Starting the day with a sharp descent of some 200m down to just above sea level may encourage another split if those riders with the skill to maintain control while plummeting earthwards use it as an opportunity to build up a big lead over the rest, a lead that should be easily maintained through the only flat section of the stage, a 10km blast along the seafront at Porto Potenza Picena which, with its classically Mediterranean architecture combined with modern facilties and blue harbour, is known as one of the most beautiful locations long this section of the Adriatic coastline - a reputation the local authorities are keen to retain, hence the regular refuse collections which have seen it awarded Blue Flag status for the high quality and cleanliness of the local beaches.
|Porto Potenza Picenta|
There'll be no time for a paddle though, no matter how much it'd relieve the discomfort of sweaty feet, because the parcours turns sharply inland and then becomes a roller coaster. It heads back over the same 200m climb and then into a fast descent back down to near sea level again before entering a very steep climb back up to around 200m, a categorised climb that, coming 35km into the race, is going to be the first of many tests.
Once into the municipality of Montelupone, things turn distinctly craggy with two sharp climbs before a steep sided valley which offers little respite, being just seven or eight km wide. Nevertheless, other than the flat seafront section, this is the only place where the sprinters will get a chance to shine today and a high speed battle is very likely. They'll soon be brought back to heel though, because the valley comes to an abrupt halt with the ascent of the next 200m peak. Then it's yet another plummet, this time to 100m above sea level in a valley so narrow there's virtually no flat land at all and then the day's second categorised climb up to around 220m. Anyone with any sense will try to give the old knees a bit of a breather on the way down because, over the next 20km, there's two more categorised hills with which to contend. Once more, they top out at around 200m but are so closely-spaced that the gradients are positively cruel. The next section is much the same, with a descent and then a climb of 100m or so before the final downhill.
Then, it's time for the real decider - a climb so steep it looks like a vertical wall on the profile, rising to around 319m in around 2.5km. This equals a gradient about as steep as a bicycle can be ridden up and, coming at the end of a 104.3km stage, may persuade a few riders at the back to abandon - though they'll hopefully bear in mind that the next couple of days feature far fewer climbs and derive from that sufficient comfort to stick it out. The stage finishes in the town of Fermo, which dates from 264BC and which has been besieged and conquered by various armies over the centuries; traces of its ancient defensive walls built of massive blocks of masonry without mortar can still be seen - for the riders, it may feel as though they're climbing the walls rather than the hill.
So, likely winners today? Bearing in mind the harsh terrain which is going to favour those who are as happy climbing as they are descending and those who can keep going no matter how much it hurts, Marianne Vos is really the only choice as far as the cycling press are concerned and we're liable to agree because there are very few riders - among the men and the women - who have the ability to absorb pain that she has and she excels in all forms of road cycling. Emma Pooley, with her incredible power-to-weight ratio, will probably do well too, we'll happily predict a top five finish for her. Valentina Scandolara will be wanting to keep her Queen of the Mountains title and, with her performance on climbs far bigger than these, there's very little reason why she won't be able to do so. Vos and Scandolara in first and second (though not necessarily in that order) and Pooley in third seems a probable arrangement on the podium later to us.