Guns blazing: Two more shots to win the Giro

There is one day of climbing left at the Giro: Saturday’s stage 20, featuring the brutal Monte Zoncolan. Will Quintana finish in pink?

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LEVICO TERME, Italy (VN) — After the heated words of the past two days in the post-Stelvio descent polemic, it’s time for legs to do the talking at the Giro d’Italia.

Up until now, this has been a Giro marked by an attack over the top of the Stelvio that some say never should have happened. But the next two days have a far greater chance of shaping the podium than those snowy moments on the Stelvio. There are two more chances to win or lose this Giro: Friday’s stage 19 uphill time trial, and Saturday’s march up the brooding and steep Monte Zoncolan.

This isn’t any ordinary time trial, either; it’s a battle against a clock and a mountain, in great Giro fashion. The 26.8-kilometer test is a parcours fit for a bird, as it climbs up Cima Grappa. There are 7.5 kilometers of flat roads before the climb begins in earnest, and it’s a monster. Riders will test themselves deeply for the next 19 kilometers, climbing 4,600 feet all alone.

Normal road stages — normal is a relative term in pro cycling, of course — see small gaps of 10 seconds open up on similar climbs. A time trial can drive a deep wedge between riders, as the pace isn’t reactionary but rather one of intent and absolute physical control.

The current maglia rosa is a good bet to sweep even more poker chips off the GC table. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) is one of the sport’s most gifted climbers, and he’s going stronger and stronger as this Giro wears on. He took time on the controversial Stelvio stage, but if he takes big time up Cima Grappa, there won’t be much to chirp about, save second and third places.

“Nothing is certain. What I know is that my physical sensations are getting better every day. And my illness is now past. I think I can put in a good time trial tomorrow, and continue with the maglia rosa without losing time,” Quintana (Movistar) said. “There’s a very big altitude gain. I think it suits my characteristics. I hope to ride well tomorrow. I’m in good health.”

Former race leader, and Colombian compatriot, Rigoberto Urán (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) can’t be discounted. He won the Barolo time trial to earn pink last week by a huge margin, putting 2:41 on Quintana over the hilly course. Cima Grappa is a different ballgame, but Quintana isn’t overlooking any of the contenders.

“I don’t know who will do better, because there’s some flat, too. Urán could be at a very high level. And there are other riders who could do well,” Quintana said. “[Domenico] Pozzovivo (AG2R La Mondiale). Rigoberto, of course. Pierre Rolland (Europcar), who looks very strong to me. I think these are the riders who could put in good times in tomorrow’s time trial.”

While the lead belongs to Quintana, the rest of the podium is up for grabs. Urán sits comfortably in second (1:41 back), while the gap between third place (Rolland) and ninth place (BMC Racing’s Cadel Evans) is just 90 seconds.

It’s hard to know how much the general classification ranks will shift Friday, only that there will be inspired, and disappointing, performances.

The following day, stage 20, could wrap anchors around the ankles of contenders and the gruppetto alike. The trip up the Zoncolan is immense, and it comes after two rated climbs, both stuffed into the back end of the stage. The Passo del Pura is 11.3 kilometers at 7.7 percent and the Sella Razzo is a long drag up 15.9 kilometers at 5.2 percent.

But the Giro saved the best and the most brutal for last. The Zoncolan has been used four times in the Giro, and the man who won the stage wore the final maglia rosa on two of four occasions — Gilberto Simoni, in 2003, and Ivan Basso, in 2010.

From Ovaro, the Zoncolan would be a punch in the face any day, let alone at the tail end of a cold, demanding grand tour like this. Relative to, say, Mont Ventoux, it’s short. But think of it like grain alcohol compared to a glass of wine. It’s 10.1 kilometers long at a 12 percent average, with a maximum pitch of 22 percent. If that sounds bad, consider this: the road disappears into the forest and gains 3,000 feet in 6 kilometers. The final 3.5 kilometers tilt toward the sun at 14 percent, roughly, with ramps of 23 percent.

It’s then that the Giro will have its deserving champion. Because nothing is achieved on the Zoncolan that isn’t ripped from its teeth.

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