Yesterday’s stage was a reminder that we live in strange times, and that for some big name riders, volcanoes and cycling do not mix well. Stage 4 begins in Catania and travels 140km to Villafranca Tirrena, with a single categorised climb slapped right in the middle of the day, just to ensure there remains the possibility of more drama on an otherwise simple day.
The ascent of Portella Mandrazi lasts for 16.2km and averages 4.6%, offering an incredibly even climb with no sharp ramps of note, meaning it might not disrupt the peloton as much as intended by the course architects; depending on which teams seize control of the bunch at least.
A few seasons ago, the finale on Stage 2 would have certainly resulted in Peter Sagan taking another stage victory, but he was outpaced by an in form Diego Ulissi. He will undoubtedly try again today, knowing that a well executed drilling of the Portella Mandrazi by his teammates could send several pure sprinters out the back door, if not at least blunt them ahead of a bunch kick which he will fancy dominating.
There shall be a similar plan of attack by Team Sunweb on behalf of Michael Matthews, with ambitions of managing to place Peter Sagan into trouble; either forcing him to work hard to stay in contention or dropping him entirely. He is by no means the fastest sprinter here in a typical drag race to the line, but the Portella Mandrazi could provide the ideal ammunition to shoot down the ambitions of the pure speed merchants around him.
If the pace is not has intense as expected upon the climb, then a major benefactor could be Arnaud Démare, who certainly possesses the durability to survive and turn in a stage winning sprint at the end of it all. He is probably the only sprinter here with an entire team at his disposal, which will be crucial on keeping him well placed today, potentially then being utilised to bring the race back together and marshal him into position late on.
After their disastrous ascent of Etna yesterday, Team INEOS might well change tack with immediate effect, something which has became a trait of theirs when tasked with a salvage operation. This might be a rare chance for Ben Swift to lead the charge, a rider who has previously proven to cope well with long or arduous stages, following it up with a sprint capable of matching others highlighted here. His commitment to Sky/INEOS as a domestique makes him somewhat of an unknown these days, yet it will be interesting to see how he performs if handed the task of flying the team’s colours.
Placed in the ‘goldilocks’ zone of being tough enough to survive the climb and fast enough to finish the day off is Davide Ballerini. He has been improving consistently for some time now, demonstrating a greater climbing ability than previously assumed of him, which will certainly make him a threat on today’s stage. If Sunweb and Bora end up in a game of pace setting brinkmanship, then it is unlikely Ballerini will cope well enough to still challenge for the win, but if still in touch over the summit it will be his to lose.
The likes of Fernando Gaviria, Elia Viviani, Álvaro Hodeg, Davide Cimolai and Enrico Battaglin are all unlikely to find life comfortable on the Portella Mandrazi, and if they do, faster riders will also be present come the finish.
1st Michael Matthews 2nd Peter Sagan 3rd Ben Swift