Rest day number two came after another significant shake up of the general classification; the individual time trial and Stage 15’s mountains seeing Alberto Contador and Mikel Landa strut their stuff while others suffered badly. Though the likes of Fabio Aru and Rigoberto Uran lost time in the race against the clock, Richie Porte suffered the biggest hit of all, eventually succumbing to his injuries from Stage 14 and abandoning the Giro d’Italia during the rest day. The peloton now see their gaze filled by the looming presence of the big mountains in the final week’s racing and nothing looks certain when it comes to the general classification come the finale in Milano.
Considered the Queen Stage by many, the 177km ride from Pinzolo to Aprica includes five categorised climbs, all of which are expected to impact upon the general classification as we enter the Giro d’Italia’s final week. A gruelling mixture of steep inclines and arduous ascents, Stage 16’s survivors will end the day with a grand total of 4,500m of climbing under their belts at the finish in Aprica. The peloton are forced upwards as soon as they have departed from Pinzolo, opening their accounts for the day with the Category 2 climb of Campo Carlo Magno; 13km in length at an average of 6.7%. From here they drop down through Dimaro and begin the day’s second ascent around the 28km marker; these brutal starts becoming a recurring feature of the Giro in recent editions. At 15.3km in length, the climb of Passo del Tonale is the longest ascent of the day for the riders, grinding them down with an average of 6.1% which touches 10% on occasion.
The subsequent descent takes them down towards Edolo where they shall immediately begin climbing once again, this time a Category 3 challenge which drags them up to the day’s eventual finishing town of Aprica. The climb itself is surprisingly long at 14km when compared to its appearance on the race card and could be somewhat underestimated as it does briefly include ramps of 15% beyond the average of 3.5%. Yet another rapid descent is then required as they dive down towards a relatively flat section near Tirano and begin to see the day’s biggest challenge loom large ahead of them. The Mortirolo pass will deliver a sledgehammer blow to the massed ranks of the peloton, cracking many and leaving us with the clearest indication so far of who has the legs to finish top ten in Milano. Approaching via the Mazzo di Valtellina will ensure this climb becomes a war of attrition from the first pedal stoke, its opening kilometres siting at 13% early on.
The Category 1 Passo del Mortirolo’s average gradient of 10.9% is a leg numbing 11.9km in total and possesses a potent sting in the form of 18% ramps before they have even completed 5km’s worth of climbing. From there it is an average of 12.2% until the final 4km which begin decreasing somewhat to 9.2%, the sort of gradient which is never usually welcomed, but here it must seem like a plateau for some. It is on these slopes that the outcome of the stage will be decided, along with the ambitions of those aiming to finishing top ten on the general classification or even challenge for a podium.
As fatigue sets in, the riders shall need to stay alert during a technical descent which leads them back to Edolo once again and onwards to the same climb back to Aprica ridden earlier in the day; this time the 14km ascent shall decide the winner of the Herculean Stage 16.
The road to Aprica is constructed to force the strongest climbing talents to the top of the pile, Passo del Mortirolo’s steep slopes set to lure Alberto Contador into action. Despite appearing a class above his rivals here, the Spaniard has stated he intends to measure his efforts closely, aiming to line up on the Utrecht start line in good condition for this year’s Le Tour de France. Now this might mean he does not necessarily leap at every stage winning opportunity which comes his way in the final week, but it is hard to imagine he would be happy to accept the final maglia rosa in Milano having secured overall victory without a single stage win. So far nobody has been capable of dropping Alberto Contador when it matters most, giving the impression that his presence in an elite group deciding the win seems certain. Possessing such a dominant lead on the general classification already, he can look to simply cover the expected attacks from Fabio Aru and Mikel Landa, allowing them to tire themselves before he dashes clear of them at the end of this wearing day.
Fabio Aru‘s best chance of taking the win into Aprica is to ensure a small group arrives to the final kilometres first, one which he can sprint from where he should be guaranteed of being the fastest man. It would come as little surprise to see this group being as small as three riders; Alberto Contador, Mikel Landa and Aru himself. In this situation, Landa would have no reason to follow a late sprint from his teammate, leaving Contador to make the running entirely on his own. Of course, this is only possible if the Italian can survive the midsection of this stage in good condition, the Passo del Mortirolo could become a nightmare for him as the incredibly sharp gradients see Aru struggling for position in the pack. Should this happen to the Italian, his chances of then avoiding time losses are unlikely, conceding ground atop Mortirolo will be extremely difficult to make up on a day where you are either descending or climbing throughout.
