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Stage 18: a danse macabre over the Stelvio

22/10/2020

How many times are the first 13.1 kilometres of today’s stage the last 13.1 kilometres of yesterday’s? From Pinzolo, famous for the 16th century danse macabre mural in the local church, the peloton headed off along the road used by Charlemagne and his troops in the year 800 as they marched on Rome. A Guerreiro not from Rome but from Portugal won the battle for the mountain points, and took second place at the Passo Castrin/Hofmahdjoch on a road laid fifteen years ago.

That was the preamble. Next came the Passo dello Stelvio/Stilfserjoch, whose praises Domenico Pozzovivo had been singing before the stage: “The Stelvio is special for its shape. Unique, I think. And it goes high, which makes a physical difference. I think today will decide the GC.” Thomas De Gendt added, “It’s a special mountain. If you are a cyclist, a professional, you have to do the Stelvio at least once.”

From the east, the climb is is 24.7 km long. Originally built in 1820–25 to connect Austrian-ruled Lombardy with the rest of Austria, it gains 1851 m in altitude at an average gradient of 7.5 per cent, to the highest altitude of the Giro at 2,758m. Enough to reduce the strongest champion to a shivering danse macabre. Today, the climb leads through the Stelvio National Park, where the accompanying vehicles were asked not to use klaxons, to minimise the Giro’s acoustic impact. After 12 km of climbing, with Team Sunweb setting the pace, the Maglia Rosa quietly slipped off the back of the group of favourites. João Almeida’s 15-day reign in pink was coming to an end.

Then Rohan Dennis moved to the front and reduced the leading group first to four (Dennis, Geoghegan Hart, Hindley and Kelderman), then three. Kelderman, unable to follow, rode alone courageously for the remaining 45.5 km, conceding 2’18” but winning the Maglia Rosa. After Dennis became the first antipodean to win the Cima Coppi, Hindley, his leader behind, rode on Geoghegan Hart’s wheel all the way to the final 100m, then took the stage, the day after a fellow resident of Perth, Western Australia, Ben O’Connor.

The Stelvio is Coppi, Gaul, Hinault, and, today, Jai, Tao, Wilco… unique names in the WorldTour, at the head of an exceptional stage. After 18 stages, just 15″ separate Kelderman, Hindley and Geoghegan Hart at the top of GC. It’s not a record: in 1996, after stage 19, Pavel Tonkov, Abraham Olano and Evgeni Berzin were seperated by 14″, with two uphill finishes and the mass-start stage around Milan to go. Tonkov won it then. With tomorrow’s longest stage, Saturday’s mountain stage and Sunday’s time trial still to come, who will win this year’s Giro is still a wonderful sporting mystery.

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