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Studying the Giro: How Mount Etna affects GC race

The opening week of the Giro d’Italia features an early showdown on Europe’s tallest active volcano, Mt. Etna, which is located on the island of Sicily. How will the hulking mountain impact the race? Let’s take a close look at this climb and the impact it has had on recent editions of Italy’s biggest race.

Mount Etna by the numbers: 17.45km, average gradient of 7 percent, with a max of 14 percent, which riders reach after 8.69km of climbing.

Previous Giro stages: 2011, stage 9; 1989, stage 2; 1967, stage 7.

What history can teach us: In 2011, Alberto Contador used Mount Etna to catapult himself into the Maglia Rosa, which he held until the finish for a whopping 12 stages. He was subsequently stripped of his title, as well as the two stage wins along the way, due to that pesky Clenbuterol violation from the previous year’s Tour de France. Scandal aside, Mt. Etna was a decisive climb that year.

During the Giro’s two prior visits to Etna (1989 and 1967), the mountain failed to produce the decisive battle. In 1989, Portugal’s Acacio da Silva won atop Etna on the race’s second stage. He wore pink for a day and held the points jersey through stage 6, but after that he was a relatively anonymous player in the race. At the end of the three weeks, he was fifth overall in the points classification. Stage 2 was the last of his five stage wins in the race.

In 1967, it was Italy’s Franco Bitossi who was the opportunistic victor on Etna on stage 7. Again, Bitossi did not win the overall or even claim the KOM jersey. He held on to finish third in the mountains classification and was never considered a grand tour threat (he did win the Italian national championship in 1976).

In both the 1989 and 1967 Giri, the eventual Giro winners kept their powder dry, opting to ride at the front — but not win the stage or seize pink — on the slopes of the volcano. In short, Etna’s explosive reputation did not blow them from the race. Laurent Fignon was sixth in 1989, on the same time as da Silva; Felice Gimondi was seventh in 1967, 26 seconds behind Bitossi.

What will we see this year? It is likely that the 2017 trip up Mount Etna will be similar to that in 2011. Riders will be fresh, so the time gaps might be small. When Contador won (err… “won”) stage 8, the top-15 riders were all within 1:13 of each other. Though they climbed a different road to the Rifugio Sapienza finish that year, the stage is very similar to stage 4 of the 2017 route: a category 1 climb halfway through, the 1,631-meter northern shoulder of Etna in 2011. This year, the peloton will ride the 1,524-meter Portella Femmina Morta, whose finishing climb is about the same gradient (6.6 percent) but slightly shorter at 17.95km.

Although the 2017 Giro’s final week is piled high with major climbs, it seems the eventual winner must finish within about a minute of the victor on Mount Etna. All three prior examples bear this out.

Top favorites Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) might not win stage 4. Perhaps they won’t want to defend the jersey so early in the race, either.

No matter who claims the day’s honors, any legitimate team leader should be near the front on the first summit finish. If a GC hopeful such as Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) or Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) loses more than a minute on Etna, they might consider hitting the panic button and asking their team PR person to distribute the “He’s going for stage wins” press release. Aspiring climbers who come to the bottom of the final climb with the lead group might have an opportunity to shine if the overall contenders choose to ride defensively and mark each other’s moves.

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