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Giro favorites brace for first major mountain battles

The GC favorites are ready for the first major mountain stages following nearly two weeks of flat racing

NOVI LIGURE, Italy (VN) — The long wait is over.

If this Giro d’Italia has seemed a touch restrained so far, that’s bound to change in dramatic fashion.

After a long, almost interminable approach to the 2019 Giro’s climbs, the real race is about to begin.

“These first stages might seem easy, but we are sitting on the bike all day,” said Mitchelton-Scott’s Esteban Chaves. “The second part of the Giro will be very exciting. The Giro never disappoints.”

Everyone is hoping so.

Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) carries a significant gap to his direct rivals as the Giro approaches the first major climb. Thursday’s transition stage along the foothills of the Alps includes a first-category ascent late in the stage that will see the GC favorites test their legs.

Friday’s 13th stage and Saturday’s short but explosive 14th stage sees the Giro enter its final and decisive phase. With 28 major climbs in eight days of racing, the “real” Giro finally begins in earnest.

“I’m looking forward to getting there now,” said Vuelta a España champion Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott). “It should be an interesting stage [Thursday]. A lot of guys will be trying to get into the breakaway, so it will be a very fast day.”

If any of the GC favorites have been lulled into siesta mode these past few days, that’s bound to change.

The next four stages are sure to see a major shakeup in the overall standings. Thursday’s stage to Pinerolo is just a taste. Friday and Saturday are major, Giro-style climbing stages, with Sunday’s rollercoaster stage packed with vertical that pays homage to the Giro di Lombardia. Weather is expected to be a factor as well.

“These first mountain stages will almost be like the day after a rest day, because we have not had any climbs at all,” said Movistar sport director Max Sciandri. “We’ll start seeing who has the legs to win.”

Sciandri said this old-school Giro route is similar to what the Tour de France used to deliver, with a long string of transition stages before packing in the action in the final week.

Transition stages are always dangerous for GC riders. Just ask Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb), who crashed out in stage 4. A few of the other big favorites have hit the deck as well, including Yates, Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) and Sciandri’s Mikel Landa.

The big question is how Roglic will be able to defend his time trial gains in the mountains.

“Everyone is curious about what will happen,” Sciandri said. “[Roglic] was strong and confident at Romandie. It’s going to be a tough 10 days. Things will change once we get on these 30-to-40-minute climbs. The Giro is always hard in the final week. That’s what makes the Giro the Giro.”

With such big differences to pre-race favorites like Yates (+3:46) and Astana’s Miguel Angel Lopez (+4:29), Roglic is in an ideal position. Those riders have no choice but to attack.

“It’s not ideal and far from what we wanted at this point,” said Mitchelton-Scott sport director Matt White. “We also know the real race hasn’t even started. Of course we have to attack. So far, we have not seen one mountain. It should be exciting. We’re not just going to give up.”

Roglic hasn’t been without his problems. He fell early in stage 6 and was left with a big cherry on his right buttocks. That didn’t hinder him during Sunday’s time trial, when he took big gains on his direct rivals.

Jumbo-Visma is also curious about how these stages will play out. Roglic was strong in the mountains at the Tour de Romandie, which he won in late April with dominant fashion. Some are wondering if he will run out of gas or his team will crack before arriving to Verona on June 2 when the Giro ends.

“If Primoz can keep his legs, we are confident,” said Jumbo-Visma sport director Addy Engels. “Up to now, it’s not as if Primoz is holding back because he went the maximum in the time trial. We have a nice lead, so that means that the others must attack. Lopez and Yates have the strongest teams for the mountains. We have confidence in our climbers.”

Several teams have two cards to play, something that Roglic’s rivals could use to their advantage. Pello Bilbao is better-placed than Lopez on GC, meaning that Roglic cannot let either rider pull clear. The same goes for Yates and Chaves, who is hoping he’s back at his best after suffering through much of last year battling Epstein-Barr.

“A lot of teams will attack, and the race will be more ordered. The big climbs will put things in order,” Chaves said. “We saw how Roglic climbs — he won Romandie! He is climbing very good. We have to see what the tactics are of the other teams.”

Looming on everyone’s mind is Vincenzo Nibali, now 11th overall at 1:44 behind Roglic. The “Shark from Messina” is looking good, and Chaves, who lost the pink jersey to Nibali on the final mountain stage in 2016, knows what it’s like to have Nibali on the prowl late in a Giro.

Nibali, by far, is the most experienced and veteran among the would-be Giro winners. The cagey Italian seems poised to ride into contention in the opening mountain stages and put Roglic to the test.

“It’s too early to talk of Roglic vs. Nibali,” Nibali said this week. “It’s no surprise Roglic is ahead of us because the stages so far have favored him. There are a lot of mountains and many rivals. They’ll attack him. This Giro hasn’t even started yet.”

This Giro has been on a slow boil, and with four challenging stages on tap, things will quickly start to overflow. Unless, of course, Roglic rides away from everyone.