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Last year, the Giro Donne was wrapped up by stage two when Anna van der Breggen stormed up the mountaintop finish to Prato Nevoso to move into the race lead by 1 minute and 26 seconds over her teammate, Ashleigh Moolman Pasio.
Van der Breggen did not relinquish the pink jersey for the rest of the race and her SD Worx team went on to sweep the podium leaving, by all accounts, a somewhat lifeless GC competition.
This year, hopes were high that the overall would be a more open affair with organisers presenting a backloaded parcours that looked set to save the GC fireworks until last. The peloton, however, had other ideas on stage four.
Perhaps brimming with excess enthusiasm after an early rest day on Sunday while the race transitioned from Sardinia to the mainland, three of the biggest GC names in the race took the opportunity to force a gap on the undulating parcours of stage four’s loop around Cesena.
By the time the live TV broadcast had started a dangerous trio comprising Mavi Garcia, Marta Cavalli, and none other than Annemiek van Vleuten had over two and a half minutes advantage over a chasing group containing the likes of Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, Elise Chabbey, Niamh Fisher Black, Amanda Spratt and stage one winner Kristen Faulkner.
With the three working well together the gap extended even further on the rolling roads as the group behind struggled to organise themselves into a chase. Team BikeExchange had the most to lose with Faulkner fourth on GC at 14 seconds down with Elisa Balsamo, Marianne Vos, and Georgia Baker all in the peloton behind but neither Faulkner or her teammate, Amanda Spratt, could get a concerted chase going.
As a result, Garcia, Cavalli, and Van Vleuten plugged away at the front until their gap stood at over three minutes to the chasers who seemed visibly demoralised, the force of the chase completely lost. Cavalli looked rock steady while Van Vleuten displayed her usual marionette-like style — all limbs, all over the place — looking every bit like she was on her limit. But those familiar with the former world champion knew better than to write her off. Garcia, meanwhile, looked to be struggling in the heat but was otherwise composed.
On an uncategorised climb close to the finish line Cavalli cracked, dropping back from the two older riders and starting to bleed time. Garcia and Van Vleuten took turns attacking one another but the former Maglia Rosa winner bettered the Spanish rider and now wears her first pink jersey since she crashed out of this race in 2020.
The only riders who are now capable of prizing that pink jersey away from the Olympic time trial champion are her two breakaway companions. However, despite finishing the stage at the same time Garcia’s performances earlier in the race put her at 25 seconds down on Van Vleuten, while Cavalli sits at 57 seconds. The rest? They will have to settle for minor places. Elisa Longo Borghini, in fourth, is already five minutes in arrears. Behind her, Cavalli’s teammate Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig sits at 5 minutes and 13 seconds.
It is still a far cry from the days where the Dutchwoman would easily ride away solo from the peloton, however the race hasn’t even got into Van Vleuten’s preferred territory of high mountains yet and the maglia rosa is already sitting firmly on her shoulders. Only Cavalli or Garcia can dislodge her from the top spot with Garcia, who has never beaten Van Vleuten, looking like the best bet. Is it a race for second place or is the GC still open?
With another sprint stage on Tuesday we will have to wait until stage six’s mountaintop finish to find out.