Saturday, 2 July 2011

Giro Donne: Stage 2 preview

It's a pity, really, that the Giro Donne - which has become the most important stage race in women's cycling since other prestigious races met their demise (usually due to lack of interest from sponsors) - takes place when it does, because there's some other race starting off in France today and it tends to get all the attention. Cycling fans would be well advised to keep at least a partial watch on the Italian action if they can do so whilst in the grips of Tour fever, because today's Stage 2 is the definition of "a real humdinger."

Abruzzo could have been made with cycling in mind.
Taking place in the mountainous Abruzzo region, right in the middle of Italy where it includes a big chunk of the Appennino Centrale, the day begins and ends at Pescocostanzo - but a time trial it certainly ain't. The terrain is used to great effect, creating a 91km stage that features both enormous climbs and equally enormous descents, doing so not by the inclusion of a high mountain but with a deep valley. Pescostanzo lies 1395m above sea level, high enough to catch out any riders who've been neglecting the altitude training before they even get started, and features a short descent of around a hundred metres in a few kilometres just outside town - while it's unlikely that anyone will want to really push the boat out in such an early section of the stage, it ought to be enough to spread the riders out a little. Yesterday, they all seemed happy enough to ride as a group for the greater part of the day, but once the field is broken up into leading and following groups we may well see some early attacks taking place as team leaders send out fast domestiques to test the form of rivals.

Look for climbing ability when choosing
your favourites for today. Having won
the Mountains classification in the Tour
du Grand Montréal in 2007, German 25-
year-old Claudia Häusler is a definite

Next comes a relatively flat section of 10km where the altitude hovers around the 1300m, then the day's main descent. Anyone who feels especially comfortable riding fast downhill and built up a small advantage coming out of Pescoconstanzo will have an opportunity to turn it into a big advantage here, because this descent is equally the equal of anything in the Tour de Suisse or even Tour de France - in fact, this could be one of the most exciting features of any race taking place today, and on a day like today that's really saying something. The route drops from 1300m to 400m in 24km to the poet Ovid's homecity Sulmona, also the home of confetti, the sweet sugared almonds which have become associated with the city and which the riders may find are passed to them by local fans turning out to see the race.

Big leads are not necessarily the same thing as safe leads in this race though, because any rider who has one and wishes to maintain it is going to need to be ready to endure the pain of a serious climb back out of the valley: it's back up to almost 1300m over the following 18km to reach the summit of Madonna Regina once the route has turned back into the Majella National Park, considered by many to be the most beautiful part of Abruzzo which is itself considered one of the most beautiful parts of Italy and where wolves and lynxes are still to be found, albeit in tiny numbers. Maybe a few'll give chase to help persuade any stragglers that riding fast up the mountain is a good idea. Another steep descent down to 900m follows before a climb back up to 1400m in 8km, giving an average gradient of 4.8km which, while not an especially steep hill, would test the thigh muscles of any rider at this late stage.

Britain's Emma Pooley is small,
light and very, very fit - which
may prove to give her a big
advantage today.
By this time, we should have a good idea of what the general classification is going to look like once today is over: the sprinters will have dropped right back from the top ten today as the grimpeurs take precedence and dominate the leadership board. However, those same sprinters - assuming they have the energy after today's ordeal - do have one final chance to earn some points because once the last big climb is over there's a gradual downhill section which, losing 100m in about 7km, should suit the faster riders rather well. The climbers, having got up there first, may already be on the next section but sprinters further back will be able to make up some of the difference here. That last section  features a final climb of just over 100m back to Pescoconstanzo. If the race hasn't already been decided by means of a huge lead built up in the big climbs earlier on, it could still be fought and lost here.

Who'll do well today? Marianne Vos will, because that's what she does - Scarlett Callovi said "Marianne Vos is unbeatable" after yesterday's stage. British champion Lizzie Armitstead may put in a good show too, because there are not so many climbers among female cyclists as there are among the men so her endurance racing skills may give her the tolerance for pain to keep going up the mountains when others need to slacken off the pace. Then there's Emma Pooley, who may be more of a Classics specialist but weighs just 50kg and is super fit, a combination which can count for a very great deal on this sort of terrain. But, with such an impressive starting list, nothing is certain at this time.

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