It sets out from the Aragonese castle in Castrovillari, and arrives at the Roman columns of Brindisi. Sorry for the rest but this is Italy and this is the Giro. It starts with a descent, and after 200 flat kilometres it reaches Brindisi. We’re still only a third of the way round, but the previous stage was hard. Mileto to Camigliatello Silano, 223 kilometres with a long final climb of the Valico di Montescuro, was a test for climbers and sprinters alike. Today’s stage is therefore about recovery, and at times quite dull. And yet… And yet – it goes without saying - the gruppo sets off at full gas. With the first 30 kilometres downhill, a crash would be unthinkable, but the teams are balls out to get their leaders to the front. The road begins with a series of gentle bends, and then becomes smoother, faster. Careful of the hairpins, the two corners preceding the long straight. Then a stolen glance at the sea on the horizon, head down and work. Result – and average speed of 55kmh.
The forecast says the wind will come up from the coast. It won’t be much of a help, the breeze, but everyone follows their sports directors’ orders to “keep left and stay covered”. They all say the same thing, but they need only ask the fishermen, who always know where the wind is coming from. For the opening 20 kilometres it’s a row – seemingly infinite – of riders strung out on the left-hand side. Nobody budges so much as a millimetre into the wind, but rather they just sit and suffer. They sit and they suffer, and all the while they’re asking themselves, “Who is that’s driving this thing so hard?” It’s Maestri. He’s still angry about the time trial in Budapest, and he wants the break to go at whatever cost.
At Montegiordano Marina, Fausto Masnada breaks free. Incensed, the Frenchmen of AG2R La Mondiale launch Andrea Vendrame and Larry Warbasse in furious pursuit. For the next 20 kilometres this plays itself out and then, at Marina di Ginosa, Giovanni Visconti and Marco Frapporti bridge across. Ten minutes later Diego Ulissi and Carl Frederik Hagen join them, and by mid-distance a group of 15 forms. Cofidis, Trek and Ineos are watcheful, determined to protect their respective captains Viviani, Nibali and Froome. A “recovery stage”, we told ourselves... And so the race finally settles, the peloton at ten minutes. Ahead we see Maestri, Masnada, two from Vini Zabù KTM. Visconti and Frapporti swapping off, Vendrame and Dowsett squabbling, the AG2R boys working. The break has gone, and it’s nice and solid. It’s the pair from Vini Zabù who break the monotony. Headed into the final kilometres they take alternate ten-second pulls, before Frapporti attacks and Visconti, blocking, protects him. He stays on the front but doesn’t pull, but rather slows and allows the gap to open. The break stalls, they start attacking one another without success, and Frapporti gains time on them if not the peloton.
At Latiano, 25 kilometres from the finish, Frapporti has three minutes on the break and four on the bunch. Now is the moment for the sprinters’ teams. Cofidis, hitherto united around Viviani, follow Deceuninck-Quick-Step. They’re pinning their hopes on Iljo Keisse given that Jakobsen, their sprinter, has missed out with an inopportune puncture. The tension mounts, and Ineos are far from happy. They’re attempting to keep Froome out of trouble, while Trek-Segafredo protect Nibali. On the lightning-fast carriageway towards Brindisi, four teams are pulling. Cofidis are on the front, and no there’s no time for tactics or calculations as regards the wind. This is the business end of the race, and they’re at 50kmh. Five kilometres out they swallow the chase group and then Frapporti, exhausted from his solitary effort, is absorbed at three. Here the time is neutralized as Trek and Ineos, satisfied that their work for Nibali and Froome is done, spin off.
Now Cofidis break apart. Only Consonni remains with Viviani, but the other trains start to derail as well. At close quarters, Iljo Keisse seems to be in a trance. A thoroughbred wearing blinkers, his gaze is fixed on the last wheel of his train, his headphones naught but an annoyance. We’re under a kilometre now, and from the team cars the sports directors hurl encouragement, exhortations, imprecations. Davide Bramati of Deceuninck is the loudest of them all. He’s living it, Bramati; shouting, shouting, shouting at Keisse. Eventually the taciturn, introverted man of Gent can stand it no longer. He tears out his earpiece, and Bramati’s “Iljo, attack earlyyyyyy” remains stuck in his throat. In point of fact it’s Consonni who goes and, though Iljo tries to jump on his wheel, Viviani is glued to it. And this is no mere question of space; we all that Viviani is capable, in the final 200 metres, of 65kmh and 800 watts. The finish is near and, though Elia went from a long way out, he’s unstoppable. There’s no time to raise the hands in celebration, but no matter. First Viviani, second Keisse, then Nizzolo, Consonni, Cavendish and the rest. A recovery stage, a peaceful stage, at times quite dull. And yet.
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 Nadia Guidi.