There was a time during today’s 4th stage of the Tour of the Alps, Bolzano-Cles (165,3 km), when it really seemed like a classic breakaway stage, with a group of good riders taking the chance, and the peloton content to let them go. But the first Trentino’s stage of this edition, ending in the Melinda’s apple land in Val di Non, had some real emotions in store. By the time Matteo Montaguti (Ag2r-La Mondiale) tasted his first victory in seven years, nipping the likes of Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) and Rohan Dennis (BMC) in a reduced sprint, fuchsia jersey Geraint Thomas and Team Sky knew they had seriously risked to lose the lead in the most unlikely fashion, thanks to some sharp tactics by Ag2r and a solid effort by Hubert Dupont, who at 37 of age went close to write one of the most memorable days in his career. There is no room for predictable days at the Euro-Regional event: with Thomas holding a bare 13-second lead on Pinot, 16 seconds on Pozzovivo and 21 seconds on Scarponi, everything will go down to the last finish in Trento.
HOW IT UNFOLDED
In a chilly but finally sunny day, the peloton headed out of Bolzano at fast pace, with several riders trying to go for a breakaway early on, in a day that many considered favorable for long-distance attempts. After 20 km, five riders eventually succeeded in the attempt: Kilian Frankiny (BMC), Jeremy Roy (FDJ), Simone Andreetta and Stefano Pirazzi (Bardiani-CSF) and Davide Vilella (Cannondale-Drapac) got the green light from the peloton that considerably slowed down, immediately bringing their advantage over 2 minutes before tackling the Mendola Pass, first climb of the day. The Frenchman won the first KOM, as the break reached the maximum advantage at km 62 with 4.16.
Behind, Team Sky kept a regular pace, bringing back the leaders within reach by the start of the Forcella di Brez: the escapees could count on only 46 seconds as they faced the first ramps of the 5 km climb with gradients constantly over 10%.
Predictably, it was combative Stefano Pirazzi who kicked out from the leading group, with Frankiny trying to keep within reach, whilst Dario Cataldo was the first to move away from the bunch in pursuit, later imitated by Danilo Celano (Italy), Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) and Alexander Foliforov (Rusvelo).
Pirazzi was first atop the Forcella di Brez, with 10 seconds on Frankiny and about 25 seconds on a group of about 15 riders, with all the strongest contenders.
The Frankiny-Pirazzi duo got back again in the descent, whilst Hubert Dupont (Ag2r-La Mondiale) tried his luck out of the bunch, managing to steadily recover and finally join the leading duo, whilst the peloton led by Team Sky was sailing at about 1.30: with the Frenchman at 1.02 in the GC, pressure was on Thomas to bring down the advantage.
The feat was performed by Team Sky thanks to the furious chasing effort by last year’s winner Mikel Landa, who stretched the peloton and took advantage of the fatigue of the three leaders in the final uphill section on the way to Cles to quickly close down and bring things together with 1 km to go. After losing the GC lead chance, Ag2r made it up for it in the sprint, as Matteo Montaguti barely passed on the right of Thibaut Pinot to claim his first win in seven years. The Italian was quick to credit the Frenchman’s fair play in not slamming the door to him, and saving his chance for the final throw to the line.
Geraint Thomas stepped on the podium and wore the fuchsia jersey again – after his regular warmdown – with the awareness of having dodged a bullet. And he knows he will have to earn every inch of it in the final effort of tomorrow, from Smarano to Trento (192,5 km): the Passo Durone and Monte Bondone stand on the way of a possible third Team Sky celebration in the last three years.
“I hadn’t been winning for seven years, I am happy to have broken the drought here, as I strongly pressed on the Team to take part in this race. That’s the best possible preparation for the Giro d’Italia. My job for the day was to sprint to try to take away bonus seconds from Pinot, who sat behind Pozzovivo in the GC, but I don’t think even my team expected me to win. I used my pistard skills to find the right channel and the winning throw. I thanked Pinot and congratulated him after the finish: he could have slammed the door to the right during the sprint, he played it fair. He was a real gentleman.”
“Dupont and I had to remain with Pozzovivo on the climb. When he attacked at the foot of the descent, I was also thinking to attack. In the end he did very good for me, as he forced Sky to push harder, and I could better prepare for the sprint. I would have loved to see Dupont in the leader’s jersey, he is a great guy, but today’s action eventually played into my hands.”
“Last year I did a good Giro with Pozzovivo, but I think I am stronger now than last year. I have a terrific shape, and I am looking forward to every chance, starting with the stages in Sardinia, that are way tougher that people might think.”
“It was a hard race today, our rivals put us under pressure, but we had a great team once again. Without the amazing contribution of my teammate, we wouldn’t have held the lead.”
“I think both Landa and I have chances for the Giro d’Italia: we will go into the third week and see who is better placed in the GC. I think having two cards to play can help to take some pressure off both of us. We have a strong team, hopefully we will get more luck than the last couple of years in the Giro.”
“I think the last stage will be full-gas, as usual. I wanted to get in the sprint today, but I got boxed, and Pinot was close once again. He is in good shape, and he is possibly the main threat for the GC, but there are several strong aggressive riders in the top-10 to be watched out.”