29/05 - Stage 18 - Belluno - Rif. Panarotta (Valsugana) - 171 km

As expected, the breakaway made it all the way on stage 17. Today is the first of three hard days in the mountains. It won’t be a surprise if the winner comes from an early break once again.

The route
Starting out in Belluno, the first 55 km are more or less uphill. This is most likely the last chance for a breakaway to succeed and many will want to be involved in the action. A light tail wind will make for a very fast start. The break probably won’t get clear until the riders reach the steep gradients on Passo San Pellegrino. This category 1 climb is 18.5 km long and has an average gradient of 6.2 %. The last 4 km are the steepest with parts of 15 %. The riders still in contention for the KOM jersey will be very eager to get be in front.

From the top of San Pellegrino, there are still about 55 km until the riders start climbing again. The breakaway should be able to get a solid gap on the peloton on this long stretch. Upon reaching Sover, the road starts to kick up. This climb isn’t categorized, but will the following Passo del Redebus most certainly is. It’s only a category 2 climb but the 4.6 km towards the top have an average gradient of 9.5 %. It’s very steep at the beginning. Some of the GC riders might be tempted to test their legs in order to tire out their rivals. However, from the top, there are still over 30 km to the beginning of the final climb of the day. Meaning the favorites will most likely regroup and reach Rifugio Panarotta together.

Rifugio Panarotta is a very tough climb. However, it doesn’t have the same kind of steep ramps as we saw on Val Martello the other day. The 16.8 km towards the top have a steady average gradient of 8.5 %. Naturally, you need to be a excellent climber to win this stage. Still, the riders who prefer a constant pace will have a better chance today than on Val Martello.

The candidates
Movistar and Nairo Quintana basically have this race in the bag right now. If he avoids any incidents, I can’t see him lose this one. Quintana is the best climber in the race and the other GC riders can’t drop him uphill. They might be able to isolate him, but this stage doesn’t really favor such a tactic. The long flat parts will give the Movistar riders a chance to rejoin the front group before the final climb. Leading the race with more than one minute, Nairo Quintana doesn’t need to win this stage. Therefore, I think a breakaway will have a good chance today.

Like most of the riders, Julian Arredondo really suffered in the cold on Tuesday’s queen stage. He was second over Gavia but this was also the last we saw of him that day. Going into this stage, Arredondo is leading the KOM competition with 95 points. However, the fight is far from over. There are 78 points up for grabs today, meaning that Arredondo has to be involved in the break on San Pellegrino. If so, the pint-sized Colombian will have a good chance of winning the stage.  

Arredondo has to pay close attention to his Colombian compatriots. Robinson Chalapud and Jarlinson Pantano are still in the mix for the blue KOM jersey. Both did very well on stage 16 and I would expect at least one of them to get into the breakaway. A stage win is still the main goal for Team Colombia but for a country of climbers, the KOM jersey in the Giro d’Italia will be of huge importance. The Colombian Sports Minister, Andres Botero, has joined the team for the remaining stages of the Giro. Maybe Botero’s presence will give the riders the last bit of luck they have been missing so far.  

At this point in the race, it’s all about who has something left in the legs. Many had an easy day in the saddle on stage 17, trying to recover as much as possible. This being the last chance for a breakaway, many will be eager to attack. It’s hard to pick any real favorites but strong climbers out of the GC like Fabio Duarte, Dani Moreno, Alexandre Geniez, Edoardo Zardin, Andre Cardoso and Winner Anacona are on the top of my list. Not to forget young Sebastian Henao who lived up to my expectations and did an outstanding job on Val Martello. Henao can either win from an early break or after attacking the GC riders on the final climb. He’s not a threat to the general classification and I doubt Quintana and Uran will chase down their fellow countryman. There are so many strong Colombian candidates today that it will be a surprise not to see one of them fighting for the win.

The other scenario
With Nairo Quintana in the pink jersey, already with a stage win in the bag, many of the GC riders may hope that the Colombian won’t give everything to win this stage. Meaning if they can stay close to Quintana uphill, they may be able to take the win if he’s only interested in keeping Maglia Rosa. Therefore, we might see the teams of the GC riders starting to chase down the breakaway early in the stage.

Less than 1 minute is separating Cadel Evans (3rd) and Ryder Hesjedal (9th) in the general classification. The fight for the podium will be furious during these last three days in the mountains. On paper, this climb looks very good for Rafal Majka. The young Pole likes a steady pace on the climbs. In Michael Rogers, Majka has a super domestique to set the pace, even when they are only 15 riders left in the group. Before today, Rafal Majka is only 7 seconds off the podium. With Quintana leading the race, the white jersey isn’t an option for Tinkoff-Saxo anymore. This means only a place on the podium counts. Nobody wants to dig too deep before the time trial but they can’t afford to miss an opportunity to gain time either.

Ryder Hesjedal put on a heroic performance on Val Martello. However, the final steep gradients proved to be too much for the Canadian, especially up against a top-motivated Quintana. Rifugio Panarotta suits Hesjedal perfectly. The steady gradients and lack of changes of rhythm really favor him. If Hesjedal is as strong today as he was on Val Martello, he might take the win and move even closer to the podium.

Except for Nairo Quintana, the rest of the podium candidates all seem to be very equal. Wilco Kelderman keeps on impressing while Rigoberto Uran hasn’t looked super the last couple of days. It will be very interesting to see how he will bounce back mentally after losing the pink jersey. Domenico Pozzovivo likes it as steep as possible. A steady pace is usually not really his thing. However, at 100 % the Italian is the best climber in the race after Nairo Quintana. He’s only 28 seconds behind Evans in the GC. If Pozzovivo completely over his bronchitis, I would expect him to attack on the last 2 km, getting as a good a position before the time trial as possible.

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