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Emma Nicholson went to watch stage nine of the 2016 Giro D’Italia, to try to capture in photos the essence of the ‘race of truth’

Morning broke like any other in Tuscany. Mist slid through the valleys, grazing the perfectly cultivated patchwork of vineyards draped over the landscape, and accompanied, as ever, by the morning chorus of swallows.

 Emma Nicholson. Emma Nicholson.

On Sunday 15th May, this perfect morning tranquility was about to be interrupted by one of the biggest travelling circuses on earth, for the Giro d’Italia had arrived in Chianti.

Stage 9 of the Giro this year was the second of three individual time trials and the longest at a little over 40km. With nearly 2000ft of climbing and some technical sections, this time trial was touted as one of the key stages which would have the potential to really shake up the general classification.

 Primoz Roglic on his way to an unlikely victory. Emma Nicholson. Primoz Roglic on his way to an unlikely victory. Emma Nicholson.

On paper it looks tough. In the flesh, it is a beautiful race course of a route. The rolling hills and lush woodland create an almost Alpine aesthetic, with roads that snake their way between terracotta towns perched on the hilltops.

Dented only slightly by a worrying performance the day before, everyone was predicting that a certain Dutchman would post the fastest time on Sunday afternoon. However the forecasted thunder storms threatened to write a different story.

The cycling culture in Tuscany has deep foundations. It is home to the white roads of the Strade Bianche, l’Eroica and the legendary Gino Bartali. The people are almost as mad about cycling as they are about wine. Every other shop in Greve (finish line) sells cycling kit with only meat, wine and cheese caves in between. There is a constant stream of cyclists on the rolling Chianti roads, most of them enjoying the late afternoon, twilight years of their lives, upon steel Colnago, Pinarello and Bianchi frames, their dark, leathery skin indicating a lifetime spent out of doors.

 Emma Nicholson. Emma Nicholson.

Caravans were already parked on the roadside 48 hours before race day and barbecues, beer and laughter were plentiful. On the morning of the time trial, the chain of caravans lining the 5km climb to Panzano glittered in the sun, and we could hear the merriment from the other side of the valley.

Time trials are seldom the most sought after viewing experience because it is bike racing reduced to the dash from A to B. However, it does give viewers the opportunity to see every single one of their favourite riders up close, grit, determination and pain etched into their faces.

 Panzano.  Emma Nicholson. Panzano.  Emma Nicholson.

Watching on an Italian roadside was a special experience. There was a party atmosphere, not interrupted by the storms that would come, and the enthusiastic cheers whenever any Italian flew around the corner were inconceivably high in volume considering the size of the crowd. We were positioned in Sicelle, a tiny hamlet boasting an ancient church, popular ‘Osteria’ (bar) and not more than half a dozen properties. Perched at the top of a short climb, Sicelle is on a corner, after which the road wraps around the hill and begins the technical descent (that would nearly bring down Mikel Landa) to the foot of the longer climb to Panzano.

The first rider to carve through Sicelle was IAM Cycling’s Matthias Brändle who had already overtaken the first man off the start ramp, Ji Cheng of Giant-Alpecin, earlier in his storming ride. His excellent effort would end up being good enough for second place. From then on, the riders came every two to three minutes, all 186 of them.

 Emma Nicholson. Emma Nicholson.

The bad weather held back until about half the field had passed through the 15kms-to-go mark, then unleashed all its power on the GC contenders at the pointy end of the race. Rather than dampening the spirits of our little crowd in Sicelle, the rain and thunder seemed to inject even more energy into the afternoon. Now there was drama, greater stress on the riders (and staff), more risk in the technical descents and far more interesting photographs!

It seemed that the storm reserved its energy until the tail end of the day and the top ten received the brunt of the force as the skies emptied upon them. Wet through and seemingly in more discomfort than anyone to come before, the GC favourites ground up the hill, mouths hanging open, sucking in as much oxygen as they possibly could. When Nibali appeared, cries of ‘Vincenzo’ could have masked a passing jumbo jet as the nation’s favourite rounded the corner, a string of dribble dangling from his grimace.

 Emma Nicholson. Emma Nicholson.

After the equally well-received Italian, Gianluca Brambilla roared through Sicelle, on an impressive ride that would see him keep the Maglia Rosa, it was over abruptly. The half dozen men who had set up at 6:30am, appeared from nowhere and immediately started to dismantle the barriers as the crowd dispersed.

At the finish line in the piazza in Greve, where restaurant seats were selling for €300, an unlikely story had unfolded. The top ten on the stage was dominated by those riders lucky enough to ride in the dry and sunny conditions earlier in the day. Fabian Cancellara had not been able to do enough to get close to the podium, while the first rider home, Matthias Brändle, was joined by teammate Vegard Stake Laengen on the lower two steps of the podium. Winning the day though, with an adrenaline or anger-fuelled ride on a bike that was too small and with no water on board, was former ski jumper Primoz Roglic – a rider who has certainly made his mark on this Giro.

