which looked so imperious on Stage 16, Kruijswijk might at last find glory for himself and his team.
Possibly the biggest revelation in regards to the general classification has been Movistar’s Andrey Amador, the Costa Rican rider having mustered a fantastic charge on the overall which looks set to secure him an impressive placing by the end. Being only a little over a minute behind current third place rider Fabio Aru, Amador could view this as the best stage to attack upon in order to overturn the deficit to third and simply have to follow the wheels on Stage 20 to finish on the podium in Milano. Most interestingly of all is the fact that he won previously in Cervinia during the 2012 Giro, adding fuel to the possibility of him replicating this feat once again today.
Cannondale-Garmin’s Ryder Hesjedal seems to have a great knack for improving as a grand tour progresses and the attrition rate rises through the roof. Yesterday he managed to reel in Alberto Contador with an extremely impressive effort and worked with him well in order to gain some time on the general classification in hope of pulling back some places in the concluding days. There is little to suggest he would not be part of an elite group formed as a consequence of the possible attacks from Albert Contador and Mikel Landa, and if he should decide to attack them in a bid win Stage 19, the impetus to chase the Canadian might not be immediately forthcoming.
Carlos Betancur seems to have learnt that attacking every day is just not possible in such a tough race and has once again returned to the peloton for the last couple of days. This could be in anticipation of the final two days which do suit the Colombian rider quite well, though Stage 20 might be slightly more inviting for the AG2R La Mondiale rider. Success for him might be more forthcoming via a breakaway move, something which seems more likely on Saturday, meaning he might decide to give everything on the final time of asking.
Mikel Nieve, Sylwester Szmyd, Stefano Pirazzi, Edoardo Zardini, Damiano Caruso and Leopold Konig could all contribute to the day’s action in a variety of ways from being part of the early breakaway, to rounding out the eventual top ten riders home come the conclusion of the 236km trip to Cervinia.
As has been the case for so long now in these mountain stages, Alberto Contador and Mikel Landa almost seem to wield the power to determine how the day’s finale shall play out. Though Contador has repeatedly stated in the press that a stage win is not an imperative for him given the need to maintain form while also targeting Le Tour de France, it is hard to imagine that he would be happy to stand atop the podium in Milano without having tasted victory during the Giro. Stage 19 looks to be his best remaining opportunity to remedy this, but he will have to get past an absolutely flying Mikel Landa who could be on track to secure a hat-trick of wins in Italy this year. The Astana man has now eclipsed his original team leader Fabio Aru and, beyond a tricky breakaway, should be the only thing to prevent Albert Contador from winning in Cervinia. With a tactical battle surely set to play out between the two Spanish leads at this grand tour, the door could be left open to the likes of Steven Kruijswijk or Ryder Hesjedal to attack hard and leave Landa and Contador waiting for the other to pursue.
1st Alberto Contador 2nd Mikel Landa 3rd Steven Kruijswijk