Wellens shows his strength
Tim Wellens would have no doubt pin pointed the steep finish to stage four as a potential for an early victory at the Giro, but winning against such a high-class field is easier said than done.
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The Belgian put his Lotto-FixAll team-mates to front of the bunch and in control in the final kilometres, positioning him perfectly in towards the last climb in Caltagirone.
Wellens found himself in a five-man group that broke free early on the steep ramps, but calmly held his nerve and waited for the bunch to regroup before launching his final attack.
When he did, it still looked like he’d potentially gone too early, with Canada’s Michael Woods (EF Education First-Drapac) chasing closely behind him. But Wellens was able to hold his power ahead of Woods and Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) chasing behind, crossing the line to take his second career victory at the Giro d’Italia and move into fourth on GC.
Froome loses time
After a less than impressive opening time trial, Chris Froome lost 21 seconds on the lead group on the uphill finish. While his rivals like Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) and current maglia rosa Rohan Dennis (BMC) held their nerve to lose just four seconds to the winner, Froome either felt far from his best on the final climb or found himself well out of position.
His Sky squad had done an excellent job of hiding him away in the wheels all day, allowing BMC to do the chasing of the break and control proceedings, so there’ll be a tinge of disappointment that Froome wasn’t able to finish it off in his usual style.
The four-time Tour de France winner now sits almost a minute down on race leader Dennis, so will need to look for opportunities as soon as possible to begin bridging the gap to his rivals.
First real test for GC riders
After the initial time trial, the following two days in Israel were fairly straightforward affairs for the GC contenders. Today’s terrain presented a number of difficulties though, with so much uncategorised climbing all day as well as the steep finish.
Later in the race, a profile like today’s could have suited a breakaway, but with the overall standings so close BMC were taking no chances in letting the break get away, giving them just 3-30 maximum gap.
It meant that the pace was kept high throughout the race, with GC teams working hard to keep their riders safe within the bunch and not expelling too much energy ahead of key days like Mount Etna on Thursday’s stage six.
Still, it was up to the contenders themselves to use their strength on the final climb, and most of them passed that test, with Dennis, Dumoulin, Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), Domenico Pozzovivo (Bahrain-Merida), Simon Yates and Esteban Chaves (Mitchelton-Scott) among others to show their strength and tactical nous by holding on up the climb.
Late drama for some
For some riders though, the climb wasn’t the day’s biggest problem.
Gianluca Brambilla, Trek-Segafredo’s biggest hope of a GC placing, was one to suffer a late mechanical in the final 20km when the racing really got going and was forced to chase back incredibly hard to regain contact, perhaps costing him energy on the final climb.
Likewise, José Gonçalves dropped out of the GC, which would have been a huge disappointment to Katusha-Alpecin, who may have hoped their versatile Portuguese rider could have taken a stint in the pink jersey, sitting just 13 seconds behind Dennis at the start of the day.
He suffered a mechanical and began riding a team-mate’s bike, but even after he received a bike change he appeared to still suffer a mechanical problem and was forced to stop to receive assistance, ultimately losing contact with the main bunch.
Quick-Step’s Max Schachmann, who remains the race’s best young rider, would have eyed a potential stage win on a finish that could have suited him. Unfortunately, despite being well positioned, the young German crashed on the final turn towards the bottom of the climb and out of contention, however was able to carry on to the finish. With his team-mate Zdenek Stybar already out the back, Quick-Step saw their best chance at a third consecutive win go out the window.
More of the same tomorrow?
The sprinters may already be wishing they were back on the flatlands of Israel, with likes Jakub Mareczko (Wilier Triestina) and Niccolo Bonifazio (Bahrain-Merida) already struggling over the climbs of today’s stage.
Stage five to Santa Ninfa has a kinder opening half with flat roads, but the climbing begins again in the second half, with another punchy uphill finish. It’s much less demanding than today’s, and if a fast man can make it over the 12 per cent sections shortly before the final they will stand a good chance, but there’s likely to be a plethora of attacks with riders fancying their chances at stealing an early stage win.