Studying the Giro: Is Blockhaus a blockbuster?

The Giro d'Italia finishes atop the famous Blockhaus climb in stage 9. What can history teach us about this climb's significance?

The initial GC skirmishes anticipated in the Giro d’Italia’s stage 4 summit finish on Mount Etna never happened. Instead, the top contenders for the pink jersey remained clumped together after the first week of racing. Now, the word on every rider’s lips is “Blockhaus.” The Giro’s overall classification might crystallize on Sunday in stage 9. The race will finish atop a climb included in five other Giri, so let’s see what history can teach us about Blockhaus.

Blockhaus by the numbers: 13.65km, 8.4 percent average gradient, with a max of 14 percent that riders reach after about 8.5km of climbing.

Previous Giro stages: 1967, stage 12; 1968, stage 21; 1972, stage 4a; 1984, stage 5; 2009, stage 17.

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What history can teach us: In two out of the five previous trips up Blockhaus, the overall lead changed hands. In four of those five editions, the eventual GC winner finished top-10 on the climb. Of those, three were top five. Those maglia rosa winners — Felice Gimondi (1967), Eddy Merckx (1968 and 1972), Francesco Moser (1984), and Denis Menchov (2009) — didn’t quite make their decisive moves on this climb, which is situated in Italy’s midsection. Plus, none of those four finished first atop Blockhaus during the respective Giri they won.

However, there are some peculiarities that make history an opaque predictor. In two of those editions, the climb was the finish of a very short stage, unlike what the peloton will face this year. In 1972, the fourth day of racing was a split stage, with a 48km dash to the top of the climb in the morning and a 210km 4B stage in the afternoon. Ouch. In 2009 they raced just 83km on stage 17, which finished lower on the climb due to snow. In 1968, Blockhaus came in stage 21, well after Merckx had smothered the competition with a lead of nearly five minutes.

The 1984 Giro might be the best analog to 2017. Blockhaus was early in the race on stage 5, a 198km race, so a bit longer than the 149km stage 9 this year. Also akin to this year’s route, 1984 was friendly to a time trialist like Moser, with three individual time trials, including one on the final stage. France’s Laurent Fignon lost 1:28 to Moser on Blockhaus after bonking. At that point, the Italian held the overall lead. Fignon bounced back in stage 20 to take a 1:31 lead, but he was no match for Moser in the final 42km TT, losing 2:24 and the pink jersey.

Since Moser won the overall by 1:03, one could argue that his second-place finish on Blockhaus made the difference, but the dramatic stage win on the final day drew the most accolades. It certainly was the focus of our June 22 race recap. (That, and Moser’s super high-tech “spokeless” wheel.)

Moser’s first and only overall win at the Giro was 1984. Coincidentally, the 1967 stage up Blockhaus was Merckx’s first career grand tour stage win.

What will we see this year? With a tough mountaintop finish capping off six days of racing, it’s likely a GC favorite will crack, as Fignon did in 1984. It might not be a pure climber, like Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin), but Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb), for example, should treat Sunday’s stage with caution.

“It’s a true climb, harder than Etna, shorter, but harder with true gradients. It’s not like Etna where in the wheels you feel OK, it’s a difficult climb, and I think that the bigs have to show themselves on the day,” said Franco Pellizotti, who won the 2009 Blockhaus stage but later had that result stripped due to a doping violation.

“It’s been a mental game so far in this Giro, but I think that Sunday there will be a mind game, too, but it’s a stage where you can attack because it’s a true climb.”

An overall favorite could very well win on Blockhaus, like Moreno Argentin did in 1984, or Merckx in 1967. Perhaps it won’t be Nairo Quintana, as the Movistar rider says he’s still finding his sea legs after few days of early season racing. Such riders as Adam Yates (Orica-Scott) or Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), on the other hand, might be eager to collect a victory and take some valuable time in the GC standings before Tuesday’s formidable time trial.

“OK, the Giro is still long afterwards; the TT is coming up, and so if they attack, I think like always, it’ll come in the last kilometers,” Pellizotti added.

Gregor Brown contributed to this story.