Defending champion Annemiek van Vleuten stamped her authority on the Giro Rosa on Saturday, winning stage two and taking the race lead.
The rainbow jersey attacked at the bottom of the day’s only classified climb, a four kilometre stretch of rocky Tuscan white gravel, with 16km to go, and characteristically soloed to the win ahead of Anna van der Breggen (Boels-Dolmans) in second and Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) in third.
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That final climb was littered with deep gravel, making it hard to keep moving, and Van Vleuten was one of a number of riders who were forced to dismount and walk. However, she emerged from the top of the climb with 11km to the line leading Van der Breggen by almost a minute.
Van Vleuten’s final advantage was 1-16 on her compatriot, wiping out the mere five-second deficit she began the day with, and putting her in a good position with seven days remaining. Indeed, such are the time gaps it would take an incredible turnaround for any of the top three to be caught.
Tomorrow’s third stage is another hilly affair, the 142km route between Santa Fiora and Assisi taking in over 2,300m of climbing.
Its short, sharp final climb gives riders an opportunity to take back time, though Van Vleuten will surely be on her guard, and already appears to be the strongest in the race.
How it happened
One of the toughest stages of the race was exacerbated by temperatures into the low 30s, and with over 3100m of climbing in the 124.8km race the peloton were set for a tough day.
The climbing started from the flag, the race onto steep narrow roads immediately, winding through the baked Tuscan countryside heading toward the first of two white gravel sectors, similar to those used at Strade Bianche, not far away.
With such a tough day in store, the peloton were in no mood to go too hard, at least until they reached the gravel road. Here, with dust reducing visibility to just a few metres, the race split into three small groups.
However, even on the ensuing climb to the town of Roccalbegna a large peloton reformed, as the road dragged up and up.
It was only over the top that anyone managed to get away, with former French champion Aude Biannic (Movistar) and Italian Soraya Paladin (CCC-Liv) sneaking up the road, as it undulated its way through small, sleepy villages.
However, with the GC so tight after the stage one team time trial they were brought back before the intermediate sprint at Roccalbegna, won by Equipe Paule Ka’s Emma Nørsgard.
With 62km remaining Julie Van De Velde (Lotto-Soudal) attacked, gaining a lead of 50 seconds and taking the bonus at the final intermediate sprint, though as soon as the bunch crossed the line they upped the pace, closing her down quickly.
But strangely, when they had her within sight they let the gap go again, the Belgian rider taking her lead out to 50 seconds once more.
However the action began as the bunch closed in on the day’s only classified climb, the final, 4.5km gravel sector which topped out with only 11km remaining.
Van De Velde was caught by a strong quartet of Lisa Brennauer (Ceratizit-WNT), Elsie Chabbey (Paule Ka), Alison Jackson (Sunweb), and American champion Ruth Winder (Trek-Segafred0).
That group were soon caught though, bringing a counter-attack from Lizzy Banks of the super-aggressive Paule Ka. The Brit gained 25 seconds’ lead but was caught as the peloton battled for position ahead of the final climb.
There, when she attacked, Van Vleuten was originally joined by Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ-Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope) but the Danish rider was unable to stay with the world champion on the incredibly steep pitches of rocky road and fell back to a chasing group.
That group eventually shattered leaving only Van der Breggen in pursuit.
Giro d’Italia Internazionale Femminile, stage two: Paganico – Arcidosso (124.8km)
1. Annemiek van Vleuten (Ned) Mitchelton Scott, in 3-53-20
2. Anna van der Breggen (Ned) Boels-Dolmans, at 1-16
3. Kasia Niewiadoma (Pol) Canyon SRAM, at same time
4. Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (Den) FDJ-Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope, at 1-29
5. Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (RSA) CCC-Liv, at 3-07
6. Mavi García (Esp) Ale-BTC Ljubljana, at same time
7. Mikayla Harvey (NZ) Equipe Paule Ka, at 3-11
8. Soraya Paladin (Ita) CCC-Liv, at 3-52
9. Erica Magnaldi (Ita) Ceratizit-WNT, at 3-55
10. Amanda Spratt (Aus) Mitchelton-Scott, at 3-57
General classification after stage two
1. Annemiek van Vleuten (Ned) Mitchelton Scott in 4-13-20
2. Anna van der Breggen (Ned) Boels-Dolmans at 1-18
3. Kasia Niewiadoma (Pol) Canyon SRAM, at 1-33
4. Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (Den) FDJ-Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope, at 2-54
5. Mikayla Harvey (NZ) Equipe Paule Ka, at 3-26
6. Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (RSA) CCC-Liv, at 3-54
7. Mavi García (Esp) Ale-BTC Ljubljana, at 4-01
8. Amanda Spratt (Aus) Mitchelton-Scott, at 4-07
9. Elise Chabbey (Sui) Equipe Paule Ka, at 4-15
10. Elisa Longo Borghini (Ita) Trek-Segafredo, at 4-27