After three stages on Sardinia, the Giro d’Italia Donne returned to the Italian mainland for stage 4 in the hills around Cesena. The stage wasn’t expected to be as important for the general classification as it turned out to be, but many of the top GC contenders in the race lost upwards of five minutes, in part due to extreme heat with temperatures of up to 40 Celsius.
Adding the difficulty of the stage was that the route was almost continuously up-and-down for the last 85 kilometres and wreaked havoc in the GC that had been established by the stage 1 ITT in Cagliari, where Kristen Faulkner (BikeExchange-Jayco) took the first leader’s jersey – overhauled by World Champion Elisa Balsamo (Trek-Segafredo) on the two subsequent sprint stages.
After forcing a decisive breakaway on stage 4, Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar) now leads the GC by 25 seconds on runner-up Mavi Garcia (UAE Team ADQ), and 57 seconds on third-placed Marta Cavalli (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope).
But the next group of GC riders are now five minutes, or more, back led by fourth-placed Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo), fifth-placed Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope) and sixth-place Amanda Spratt (BikeExchange-Jayco).
At the finish line in Cesena, riders finished in small groups with minutes in between, and the two largest groups of 28 and 29 riders finished 20:20 minutes and 28:56 minutes behind stage winner and new maglia rosa Van Vleuten, respectively.
The 39-year-old Dutchwoman had taken the initiative on the second classified climb and attacked in order to get an easier ride on the technical descents, taking Cavalli, García, and initially Kristen Faulkner (Team BikeExchange-Jayco) with her.
Faulkner could not keep up with the other three and dropped back to the following group where she worked hard for her teammate Spratt. In the end, the US rider finished 12:49 minutes down, ending her own GC ambitions but keeping those of Spratt intact as the Australian is now sixth overall, albeit 5:14 behind Van Vleuten.
In said chase group, Faulkner and later Spratt had to do most of the work, though: Uttrup Ludwig and Évita Muzic had Cavalli up ahead, UAE Team ADQ’s Erica Magnaldi was pointing to García, and Longo Borghini along with Silvia Persico (Valcar-Travel & Service) had barely managed to get back on.
Niamh Fisher-Black (SD Worx) was briefly dropped from the group on the final unclassified climb but clawed her way back. Eventually, the eight riders – also including Elise Chabbey (Canyon-SRAM) – reached the finish a full 4:51 minutes after Van Vleuten.
There is now a massive time gap between the first three riders – Van Vleuten in the maglia rosa, García in the green mountain jersey at 25 seconds, and Cavalli as the best Italian at 57 seconds – and the rest of the top ten.
Fourth-placed Longo Borghini is a whole five minutes behind Van Vleuten, followed by Uttrup Ludwig, Spratt, Chabbey, Fisher-Black, Muzic, and Persico all within 29 seconds of Longo Borghini.
11th-placed Magnaldi is 6:10 minutes back due to the time she lost on stage 3. With a situation like that, the final podium looks set in stone, but there is a lot of racing still to come.
Stage 5 should be one for the sprinters, stage 6 has a climb through Bergamo Alta in the finale, and three stages go into the mountains before the final flat stage to Padova: The Passo Maniva summit finish, a stage with two hard climbs, and another mountain stage with three passes and a short finishing climb offer plenty of opportunities for the riders in fourth to tenth place to make up time, especially if one of the top three has a bad day.