The penultimate day in the mountain passed with little input from the maglia rosa of Alberto Contador, leaving Stage 20 to be his only remaining chance of a stage victory at a Giro d’Italia which looks to be his. Instead we saw a bit of eyeballing from Mikel Landa and Alberto Contador, proving beneficial to the escape efforts of both Ryder Hesjedal and Fabio Aru on the final day’s ascent to Cervinia. The Canadian attacked first and soon opened up a respectable gap from an elite group which contained Alberto Contador, Mikel Landa, Faibio Aru and Steven Kruijswijk late on in the race. It was the subsequent move from Fabio Aru which spelt disaster for Ryder Hesjedal, a man who has been a firm favourite during the final mountain stages, doing his upmost to animate the race in pursuit of a stage win and general classification gain. Aru took advantage of the standoff between Mikel Landa and Alberto Contador to chase the Italian and soon went clear, working hard to catch Hesjedal at the front of the race. Having bridged across to his fellow escapee, many expected the Sardinian to work alongside Hesjedal to cement their lead, but instead he immediately attacked to go it alone. This proved decisive as Fabio Aru went on to win Stage 19 by almost 30 seconds to Ryder Hesjedal, taking some glory, and distracting attention momentarily away from a Giro d’Italia which he was never expected to concede so much time upon in the battle for the maglia rosa.
Much of the peloton will be happy to see the back of this third week’s stay in the Alps, but a select few will see it as their last chance saloon; glory on Stage 2o could make the entire Giro worthwhile for plenty. The day acts as a huge crescendo to the entire grand tour, hoping to lure the big name climbers out into action and close the battle for the Giro d’Italia with a bang.
Only just shy of another two-hundred kilometre day in the saddle, the 199km trip from Saint-Vincent to Sestriere will be focused almost entirely on the final 5okm of racing. Anticipation and anxiety are set to build as they approach the opening ramps of the notorious Colle delle Finestre ascent, the Category 1 climb beginning its 18.5km challenge after 151km has already been completed. A fifty-fifty split between tarmac and gravel track, Colle delle Finestre contributes towards a fitting finish of 2015’s Giro d’Italia, a race which has been far from predictable for the most part. The average gradient of 9% is certainly no exaggeration here, from bottom to top it only swings by several tenths of a percent, the only true change being the switch from tarmac to loose dirt road after 9km of climbing. Though there is a maximum of 14%, only occurring briefly during the first 2km, the majority of the peloton shall concern themselves with ticking off each of the 45 hairpin bends which pave the way from base to summit.
Though brief, a tricky little descent will keep the riders anxious, finishing at the base of the day’s second and final climb to the summit finish of Sestriere. This Category 3 challenge is a completely different task altogether, 9.2km in total, which stretch at an average of 5.4%. The opening 8km are contested at even lighter gradients, only really kicking up for brief periods at the midsection where it tops out at a short lived 9%. The concluding kilometre or so is only 3% – 4% and could certainly set the stage for a sprint finish from an elite group which has formed after the two climbs in 50km.
Realistically speaking, it looks like only a select handful of riders really possess the ability and condition at the end of this grand tour to mount a significant charge to the summit finish at Sestriere. The key to the day’s outcome will orbit around how the race is animated during the ascent of the Colle delle Finestre, the semi-gravel climb the most likely launchpad for Alberto Contador to attack the day from. As the climb itself is preceded by only gently rolling terrain, Tinkoff-Saxo should be represented in reasonable numbers and as a result feel able to set the tempo for their leader on the climb. Had the stage finished atop the summit here, then Contador would have been the clear favourite, but then having another 20km or so of riding to finish on an easier climb undermines his hopes somewhat. For Contador to finally add a stage win to this year’s Giro campaign, he must surely attack on the road to Finestre and apply pressure to his rivals. Though he seems to have been preparing the press as of late for the chance of him winning the overall title without having taken a single stage, it would be a surprise to see the Spaniard not attempt a swashbuckling move on the Colle delle Finestre in an attempt to go clear and win solo at Sestriere.
Mikel Landa has been a thorn in the side for many with eyes set on the mountains stages and he will relish the role once again as he hopes to spoil the show at the expense of Alberto Contador. Landa has been the best climber for many pundits at 2015’s Giro d’Italia and it comes as no shock to see him sitting on the podium with two stage wins as it stands. Unlike Contador, he has made no mistake of stating his ambitions on winning another stage before the ride into Milano, making this his last opportunity to do just that. In terms of current ability, there is little to suggest that anyone could really drop Mikel Landa during the two climbs en route to Sestriere, though he could be a victim of something else altogether. Team tactics are sure to be prevalent amongst the ranks of Astana on Stage 20, specifically between that of Fabio Aru and Mikel Landa. The former’s showing on the previous day not only won him the stage, but reversed their placings once again on the general classification, putting Landa back down to third. Given the Italian came here as leader at his home race, Astana will be inclined to keep Aru in second place and request Landa simply sits on the wheel and does not chase if his teammate decides to try and make it two in two days. However, if Tinkoff-Saxo do set a potent pace upon the Colle delle Finestre, then any great implosion by Fabio Aru could loosen the shackles and free Landa to try and win the stage instead.
