TERMOLI,Italy (VN) ─ Expect the Giro d’Italia peloton to get considerably lighter in the coming days as sprinters will begin to slowly fade out of the picture. With opportunities running out ─ and no final-day sprint stage waiting for them in Milan ─ sprinters will likely start to abandon or become time cut as the Giro turns north into the brutal climbs waiting in the Dolomites.

2011 Giro d'Italia stage 2
Petacchi beat Cavendish in stage 2. The Manx Missile only has a couple of shots at revenge.

The Giro’s fastest men will see what’s likely their last chances at victory over two of the next three stages. With the Giro entering the high mountains on stage 13 for a string of brutal climbing stages over the following nine days, Tuesday’s stage 10 to Termoli and Thursday’s stage 12 to Ravenna present the last realistic chances.

Tuesday’s 159km 10th stage features a few early-stage climbs that should spring a breakaway attempt, but there should still be enough gas in the tank among the sprinter teams to drive home the chase to set up a mass gallop. The Giro is never easy, however, and a gradually rising finish to the line, including a four-percent grade in the closing meters, will make for an unpredictable sprint. Wednesday’s four-climb stage to Castelfildardo, which ends atop another one of Italy’s spectacular hilltop town, has breakaway written all over it, especially with Alberto Contador hinting that Saxo Bank-Sungard wouldn’t mind letting go of the pink jersey for a few days. Thursday’s 184km stage into Ravenna is nearly dead flat, but headwinds and a technical finale with sharp corners on narrow roads could complicate what’s sure to be the 2011 Giro’s final bunch sprint.

In the opening nine stages, only two came down to bunch sprints. Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre) nipped Mark Cavendish in stage 2 while Fran Ventoso (Movistar) won a hard-fought uphill sprint against Petacchi in stage 6. The other stages have been won in the mountains or in surprise breakaways, such as Oscar Gatto (Farnese Vini), who darted to victory in stage 8 in a short, but steep uphill finale that surprised the sprinters.

A few sprinters have already packed it in. Robbie McEwen (RadioShack) and Graeme Brown (Rabobank) missed the time cut up Mount Etna while Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Cervélo) left the Giro after stage 4 following the death of his best friend, Wouter Weylandt.

Besides Petacchi, Ventoso and Cavendish, however, there are still plenty of riders still in the race who will try their luck in the final bunch sprints.

Roberto Ferrari (Androni), Manuel Belletti (Colnago CSF-Inox), Francesco Chicchi and Gerald Ciolek (both Quick Step), Davide Appollonio (Sky), Robbie Hunter (RadioShack) and Borut Bozic (Vacansoleil) are all ready to take their chances for a shot at a trip to the winner’s podium.

With time running out, it should be a real dog-fight over the next few days.