For Astana, the best option of forcing Contador to the sword is Mikel Landa, a fearless rider when placed upon the ruthless gradients of Mortirolo which should shatter the bunch. His performances so far have been an unexpectedly strong showing for Astana and they now have the option of a second form of attack against Contador. Clearly the strongest team here, Tanel Kangert and Dario Cataldo are two such riders which can be called upon to increase the pressure upon the maglia rosa during the ascent of Passo del Mortirolo, upping the tempo in hope of isolating the Spanish race leader. Landa marginally distanced Contador on Stage 15 to take the win, but many would suggest that the previous day’s individual time trial efforts for Contador were much greater than that of Landa’s; though it still appeared that Contador could not chase, rather than did not chase. The finish itself is not overly suited to Landa and it is difficult to imagine a situation which he would win from; coming to the line with Contador and Aru would surely mean allowing his leader to attack, while a successful breakaway would leave him him out of contention entirely. Regardless, he has made a strong case thus far of being the best climber here, but it remains uncertain if Mikel Landa’s consistency can be maintained.
The breakaway has a good chance of staying away on this terrain once the pass of Mortirolo has been completed, especially given the amount of mountains classification points available during the day in the battle for the blue jersey. Considering this fact, Beñat Intxausti seems certain to be part of any such breakaway which makes it up the road, in an attempt to either defend his lead or further extend it. This year’s Giro d’Italia has witnessed some of his best ever climbing form and there is nothing to stop him from almost wrapping up the blue jersey victory on the road to Aprica if he picks the right move. He finishes well, but the need to collect points could blunt this factor somewhat during the day, but a finishing group including him will need to be aware of this in form rider stealing the stage win.
Intauxsti’s most prolific rival in the competition has been the Colombian rider Carlos Betancur, a man who seemingly knows how to get into the best breakaway day after day. His survival on the day’s steepest climbs should be assured and his sprint finish is better than expected for a man so synonymous with mountain prowess. With the easier gradients to the finish line, Betancur could attack with a potent sprint and finally secure his Giro stage win which he has been pursing since the roads started heading skywards.
A man well worth watching on this type of terrain is LottoNL-Jumbo’s Steven Kruijswijk, seeking a stage win after several noteworthy performances so far in the breaks and behind the big names of Stage 15. Though his ambitions here were originally to secure a respectable general classification position, he is now so far back on Alberto Contador that a move by him would surely be allowed to go unanswered. The Dutchman has no issues with approaching these stages solo and is a notoriously difficult man to bring back once he gets the bit between his teeth. Given the blend of skill and his current general classification placing, Steven Kruijswijk is a threat to anyone with their eyes on winning Stage 16.
The composition of any breakaway which makes it all the way to the line in Aprica is fancied to contain the familiar mix of breakaway hopefuls which we have become familiar with during 2015’s Giro d’Italia; Stefano Pirazzi, Ryder Hesjedal, Sebastien Reichenbach and Giovanni Visconti could all feature if the mood so takes them. With a general classification which looks certain to experience another serious shake up in this last week, close attention will be on Andrey Amador, Leopold Konig, Damiano Caruso and Alexandre Geniez to cement their current positions on the general classification during this brutal stage.
Once again the stage outcome looks set to be decided by the fight emanating from Alberto Contador, Fabio Aru and Mikel Landa; their recurring ‘two against one’ battle in these mountains proving the deciding factor for the break. Astana look likely to burn their matches early on the ascent of Passo del Mortirolo in an attempt to isolate Alberto Contador for the rest of the day’s remaining climbs. This should set up Astana’s Mikel Landa and Fabio Aru to work Contador over in an attempt crack him and gain time, or at least cook him ahead of his Tour de France battle with Vincenzo Nibali. Fireworks are expected from these big names, but a breakaway could find themselves given the green light by Tinkoff-Saxo and Astana to fight it out amongst themselves for the win. In this situation those motivated by mountains classification points are sure to be represented in the move, so Carlos Betancur and Beñat Intxausti should be involved. However, it is Steven Kruijswijk who appears to be the most enticing mix of talent, form and motivation for Stage 16. The Dutchman goes well on these sorts of climbs and has proven to be competent in the break, as well as being one of the first home after the likes of Alberto Contador and Mikel Landa; this could be his best chance of a stage win at 2015’s Giro d’Italia.
1st Steven Kruijswijk 2nd Carlos Betancur 3rd Alberto Contador