Other big winners on the day included Team Etixx-Quickstep with one incredible ride from Brambilla to cling onto the race lead with just one second over his teammate Bob Jungels, who put in a phenomenal performance to take 6th place on the stage, despite riding through the worst of the storms. The biggest losers on the other hand were pre-race favourite, Tom Dumoulin, who fell nearly two minutes short of the podium and Katusha’s Ilnur Zakarin, whose time trial was fraught with bad luck. Falling early on and ripping open his skin suit, only to fall again 300m from the finish, the Russian starlet came in 54th on the stage, causing him to fall out of the top ten on GC.

A beautiful day for spectators, a difficult day for the racers, the time trial was a story of literal and figurative twists and turns, and the riders would surely have been glad of the rest day to follow. Days like Sunday remind us never to count on anything. Modern cycling is sometimes criticised as having become predictable, focused on numbers. And it is predictable. Until it isn’t. All you need is some changeable weather and a dash of crafty route-planning, and the story becomes a blockbuster in the making.

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It’s May, guys. May is here! That means we can officially start acting like it’s spring. Fish out the lightweight, short-sleeve jersey and throw them bib tights back in the drawer – we wanna see some bare knees and elbows from now on when you hit the roads, streets and trails!

May also means the first of the Grand Tours in road cycling is upon us, the Giro D’Italia. Kicking off this weekend the race will take three weeks to travel the length and breadth of Italy’s famous ‘boot’, before finishing up in Turin on the 29th.

Who’s going to win?

Well this is a hard one to call. The bookies have Vicenzo Nibali as the favourite, but we’re not too sure. He looked a little bit erratic last year – finishing his Grand Tour campaign by being kicked out of the Vuelta for hanging onto a car was a particular highlight –  with his win at the Giro de Lombardia just about saving his fairly middling season. Still, he’s the only man in the race who has won all three of the Grand Tours, so that’s got to count for something.

Also in with a very good shout are Mikel Landa of Team Sky, who managed a third place in the last edition riding in support of Astana teammate Fabio Aru, and Rafael Majka of Tinkoff. The Polish rider excels in the mountains and has been developing into a strong second GC leader (behind Alberto Contador) in the last year or so. There are a lot of time trials (three to be precise) in this year’s Giro, which could play into the hands of a specialist like Tom Dumoulin or Rigoberto Uran – both of whom are not quite as strong on the climbs as Landa and Nibali. Speaking of climbers, don’t count out Alejandro Valverde, Movistar’s old warhorse, either!

Away from the general classification battle the sprints will be contested by Marcel Kittel for Etixx, young gun Caleb Ewan from Orica-Greenedge and Andre ‘the Gorilla’ Greipel.

What’s the route like?

Starting in the Netherlands meant it was never going to be hilly from the start, but it doesn’t take long before the riders will be asked to do some serious climbing. After the initial three days in Holland, the teams have a rest day when they will travel to the southern end of Italy. A couple of low key days later and they’re heading into the first summit finish. It’s classified as a ‘medium’ mountain day, but that’s really just a testament to how tough this race is – the two major climbs, the Bocca di Selva and the finish at Roccaraso are more than 1,300 and 1,500 metres above sea level.

A couple more low-key days and then its the ITT through the Chianti region – with a fairly bumpy 40-kilometre parcours it’s guaranteed to be a stern test and a day that will definitely have some impact on the GC.

After the TT comes the second rest day and a couple more quiet medium mountain or flat days (watch out for Kittel and his fast mates hoovering up the sprint points). Then all hell breaks loose. A mega mountainous stage 14 is followed up with another individual time trial, this time a 10km uphill slog. Perhaps mercifully, the next day is the Giro’s final rest day, but then we’re right back into the swing of things with stage 16 looking to be another hilly one.

 The frankly ridiculous profile for stage 15  The frankly ridiculous profile for stage 15

If it hasn’t been decided already, stages 19 and 20 will effectively seal the race. They’re both immense mountain days in the alps and will require every last ounce of energy from the GC hopefuls.

If it’s the Giro D’Italia, why is it starting in Holland?

Well, just like the Tour de France, the Giro has a foreign start every couple of years to improve the race’s international profile. It came to the United Kingdom in 2014 when it started in Northern Ireland, and has started in the Netherlands three times. The last time it started in Dutch territory was 2010 when a certain Bradley Wiggins won the opening TT.

Who is Britain’s best hope for a victory this year?

Well.. this is a little embarrassing. Based on the provisional startlists we’ve got our grubby mitts on, there is not one single Brit involved in this year’s Giro D’Italia. You can always cheer for those lovable Aussies at Orica-Greenedge, or even better, pick a true underdog and support wildcard invitees Nippo – Vini Fantini – they’ve got a former winner of the Giro in their roster, 40-year-old Damiano Cunego so you never know!

Image Tom Owen.

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