Katusha’s Maxim Belkov proved both his climbing and descending ability, beating both the rain and the rest of the breakaway to ride solo to the win in Stage Nine of the 2103 Giro d’Italia. It was the Belkov’s first Grand Tour stage win.
The 28-year-old Russian joined a twelve-rider breakaway 20 kilometers into the 170-km stage, and trailed after two attackers, Bardiani’s Stefano Pirazzi and Colombia’s Robinson Chalapud, on the first of four categorized climbs.
The rain started at the peak of this climb, and increased in intensity through the rest of the stage, making the climbs miserable and the descents dangerous.
This didn’t slow Belkov. He attacked the other two on the descent from the Cat One Vallombrosa, 54 km from the finish, and stayed away until the finish.
It was a hard ride for the Russian. Besides the weather he had to fight his way up a Cat Three and Cat Four climb and then a slightly uphill final kilometer before the finish line, but he held on to win by almost a minute.
Astana’s Vincenzo Nibali retained the maglia rosa as race leader. BMC’s Cadel Evans and Blanco’s Robert Gesink are still second and third.
Bradley Wiggins, the race favorite, had a very tough day. After crashing on a wet descent in Stage Seven, the Sky team leader had no confidence going downhill, and not great legs going uphill. He dropped out of the maglia rosa group repeatedly, and needed his team mates to drag him back. He managed to be near the front of the peloton at the finish, and didn’t lose any time, but his performance raises a lot of questions.
Sketchy stage nonwithstanding, Wiggins stayed fourth in General Classification, still 1:16 back
More curious was the performance of Ryder Hesjedal of Garmin-Sharp. The 2012 Giro winner, who looked so racy in the first stage, ran out of energy in the Stage Eight time trial, and cracked on the final climb of Stage Nine, dropping from sixth to 11th in General Classification, 3:11 behind.
Monday is a rest day for the riders, much welcomed to be sure after the cold wet climbs of Stage Nine.
Stage Rewards Audacity
Stage Nine, 170 km from Sansepolcro to Firenze, would have been a tough enough stage even without the cold and rain. With four categorized climbs: The Cat Two Passo della Consum, Cat One Vallombrosa, Cat Three Montetrini, and Cat Four Pian di Mugnone.
Vallombrosa was a nine-kilometer ascent with a gentle, 2.6 percent grade at the start, rising up to ramps of twelve percent, dropping the 7.3 percent at the end. The third climb, Montetrini, was four km with a nine percent average incline and again, twelve percent ramps.
After all the climbing, the final kilometer also sloped up at three percent, just to add one final sting to riders’ tired legs.
Several groups tried to escape before twelve riders finally got a gap 20 km into the stage: Stefano Pirazzi (Bardiani Valvole,) Giovanni Visconti (Movistar,) Juan Manuel Gárate Cepa (Blanco,) Fabio Felline (Androni Giocattoli,) Robinson Chalapud (Colombia,) Jarlinson Pantano (Colombia,) Ricardo Mestre (Euskaltel Euskadi,) Maxim Belkov (Katusha,) Michal Golas (Omega Pharma-Quick-Step,) Tobias Ludvigsson (Argos-Shimano,) Alessandro Proni (Vini Fantini,) and Evgeni Petrov (Saxo-Tinkoff.)
This group had about three minutes when they hit the first climb. At this point it was not clear whether Astana, which was setting the pace in the peloton, would chase this break or let it go.
Attacking the Attackers
Robinson Chalapud of Colombia said before the race that his team was ready to get going, and he proved it, attacking the break on the first climb. Stefano Pirazzi chased him; the Bardiani rider wanted to take the King of the Mountains jersey and needed every point.
These two sparred all the way up the climb, with Pirazzi taking the points and the points lead. Giovanni Visconti, also in the break, couldn’t follow the attack and lost his KOM lead, while Chalapud moved into third.
Maxim Belkov caught up to the leading pair on the descent from Passo della Consum; he tried to attack, but by the time the leading trio his the lower sloped of Vallombrosa, they were working together and opened a minute’s gap to the chase group and almost six minutes on the peloton.
