Andre Greipel won his third stage of the race in Bibione on Thursday before bidding farewell to La Corsa Rosa. If you look at the profile of the coming days, it’s not hard to see why.
Between now and next Sunday’s final stage in Turin, the riders will go above 2,000 metres on eight occasions – five of which come in rapid succession in Saturday’s stage 14 to Covara. Bookending that sufferfest comes Friday’s 13th stage and its series of steep toe-dipping peaks, and Sunday’s mountain time trial – not so much a race of truth but an uphill polygraph test.
Sure, there’s a flat second half to Tuesday’s stage 17 but with 15 categorised climbs between now and then, it’s no surprise that Greipel and some of the sprinters are calling it quits.
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It’s for that reason that Giant-Alpecin’s Tom Dumoulin would have struggled in the final week of this Giro even if he had the smoothest perineum in the west.
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Some brief respite follows on Thursday’s stage to Pinerolo, which is largely flat save for the Pramartino climb near the finish. But then there’s the fearsome ascent of the Colle delle Agnello, the 'Cima Coppi' highest point in this year’s race – and currently still buried in snow – ahead of the French summit finish at Risoul. And then perhaps the queen stage: a short and sharp Alpine slog that takes in the Col de Bonette and three other lung-busting ascents.
Put simply: this is no place for sprinters. Heck, this is no place for some of the guys still lurking about in the top 10. Perhaps, even, no place for the man currently impressing so much in pink, Bob Jungels.
What we do know is that there will be no Dumoulin or Mikel Landa (Team Sky) – the two big GC casualties from the second week of the race. In particular it must be gutting for Landa, the Basque climbing specialist who tends to get stronger as races get older, and someone well suited to the succession of 22-categorised peaks on the horizon.
Who, in Landa’s absence, will step up and win this race? Here is my predicted top 10 come Turin…
1. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar; currently 3rd)
Movistar’s Amador and Valverde slip into top three on GC
Image credit: Eurosport
If the business end of a Giro d'Italia is an unknown quantity for the Spanish veteran that's because, at 36, Valverde is making his debut in this race. But so far, so good. He looked very strong on the Alpe di Poti, can negotiate climbs as well as descents, and has a strong Movistar team alongside him. The only question mark is his ability to ride in cold weather – but I'm taking a punt on his consistency and doggedness shining through. He really is an extraordinary rider.
2. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana, 5th)
The bookmakers' favourite had been untroubled so far save for a little wobble following his thwarted attack on the Roccaraso climb in week one. The 2013 champion has strong mountain lieutenants in Michele Scarponi, Jakob Fuglsang and Tanel Kangert, but will miss the injured Valerio Agnoli. There's a suggestion that his attempts to pick up seconds here and there suggests he's not going as strong as he'd want and could be found out in the mountains. The head says he'll win it, but Nibali's yet to convince this year.
3. Rafal Majka (Tinkoff, 6th)
The Pole has been gloriously low-key so far but lies within a minute of both Valverde and Nibali on GC. Climbing is really Majka's forte and while he would normally lose time on an ITT he should be one of the favourites for the uphill test on Sunday. Lack of support from his Tinkoff team in the high mountains will mean Majka will have to win this race off his own back, which is why the podium is a more realistic outcome than the maglia rosa.
4.Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo, 4th)
Andre Greipel takes third stage win at Giro
The race's Mr Dependable has been a regular fixture on the front of the peloton. So far Kruijswijk hasn't put a foot wrong and he should certainly finish higher than last year's seventh. But with stronger climbers currently behind him on GC, he'll struggle to get any higher than his current fourth place and may well have to look over those broad swimmer's shoulders of his. Like Majka, he'll be isolated and without much support from his LottoNL-Jumbo team.
5. Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha, 7th)
Had he not crashed twice during the sodden Chianti time trial the rangy Russian could well already be sitting pretty on the race summit with real aspirations of winning the thing. As it is, it remains to be seen how he recovers – physically and psychologically – from those nasty falls. So far this season he's mixed it with the very best on mountain-top finishes – although the Giro climbs will be a sterner test of his steel. Another rider who will be forced to ride along – but Zakarin is the kind of guy who excels at being a lone ranger.
6. Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge, 8th)
Until the final edit, I had the smiling Colombian up in fourth but swapped him at the 11th hour because of the big question mark hovering above Chaves and his ability to ride in the cold. He's still a relative newcomer to Grand Tours and the snowy Alpine summits in May will be very different from the sweltering Spanish climbs he excelled on last September. Were weather not a potential factor, I'd swap Chaves with Kruisjwijk in a flash. As it is, I'm keeping him down in sixth.
7. Andrey Amador (Movistar, 2nd)
Fourth last year, the Costa Rican has been even more impressive so far this May – to the extent that even his team captain Valverde won't discount him for the maglia rosa. In my eyes that's merely the Spaniard being diplomatic and winning over one of the key riders who can deliver him to glory. Amador's Russian blood from his mother's side means he actually excels in cold weather, but some of the climbs may be too much, and I can see him concede a large chunk one day before burying himself for Valverde and, perhaps, a stage win.
8. Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale, 11th)
Still just two minutes behind the big favourites despite a terrible time trial in Chianti during which he came off the bike and looked a shadow of the rider who won so convincingly over a similar parcours in another wine region of northern Italy, Barolo, a few years back. Stealth could well be Uran's middle name so it's hard to predict how he'll fare in the high mountains. The move to Cannondale has surely given him a boost, but it's hard to see him repeating the form that delivered him two successive runner-up spots on the Giro.
9. Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2R-La Mondiale, 14th)
The Italian veteran slipped down the standings on Wednesday's stage 11 after being caught out behind the crash that split the pack ahead of the final climb. That means Pozzovivo dropped out of the top 10 but he's still only four minutes off the summit and three minutes behind Valverde and Nibali, so we can expect some battling performances in the Alps and Dolomites. It may be enough for a stage scalp but not enough for the pint-sized pianist to rise towards the podium.
10. Jakob Fuglsang (Astana, 12th)
The Dane was another rider to be caught up on the pile-up in stage 11 – a blot on what has otherwise been a strong race for him so far. He'll have the arduous task of juggling his own ambitions with those of his team leader. A lot will depend on how the Sicilian rides because Fuglsang could even find himself propelled into the hot seat should Nibali falter. The top ten is very reachable but supposing Nibali is a GC factor right to the end, anything more may be hard for Fuglsang.
Who missed out?
Well, first and foremost Bob Jungels (Etixx-QuickStep) may be aggrieved not to see his name on the list. The 23-year-old has ridden a flawless race so far and goes into the mountains with both the pink and white jerseys. But there's a suspicion that it will all prove a bit too much for Jungels – despite compatriot Andy Schleck's assertion that he can win this Giro.
Stefano Pirazzi (Bardiani-CSF, 15th), Sergey Firsanov (Gazprom-RusVelo, 17th) and Davide Formolo (Cannondale, 19th) are all within six minutes of Jungels on GC and would be expected to rise in the standings given their climbing credentials. It wouldn't be a surprise to see any of them creep into the top ten should there be any further withdrawals or chronic collapses.
One huge long-shot it may be worth taking a punt on is Estonian Tanel Kangert (Astana, 21st). He's almost 10 minutes down on GC but will be up there with team-mates Nibali and Fuglsang every day in the mountains – and he should pick up high placings, and rise accordingly, as a result.
Of course, Jungels would be disappointed to drop out of the top ten having led the race until stage 12 with such panache. But he's still very young and finished more than an hour down on some of these riders in last year's Tour. Time will tell, but I can't see him being as big a lasting threat as Tom Dumoulin was in the Vuelta.
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