Enrico Battaglin of the Bardiani Valvole Pro Continental team, outsprinted the field in the final meters of the 246-kilometer Stage Four of the 2013 Giro d’Italia.
Numerous attacks over the two categorized climbs in the final kilometers of the longest stage of the race were caught—the last with just a few hundred meters to go—leaving a group of GC contenders and support riders to contest the sprint. Battaglin exploded away from this group in the final fifteen meters, giving Bardiani, by far the poorest team in the peloton, an unexpected victory in its first Grand Tour.
Bardiani made the race with a wild-card invitation, earned mostly because it is an Italian team, but the 23-year-old Battaglin, riding in his first Grand Tour, showed the team deserved its invitation with the biggest win of his career.
Battaglin looked stunned on the podium. He plainly never expected this kind of success racing against the world’s best; he was several meters clear of his nearest rivals at the finish line.
Katusha’s Luca Paolini finished tenth and retains the leader’s pink jersey. Cadel Evans of BMC came in sixth and 2012 winner Ryder Hesjedal of Garmin, eighth, both preserving their places in the General Classification. Sky’s Bradley Wiggins lost 17 seconds because he got caught behind a crash; his time might be adjusted.
The first half of the race was uneventful. The weather was beautiful and the peloton, led by Katusha, took an easy ride through the Italian countryside, unworried about the seven escapees up the road.
Finally, with 100 km to go, Katusha decided it was time to move. This prompted the breakaway riders—Johan Le Bon and Francis Mourey (FDJ,) Julien Berard (AG2R,) Emanuele Sella (Androni Giocattoli,) Miguel Minguez (Euskaltel-Euskadi,) Ioannis Tamouridis (Euskaltel-Euskadi,) and Pim Ligthart (Vacansoleil)—to consider their chances.
Le Bon, Lighthart, and Miguez attacked with 92 km to go. They knew they needed to leave Sella behind to have any chance of success—he was only 2:39 down in GC and a threat to the leaders. Julien Berad bridged across to the lead group ten km later, as Katusha eased up again, content the maglia rosa was safely on Paolini’s shoulders at that point.
Katusha didn’t need to push the pace because the final third of the stage contained two categorized climbs, the Cat 3 Vibo Valenta followed by the Cat 2 Croce Ferrata. The breakaway was unlikely to survive past the top of the first climb.
And so it was. Minguez attacked with 50 km to go, Le Bon tried to follow, and the other two were caught. Eight km later, Minguez and Le Bon were caught as well.
Patrick Gretch of Argos-Shimano attacked just before the summit, followed by Stefano Pirazzi of Bardani. Pirazzi sprinted past Gretch to take the King of the Mountain points.
Fog had settled in before the climb, and got increasingly thicker, making the descent a little sketchy. By the time catch was made, rain was falling at the summit, which made the descent even more dangerous. Astana’s Vincenzo Nibali, considered one of the best descenders in the peloton, crashed on the way down and had to get a spare wheel from a team mate. The Astana leader was able to continue and didn’t lose any time on the stage.
Gretch and Pirazzi were caught on the descent, prompting a flurry of counterattacks, none of which got anywhere until Gretch went again, this time with Orica-GreenEdge rider Wouter Willem. This pair got a 30-second gap before being shut down.
Next away was Vacansoleil’s Marco Marcato, with Pirazzi again, plus Carlos Quintero (Colombia,) Mateo Rabottini (Vini Fantini,) and Sylvain Georges (Ag2R.) This group attacked with 20 km to go and made it to the bottom of the final climb when Georges took off on his own.
Meanwhile Sky took over the peloton, with Kanstantsin Siutsou, Sergio Henao, and Roberto Uran pulling Bradley Wiggins along.
Georges opened a 1:17 gap 15 km from the finish, but the peloton was done playing. His lead was cut to 23 seconds within four km; it was plain he had no chance.
Just outside the ten-km mark, Vini Fantini’s Danilo Di Luca attacked the peloton, with Colombia’s Robinson Chalapud on his wheel. Di Luca, 37, won the Giro in 2007 riding for Liquigas, but hadn’t had any major success since he tested positive for a form of EPO in the 2009 Giro.
