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29/05 - Stage 19 - Gravellona Toce to Cervinia - 236 km

The route
Today’s stage is probably the hardest stage of the race, which says a lot given how difficult this year’s Giro d’Italia has been. 236 km await the riders; the last 85 of these include three very tough category 1 climbs. With over 100 KOM points up for grabs, this the most important stage left for the riders targeting the blue jersey.

Starting out in Gravellona Toce, the first 150 km won’t challenge the riders much. A strong breakaway will be able to gain a significant gap on the peloton on this first part of the stage. Soon after the last intermediate sprint in Fenis, the riders will start on the first big struggle of the day.

Saint-Barthélemy is 16.5 km long and has an average gradient of 6.7 %. The steepest part comes right at the beginning with gradients of up to 13 %. Upon reaching the top, 3 km of flat terrain follow before the descent starts. In Chambave, the road starts to rise once again. Col de Saint-Pantaleón is a very steady climb with gradients around 7.5 %. The steepest part of 12 % comes 4 km from the top. After a 10 km long descent, the riders reach Antey-St. André. Officially, this is where the final climb of the day begins.

The finish
The first 4 km of the Cervinia climb aren’t very steep with gradients of just around 2-4 %. After Buisson however, the following 2 km kick up with 7.2 %. A short part of false flat then comes before the riders start on another steep section with maximum gradients of 12 %. These first 10 km of the ascent are very much like a staircase. This changes in Valtournenche, though. From here, the next 6 km are uphill with a steady average gradient of 6.6 %. With about 2 km to go, the climb evens out. The last part only kicks up with 1-2 %.

On paper, 19.5 km of just 5 % may not sound like much. However, as you can see, the actual uphill sections are more like 6.5-7 %, making it a very difficult climb. Especially after so many kilometers in the saddle and this late in a very hard race. If you have a bad day today, your GC dreams will be over.

The favorites
Alberto Contador launched a big attack on Monte Ologno on stage 18, taking advantage of Mikel Landa’s misfortune. Contador is now over five minutes in front of the Basque climber in the GC. Without any incidents, it will be impossible to rip the pink jersey off his shoulders before Milano. Tinkoff-Saxo hasn’t won a stage yet, though. A communication mix-up in the opening team time trial time cost them the win and since then, Contador hasn’t been able to beat Landa on the climbs. So far, Contador has claimed that winning a stage wasn’t important. Only the overall win counts. Now, with maglia rosa secured, he should try to go for the win on Cervinia.

Mikel Landa is probably the only rider able to follow Contador on the climbs. However, it’s important to remember that the last 2 km are more or less flat today. Neither Contador nor Landa is fast in a sprint. Contador is great against the clock, though. If he attacks and gets just a small gap on the flat part, I don't think Landa will be able to catch him. Winning this stage wearing maglia rosa would be a huge win for both Alberto Contador and Tinkoff-Saxo. I doubt they will let an early breakaway get as big of a gap as they did on stage 18.

Another very serious contender today is Steven Kruijswijk. The Dutchman came to the Giro with big GC ambitions, hoping for top5 overall. Unfortunately, the Lotto-Jumbo captain had a very bad start to the race. He didn’t give up, though. Thanks to a truly remarkable determination, Kruijswijk kept fighting and right now, he seems to be one of the best climbers in the race. He’s 8th overall, three minutes from top5. Kruijswijk is wearing the blue mountain jersey and naturally, he would like to keep this jersey all the way to Milano. It won’t be easy for Steven Kruijswijk to drop Contador and Landa but given his recent performances, it would be a mistake to underestimate him.

The outsiders
In 2012, Ryder Hesjedal took a big step towards winning the Giro d’Italia when he attacked on the last 3 km of Cervinia. Purito Rodriguez didn’t see him as a serious candidate and let him sail away. Something I’m sure the Spaniard still regrets. Hesjedal had a bad start to this year’s Giro but he has been very strong in the last week. He was the only rider able to join Contador on Monte Ologno and today’s final climb obviously suits him. Earlier in this race, Hesjedal complained about Tinkoff-Saxo not letting the breaks get a chance to fight for the win. On stage 18, he collaborated well with Contador, keeping Landa and co. at bay. After that performance, Contador may be more willing to let the Canadian climber get away. He’s 13:01 min down in the GC and no threat for the pink jersey. If Hesjedal attacks on Col de Saint-Pantaleón, he might be able to get a gap and pull off a big win today. If he starts on Cervinia in the group of the favorites, however, I can’t see him drop Contador and Landa.

Fabio Aru hasn’t been good the last couple of mountain stages. He has put up an impressive fight to hold on to his podium place but he may lose it today. Yuri Trofimov and Andrey Amador will throw everything they have got at the young Italian to make him crack. Especially Amador has very good memories from this climb. He won on Cervinia three years ago after the morning break made it all the way. It will be very difficult for him to win again today but he might end the day with a spot on the overall podium.

In case an early breakaway succeeds like in 2012, look to strong climbers out of the GC like Igor Antón, Franco Pellizotti, Edoardo Zardini, Darwin Atapuma and of course Beñat Intxausti and Carlos Betancur who are fighting for the blue jersey. Betancur has been getting stronger and stronger every day in this Giro. He says he’s close to his outstanding 2013-condition. Winning the mountain jersey means a lot to a Colombian climber. You can be sure that Betancur will do whatever he can do fight for the 112 KOM points, which today’s stage offers. If it’s not one of the top favorites who wins this stage, I think it will be Carlos Betancur.

For live coverage of the stage, go to steephill.tv.

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