Orion stands up in the sky between the Taurus and the Gemini. Though not part of the Zodiac belt, today the Sun is in Orion, the giant hunter of Greek and Latin Myth. Today we don’t miss a thing: 4 cols, 10 valleys; 5400 metres of climbing, 85 hairpins uphill and 54 going down, 21 tunnels; 207 km of tarmac and 2 of gravel, to finish the stage off; 1 Cima Coppi (the highest KOM of the Giro d’Italia; you never have two, anyhow) and 1 National Park. This stage, today, is not for the faint hearted.
Lights off and away they go from Pinzolo, val Rendena. A blinker and it’s already Madonna di Campiglio. No time to think about what happened and what could have been, otherwise or in spite of it. Campo Carlo Magno is already incumbent. Ciccone kicks off with Lopez and Chaves. Other riders jump across: Mäder to defend and attack, Carapaz in search of revenge, Visconti on a roll from yesterday’s win. Sprinters go with them, a strange leading pack at the front, taking an initial advantage lest they eventually run out of time.
Val di Sole, val di Non, the breakaway is kept on short leach. Pozzovivo has a man out at the front, and so Nibali and Fuglsang. They are protected, at least for the stage win. Betancur and Evenepoel are not. They have to choose between the potential massacre of an immediate reaction and an early surrender. They send their team mates to fight at the front, supported by the pink jersey team.
Now heading to Castrin, aka Hofmahdjoch, because it’s already Sudtirol on both sides of it. It’s not a border, it’s not a proper col, a road tunnel bypasses the mountain meadows it is named from. Under Hofmadjoch Lopez is first, followed by the other climbers, only Mäder on their wheel. Betancur attacks from behind. Pello Bilbao tries to resist and hide an already deep crisis. No way, he switches to saving the day, find protection in the gruppetto. Betancur revs up, the peloton stretches and only the big names can resist with him. When the road starts going down, he is already virtually in pink. All of a sudden, as the leaders are looking out for each other, Evenepoel by surprise attacks in the tunnel and flies down towards val d’Ultimo.
They say hairpins and cyclists are best friends. Possibly they are, but only when climbing. When you descend hairpins are different beasts. They break your flow, make you brake and accelerate hard, strain your concentration with the need for perfect lines. Today’s is a 139 hairpins stage: 54 of these 139 are downhill. Only 2 of these 54 are on this descent. Of these 2, the first is enough. Betancur slides. Fuglsang is down with him, among broken carbon and ripped-off-the-rims rubber. His dream is over, here. Nibali and Caruso bail out between the stone of a wall and the steel of the guardrail, on a small road through the meadows. It heads to a maso (typical Sudtirol farm), but there’s no need to go all the way along it. They make u-turn and are back to tarmac, just as Betancur jumps on his bike again. Pozzovivo is unaffected, on a free solo now, he picks up Evenepoel and closes the gap with the men at the front as they pass through San Pancrazio. For the big names it’s the beginning of a hard pursuit. Ciccone and Chaves have to stop and help their leaders. No need to stop Lopez, anymore.
Val d’Adige, val Venosta. It’s relatively easy to fight a headwind for a group of riders. The Problem is that every lateral valley brings crosswinds, and a blow at the flank. You can’t defend in line. Echelons form immediately, but the road is longer than larger. Shelter for a few. At the front, NTT’s boys with Carapaz, Evenepoel and Lopez who prefer to work with them than an uncertain fate. Behind, conflicts of interest and scattered qualities. With every gust of wind the peloton undergoes natural selection. Nibali, Caruso and Dumoulin, one minute away. Yates and Betancur, two. The others are lost.
Prato allo Stelvio, they make a sharp turn and start following the stream embedded in the valley. In Trafoi you can finally see mount Ortles and its glaciers. Still 48 hairpins to go, and they are not particular friendly. Interesting gradients, they intoxicate you with distance and altitude. Betancur attacks three times. Yates holds on twice. The third he kicks back and goes alone. Betancur looks down, makes up his mind. He is catching Caruso and Dumoulin, anyhow. It may be enough to keep the pink jersey at the end of the day, possibly. Hairpin 36, at the front Pozzovivo and Mäder are climbing at steady pace, dictated by their lactate levels. Evenepoel is still there, holding on, with Lopez and Carapaz, ready to attack. Nibali and Yates are chasing them, second after second. Betancur is more and more distant, at his threshold. Radiocorsa (race radio service) informs: the white jersey is turning to pink. Altitude 2000 m, you finally see the col, 24 hairpins distant. A mirage between snowy flanks, deceiving for the eye, deceptive for the mind. Mäder dreams the impossible, attacks. One straight, one hairpin, he tries to speed up, but the lights go out. Pozzovivo turns back, he can’t believe that attack occurred, treason and suicide. Mäder looks smaller and smaller, stranded. Nibali and Yates, become bigger and bigger. They will catch Pozzovivo soon but the pink jersey is on his shoulders now. Altitude 2500 m, thin air to breathe, 12 hairpins to cross the col. The first six are not enough for Lopez and Carapaz to go alone, truce. The ninth is enough for Eveneopel, Cima Coppi belongs to the young King (Re in Italian).
Heading downhill now, it’s soon Quarta Cantoniera. Had they a mountain bike, they could go straight towards Giogo di Santa Maria, take the footpath that makes a gentle arc and glides on Laghi di Cancano. It’s only a dream, the tarmac ribbon makes a sharp turn and points down towards Bormio. It’s possibly Carapaz’s dream, as he goes straight without any other possible explanation, and takes Pozzovivo with him. Now Nibali is virtually in pink and leads the attacking group in the long descent, it’s impossible to catch them. Hopeless hunters.
Bagni vecchi and Bagni nuovi (Old and New thermal baths), dreaming of regenerating treatments. Another time. In a split second they attack the Scale di Fraele, 17 hairpins as close as steps of a stair. Lopez and Yates for the stage win, on prowl for the decisive attack. Nibali and Evenepoel for the General Classification, high pace from the bottom. Four kilometers, Evenepoel is hurting but his mind is still fresh, he will eventually wear the white jersey. Three hairpins, Yates attacks and Lopez reacts. Two tunnels, the other way round. One turn, they clear the col between the Torri (Towers of Fraele). For Nibali is already a win, no more tarmac, no need to fight further. On the gravel it’s between Yates, as logical as a scientist, and Lopez, as brilliant as an artist. Today, after 209 km and 5400 metres of climbing, 4 cols and 10 valleys, 139 hairpins and 21 tunnels, the Laghi di Cancano, in the Stelvio National Park, are as beautiful as a Michelangelo (Miguel Angel).
This jersey will be signed by the stage winner and auctioned for charity at the end of the Senzagiro. Design curated by Fergus Niland, Creative Director of Santini Cycling Wear, based on a design by the illustrator Gianluca Folì.