Contador expects 'irretrievable gaps' on Etna as Giro GC battle hots up

Alberto Contador expects the battle for pink to kick into life on Stage 4 of the Giro d’Italia and “irretrievable gaps” to potentially be opened up.

After Monday’s rest day, the race returns with a mountain-top finish at Mount Etna.

Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin–Fenix) is expected to face a battle to hold onto the leader’s jersey as the top contenders for the General Classification emerge.

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“Tomorrow’s stage is important because of how early it will be in the race and the consequences it can have,” two-time Giro champion Contador told Eurosport.

“Whoever is not ready tomorrow can say goodbye to the Giro d’Italia for good on Stage 4 because there are irretrievable gaps.”

Van der Poel took the race lead with victory on the opening stage before following up with a second-place finish on Stage 2.

However, he is only 11 seconds ahead of Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange-Jayco) and 16 ahead of Tom Dumoulin (Jumbo-Visma).

“Van der Poel must be happy to keep the maglia rosa but he must also be worried about the level of big rivals like [Mark] Cavendish or Yates himself,” added Contador.

“These first stages are allowing us to see a great spectacle with great moments like Cavendish’s yesterday. Even so, I expect [Joao] Almeida and [Vincenzo] Nibali to step up their performances in stages like Etna and tighten up the general classification.”

Stage 4 is 172km in length and features no other big climbs apart from the long ascent up Etna to the finish.

Eduardo Chozas, three-time Giro stage winner, told Eurosport: “I think we will see a very exciting stage on Etna because of all that is at stake.

Giro d’Italia Stage 1 highlights – Van der Poel storms to stunning victory in dramatic finish

“It’s going to be a day that will define who can be racing until the end of the Giro and who loses most of the options to keep the pace.

“I think it’s going to be a chaotic stage that will move the whole peloton and a lot of things can happen. Van der Poel can’t relax because it’s very easy to lose the lead.”

While there will be plenty of focus on Van der Poel as he looks to remain in the race lead, the 27-year-old has already impressed on his Giro debut.

Jacky Durand, three-time Grand Tour stage winner, thinks Van der Poel deserves plenty of respect for his showing so far.

Simon Yates

Image credit: Getty Images

“Mathieu van der Poel has no pressure,” he told Eurosport. “We remember that he came to this Giro to win a stage, the first stage was already a big goal and he achieved it. From now on, he will see day after day and he will not deprive himself of winning other stages.

“He has a big advantage: he is all-round, he is capable of winning even in a bunch sprint. In the time trial [on Saturday], he doesn’t have much of a reference even if it was made for him and, in a way, he is an extra-terrestrial and we felt he was very strong in the last passages on the cobbles. He is an instinctive rider who enjoys himself.”

“On Stage 3 on Sunday, Van der Poel did a great job. You can imagine: he’s in the pink jersey, he’s a sprinter, he could have won the stage in theory, but no, he puts himself at the service of a rider who just won a race in Turkey at the beginning of the season.

“We have already seen leaders racing for another sprinter of their team and it is to their credit because not only do you start the sprint for another rider but you also take risks. That’s it, respect Mathieu Van der Poel, he is just huge!

“I think that if there had been several flat stages afterwards, we might have sprinted for Van der Poel but he has a rest day and after Etna and we know that he expects to lose the jersey on Etna.”

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Giro d’Italia 2022 Stage 4 – Route map, how to watch first mountain stage as race hits Sicily


Giro talking points: How long can MVDP keep it up? Why Cav has to go to Tour

An enforced break to get the riders and race infrastructure all the way from Hungary to Sicily – a mere 2,000 kilometres by car – gives the cycling media a moment to pause and reflect on the events of the opening three days of the 105th edition of the Giro d’Italia.

If the race has largely kept to script, it has also thrown up no shortage of talking points. Here are 10 of them dissected by Felix Lowe before the race resumes with its first summit finish on Tuesday.

Van der Pink – but for how much longer?

