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No GC sparks on Etna as cat-and-mouse game continues

The Giro d'Italia's stage 4 mountaintop finish didn't shake up the overall standings. Instead, top riders Nibali and Quintana played it cool.

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MOUNT ETNA, Italy (VN) — Tuesday’s mountaintop finale petered out “senza gas” due to gusting headwinds, but an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse is also playing out in the opening days of the 2017 Giro d’Italia.

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Who’s strong? Who’s bluffing? No one knows, at least not yet through four stages.

“You saw a couple of guys make some moves, but it never went anywhere,” said BMC’s Tejay van Garderen. “For the most part, everyone just cancelled each other out. Most of the action will come later in these three weeks.”

With a Giro that’s so back-loaded with brutal climbs in the final week of racing, it shouldn’t be a big surprise to anyone that the top GC favorites eased into the first major mountaintop climb of the Giro’s 100th edition.

The weight of the final week, plus another day of blustery wind in four days of racing across Sardinia and Sicily, kept the main contenders all bundled up. Some 20 riders trundled in together at 29 seconds behind breakaway winner Jan Polanc (UAE-Emirates), while Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) squirted clear to take back 10 seconds of the 20 seconds he lost from a puncture in stage 2.

A few attacks came, including an inevitable and fan-favorite move from local hero Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) with less than 3km to go, but winds along the ashen, exposed southern face of Mount Etna and the gravitational force of the GC contenders defanged the Shark’s first bite.

Despite the hype that Mount Etna could blow up the race, the favorites were closely marking each other.

“Everyone was kind of watching each other, and it didn’t go completely crazy,” said Sky’s Geraint Thomas, third on the stage to take bonus seconds, and second on GC at six seconds behind new leader Bob Jungels (Quick-Step). “It’s a good start. To be so close to pink — OK, it would have been nice to have got it — but so far, so good.”

So what to make to Zakarin’s late sortie? Not much, at least according to Bahrain-Merida sport director Gorazd Stegnelj, who said, “When Vincenzo tried, everyone followed him, while when Zakarin went, no one followed him. That’s not that Zakarin is stronger than the others; this is just a little game that the GC contenders play every grand tour.”

The 2017 Giro opens with the best GC lineup in decades — with a dozen teams bringing riders capable of reaching the final podium in Milano — and four days into the race, the GC is still a blank canvas. The only real podium contender to be out of the race is BMC’s Rohan Dennis, who abandoned Tuesday.

Nibali’s move was almost scripted — he grew up in nearby Messina, so he had to attack — but among the big favorites, it’s been Nairo Quintana (Movistar) who’s been wearing his poker face. The pre-race favorite didn’t make a move Tuesday, and with the Tour de France-Giro d’Italia double on his radar, Quintana is clearing easing into the Giro.

“Everyone is saying I’m the big favorite, but you cannot rule out the rest. Everyone seems to have arrived here in very good condition,” Quintana said. “The lack of racing days really has an effect on me … I’m yet to reach the fitness level of my main rivals. This was the first serious contact with big mountains since I got back from Colombia, and a day to see where I stand in the Giro fight.”

Akin to boxers testing each other in the opening rounds, the main contenders are sizing each other up. This Giro is still wrapped up tight.

That’s certainly to change by the end of next week. The Blockhaus finale in stage 9 (much harder than Mount Etna) and the decisive 39.8km stage 10 time trial at Montefalco will see the early knockout rounds.

Until then, expect the sprinters and breakaway artists to keep pressing the action, and the inside-the-peloton game of measuring each other up to continue its slow boil until next weekend.

Listen to our discussion of the Mount Etna finish on the VeloNews podcast.