Belgian rider Tim Wellens won the fourth stage of the Giro d’Italia on Tuesday, the first on Italian soil in this year’s race, while Chris Froome’s hopes of a third straight Grand Tour victory took another hit.
Wellens won a sprint on an uphill finish, holding off Canadian Michael Woods and Italy’s Enrico Battaglin following the 202km ride between Catania and Caltagirone in Sicily.
Australian Rohan Dennis retained the overall leader’s pink jersey after the first of three days on the Mediterranean island, after the race had started in Jerusalem followed by two stages in Israel.
Britain’s four-time Tour de France winner Froome lost up to 20 seconds on his rivals on the final climb.
The race was built around a five-man breakaway — Enrico Barbin, Jacopo Mosca, Quentin Jauregui, Maxim Belkov and Marco Frapporti – who opened up a four-minute lead before being caught 13km from the line and the climb towards Caltagirone.
In the final push, Italy’s Valerio Conti showed his ambitions up front but was reeled in with three kilometres to go.
For 26-year-old Lotto rider Wellens it was a second career win in the Giro two years after his first.
The Belgian has claimed one-day race wins such as the Montreal GP in 2015 and stage races including the Eneco Tour and the Tour of Poland.
Wednesday’s fifth stage will cover 153km between Agrigente and Santa Ninfa.
Elia Viviani made it a double delight on Sunday as he won his second Giro d’Italia stage in a row in a bunch sprint finish at Eilat.
The Giro made history this year as it became the first Grand Tour to start outside of Europe with Friday’s individual time-trial in Jerusalem.
There followed two sprint stages through Israel, finishing in Tel Aviv and then Eilat before the whole peloton returned to its homeland for yesterday’s rest day ahead of Tuesday’s fourth stage in Sicily.
Here, we take a look at four key talking points ahead of the race’s return to Italy.
Big stages lie ahead
After three stages in Israel, the race finally heads to Sicily where there will be another three stages before returning to mainland Italy and north towards the Alps.
Although there has been some criticism that the route is not as testing as previous years, a new climb on the Mount Etna stage on Thursday will prove brutal – with some sections rising to 14 per cent gradient.
On stage 14, the Zoncolan is arguably one of the most draining climbs in Europe and will certainly test the mettle of some of the riders who will be hoping to clinch the pink jersey in Rome on May 27.
It’s a relentless 10km drag with an average drag of 12-22 per cent in some places making it perhaps the most difficult in the entire race.
Froome still racing under a cloud of controversy
The adverse analytical findings still loom large for Chris Froome as he heads to Italy for the most challenging part of the race.
The four-time Tour de France winner was courted to race the event for the first time since 2010, with a £2 million fee reportedly paid by the organisers to secure his participation.
The 32-year-old seems determined to win his first Giro despite the cloud that hangs over his involvement in the race.
Should he win the Giro and then be subsequently banned, he would be stripped of the title later on in the year.
Who are the contenders in Italy?
Froome may be the favourite, but defending champion Tom Dumoulin looks a serious threat again after his win in stage one on Friday.
The 27-year-old Dutchman has the legs and power to overcome Froome on the time-trials – as proven during the 2016 Rio Olympics when he beat the Englishman to silver.
Other big names to consider for a shot at the pink jersey are 2015 Vuelta a Espana winner Fabio Aru, Frenchman Thibaut Pinot and Esteban Chaves of Colombia.
But with such a powerful team at Froome’s disposal, can Dumoulin or any of the other riders put a halt to Team Sky’s dominance?
Young riders set to show their class
If some of the younger riders get a chance, then expect either Lopez or Simon Yates two to make a solid impression.
Lopez (24), in particular, has drawn much hype leading into the Giro after his storming displays in the mountains during the Tour of the Alps and the Tour of Oman.
Englishman Simon Yates (25), meanwhile, has continued to improve and narrowly missed out on victory in Paris-Nice last month, finishing second behind Spain’s Marc Soler.
In the three stages of the race to date, Yates has been more impressive than the Colombian with a sixth place finish in stage one and a 16th place finish in stage three – but expect both rising stars to have a say in Sicily this week.
Team Sky star Chris Froome‘s attempt to win a third straight grand tour got off to a nightmare start at the Giro d’Italia on Friday.
The four-time Tour de France champion’s bad day at the office began when he crashed heavily on his right side during a reconnaissance ride of the 9.7-kilometre course, a twisting and undulating route around Jerusalem’s city centre.
His team said it was just a case of cuts and bruises but that looked like an understatement four hours later when he went through the intermediate split way down on the early leader Rohan Dennis.
That impression was rammed home less than four minutes later when the last man on the course, defending champion Tom Dumoulin, went through the finish line in a blistering time of 12 minutes two seconds – two seconds quicker than Dennis and a massive 37 seconds better than Froome, whose time was good enough only for 21st on the day.
Australia’s Dennis, a specialist over short distances, had sat in the so-called hot seat as the man to beat for over two hours but none was hotter than Dutchman Dumoulin.
The world time-trial champion now knows he should be able to put serious amounts of time into all his rivals for the general classification in the Giro’s second time-trial, a longer, flatter effort at the start of the third week on May 22.
Froome, however, will be desperate to wrest back control of this race by then and he will get chances to do so, with five of the Giro’s eight mountain-top finishes coming before that 16th stage, but he will need to show much better form than he displayed here.
The fact he lost nearly all of his deficit to Dumoulin in the more technical first half of the course suggests he was struggling to accelerate out of corners and he also appeared to be cornering very conservatively – both understandable results of a painful tumble.
Losing to Dumoulin and Dennis on this course is no major embarrassment but the fact he is also behind Italy’s Domenico Pozzovivo and Frenchman Thibaut Pinot, two challengers for victory in Rome in three weeks’ time and neither known for their time-trialling, will smart.
And the fact that a trio of climbers – New Zealand’s George Bennett, Italian Fabio Aru and Colombian Miguel Angel Lopez – who also crashed whilst checking the course, are only just behind would not have been part of the plan.
But if Froome’s flop was a blow for British hopes, there was plenty to cheer elsewhere.
Alex Dowsett beat Sir Bradley Wiggins in a Giro time-trial in 2013 so his fifth-place finish in Jerusalem is perhaps not a huge surprise, although it is a timely return to form for the Essex-born rider who now races for Team Katusha.
Even more impressive, though, was the storming ride by Bury’s Simon Yates, just four seconds behind Dowsett and 20 seconds off Dumoulin.
The Mitchelton-Scott man has already won two mountain stages this season and had come into this race telling people he was at a disadvantage in the time-trials. If he was bluffing, he will not get away with it again.
The third fastest man on a warm and sticky day was Belgium’s Victor Campenaerts, only a fraction of a second slower than Dennis, with Portugal’s Jose Goncalves fourth, 12 seconds back.