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We’re beginning to run out of superlatives for Mathieu van der Poel. The manner in which the Dutchman dug deep on that final five-kilometre climb to Visegrad – not merely to stay in contention, but to power past his rivals and hold off the impressive Biniam Girmay – was yet another display of his superstardom.

The sight of a post-victory Van der Poel sprawled across the ground is hardly something new – it’s the way his body reacts to the vast majority of his wins. But he looks like this – that’s to say, like a man on the cusp of extinction – because the superhuman effort he puts in often comes in stages he has no real right in winning. He plummets such depths to reach highs that should be beyond him, but aren’t by virtue of his astonishing ability to suffer more for his art than anyone around him.

One day later, Van der Poel came just three seconds from winning the time trial in Budapest. In Stage 3, he then went all in for Alpecin-Fenix teammate Jakub Mareczko when, to be fair, he would have probably fared far higher than the Italian’s fifth place were the roles reversed.

Van der Poel will now head to Sicily with the maglia rosa on his shoulders as only the second rider in history to wear the leader’s jersey at his first two Grand Tours (the other rider being, funnily enough, Fernando Gaviria: a solid enough sprinter on his day, but a rider very much operating several stratospheres lower than the 27-year-old Van der Poel does today).

‘Glorious chaos!’ – Van der Poel grabs stunning victory on Stage 1 of Giro

Can Van der Poel hold on to the pink jersey until the race hits mainland Italy on Thursday? You would think it unlikely, especially with the prospect of the challenging finish on Mount Etna on Tuesday. A lot, of course, will depend on how the big GC favourites decide to tackle the first summit finish of the race.

But as we saw in last year’s Tour – Van der Poel won’t give up the jersey easily. He’s already spoken of his desire to keep it beyond Etna – and he’s a rider capable of putting his body through the mill not just when there’s a victory at stake, but survival to ensure.

Cavendish must go to the Tour

For many, Mark Cavendish’s return to the Giro for the first time in nine years was a sign that there would be no fourteenth Tour this July. But with every win he picks up – and his latest was Quick-Step’s first in the Giro in four years – it’s going to get harder and harder to overlook the 36-year-old for the world’s biggest bike race.

On Sunday’s stage to Balatonfured, Cavendish may well have enjoyed a near-flawless leadout (we’re looking at you, Mauro Schmid…) but when he struck out with 300m remaining, he still had everything to do. By holding off Arnaud Demare, Fernando Gaviria and Biniam Girmay, Cavendish showed that he still has more to give than his younger counterparts.

His celebrations afterwards underlined that his 16th Giro win meant as much as his first – and the way he sought out his teammates and enjoyed a special word with the likes of Michael Morkov and Davide Ballerini was a joy to watch. Cav’s later questioning of Schmid’s absence may have been viewed as an unnecessary dig – but it was also a display of Cav’s honesty and passion, two contributing factors to his continued success.

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Of course, a lot depends on the form of teammate Fabio Jakobsen. But the pressure will now be on the 25-year-old Dutchman to pick up wins in the Tour of Hungary next week – wins which, let’s be honest, won’t carry as much sway as Cavendish’s win in the same country this weekend.

Jakobsen will no doubt be seen on a podium again soon – but it won’t change the fact that Cavendish is performing on a higher plane right now, nor will it disguise the fact that Cav and Morkov are a winning combination that may prove impossible to overlook.

Surely the solution is a no-brainer: both Cavendish and Jakobsen must go to the Tour. Unleash Cav early on and let him get that record-breaking 35th stage win – then let him support his understudy, which he will no doubt do with the utter professionalism he exudes.

After all, with question marks over Julian Alaphilippe’s fitness and Remco Evenepoel’s Grand Tour pedigree, it’s not as if Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl will have a GC card to play in France. And with the upcoming Netflix documentary series ensuring that even more people will be watching the Tour than usual this year, it would be marketing folly by Quick-Step to deprive the race of what would be inescapably one of its great subplots.

