Monday 4 July 2011

Giro Donne: Stage 4 preview

The incredible Marianne Vos dominated in yesterday's Giro Donne stage, just as she dominates a large part of women's cycling, over a parcours characterised by a roller-coasteresque series of short but steep climbs and correspondingly hairy descents which took their toll: a number of riders abandoned, including Shelley Olds who departed before the stage started due to ongoing problems with the cracked ribs she sustained in the Nature Valley Women's GP crash last month. There are few cyclists - either male or female - who have Vos' ability to soak up the sheer stress placed upon the body by that sort of terrain and she was an obvious stage winner from the moment the altitude profile was first available. Emma Pooley, who apparently packs the strength of ten average cyclists into a body the size of two thirds of an average cyclist, was a clear contender for the podium and achieved a respectable second, just 19" after the Dutch star. Meanwhile, nobody else could get anywhere near them as the finish line approached - third place Judith Arndt was a full 2'50" behind Vos.

Piazza Saffi, Forli

Today is about as different as it's possible to be with a winding course that looks as though a drunken spider paddled through a pool of ink before embarking upon a roughly figure of 8-shaped tour of a map of Romagna, one of the most popular regions among Italian cyclists. There's one fairly hefty climb up to just shy of 300m in the first 20km - where Vos, if she wants to hang onto her Mountains Classification jersey, will no doubt once again pull out the stops and lead the pack to the summit - and then it's flatland sprinting all the way to the finish line 50km away. The official Giro Donne website doesn't exactly provide the wealth of information offered by the Tour de France site (in fact, you could even describe it as "a bit rubbish"), which means that for the time being the mysterious amputation of some 30km off the end of the profile remains apparently without reason. We can't find out for certain if a section of the stage has actually been abandoned or if the webmasters just didn't bother showing another 30km of flatness. However, Podium Cafe state that "stage 4 has been shortened a bit for some reason" and since they know what they're talking about we suspect that this will prove to be the case. Whatever's happened to it, this is a stage for the sprinters and, with British champion Lizzie Armitstead out of action, all bets are off - there are a number of extremely capable riders waiting in the wings, any one of whom could be today's victor.

Judith Arndt
The fun begins in the ancient town of Forlimpopoli, location of a solid and surprisingly Moorish-looking castle that sits, incongruously to North European eyes who expect castles to be perched atop rocky crags or at least on steep-sided grassy hills, in the middle of a large, paved square. The route takes in a quick loop about town before hanging a sharp right towards the south, passing through flat fields and on to the village of Ospadaletto,  and then to Bertinoro. Bertinoro has an unusual and rather pleasant custom - each September, it hosts a Hospitality Festival in which families attach envelopes to the Colonna delle Anelle, a column erected in 1300 which stands in the town. Anybody - be they local or stranger - can then take one of these envelopes which contains the address of the family that placed it and an invitation to join them for dinner. It's also the site of a castle dating from 1000 AD and, in the 15th Century, was home to Obadiah ben Abraham, an important and highly-respected rabbi.
She's a climber by trade, but if Mara Abbott builds
up a lead on the day's only hill and then just keeps
turning the pedals to a high placing we won't be
at all surprised.

From there, the riders continue south until they reach the foothills of the Apennine Mountains before swinging west at Polenta towards Meldola, once an important centre of the silk industry but now largely reliant on agriculture and furniture manufacture. It's then a long, straight route north until the route swings around an airport before switching south-east ,passing Forlimpopoli along its northern bypass and continuing to Panighina where it once again turns north and follows a long, flat loop to Forli. Forli was instrumental in the Unification of Italy, the 150th anniversary of which is being celebrated by the Giro Donne this year - so if you're lucky enough to have access to televised footage, or better still able to get there today, there's every chance of  big celebration.

We said at the start of this post that it's difficult to predict a winner today, but nobody would be at all surprised if Marianne Vos managed it yet again: her ability as an all-rounder has earned her the honour of being referred to as the Eddy Merckx of women's cycling and she can perform as well in a sprint as she can on a mountainside and she'll almost certainly be in the top ten. As for the rest? Mara Abbott could be a contender - while her palmares shows a talent perhaps more tuned the climbs, she won this race last year and, as a competitive swimmer and qualified yoga instructor, has the endurance to keep turning the pedals at a decent cadence for a long time; which is precisely what needs to be done through long, flat sections. On the other hand, Judith Arndt is among the few riders with a chance - albeit quite a small one with Vos in on the action - of a top five position when the Giro is over, so she'll be wanting to shrink her disadvantage. With a range of German and World Championships to her name, she's a definite contender today.

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