'It will be the hardest stage I’ve ever ridden' - Why this weekend will be crucial for GC riders at the Giro d'Italia

With a time trial day and an incredibly challenging stage to Livigno to round out the second week of the race, all eyes are on the GC teams

If anyone else wants a shot at standing on the podium in Rome wearing the maglia rosa at the end of this year’s Giro d’Italia, they need to act this weekend. Tadej Pogačar, after dominating the first week of the race in his usual breathtaking fashion, currently has a lead on the general classification of almost three minutes. The terrain on stages 14 and 15 provides ample opportunity for his rivals to try and claw some of this margin back. With the current form of the Slovenian rider, it’s going to be a tall order, but it’s the only option other teams have – if they haven’t given up the dream of pink already.

Unexpectedly, we might have seen a glimmer of what is to come this weekend on Friday’s flat sprint stage to Cento. With almost zero metres of elevation gain, stage 13 should have been an easy day for the general classification contenders to cruise peacefully to the finish line, saving their legs for the mountains to come. The Ineos Grenadiers, however, had a very different idea. In a bold and confident move, the British squad took to the front of the peloton with just over 60 kilometres of the stage remaining and attacked out of a left-hand corner in to a section of exposed road which cut through flat farmland.

The wind howled from the left and Ineos pushed hard on the front, with Filippo Ganna and Magnus Sheffiled key instigators of the move. Geraint Thomas, who sits in third place on the general classification, sat behind his teammates as they vied to put their rivals under pressure. In the end, the attack – while appreciated by TV viewers who were struggling to stay awake in an otherwise extremely docile stage – didn’t cause crucial GC splits. It did, however, tell us that the Ineos Grenadiers aren’t satisfied with the current state of play at this year’s Giro. They are ready to fight for more.

Saturday’s stage is a flat 31 kilometre time trial from Castiglione delle Stiviere to Desenzano del Garda. It’s a race guaranteed to suit specialists in the discipline, as well as the more well-rounded GC riders who are able to hold their own on the flat. Thomas slots neatly into this category, and stage 14 offers a big chance for the Welshman to try and gain more time and move up the GC standings. Of course, the stage also suits Pogačar (is there any which doesn’t?) and the Slovenian rider will take confidence in his time trialling ability following his win against the clock earlier in the race. The Giro won't be won in Saturday’s time trial, but it will give us a good indication of which GC men are building well into the final week.

On Sunday, the stakes get even higher. In his press conference on Monday’s rest day, Pogačar said: “The last day of this week will be the hardest I’ve ever ridden, it’s going to be a massive stage.”

At 222km and with an elevation gain of 5,400 metres, the route of stage 15 features three first-category climbs, including the iconic Mortirolo. The peloton will ascend high above the town of Livigno to finish the stage on the Mottolino, where the final 1.8 kilometres rise at almost 10% to the line. The severity of this day should not be underestimated and it is prime Tadej Pogačar territory. Is there any way that the current pink jersey wearer can be beaten in the Italian Alps?

Stage 13 showed us that Ineos, for one, has the right idea. Like they did in Friday’s sprint stage, teams are going to have to think differently about how to get the better of Pogačar on Sunday, and this means catching him when he’s off-guard or isolated. The UAE Team Emirates’ rider needs to be put under pressure, and previous mountain stages have shown that he often finds himself with a lack of support from his teammates on the toughest climbs. His rivals should be looking to capitalise on this. A crucial element will be having the right mindset: the likes of Dani Martínez and Geraint Thomas shouldn’t be thinking about protecting their podium places, but they need to think about how to beat Pogačar. They will need to risk losing to have the chance of winning.

Whatever happens on the brutal slopes of the Mortirolo and the Mottolino, the stage will go down in history as one of the toughest days of bike racing this season so far. Pogačar has said that he’s looking forward to it and certainly starts as favourite, but nothing is a guarantee in bike racing. No one has forgotten that fabled day on stage 17 of the Tour de France last year when the 25-year-old spectacularly blew up on the Col de la Loze , much to everyone’s surprise. If the same happens on Sunday, Pogačar’s rivals will be looking to take advantage of it. And even if it doesn’t, they should look to attack, anticipate, and try to win this bike race.

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