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Biniam Girmay will win a stage in this Giro

There’s no shame in missing out to Mathieu van der Poel on your Grand Tour debut – and for all the disappointment of his second place, the 22-year-old Etirean at least took the white jersey as best young rider. It was in the maglia ciclamino two days later that Girmay contested the first bunch sprint of the race and came fourth. A better bike lunge may have seen him come second to Cavendish, who he may have pushed a little further had he not found himself boxed in by Demare and Gaviria on the home straight.

Whichever way you look at it, Girmay has shown enough class, might and main in his first two Grand Tour road stages to suggest that it’s a question of when, and not if, he goes on to win a stage in his debut Giro. It could come as early as Wednesday’s fifth stage to Messina or Thursday’s Stage 6 to Scalea, where bunch sprints are expected.

Should he miss out, such is Girmay’s arsenal and ability that he has what it takes to be competitive on the lumpier seventh and eighth stages to Potenza and Naples. In short, it would be a bewilderment should Girmay not win a stage this week, let alone at all.

‘It was a really hard finish but I’m happy’ – Girmay on second place on Giro Stage 1

Crashes and positioning holding Ewan back

Only one of Caleb Ewan’s 11 Grand Tour stage wins has come before the fifth stage and so it’s not exactly a new phenomenon for the Australian to come good a bit later on in a race. But the fact that Ewan has only finished two of his eight Grand Tours to date – and has suffered heavy early falls in his previous two outings – is cause for concern.

In Friday’s opening stage to Visegrad the 27-year-old mirrored his recent performances on the Poggio by staying in touch with the favourites on the decisive climb – and when the final sprint launched, he looked destined to win. That was until Girmay made his move and Van der Poel responded, leaving Ewan all of a sudden on the back foot and playing catch-up.

It was a careless mistake that saw him take his eyes off the road and clip Girmay’s back wheel in a incident not entirely dissimilar from the one which ended his Tour last July. The fall was heavy, but with a time trial following the next day, Ewan at least had time to recover before the next showdown. And yet in the race’s first bunch sprint, Ewan found himself coming from too deep and could only take eighth place.

Ewan’s finish speed is clearly still there, and he does have a dedicated train as Lotto Soudal. Coupled with his track record of pretty much always coming up with the goods at least once in a Grand Tour, evidence suggests that he will be back to winning ways before too long. But there’s no denying that these unnecessary crashes and positioning bungles are not making his job any easier – and the pressure only intensifies when you publicly state your intention to leave the race early and concentrate on your next goal.

Mathieu van der Poel sfida Biniam Girmay nella volata di Visegrad, dietro Caleb Ewan che cade – Giro d’Italia 2022

Image credit: Getty Images

Flawless start for Simon Yates

Gone are the days when Simon Yates needed to build up a big cushion in the mountains to keep the time trial specialists at bay; after Saturday’s showing, the 29-year-old has become something of a chrono specialist himself.

No one would have begrudged Tom Dumoulin the win in Budapest after all that the Dutchman has been through – but credit where credit’s due: Yates, and Van der Poel for that matter, were stronger over the short 9.2km test in the Hungarian capital.

But what a confidence boost it must have been for both the pretenders for pink. For Dumoulin, it was proof that he could mix it with the best again following his sabbatical from the sport, one and a half years after his last Grand Tour; for Yates, for whom time trials have often proved the thorn in his side, the stage win was a solid indication that he’s on the right track to bringing home, finally, the maglia rosa.

‘A little unexpected’ Simon Yates delighted with Time Trial win

That said, it was a double boon for Yates – for his three-second win over Van der Poel was enough to secure the stage, but fell short of the requisite margin to take the pink jersey off his shoulders. So, while Yates put time into all his big rivals, he will not start the Giro’s first mountain test with the pressure of defending the maglia rosa. His BikeExchange-Jayco team couldn’t have asked for more.

