Alberto Contador expects the battle for pink to kick into life on Stage 4 of the Giro d’Italia and “irretrievable gaps” to potentially be opened up.
After Monday’s rest day, the race returns with a mountain-top finish at Mount Etna.
Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin–Fenix) is expected to face a battle to hold onto the leader’s jersey as the top contenders for the General Classification emerge.
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“Tomorrow's stage is important because of how early it will be in the race and the consequences it can have,” two-time Giro champion Contador told Eurosport.
“Whoever is not ready tomorrow can say goodbye to the Giro d'Italia for good on Stage 4 because there are irretrievable gaps.”
Van der Poel took the race lead with victory on the opening stage before following up with a second-place finish on Stage 2.
However, he is only 11 seconds ahead of Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange-Jayco) and 16 ahead of Tom Dumoulin (Jumbo-Visma).
"Van der Poel must be happy to keep the maglia rosa but he must also be worried about the level of big rivals like [Mark] Cavendish or Yates himself,” added Contador.
“These first stages are allowing us to see a great spectacle with great moments like Cavendish's yesterday. Even so, I expect [Joao] Almeida and [Vincenzo] Nibali to step up their performances in stages like Etna and tighten up the general classification.”
Stage 4 is 172km in length and features no other big climbs apart from the long ascent up Etna to the finish.
Eduardo Chozas, three-time Giro stage winner, told Eurosport: “I think we will see a very exciting stage on Etna because of all that is at stake.

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“It's going to be a day that will define who can be racing until the end of the Giro and who loses most of the options to keep the pace.
“I think it's going to be a chaotic stage that will move the whole peloton and a lot of things can happen. Van der Poel can't relax because it's very easy to lose the lead.”
While there will be plenty of focus on Van der Poel as he looks to remain in the race lead, the 27-year-old has already impressed on his Giro debut.
Jacky Durand, three-time Grand Tour stage winner, thinks Van der Poel deserves plenty of respect for his showing so far.

Simon Yates

Image credit: Getty Images

“Mathieu van der Poel has no pressure,” he told Eurosport. “We remember that he came to this Giro to win a stage, the first stage was already a big goal and he achieved it. From now on, he will see day after day and he will not deprive himself of winning other stages.
“He has a big advantage: he is all-round, he is capable of winning even in a bunch sprint. In the time trial [on Saturday], he doesn't have much of a reference even if it was made for him and, in a way, he is an extra-terrestrial and we felt he was very strong in the last passages on the cobbles. He is an instinctive rider who enjoys himself.”
“On Stage 3 on Sunday, Van der Poel did a great job. You can imagine: he's in the pink jersey, he's a sprinter, he could have won the stage in theory, but no, he puts himself at the service of a rider who just won a race in Turkey at the beginning of the season.
"We have already seen leaders racing for another sprinter of their team and it is to their credit because not only do you start the sprint for another rider but you also take risks. That's it, respect Mathieu Van der Poel, he is just huge!
“I think that if there had been several flat stages afterwards, we might have sprinted for Van der Poel but he has a rest day and after Etna and we know that he expects to lose the jersey on Etna.”
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