The climb to Sestriere has featured several times in Giro history, most recently in 2011 when Vasil Kiryienka took the win by almost five minutes with an extremely impressive showing while riding for Movistar. Fourth on that day was a young Carlos Betancur, a rider still searching for an elusive stage win during a race which he has helped to animate on several occasions. He was unfortunate on the previous day to suffer a mechanical, but if fortune stays on his side during Stage 20, Betancur suits the finale particularly well and could be the fastest finisher from a successful breakaway.
Another man who placed well on the same finish back in 2011 was Steven Kruijswijk, the Dutchman having spent most his time trying to tie up the blue mountains classification jersey before today. Sadly for him, this has not been the case, Movistar’s Giovanni Visconti now being the incumbent owner of the jersey ahead of the final Alpine day. Kruijswijk really should be walking away with a stage win at the end of this tour at the very least, but luck simply has not been in his favour when it has mattered most. With a more gentle finish on Stage 20 which could ensure a larger group approaches Sestriere, the more consistent gradient does play into his hands for a bid for victory. The headache for him comes from being torn between trying to win back the blue jersey atop Colle delle Finestre or giving it everything on the final chance of a stage win.
Ryder Hesjedal has provided a great display of how to take advantage of the tactical battle between Astana and Alberto Contador, producing several well planned attacks which have seen him moving up the general classification and only just miss out on Stage 19 due to a barnstorming ride from Fabio Aru. On one hand you could argue it will be harder for the Canadian to make another move from an unguarded door left by the likes of Contador, Landa and Aru. Though, as so many will be eager to try and win this last summit finish, Hesjedal has a strong likelihood of finding fellow escapees more forthcoming than in previous bids as of late. Despite nearly being at the end of the Giro, Hesjedal looks to have got stronger day by day in the final week, making him a dangerous man to let go on this steady summit finish. Though he finds it tough to respond to big counter-attacks on steeper climbs, anything approaching a minute on the final ascent could prove too great to pull back from a rider clearly approaching top form.
Despite having been touted as one of the favourites for the overall battle for pink this year, Fabio Aru has proven to be incredibly inconsistent, eventually resurrecting his form on Stage 19 to take the win after an impressive solo move. If there was enough evidence to suggest he will carry this into the penultimate day, then he would be a major contender, but his patchy condition at grand tours simply makes it a difficult case to argue for him. His best bet would come in sticking to the wheel of Alberto Contador and hoping he is towed right the way to the final kilometre by the Spaniard, it is here he could demonstrate the fact he is the fastest GC rider in a sprint and steal a win from under Contador’s nose at the death.
On Stage 19 we saw the formation of a group behind the front four of five riders which contained the next best climbers at this year’s race. Leopold König was one such rider, flying the colours of Team Sky along with his teammate Mikel Nieve during the day’s final climb. Both seem to be coming into better shape at the tail-end of this Giro and are likely to be present with the maglia rosa group once again. As neither are a serious threat to the podium placings, the impetus from behind to chase would not necessarily be immediately forthcoming and could subsequently set one of them on their way to victory.
Rigoberto Uran finally managed to show his face and some form on Stage 19, bridging back to the maglia rosa group and then pushing on in pursuit of Fabio Aru and Ryder Hesjedal; eventually finishing third on the stage. Considering his general classification hopes evaporated long ago at this Giro d’Italia, it really has been a miserable three weeks in Italy for the Colombian, a win on Stage 20 being his only remaining chance to salvage something here. Nobody from the top of the general classification will take much interest if he decides to go up the road, meaning he could go on to form a solid breakaway, possibly with compatriot Carlos Betancur. The finale is not quite his sort of affair, but with a reasonable sprint finish at his disposal, he will remain a threat to anyone who approaches Sestriere alongside him.
Those who could contribute to shaping the final top ten home on Stage 20 of this year’s Giro d’Italia include Tanel Kangert, Damiano Caruso, Andrey Amador, Yuri Trofimov and Alexandre Geniez.
Though he has talked down the need for him to win a stage en route to winning the pink jersey overall, Alberto Contador must surely contribute a serious effort to win this last chance of a stage victory before the presentation in Milano. The finale does not really play to his strengths well at all, meaning that if he wants to have a serious attempt at winning here, he will need to make his move upon the famous dirt road of Colle delle Finestre. If he plays it well here, he could finally rid himself of the thorn in his side; Astana’s Mikel Landa. Landa has put in an extremely impressive performance during the tour and is set to walk away with two stage wins at the very least and has stated in the press that he has eyes on Stage 20 making it a hat-trick for him. With Contador yet to truly get the better of him, Landa will no doubt feel confident here, but could ultimately find himself restrained by team orders which aim to keep Fabio Aru in second spot overall. Plenty will see this tactical battle between the top names as an opportunity to slip under the radar and make a bid for both freedom and victory, possibly forming an elite group which neither Contador nor Astana feel the need to pursue. Ryder Hesjedal, Carlos Betancur and Steven Kruijswijk are riders who have the talent and strength of character in the final week of a grand tour to go all in and hope to emerge victorious come the finale.
1st Alberto Contador 2nd Mikel Landa 3rd Steven Kruijswijk
Outsiders: Ryder Hesjedal & Carlos Betancur