Giro d'Italia
Mount Etna poses a unique set of challenges for...

Winds tamp down aggression as Etna looms

At nearly 11,000 feet, the towering volcano that is Mount Etna will be this year’s Giro’s first major test in stage 4.

TORTOLI, Italy (VN) — Buffeting headwinds and a growing anxiety about the smoldering steeps of Mount Etna tamped down Saturday’s potentially explosive second stage at the Giro d’Italia.

The rollicking two-climb stage along Sardinia’s rocky and abrupt east coast (which shelters some of Europe’s few remaining wild seals) could have been a real firecracker, but the combination of a brisk headwind, a dangerous descent to the finale, and Tuesday’s daunting climb up the fiery slopes of Europe’s most active volcano meant the peloton decided to keep their powder cool for another day.

“It was way tougher than what everyone expected — double than what people expected,” said BMC Racing sport director Max Sciandri. “Six hours, 3500m climbing, a headwind; you could see the riders’ faces. It made for a long day. Sunday? I am not a big fan of recovery on islands and on windy days. On paper, it is an easier day, but nothing’s easy.”

André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) took the sprint victory and pink jersey following a costly pedal slip from Caleb Ewan (Orica-GreenEdge) in a surprising bunch sprint on a day when many expected to see more aggressive racing.

“I was more surprised how the stage was raced today,” said Orica sport director Matt White. “You saw the stage, a lot of things could have happened. It is early in the Giro, there was a lot of wind today, and no one was interested in attacking.”

At least on paper, the lumpy profile looked like a perfect launching pad for stage-hunters and perhaps even GC riders. Some teams, like Cannondale-Drapac, have brought an entire team packed with breakaway specialists and stage-hunters, but on-the-road dynamics meant that no one wanted to waste valuable gas power so early in what’s going to be a long and punishing Giro.

“It was all day against a very strong headwind. If there was a tailwind, it would have been a different story,” said Cannondale-Drapac sport director Fabrizio Guidi. “To go for nothing, then you are losing energy early in the Giro, and the Mount Etna is very close.”

Ah, Mount Etna — the name alone evokes a mix of awe and fear inside the peloton. At nearly 11,000 feet, the towering volcano will be this year’s Giro’s first major test in stage 4. Though the road summits out about 6,200 feet, the double whammy of altitude and heat will present the Giro’s first obstacle.

The GC riders are already nervously eyeing up Etna, which comes following Sunday’s relatively short sprint stage and a flight to Sicily ahead of Monday’s first of three rest days.

“Etna won’t be decisive, but it will give me a good indication of my form as well as revealing who will be the GC rivals,” said Movistar’s Nairo Quintana. “The first real climb is always very important.”

“Etna won’t be decisive, but it will give me a good indication of my form as well as revealing who will be the GC rivals.”
– Nairo Quintana

Quintana didn’t race up Etna during his 2014 Giro victory, but Italian superstar Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) knows the climb well. The “Shark” lives just across the strait at the tip of Italy’s toe, and can see the hulking mass of Mount Etna from home.

“It’s a different ascent compared to six years ago,” Nibali said. “It comes after the nervous stages on Sardinia. This way is much more difficult, and it is after the rest day.”

On Saturday, all of the GC riders made it safely to the team buses, with the lone exception of Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha). The skinny Russian punctured in the closing kilometers, but short of the 3km safety zone. His entire Katusha squad time trialed him back to the main pack, but when the course double-backed with less than 2km to go, Zakarin’s skinny frame turned back into the feared headwinds.

The shattered peloton fractured as it came in for the bunch finale, and Zakarin, despite digging so hard to regain contact, got caught out on the wrong side of split. He lost 20 seconds in the final few hundred meters of the stage.

“Without the solid work from the team, Zakarin could easily have lost over one minute,” said team director José Azevedo. “It’s a good indication of the strong condition of our guys.”