By a twist of fate, riders in the 95th Giro d’Italia and the 6th Amgen Tour of California will both tackle mountaintop stage finishes this Saturday. In each case it will be the first chance (at the Giro) and last chance (in California) for the climbers to stamp their personalities on the race. And not before time, you’re probably thinking.
In the thirteen stages and 2,174 kilometers raced so far at the Giro, the only decisive spells of climbing came on the final uphill kilometer to stage 7 at Rocca di Cambio (where Italians Paolo Tiralongo and Michele Scarponi battled for the stage win ahead of Luxembourger Fränk Schleck); on a 2-kilometer stretch of the Colle Molella just before the stage 8 finish at Lago Laceno (where Italian climber Domenico Pozzovivo managed to gain half a minute on all the other race favorites); and on the short, but spectacular ascent on narrow, stone-paved streets to the finish at Assisi on stage 10 (where current race leader Joaquim Rodriguez of Spain took a predicted stage win ahead of the unpredicted Pole Bartosz Huzarski and Italian national champion Giovanni Visconti).
In total, that’s about 4 kilometers of truly intense climbing in two weeks. In the last two hours of this Saturday’s stage 14, the riders face 10 times that amount of uphill work—first over the 22-kilometer Col de Joux, immediately followed by the equally long, and higher climb to Cervinia at the foot of the Matterhorn. That finish is at 6,564 feet elevation (2,001 meters), which is just about the same height as Mount Baldy, where stage 7 of the California race ends.
Before reaching that lofty peak, the Amgen Tour has seen four road stages that all ended in field sprints won by Peter Sagan, along with Thursday’s time trial at Bakersfield that propelled Dave Zabriskie, Tejay Van Garderen and Robert Gesink to the top of the overall standings, and Friday’s mountainous slog up to Big Bear Lake (but without a summit finish). Of the three protagonists, Garmin-Barracuda’s Zabriskie is a time trialist who’s limited in the high mountains; BMC Racing’s Van Garderen calls himself “a time trialer who can hang with the climbers”; and Rabobank’s Gesink says, “I’m a pure climber who can do a good time trial when I’m on top form.”
Given those parameters, it’s clear that, with the time trial behind them, Gesink (who is on top form) has the strongest chance of coming out on top at Mount Baldy—especially because he has four strong teammates for the climbs in Laurens Ten Dam, Paul Martens, Luis Leon Sanchez and Bram Tankink. Two of Van Garderen’s best teammates, Steve Cummings and Steve Morabito, both crashed out earlier in the week, leaving veteran George Hincapie as his only true ally in the steeper climbs. And Zabriskie, though he’s likely to start Saturday’s stage in the golden jersey, will most likely end up riding for his climber teammates Tom Danielson and Andrew Talansky—who were respectively 28 seconds and nine seconds behind Gesink after the time trial.
Over in Italy, the Cervinia climb is the first mountaintop finish in a final week that features four more demanding mountain stages, so the protagonists will more likely feel each other out rather than go for the kill. However, when this climb was last used in 1997, also on the Saturday a week before the finish, the stage was won solo by eventual Giro winner Ivan Gotti.
One factor that could cause this year’s Cervinia stage to be as decisive as the one 15 years ago is the weather: It was snowing there Friday, while Saturday’s forecast includes temperatures in the mid-30s Fahrenheit and more snow showers. If that’s the case, current Giro leader Rodriguez of Katusha, who detests cold weather, and the equally skinny Pozzovivo of Colnago, will suffer badly—perhaps leaving the door open to the hardier riders such as Hesjedal of Garmin, Roman Kreuziger of Astana, Ivan Basso of Liquigas-Cannondale, Scarponi of Lampre-ISD, Schleck of RadioShack-Nissan-Trek and John Gadret of Ag2r-La Mondiale.
There’ll be no sign of snow on Mount Baldy, where the temperature will be closer to 30 degrees Celsius on Saturday afternoon. And this stage will definitely be the California tour’s final showdown. Or as Van Garderen said Thursday evening in Bakersfield: “The real shit’s going down on Baldy!”
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