31/05 - Stage 20 - Maniago to Monte Zoncolan - 167 km

Today, the general classification will be settled. Much will have to go against Nairo Quintana for him not to win this Giro d’Italia. However, the order of the remaining podium places is still unknown.

The route
This is the last day in the mountains. I doubt a breakaway will make it this time, but many will give it a good try anyway. The first 90 km are more or less flat - especially compared to the final part of the stage.  Julian Arredondo has already secured the blue KOM jersey, he just have to finish the race now. This means guys like Arredondo, Dario Cataldo and Tim Wellens no longer have to be involved in the morning breakaway. However, today it’s all about who still has something left in the legs.

One competition, which is far from over, is the fight for the red jersey. Nacer Bouhanni is just 26 points in front of Giacomo Nizzolo. The intermediate sprint is placed before the first climb, meaning the sprinters will have a good chance to go for important points. There are 8, 4 and 1 points up for grabs here. This fight can turn out to be vital for the breakaway’s chances of success. In case either Nizzolo or Bouhanni is up front and the other one isn’t, we can expect their team to start chasing down the break.

After 92 km in the saddle, the first big climb of the day begins. Passo del Pura is 11.25 km long and has an average gradient of 7.7 %. The first couple of kilometers aren’t very steep, but the final 7 km go up with more than 9 %. This being the last chance to move up in the GC, we might see some of the favorites put their team to the front and set a high pace already on Passo del Pura. At least to make sure the break doesn’t get too much of a gap. Winning on Monte Zoncolan is something every climber wants to achieve. I doubt the strong GC riders will let a breakaway make it today.

From the top of Passo del Pura, there are only about 10 km until the riders start climbing again. Sella di Razzo is a bit of a staircase climb. The first 2 km are basically flat. Then, it kicks up with over 8 % for about 3 km. After a very short descent, the gradients are steady at 5 % before the riders reach a part of a false flat. The final 4 km of Sella di Razzo have an average gradient of more than 9 %. Fabio Aru and Rigoberto Uran are fighting for 2nd place overall. Recently, Aru has seemed to be the stronger one of the two. We might see Astana hit the front on this steep part, trying to isolate Uran. However, many will be able to rejoin the group on the 30 km descent before the final struggle of this year’s Giro d’Italia.

Monte Zoncolan was first used in 2003 with Gilberto Simoni as the winner. For many, especially the Italians, the most memorable fight that day was between Stefano Garzelli and Marco Pantani. The two good friends and former team mates - looking almost identical - were struggling to catch Simoni and just to keep their bikes moving forward. You can re-watch the stage by clicking here. The climb itself is 10 km long and has an extreme average gradient of 12 %. After a light start of 9 %, the following 6 km kick up with nearly 15 %. The time differences won’t be very big among the top favorites but if you are having a bad day and unable to keep a steady rhythm, it’s a whole other story. The maximum gradients of 22 % come just as the riders go under la flamme rouge. After this, the gradients drop to around 6 % before the 400 meters kick up with over 10 %. For many, the climb will feel like it never ends.

The favorite
Naturally, the best climber in the race is the top favorite for this stage. After his reconnaissance of Monte Zoncolan, Nairo Quintana had the following comment: “This is the hardest climb I’ve ever tried. It’s definitely the stage I like the most in this year’s Giro”. Words of a true climber. However, it’s not just because of his excellent climbing skills that I see Quintana as the top favorite. It’s a matter of pride. Many are still talking about the Stelvio descent and how Quintana won the pink jersey. He distanced everybody on the final climb that day, but peoplestill put an asterisk next to his win.

Fabio Aru was one of the riders taking it easy on the descent, when Quintana attacked. The young Italian came close to beating the Colombian in Friday’s time trial. Actually, Aru was 6 seconds faster than Quintana with 2 km to go. Had Aru won that stage, people would be talking about the Stelvio descent again. I’m sure Quintana was thinking about this and went extra hard on the final kilometers, simply out of pride, to show that he indeed is the best climber in this race. Quintana took back no less than 23 seconds on Aru within the final two kilometers.

The time trial win proved Nairo Quintana’s status as number one. However, it’s not the same thing winning a time trial as winning a regular stage. Vincenzo Nibali is a good example. Last year, he was riding in Maglia Rosa but without a stage win with just three days left of the race. This clearly didn’t sit well with the proud Italian. First he won the uphill time trial and the day after - in horrible weather - he drop everybody from his wheel and soloed away to take a beautiful win on Tre Cime de Lavaredo. I’m confident Nairo Quintana will do the same thing and erase that asterisk for good. To help him do this, Quintana can count on excellent help from Jonathan Castroviejo and Igor Antón. The Basque climber is the most recent winner on Monte Zoncolan. In 2011, he won in front of Alberto Contador. Friday, Quintana’s family flew in from Colombia to cheer for him. He probably doesn’t need any extra motivation, but if so, this should do the trick. Personally, I would be surprised not to see Nairo Quintana win on Monte Zoncolan Saturday afternoon.

The outsiders
So far, I’ve named Domenico Pozzovivo as the second best climber in this race. I think it’s time to change this statement. After suffering from bronchitis, Pozzovivo has faded a bit. Now, the second best climber in the Giro d’Italia is clearly Fabio Aru. The Italian has been the only rider able to take time on Nairo Quintana in the mountains. The first time, when he won on Montecampione, Quintana was sick. On Thursday, the stage win was out of reach when Aru attacked, and Quintana didn’t seem interested in following him. This won’t be the case this time. I don’t think Fabio Aru will drop Nairo Quintana and win the stage, but I do think he will drop Rigoberto Uran and move very close to 2nd place overall.

Another very interesting rider for this stage is Fabio Duarte. Before the race started, Duarte picked out a couple of stages, which he would like to win. So far, he has done very well in these stages but under completely different circumstances. On Montecampione he stayed in the peloton, following the GC riders, but had to settle for second behind an outstanding Fabio Aru. On Rifugio Panarotta, Duarte went in the early break and finished second after his Colombian compatriot Julian Arredondo.  The last stage he picked out is this one. Since I don’t give the early breakaway many chances of succeeding, I think Fabio Duarte will stay with the top favorites in the peloton. I can’t really see him dropping neither Quintana nor Aru on Monte Zoncolan, but I’m sure he won’t hesitate if he sees an opening. In any case, the chances of a third Colombian stage win in a row are very very good.

Pierre Rolland will most likely try to attack at some point on Monte Zoncolan. Anything else would be a huge surprise. However, to me, he’s not strong enough to distance the likes of Quintana and Aru. Rolland often attacks way too early and ends up losing time. The Frenchman will probably make top5 on the stage, but if Quintana really wants to win this one, Rolland has nothing to do.

For other outsiders, look to riders like Edoardo Zardini, Sebastian Henao, Riccardo Zoidl, Winner Anacona and Jarlinson Pantano. Especially the young Henao seems very strong right now. I wouldn’t be surprised if we had at least four Colombian in the Top10 on Monte Zoncolan.

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