Etna the real litmus test for Tom Dumoulin

It has been far from plain sailing for the 2017 Giro champion since his move to Jumbo-Visma in 2020. After finishing seventh in support of Primoz Roglic in the Tour that year, a bad crash in the Vuelta started a new, difficult chapter in the Dutchman’s career. It’s only now, some 18 months and an enforced sabbatical on, that we are seeing Dumoulin back in the big time and riding with a smile on his face again.

It’s early days to draw any form conclusions. Indeed, Dumoulin in his pomp would have eaten Simon Yates for breakfast in a short 9.2km time trial with a punchy rise to the line. But the fact that the 31-year-old was in the mix for the stage win bodes well for the rest of the Giro.

A firmer test, however, will come on Wednesday with the race’s first summit finish. It’s doubtful that the Giro will be won on Etna’s volcanic slopes, but it could well be lost. If Dumoulin can finish alongside the pink jersey favourites, then the next phase of his rehabilitation will be complete.

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Get used to Drone Hopper breakaways

Both road stages during the Hungarian grande partenza coaxed the same two Drone Hopper-Androni Giacattoli riders out of the peloton and into the break. On Friday, Mattia Bais and Filippo Tagliani were the only riders who bothered having a go, while on Sunday the same two were joined by compatriot Samuele Rivi of Eolo-Kometa.

As a result of their dual enterprise, Tagliani now leads the intermediate sprint classification while teammate Bais is ahead in the fuga classification. These two minor competitions are small beer compared to the pink, purple, blue and white jersey prizes, but it’s all grist to the mill for a second-tier team like Drone Hopper, whose myriad sponsors have enjoyed ample exposure – a fact which, however hard to get your head round, shouldn’t be underplayed.

With the race moving to Sicily and then mainland Italy it’s likely that the two other Italian wildcard teams, Eolo-Kometa and Bardiani-CSF-Faizane, will look to get in on the act a bit more. But Drone Hopper will continue doing what they do in the hope that one day it will pay more dividends than the meagre sponsorship trickledown and the minor classifications. It’s going to be a long three weeks for Signori Bais e Tagliani…

Kelderman and Kamna give Bora reasons to cheer

On paper their squad looked a bit like cycling’s equivalent of a team full of midfield playmakers but the events of the first few days suggest that Bora-Hansgrohe may have found the right balance after all.

From surging up the final climb to Visegrad to putting a very solid time trial for seventh place in Budapest, Wilco Kelderman looks in decent condition and full of confidence. Lying in fifth place, just 24 seconds down on Van der Poel, the Dutchman has underlined that it is he who will lead this Bora team, and not Jai Hindley (23rd place at 45”) or Emanuel Buchmann (45th at 1’08”).

Having come within a couple of days of winning the Giro in 2020, Kelderman ghosted his way to a career-best fifth place in last year’s Tour. There’s everything to suggest that, come Tuesday, he, and not Van der Poel or Dumoulin, will be the best placed Dutchman on GC.

The ebullient performances of Lennard Kamna, too, give Bora much reason to cheer. The German had a pop from distance on the final climb of the opening stage – before sinking like a stone and, perhaps cannily, dropping back on GC. He then showed his form by leading the time trial for a period on Saturday. Now almost two minutes down on GC, the 25-year-old may be able to muscle himself into a day’s break on Tuesday and contest the win on Etna.

Giro d’Italia Stage 1 highlights – Van der Poel storms to stunning victory in dramatic finish

Short time trial but same story for Lopez

Time trialling being a perpetual Achilles heel for Miguel Angel Lopez, it must have been music to the Colombian’s ears that this year’s Giro only features 26-odd kilometres against the clock. But even after a short test that culminated in a climb, Lopez finds himself 53 seconds off the pace and already behind many of his GC rivals.

It’s a similar story for Movistar duo Alejandro Valverde (+58”) and Ivan Sosa (+1’34”) and Frenchman Guillaume Martin of Cofidis (+1’04”) – although this trio, unlike Astana’s Lopez, are not prioritising the general classification. Superman will need to find some form if he wants to climb back into contention.

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