Halfway up this time the three started sparring again, with Belkov and then Chalapud attacking but only Pirazzi managing to open a gap, again taking the KOM points with Chalapud right behind them—Belkov dropped back nearly a minute by the crest.
The Katusha rider used the energy he saved by not contesting the climb to focus on descending, and he soon caught and passed the other two. With 54 km and two climbs left in the stage, this seemed like a foolhardy move, but the Russian rider was feeling it; neither the weather, the hills, nor the competition fazed him. He wanted to win.
Within ten kilometers Belkov had 90 seconds on his pursuers, with the peloton almost seven minutes back. It became clear that Astana was content just to keep the maglia rosa and forego the stage win.
After another ten kilometers Belkov’s lead was two-and-a-half minutes—not enough to ensure a win, but a healthy advantage to take into the final two climbs. As an added plus, the rain stopped, though the roads were still wet.
Wiggins Weak on Wet Descents
While Maxim Belkov gained time by descending swiftly, Bradley Wiggins was having trouble on the descents again. The Sky rider dropped back half a minute from the maglia rosa group and needed team mates to help him chase.
With Wiggins dropping back, Garmin-Sharp took over the pace-making, intent on stretching any gap back to the Sky rider. When Wiggins rejoined, Garmin moved aside to let Astana take the lead again.
Belkov was well onto the third climb by the time Wiggins rejoined the main peloton. Colombia’s Jarlinson Pantano picked this moment to attack the breakaway, followed by Argos-Shimano’s Tobias Ludvigsson. This pair got to within two minutes of their quarry by the crest of the third climb.
Ryder Hesjedal began having trouble on this climb. Astana, seeing his difficulties, sent Tanel Kangert to the front to really up the pace and crack the 2012 winner.
Belkov Holds On, Betancur Charges
Belkov was visibly laboring as he headed up the final climb of the stage, but he still had almost two minutes over his pursuers and more than three minutes on the peloton. When he crested the climb, ten km from the finish, his lead was down to just over a minute, with the peloton—now down to two dozen riders—another minute back.
Ag2R’s Carlos Betancur launched an attack shortly after Belkov finished the final climb. He might not have had enough time to catch Belkov, who was riding smoothly again on the final flat section, but he could hope to catch the two chasers. Halfway to the finish he trailed by thirty seconds; halfway from there to the finish, he had cut the gap to ten seconds.
Betancur caught Pantano and Ludvigsson in the final kilometer; he and fellow Colombian Jarlinson Pantano dropped Ludvigsson and sprinted to the line, where Betancur took second and Pantano third.
While those three were contesting the rest of the podium, Maxim Belkov was securing the top step. In his second Grand Tour (and his second Giro) the Russian rider earned his first Grand Stage win.
Astana shepherded Vincenzo Nibali across the line a minute later; Nibali took tenth and kept the race lead. Cadel Evans, in the same group, finished fifth, securing his GC position. Bradley Wiggins managed to make it back before the finish and earned the same time.
Ryder Hesjedal was not so lucky. Though assisted by team mate Tom Danielson, the Garmin rider couldn’t catch the other GC contenders. He has no realistic chance to defend his 2012 title; half a dozen top GC contenders would need to pull out of the race for him to make up the three-minute deficit.
A Break and a Beast of a Stage
Monday is a much-needed rest day for the peloton. The racing resumes Tuesday with the 167-km Stage Ten from Cordenons to Altopiano del Montasio. This stage will be challenging for a few reasons.
The first challenge is the rest day. Every rider reacts differently, and differently at different races. Some relax too much and can’t get going for a couple stages. Some don’t rest enough and can’t find their form in the second week. If the next stage is an easy sprinters’ stage where nothing much is demanded, most riders fare well. If not …
The second and third challenges presented by Stage ten are its two Cat One climbs, the Passo Cason di Lanza followed immediately by a Cat One summit finish at Altopiano del Montasio.
The whole stage is uphill save for the descent from the first categorized climb, so riders not quite recovered from the rest day could find themselves in real trouble. Riders (named Hesjedal?) needing to make up some time might attack here. Astana might set so fast a pace that no one can attack. A breakaway might escape and be ignored, while Astana marks only the GC contenders and forgets the rest.
Whatever happens, it is unlikely this will be a boring stage.