By the numbers: Analysing the Giro d’Italia’s first mountain-top finish

by Stephen Gallagher


The first mountain-top finish of this year’s Giro d’Italia came early — on just the fourth day of the race. The 181km stage concluded with a nearly 20km climb up Mt. Etna, Europe’s highest active volcano, on a day that led to a somewhat unlikely breakaway victory for Slovenia’s Jan Polanc (UAE Team Emirates).

In the following article, former pro and Dig Deep Coaching co-founder Stephen Gallagher analyses the power data of riders at this year’s Giro d’Italia to see what was involved in posting a good result in the race’s first uphill finish.


This article refers to the power outputs and power-to-weight ratios of the pros. To put these into context and see where the pros fit in relation to everyday riders, check out this table from Andy Coggan at the Training Peaks website.

Fast start

The first 10km of stage 4 was the fastest and most aggressive start in this year’s Giro so far. It was obvious that many riders wished to get into the early move. With race leader Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors) expected to lose the pink jersey, it was all to play for and a new rider was set to take over the maglia rosa.

The effort required to make the breakaway is not always seen by fans as the live broadcast doesn’t normally start until partway through the stage. But getting clear of the peloton can be one of the hardest parts of the race for many riders. This was certainly the case for those who made the break on stage 4.

The four riders who got away were Eugenio Alafaci (Trek-Segafredo), Jacques Janse Van Rensburg (Dimension Data), Jan Polanc (UAE Team Emirates), and Pavel Brutt (Gazprom-RusVelo), the quartet breaking clear after only 2km of racing. Eventual winner Jan Polanc was a decisive part of this move which drove hard in the first hour of racing to open up a gap that maxed out at eight minutes. I am sure that, in hindsight, many riders regretted allowing the break to get so far in front.

Looking at Janse Van Rensburg’s data we can see that he hit many of his peak powers in the early parts of the race. In the first 30 minutes he averaged 360W (5.81 W/kg) with an estimated normalised power* of around 6 W/kg for this period. Within the first hour of racing Jacques hit all of his peak powers from 5 minutes to 1 hour, all on the flat roads before the first climb of Portella.

This indicates just how hard the leaders had to ride in order to eke out that eight-minute lead. Indeed, comparing Janse Van Rensburg’s first hour of racing — 315W average (5.08 W/kg) — to that of maglia rosa Fernando Gaviria — 199W (2.8 W/kg) — we see how much harder it is in the break. And that’s before the threshold-type efforts that were required on the longer climbs still to come.

The first climb

The long climb of Portella Femmina Morta was tackled at a steady tempo in the peloton but ridden much harder by the leaders to maintain their lead before the fast run into Etna. Cristian Rodriguez (Wilier Triestina) rode within the safety of the bunch on this climb for the 1:17 it took to complete the 32km climb. In that time he averaged 260W (4.33 W/kg). Jacques Janse Van Rensburg, by contrast, rode at 304W (4.9 W/kg) to finish the climb roughly a minute quicker.

Towards Mt. Etna

The long decent off Portella saw the riders hit over 80km/h on the twisting run towards the lower slopes of Etna. With the break still enjoying a lead of around four to five minutes, it was the turn of Bahrain-Merida, in the service of Vincenzo Nibali, to start to rein in the leaders. The tension within the peloton was visible on the live television feed as many riders jostled for position and protected their team leaders. Many riders noted after the stage how aggressive the riding was within the bunch as they approached the town of Nicolosi where the Mt Etna climb begins.

Looking at ride data from Michael Woods (Cannondale-Drapac) in the last 4.5km (5 minutes 30 seconds) before the climb, we can see the Canadian had to make seven efforts of over 600W (9.53 W/kg), each lasting between two and 10 seconds. He also hit a peak power of 839W (13.53 W/kg) in this time as the bunch averaged 50km/h (max 75km/h) in the final run into the start of Mt Etna.

The Attacks Start

With the bunch facing a deficit of around three minutes to the sole leader on the road, Jan Polanc, Pierre Rolland (Cannondale-Drapac) made a concerted effort to bridge the gap and distance what was left of the bunch. Rolland gained a maximum advantage on the bunch of 33 seconds with around 8km left to go.

He put in a sustained effort of 413W (6.16 W/kg) for the nearly 8 minutes 30 seconds of this attack, and had a peak one-minute power of 447W (6.21 W/kg) when he first left the safety of the peloton. Unfortunately, this was not enough to stay ahead of the bunch and he was soon swallowed up by the chasers.

Lone leader Polanc put in an amazing effort in strong headwinds to still have a gap of nearly 90 seconds coming into the last 3km. The chasers started to ride more aggressively as they started to see the possibility of the stage win slipping away. We can see from the data that it required a massive effort just to stay in the chase group for the final 3km.

Jan Polanc fought valiantly to hold onto his advantage on the slopes of Mt. Etna.

Eventual race leader at the end of the stage, Bob Jungels (Quick-Step Floors), did the last 3km in 8:18 with an average power of 356W (4.94 W/kg) and this was matched by pre-race favourite Geraint Thomas (Sky) as he rode at 386W (5.44 W/kg) for the same duration. All of this was after already riding at a high sustained effort for around 37 minutes at 4.8-5 W/kg before the hit the final 3km.

In the last minute of the race Jungels averaged 447W (6.21 W/kg) while Thomas produced 558W (7.87 W/kg) as they fought for the time bonuses at the end. This was a mammoth task to put out a high one-minute power at the end of a sustained 47-minute effort of around 5 W/kg.

Stats on Etna

It is interesting to see the data across a selection of riders as they fought the headwind up the 20km Mt. Etna climb:


Rider Climb time Ave power Power-to-weight
Michael Woods 47:24 340W 4.99 W/kg
Dario Cataldo 47.21 374W 5.58 W/kg
Cristian Rodriguez 48:05 320W 5.33 W/kg
Jan Polanc (estimate) 50:50 330W 5.6 W/kg

As we can see, Polanc lost several minutes over the course of the climb, but the Slovenian had done enough to hold on for victory by just under 20 seconds.

We look forward to the coming weeks of the 2017 Giro d’Italia and what they may hold.

*To understand what normalised power is and how it differs from average power, this explanation at Training Peaks is worth reading. In short: normalised power “is an attempt to better quantify the physiological ‘cost’ of the harder ‘feel’ of the variable effort.”
 
The graphics in this post appear courtesy of VeloViewer and Philipp Diegner.

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