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Giro d'Italia

Giro favorites nervous about Saturday’s ‘casino’ stage

As if 239km ahead of a key time trial wasn't enough, there's forecasted rain and a steep, narrow descent on the run-in of stage 8

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L’AQUILA, Italy (VN) — At 239km, Saturday is the longest stage in the 2019 Giro d’Italia. On paper, the second half looks like a dulled jig-saw littered with short but punchy fourth-category climbs.

If things go as expected, it should be a day for a breakaway. Or even the sprinters. Things rarely go as expected in the Giro, however.

“The thing about the Giro is that there are always surprises,” said EF Education First’s Joe Dombrowski. “There’s been a lot of tension in the first stages. Everyone is ready to get into the mountains.”

Not so fast. There are still a clutch of transition stages before the big mountains arrive in this Giro at the tail end of week two. And before those first climbs, comes Sunday’s decisive individual time trial at San Marino.

With everyone looking down the road, there’s a danger that the GC riders might overlook Saturday’s long run along Italy’s Adriatic coast.

With forecasters calling for a 70 percent chance of a wet finish and cool temperatures in the high 50s, the Giro favorites will be on edge to safely negotiate the stage ahead of Sunday’s decisive race against the clock. Forecasted tailwinds will mean a fast stage.

“We really hope it’s going to be a safe day tomorrow,” said Deceuninck-Quick Step’s Bob Jungels. “It’s going to be bad weather, and long, and with a downhill at the end. I’ve spoken to many of the GC guys, and I hope they take a good decision there, and we can all perform well on Sunday.”

Could the stage prove a spoiler in this year’s Giro?

Probably not. The first half of the stage is pancake flat, and the climbs in the second half of the stage are not steep enough to truly threaten to blow up the race.

Finishing touches

It’s the steep descent on a narrow road with about 4km remaining that has everyone worried. The tension would build exponentially if there is a big break up the road and it starts to rain.

There’s even been some behind-the-scenes discussion to possibly neutralize the finale for the GC riders, with the suggestion of taking the time before the descent if the bunch is all together and the weather turns Dante-esque.

That would be highly unorthodox, but GC times regularly get neutralized when weather turns bad. It happened Wednesday in Terracina, when the race jury took the GC time on the first passage on a 9km circuit course under a deluge of heavy rain.

“Nothing changed that day, except we avoided a crash,” said Lotto-Soudal’s Adam Hansen. “It was the right call to make.”

What everyone wants to avoid Saturday is a crash or mishap that will derail their GC aspirations before the real race has even begun.

“Tomorrow is going to be a very important stage to save the day,” said Friday’s stage-winner Pello Bilbao, who is riding to protect teammate Miguel Ángel López. “There will be a lot of tension in the bunch tomorrow. It’s long, up and down, and with bad weather. It’s going to be a big casino.”

With Sunday’s time trial poised as the next big day, it’s highly likely that the GC favorites won’t want to burn too many matches. After a week of racing, everyone in the bunch is starting to feel the sting of a series of long 200km+ stages, so the top stars will want to be as fresh as possible for Sunday.

Could there be a ceasefire brewing among the top GC riders of the peloton?

That’s highly unlikely, at least formally. It’s almost impossible to rein in the individual interests of every team and rider across the entire peloton. But it could happen spontaneously on the road if racing conditions turn truly horrendous and the top riders make the call to not to attack one another.

Hard to control

The main hurdle to any sort of pre-arranged ceasefire among the GC riders is that Saturday’s stage is also another chance for a breakaway. Race organizers have rated the stage with three stars, just as dangerous as stage 2 or stage 12 next week.

If it were a relatively flat and easy stage that tilted toward a mass sprint, perhaps. But with so many riders and teams living and dying by the breakaway, controlling the divergent interests of the peloton are almost impossible to control.

“I think tomorrow will be like today,” said overnight leader Valerio Conti (UAE-Emirates). “I think there will be a big fight for the breakaway. The other GC riders will not want a dangerous break to go. We also hope that the sprinter teams will help us control the stage.”

Just as soon as the flag came down on Friday’s stage to L’Aquila, however, riders were raising the alarm bells about Saturday’s stage.

Friday’s stage might have been the first in this Giro raced under the pleasant spring-like weather that typically blankets the south of Italy. If there was a sense of a lull pulling over the peloton, it quickly ended as the pack turned its attention to Saturday’s transition stage.

“Calm? Not at all. You saw how hard it was today. The breakaway was very big and all day we went at full-gas,” said López, who’s avoided trouble so far in the first week. “It’s one day less, and the team’s been doing a great job looking after me. Everyone is going to be tired, so we will see who has the legs. First we have to get through tomorrow.”

Like Dombrowski said, the Giro is always full of surprises. The GC favorites are hoping there won’t be one Saturday on the road to Pesaro.