From Catania to Villafranca Tirrena: a transfer stage, after yesterday’s climb to Etna. The race will set off from the land of the black lava slopes, hard to the eyesight and to the touch, which occasionally serve as a slide for the lava flows, anticipated by some bangs warning the residents of the area. Often, they don’t make any damage, only smoke and ashes. One needs to know that Etna is a bad-tempered dude, who holds his breath for years and then blows up looking down on everybody, confident in its size: a heavyweight among the European volcanos.
On sunny days, the black stone giant gazes at the horizon, over one hundred kilometres away. And it does it with the diffidence typical of Sicilians, in silence. It is very likely, that this morning, with a suspicious tone, with a tad of intolerance towards the Giro’s parade, he has turned to his younger brothers in Eolie, Stromboli and Vulcano asking in a strong Sicilian accent: «Will they stay here long?». And the answer of its relatives, which are more familiar with the noisy summer tourists coming from all over the world, might have been something like: «Don’t worry mate! Today is the last day. Tomorrow they are off to Calabria». And that’s a pity, as «To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything». Thus spoke Johann Wolfgang Goethe, someone who was quite an expert of “Grand Tours”.
Today, the temperature at the departure is within the usual range: 30°C, with a solar radiation that reminds more of Africa rather than continental Europe. Something capable of melting ice cream in your hands, if you, caught in conversations, don’t hurry up and eat it in time. Many of the big shots can breathe a sigh of relief: few are the fans assaulting them. The most admired ones are the locals: the Nibali brothers, Caruso (who actually was born in Turin but it’s alright anyway) and Visconti. Dumoulin’s fans, who is quite popular down here, are not missing either. Say goodbye to Catania, the peloton approaches the inland. Today, going on a scouting mission, face in the wind, will be relatively easy.
Five of them realise that better than the others: Giovanni Visconti, Nicola Conci, Miguel Florez, Mirco Maestri and Hector Carretero. They take the first dance and break away to venture on the false flats along the valley of the Alcantara river. Their destiny is set. And they are aware. Then, in Francavilla di Sicilia, here comes the only ascent of the day. It doesn’t look scary. It’s 16 kilometres easily doable, 4,5% average gradient. Today the enemy is the sun. There is not a meter of shade, up to the top at 800 meters of altitude, towards Mandrazzi. You drink one water bottle and empty the other one on yourself to remove salt from your face and arms. People is everywhere, along the roadside. Florez and Carretero are trampling, they try to break away and get rid of the experienced Visconti, who knows every single meter of this road. Then comes Conci, and the others, with the chain on the 53-tooth ring, close the gap and they are all together once more.
Again some skirmishes from the third to the fifth kilometre, but with less determination. At the tenth kilometre, Carrettero runs out of energy, he is the heaviest, like the Zaviano river below on the valley floor, dry with no water. He watches his breakaway mates speed up on the wide hairpins, higher and higher, while, from down below, in the distance the peloton moves forward inexorably. Finally trees, shade and 10°C less. Florez tries again. Visconti closes the gap. Maestri e Conci follow right behind. They are struggling and catch up at 500 metres from the top. At 150 meters from the GPM the Parlemitan takes action and conquers the peak. All around the island his fans are raving. Long descent towards the valley. Wind jackets and power gels for everybody and someone takes his chances to catch a cannolo. The race passes through Novara di Sicilia, Barcellona Pozzo di Gotto, Milazzo. The peloton grinds the tarmac with a regular pace and catches up second after second. It’s the usual sacrificial rite of breakaways. Atrocious, ferocious, expected.
It takes place at minus 20 kilometres. The group is now compact, and the sprinters’ teams take the lead on and shuffle the cards. The pace rises gradually. No one is allowed to escape anymore, provided anyone actually wanted to. The race is heading to Villafranca Tirrena: 10,000 inhabitants under normal circumstances, today ten times as much. A crowd awaiting the final sprint. And now, at 5pm of this hot afternoon, the wait is almost over. From minus 5 to minus 3 kilometres from the finish the road descends slightly: the group is now like a human wedge cutting through the air at a supersonic speed. They go past a dangerous turn with no harm. Like the streams of a river in flood, the trains of Jumbo Visma (for Groenewegen e Teunissen), NTT (for Nizzolo), Bora (for Ackermann) alternate each other at the top of the race. One thousand metres from the finish, with only one last dangerous turn: 90 degree to the left to get onto the promenade along the seafront. Viviani’s Cofidis take the lead, tailgated by Jakobsen’s Deucenick QuickStep and Caleb Ewan’s Lotto Soudal. But it’s a gamble. The first Cofidis riders are too fast, they are squeezing too much. Hansen and Sabatini fall to the ground. All strategies are gone now.
Now it’s just a shoot-out. Everyone against everyone. On their own. Now it’s legs that matter. Jakobsen has something more than the others and leaves Teunissen behind by few hundredths of a second. Then Viviani in the third place after a great comeback: power legs but little luck. The reminder of the peloton parades by. The general classification leaders are all safe. Here comes the awards ritual: Vincenzo Nibali, the local hero, is granted the honour to anticipate all the others on stage. He has been almost forced to step up on it: like a rockstar. They ask him to say something to his people, to his Sicily. And so he goes: «The harmonious unity of the sky with the sea and the sea with the land ... who saw them only once, he owns them for life». Well, to be honest, his words are not exactly like these. Yet, it’s good to think that the one “who was quite an expert of grand tours” has prompted Vincenzo with the meaning of his declaration. Rounds of applause.
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 Riccardo Guasco.