Having fought its way through the savage mountainous Appennines, the Giro hits the Po valley then pauses for a moment of respite. Already? Believe it or not the race has already covered half of this year's categorised climbs, so giving two days over to the sprinters would seem more than fair. Follow over for a look at the last five stages.
Stage 5 has the sort of flatness that only exists elsewhere in the cycling world in Chongming. A transfer of 200km is followed by a 118km meander around the old territories of the Dukes of Ferrara from Polesella to Molinella, including passage through the ancient cobbled centre of Ferrara itself. The highest point on today's stage is a mere 8 m above sea level, and I doubt that total height gained for the day reaches far into double figures, so spare a thought for the poor saps who get suckered by their DS into believing that they really want to be in the day's break.
Stage 6 from Modena to Salsomaggiore Terme is another day for the sprinters. There is a small bump at Tabiano some 10km from the finish line, but it's not big enough to be categorised, and as for that supposed kick at the end, well you can download the roadbook for the stage from here, match up the roads named on Streetview and then happy hunting. This is one more for the sprinters.
For stage 7 we move deep into Lombardia, and even deeper into breakaway territory. The finish line at Castagnole delle Lanze is barely 150m higher than the start at Voghera, but between the two there is scarcely a kilometre of flat ground. And anyone who can get a decent lead by the top of the cat 2 climb at Camo, just 10km from the end will have more than a good chance of staying away for good. The final km passes through such a narrow twisty alley that the chase will be done almost blind.
And if that stage 7 breakaway failed, then you'll get another good chance on the equally lumpy stage 8, 100 odd km further north and into the familiar territory of Varese. Stage 8 from Crugnola di Mornago to Lonate Pozzolo is all about loops and bumps. It begins with three laps of a 17km circuit that runs down to the shores of Lake Varese, and on the third time round the highest point also becomes a categorised climb. We then head south onto another loop, this one of 36km and with a couple of intermediate sprints en route. Today's final run-in is, however a lot friendlier to the chasing peloton, so it will take a real suicide dash to keep this one from the sprinters.
Usually the final day of a stage race is a bit processional. The GC has been settled, and for most of the peloton it's a chance to sit back and enjoy the applause, while le big sort out any final scraps between themselves. Not so this year as stage 9 from Sarnico to Bergamo looks to be the most dangerous and unpredictable of all. It starts out innocently enough with a gentle meander northwards to and along the shores of Lake Endine. Then after about 40km they turn towards Ranzanico and the 2nd category climb of Bianzano, and it's game on. From that point there are half a dozen short, sharp climbs, equally sharp descents and not an awful lot of flat until you hit the final 10km to Bergamo. A couple of years back the US National team used a similar sort of profile to launch Evelyn Stevens on a solo run past the Madonna del Ghisallo to the stage victory. Will anyone have a similar plan in mind today. If you want to trace the route out yourself, grab the routebook, start here, and have fun.
So that's the stages. Now it's time to lay down your cards and say who you think is going to win. For the past couple of years it's been pretty easy to pick the podium. Big hills meant weeny climbers, so Mara Abbott and Emma Pooley, with a few of the old familiars in the next group on the road. But Mara won't be there, Emma doesn't care if she comes last because her big target is the Olympics, and on top of that Little Miss Superwoman herself, Marianne Vos is coming back from a broken collarbone (while still remaining the best scorer in the FSA-DS, dammit), and maybe even riding on someone's grandad's old boneshaker from the shed. This one's a lot harder to call. So who will be in the frame? Let's start with a bullet point look at the teams:
Rabobank (or Stichting Rabo Women Team as probably only their mum calls them) - have three genuine podium contenders in Marianne Vos, Annemiek van Vleuten and Tatiana Antoshina. Vos is just coming back from a broken collarbone so maybe won't want to over-exert herself too much given that we also have the Olympics and a home Worlds coming up later this year. Van Vleuten is also returning after a leg operation, but given that she won't be the protected rider at either the Olympics or the Worlds, I wouldn't be in the least bit surprised if she was the best placed Rabo rider.
AA Drink - Leontien.nl - Emma Pooley to go for the green jersey, but given that this course offers so little for her, the team might end up racing for stage victories with Lizzie Armitstead, Shelley Olds and Sharon Laws.
Lotto Belisol Ladies - like AA Drink, they'll be a bit stymied by the fact that they've got a team ready to support Ash Moolman in the non-existent big climbs. Still it'll make the green jersey contest a bit livelier. Could Cherise Taylor get herself in a break or too to send a big Judith Arndt to the South African Olympic selectors?
