14/05 - Stage 5 - Taranto to Viggiano - 203 km

After four flat stages, it’s now time for the first real climbs of this year’s Giro d’Italia. It’s not the high mountains but it’s enough to drop the pure sprinters.

The route
From the start in Taranto, the peloton rides alongside the coast towards Montalbano Jonico for the intermediate sprint. For most riders, this will be just another town in the Giro. However, for Domenico Pozzovivo this is one of the highlights of the race. It’s Pozzovivo’s hometown and, in order to celebrate this day, big posters of the Italian climber will be hanging alongside the road. It’s still early in the stage and we might see the peloton let Pozzovivo get a small gap to enjoy the cheer from this home crowd to the fullest.

From Montalbano Jonico, the riders continue west. The first category 3 climb of this year’s race, Valico di Serra San Chirico (8 km / avg. 4.2 %), has its top after 138.4 km. A breakaway will most likely be up front at this point. It will be interesting to see if Maarten Tjallingii will once again manage to get involved. From the top of the climb, the following 45 km are more or less flat.

With 20 km to go, the road starts to kick up. The gradients are low, about 4 %, but the final part is a bit steeper. The riders cross the finishing line for the first time with 13 km to go. However, the climb continues for another 900 meters with a steady gradient of 7 %. The following descent is very technical on narrow roads. Hopefully it stays dry. The hairpin corners will stretch out the peloton significantly and a skilled descender may be able to get a solid gap. The view over the landscape is spectacular but, naturally, the riders up front won’t be able to enjoy it.

After the descent, the peloton starts on the final ascent right away. However, the gradients are minimal until the riders pass the 4 km to go-banner. From here, the gradients are steadier around 4-5 %. The pace will be high, which will make it difficult to break away at this point. With about 500 meters to go, the riders reach the steepest part of the climb. The gradients get up to 8 % in this left hand corner. A strong puncheur may be able to jump away. However, the most likely scenario is a sprint finish within a reduced group. The last 100 meters are straight out with an average gradient of 6 %.

The favorites
My personal favorite for this stage is Michael Matthews. He has had his eyes on this stage from the beginning of the race and this finish suits him perfectly. On stage 4, Matthews didn’t take any chances on the wet circuit, making sure a late crash wouldn’t ruin his chances of winning this stage. Some may think that the climbs are too hard for the young Australian, but don’t forget that Bling was amongst the best riders uphill in Paris-Nice this year. I’m sure he won’t have any problems staying near the front. However, it won’t be easy for GreenEdge to control the race all day long. The tricky descent and will most likely split up the peloton. It’s very important to have at least two or three riders left to set the pace for Michael Matthews.

One of the teams who might be interested in helping out GreenEdge is Team Sky. Ben Swift and Michael Matthews have a lot of similarities and despite crashing on stage 4, Swifty should be able to fight for the win today. Edvald Boasson Hagen is another candidate. Still, the way I see it, this kind of finish suits Ben Swift better than the strong Norwegian. In any case, Team Sky has a very good chance of gaining a top result in Viggiano.

Looking past the sprinters, one of the top favorites for today is Diego Ulissi. The final 20 km of this stage looks a bit like a one-day classic and this is where Ulissi excels. He finished off 2013 by winning three races with an uphill finish and he started out this season in the same way in Tour Down Under. The strong Italian won the stage to Stirling and finished second on Willunga Hill after outsprinting Simon Gerrans. Diego Ulissi crashed on stage 2, but didn’t hurt himself as he landed on teammate Matteo Bono. After four days in the rain, the legs are already heavy and it will be interesting to see how Ulissi has come through these first hard days.

The outsiders
Given the fact that I see Michael Matthews and Ben Swift as favorites, Enrico Battaglin is naturally a strong outsider. Like the two others, Battaglin is good on these kind of climbs and very fast on the line. He won the stage to Serra San Bruno in the Giro last year, after a similar climb near the end. Bardiani will most likely try to attack on the final climbs. However, if the Italian wild card team doesn’t get a rider up front, I wouldn’t be surprised if they started to work in the peloton in order to set up Enrico Battaglin for the finish.

Personally, I don’t think the finish is hard enough for Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez to drop his rivals. The part of 8 % with about 500 meters go is his only chance but I expect the pace to be very high at this point. Purito is already 1:30 min after some his main rivals, meaning he has to gain time whenever he can. However, it seems more likely he will try something on Thurday’s stage 6 where the final climb is longer. His teammate Dani Moreno is usually very strong on this kind of finish. In Vuelta España last year, Moreno was free to ride his own chance, winning two stages. Still, I think it’s all for Purito in the Giro. If Katusha, however, decides to let Moreno go for the win, he will be a serious contender.

In case the final kilometer turns out to be too demanding for the fast guys, look to Julian Arredondo. He’s a young Colombian version of Purito, who is also his idol. Despite arriving the night before the race, Arredondo was still right up in the mix in Flèche Wallonne and did very well in Liège-Bastogne-Liegè a few days later as well. Julian Arredondo is aiming big at Giro d’Italia and I’m sure we will get to see him at some point during the race. These climbs are probably not steep enough for him to excel but there are no doubts that Arredondo is in great shape right now.

My super joker today is Simone Ponzi. This kind of finish suits him very well. I don’t think he can outsprint Matthews or Swift, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ponzi near the podium if it ends in a sprint. For other interesting jokers look to Nathan Haas, Oscar Gatto and Fabio Felline.

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