Bike races come in varying forms, some less recognizable than others. Every ham-fisted talking head at the Tour de France knows how to raise his voice when the subject of Alpe d'Huez comes up. And you don't have to be WillJ, test-riding the Dolomites, to see that there's trouble a-brewin on the Zoncolan.
But you, seasoned cyclo-watchers, can probably see something very curious about tomorrow's Giro d'italia stage from inland Colecchio to Savona, on the Ligurian coast:
Real climbs! Yeah, well, sorta. The road peaks out at 1058 meters, which ain't nothin, except to these guys. No, this is a beefed-up Milano-Sanremo downhiller's suspense stage. This means action! For a brief perspective, let's all harken back about six days... remember this profile?
Remember how it ended?
Photo by Doug Pensinger, Getty
Exactly. That's highlight number one. But before we go there let me throw in a few more ingredients that make tomorrow's stew particularly piquant.
First, how did the Giro circumvent Tuscany? Has this ever been done before? Tuscany is a cultural and economic wonderland, two things that make it attractive to Giro planners, but I suppose you can't have everything. Anyway, it's been lovely watching the race draw attention to Emilia-Romagna, even if we're all supposed to remember Marco Pantani while this is happening. Italy is the gift that never stops giving.
Secondly, at 249km this is the longest stage of the race. Surely there needs to be a fancier name for the Giro's sloggiest event. We have Cima Coppi for the highest peak. How about Odissea Malabrocca? Named after Luigi Malabrocca, the Maglia Nera from Coppi's era, e.g. the rider last on GC, and presumably suffering worse than anyone else -- this works, no? Naming it after the intrepid Eugene Christophe could work too, if cycling symbolism were able to cross over those Alpine passes, which it most definitely does not. So, Odissea Malabrocca it is!
Anyway, if a long day in Liguria rings a bell, it's partly due to La Primavera, which we all know is a marathon, then a sprint, plus some clever little tricks along the way to keep British riders from winning. There's some of that here: a race that's 50km shorter but in the midst of a Grande Giro will feel like an interminably long slog. Add in climbs that mock the Passo Turchino and the Cipressa, and you have tired legs in play, plus the certain elimination of the bunch sprinters who have contested the last few stages. Finally, the race hits Sestri Levante before the mid-point... remember that place? The time trial which decided the 2009 centenary Giro happened here, and the constant up and down tipped it to Menchov (and Leipheimer). This is no MSR, with loads of flat stretches to recuperate. Well, there is some of that, but it's broken up quite a bit.
OK, enough beating around the bush... this stage will likely be decided on the descent into Savona. As you can see...
...the descending doesn't stop until nearly the 4km to go mark. Hell, it's a false flat til the last 1300 meters. This is a fantastic opportunity for the descenders. For starters, the climb up the Cat's Nose (Naso di Gatto) is difficult enough such that any all-day breakaway will have difficulty holding off the peloton. Here's the Climbbybike assessment:
Six kilometers in the 7-9% range -- not terribly hard, but on such an arduous stage the breakaway will be running on fumes. Which means the climbers should be within range of them going over the top, if they haven't been completely swallowed up. At most, we may see Julian Arredondo (if his bruises have healed) and Stefano Pirazzi still up the road chasing KOM points. Nobody would object to that.
Then, things are bound to get interesting. Two of the best descenders on hand are rather notable figures: overall leader Cadel Evans, and his new sidekick, world-class downhiller Samuel Sanchez. Evans is faced with a choice: should he employ Sanchez as super-domestique to set a blistering pace and control all other attacks? Or does Evans, a smart and seasoned realist, see this as a rare chance to put some time into folks before going on the defensive in the higher mountains? Maybe, just maybe, he and Sanchez hit the gas over the bridge of the Nose, and are never seen again? Maybe his Colombian rivals, fair bike handlers but young and unfamiliar with the terrain, will be unable to hold their wheels? This could be unbelievably entertaining. From the profile it appears the descent averages the same as the climb -- 4% or so overall -- but with a number of brief, steep drops on the way back down to Savona.
Weather calls for scattered showers. Settle in for this one. There could be major fireworks anywhere in the final couple hours.