Orica - GreenEDGE - In a race with a profile like this, it's pretty certain that Judith Arndt will be on the podium or very close. It's equally certain that she won't be on the top step. With just 7km of timetrial, there's not much chance for her or Linda Villumsen to get much time over their rivals, and the course offers them just as few opportunities to get away from rivals with a better final sprint. I'm going to predict that Shara Gillow could be their best finisher. I'm also going to predict that that prediction has a greater than 50% chance of being wrong.
RusVelo - They're down to seven, with Svetlana Bubnenkova missing from the latest version of the start-list, but even so I reckon that this team could be a big surprise. The not terribly hard climbs, together with the large number of stages with a fast descent close to the line could be just the thing for Olga Zabelinskaya, and I think that she'll go top 5. Romy Kaspar and Hanka Kupfernagel may well fancy their chances of getting stage wins too.
Hitec Products - Mistral Home Cycling Team - This could well be the best chance that Emma Johansson has of winning the Giro, and I've no doubt that she'll go for it. The move northwards has brought Elisa Longo Borghini to a new level this year, but her chances of the young rider jersey might be hindered by the need to work for Emma. And Christel Ferrier-Bruneau is another of those looking to send a message to Olympic selectors.
Faren Honda Team - Nicole Cooke won Gold in Beijing by being shit in just about every race leading up to it (I believe the proper technical term is being focussed), and it worked so well that she seems to be preparing for London by being shit for two years worth of races. Expect a medal for her there and zilch here. Rochelle Gilmore may finally have recovered from the very nasty break of the pelvis she got in last year's race, so will be up there in the sprints.
Vaiano Tepso - Rasa Laleivyte and Alona Andruk will be fighting to get into small breakaways where they have the chance of being the best sprinter around at the finish.
Dutch National Team - Martine Bras is another name who becomes a genuine contender on this sort of course. But since Rabobank hired all the best Dutch riders, she's not got a lot of support around her if anything goes wrong.
MCipollini Giambenini - A very very strong and also very very Italian team, so expect a lot, and also expect fireworks if a lot should come to pass. Team leader is nominally Tatiana Guderzo who has been in the top ten for the last six years, but Monia Baccaille has a sharper finishing kick and I suspect that she will end up placed better than her boss.
Diadora - Pasta Zara - Giorgia Bronzini is another who is both looking to the Olympics, and following the Nicole Cooke training plan, so don't expect to see much of her beyond stage 6 which ends near her home. Actually Diadora seem to have gone in to their summer implosion a little earlier than usual, having recently lost Ukrainian champ Alona Andruk, Slovenian champ Polona Batagelj and up-and-coming Italian Omnium champ Giulia Donato, so the juiciest stories might come from the hotel rather than the road.
Be Pink - Noemi Cantele's a pretty safe bet for a top five place, but Alena Amialiusik and Julia Martisova are another couple who could do very well, especially if they managed to get into a good break one day.
S.C. Michela Fanini Rox - A smaller team mostly here for the experience. Greta Treier usually shines in smaller stage races, but will find it a lot harder here. Expect lots of heroic but doomed breakaway attempts.
Top Girls Fassa Bortolo - expected team leader Elena Berlato broke her collarbone at the start of June so it's a miracle that she's here at all. Not that it will make much difference as the course isn't nearly hilly enough for her. Sprinter Barbara Guarischi will be looking to show what she learned from leading out Giorgia Bronzini last year, and might gain from the fact that she's one of the few sprinters that isn't saving herself for the Olympics.
Verinlegno - Fabiani - A team built for and around rising star Rossella Ratto, and she might well have a chance of hanging in to the end on this year's course. I've spent the last couple of years writing off the chances of star juniors as they move up, and got it wrong lots too, but I reckon she'll shine in the first half then start to feel it by the last couple of stages.
Team Specialized - Lululemon - Another team caught out by the unexpectedly unmountainous course. Evelyn Stevens is too well known today to be given a chance to escape on her own, and there aren't any stages where she could fly away up the last climb to pick up time either. It wouldn't be a surprise if Ina Teutenberg won the pink jersey after the middle sprint stages, then lost it on the final day.
Forno d'Asolo Colavita - largely here for the ride. A development squad for riders from Italy and elsewhere, and I'm glad that the Girodonne supports and encourages such teams.
So who am I picking for the final top five? How likely does this sound:
1 Emma Johansson
2 Monia Baccaille
3 Annemiek van Vleuten
4 Olga Zabelinskaya
5 Judith Arndt
(Race maps and profiles via www.girodonne.it)