Possibly he saw this stage as a last chance for glory; perhaps he was just feeling uncommonly strong. In any case, he and Chalapud maintained a tenuous ten-second advantage all the way into the final few kilometers. There the road started tilting up very gently and the gap started shrinking, but the two were still a dozen meters ahead entering the final thousand meters.
Di Luca attacked with 800 meters to go; Chalapud was caught 100 meters later, but the Italian refused to sit up. He lasted until the final few hundred meters—seemingly so very close to winning but not really; he finished 24th. Still his brave effort created a lot of excitement in the final ten kilometers and earned his team—and himself—a lot of publicity.
The final few hundred meters were an unorganized dash for the finish line. Most of the GC contenders were there—only Wiggins was missing—and none could afford to get involved in the jostling of a sprint, but neither could they afford to let any gaps open, while their support riders and the others of the small group which led over the final climb all went for glory.
30 meters out Battaglin spurted out of the pack and rocketed home five meters ahead of the rest. He somehow saved a lot of energy for the finish, and it earned him his first Grand Tour Stage win in his first Grand Tour.
What’s to Come
The next several stages shouldn’t shake up the General Classification much. Stage Five, 203 km from Cosenza to Matera, is mostly flat with a cat 4 climb20 km form the end, while the last ten km climb up to a series of small lumps and an uphill finish. This stage will likely go to the sprinters, as the climbs aren’t long or steep enough to slow them down.
Stage Six, 169 km from Mola di Bari to Margherita di Savoia, will be another sprinters’ stage, with no categorized climbs at all.
Stage Seven, from San Salvo to Pescara, is entirely up and down, with hardly a meter of flat road in its 177 kms. The final third of this stage offers four categorized climbs, two Fours and two Threes, with a mostly flat five km after the final Cat Four climb at San Silvestro. This stage will likely see the pure sprinters dropping back. While there might be a sprint finish, it is equally likely that a small breakaway might succeed here, so long as there are no GC threats involved. There are so many small hills to serve as launch pads, and riders without GC aspirations won’t care about saving their legs for the Stage Eight time trial.
The serious GC contenders are not likely to push hard on Stage Severn, because of Stage Eight: a monumental 55-km time trial with several hills and an uphill finish. This will be a painful stage—the route is long, it is not at all flat, and the final five kilometers will certainly crush the hopes of a lot of riders who didn’t save enough energy over the rest of the course.
Normally TT specialist Bradley Wiggins would be the favorite here, were the route a little flatter, but because of the hills, it is quite possible that some riders, even experienced time trailers, will not pace themselves properly and might lose more time on the final uphill than they gained in the first 50 K. Wiggins and Ryder Hesjedal will need to turn in great rides here; if one does and the other doesn’t, this stage could be decisive.
Even if Wiggins doesn’t fare well, he still has the strength of the Sky team to carry him over the mountains, and advantage Hesjedal’s Garmin team cannot match.
The final 20 km time trial, Stage 18, is all uphill; neither rider really has an advantage there. Wiggins is a great time trailer on the flat, and a good climber, but so is Hesjedal—the Garmin rider sealed his 2012 Giro win with a great ride in the final TT. A lot could come down to which rider has had to work harder up until that stage.
Normally a time trial late in a Grand Tour would be a huge advantage for Wiggins. Because this one is all uphill, he might not be the overwhelming favorite he would be on a flat stage.
All that is two weeks away. Stage Eight is only a few days away, on Saturday. Whoever wins the stage, it is almost certain the pink jersey will change hands. Luca Paolini cannot match the other GC contenders in a time trial.
Stage Nine, the last before the first rest day, is the first hard climbing day of the Giro. There are four climbs in its 170 km from San Sepolcro to Firenze: a Cat Two followed immediately by a Cat One, with a Cat Three and a Cat Four followed by an uphill finish.
This stage is wide open. A breakaway could easily escape on the descent from the Cat One climb at Vallombrosa, or on either of the next to climbs, or a lone attacker could take a stab on the descent from the final climb, as Paolini did in Stage Three and Di Luca did in Stage Four.
Equally, one of the GC contenders might see this as a chance to put some time into his rivals, or make up for time lost in the Stage Eight time trial. With a rest day following, there would be no reason not to go all out on the final small climbs. Here is where a rider like Vincenzo Nibali could use his descending skills to counter the superior time-trialing abilities of some of his rivals.