The last remnants of the day’s breakaway just held off the chasing peloton to the finish as Annemiek Van Vleuten (Rabobank) claimed victory on the hilltop finish to San Donato Val di Comino. Elena Berlato (Ale-Cipollini) was second whilst Japan’s Mayuko Hagiwara (Wiggle-Honda) claimed third.

We were back in the town of Caserta — where the prologue took place — for the start of the third stage of the Giro Rosa. After three days of racing around southern Italy, it was time to begin the pilgrimage up towards northern Italy.

Today’s stage was sure to be a testing one at 125km in length, with rolling roads all day, a 7km category 2 climb cresting at 87km and a 5km climb to the finish. It was a day that would suit an early breakaway with the GC contenders coming out to play once we hit the category 2 climb.

The plan for our team today was to try and have someone in the breakaway. Hopeful that the breakaway would at least survive until over the first climb, we would then have an extra rider up the road if the chasing peloton split up over the climb. Evie Stevens was the only one in our team who was to save herself, to go with the major players and unleash her climbing firepower in the finale, having a crack at the stage victory if the opportunity was there. If the break were to survive to the end then our rider would be backed to go for the stage victory. Easy enough plan right? We just had to execute it.

It was another warm day here in Southern Italy as we lined up on the start line under the midday sun. With the usual neutral roll out — out of town, over the cobbled streets and on to the open road — we were off.

It was quite a tame start up until the first and only intermediate sprint of the day at kilometre 17 and then the attacks began. The first half of the race we faced soft rolling roads slowly climbing upwards and into a headwind, keeping the pace slightly lower than normal. It took a long time for a break to be established despite many different riders’ best efforts.

It was attack after attack; one team would try and then the next but always there was a team who had missed out. We were sure this would be the one that would stick but then it would come back together again and be ‘grupo compacto’.

Finally after 50km of racing a move was established. It was quite a large group with 15 riders in total and I had managed to find myself in the mix. It was a good combination with no major GC threats, a couple of sprinters in there — most of the major teams were represented and Rabobank had Van Vleuten in there to keep them happy.

With a couple of the teams having more than one rider in the break I had to play smart; do just enough work to help keep it rolling but not too much that I would kill myself. Up until the top of the category 2 climb we were working well together — most of the riders were rolling through at a steady pace, taking turns with a few riders sitting on at the back and getting a free ride.

We were never allowed a huge advantage on the chasing peloton — they kept us on a tight leash as the maximum advantage I saw by the base of the climb was 1:25. Apparently it wasn’t Rabobank though controlling proceedings back in the peloton; they were actually very satisfied with the situation and happy to keep the break away. Indeed it was other teams doing the work for them, chasing and keeping the gap at a closeable distance. It’s always interesting trying to work out the other teams’ tactics and what they’re thinking.

Back at the front of the race I was feeling strong and determined to at least keep us away until we reached the top of the climb. I thought for sure there would be fireworks behind and we would be gobbled up.

Despite pre-race previews showing the climb to be 7km in length at around 7% — pretty solid — to our surprise and my delight it was a much nicer gradient, more like 5%. It was a fast climb that we were able to hold a steady tempo on and maintain our gap of one minute to the peloton behind.

Losing a few of our breakaway companions on the climb we still had a group of 10 away over the top. From here on out it became a gamble — do we push on and keep working together? Or does everything stop, we start playing games with each other and end up losing our advantage and getting caught before the finish?

After we came off the descent there were plenty of games being played — suddenly there weren’t so many riders wanting to put their nose in the wind. With the cooperation in the group starting to disintegrate the attacks began. I tried a couple of attacks as I was getting frustrated, Orica-AIS tried the two pronged attack with their two riders in the break and Ale-Cipollini also had a go.

These attacks were good as they forced Van Vleuten to use some energy and close the gaps. She had been sitting on all day playing the ‘we have the pink jersey behind’ card. This went on for a few kilometers until we got the next time gap and saw our lead had been stretched out to 1:50.

Despite only three, sometimes four of the riders rolling through we continued to keep the group rolling. But the time gap was coming down and the peloton was coming for us. At 10km to go we hit another small climb and with the gap down to 40 seconds the attacks started again from the stronger climbers in our breakaway.

It was hard — I knew I had begun to do a little bit too much at the front but I needed to give it everything to stay with the breakaway, keep our team represented and more importantly keep my chance at the stage victory alive. I was able to go with all the moves as the front group whittled down to just five, although to our surprise Hagiwara had bridged across from behind and joined us at the front.

Valentina Scandolara (Orica-AIS), Berlato, Van Vleuten, Hagiwara, Doris Schweizer (Astana Bepink), and I were left to battle it out at the front as the finish was nearing but the peloton was getting closer. It was going to be touch and go if we would make it. My legs were screaming and I still knew we had the 5km climb to the finish to go.

I took a risk as we had stopped working together again and I went on the attack to try to go solo. Scandolara also tried. It was very aggressive leading into the climb. My last attack wasn’t timed the best as it was just before we hit 5km to go as the road headed upwards to the finish and it was immediately countered by another I attack. I had put myself in the red and was swinging at the back desperately trying to hold on to the wheel. Eventually my legs said ‘no more’ and I watched the others ride off ahead of me.

I was stuck in no-man’s-land, the last of the breakaway ahead of me and the peloton breathing down my neck. I was eventually caught and passed with 3km to go but I had one last little bit of energy left to help bring Evie up into position. And then it was “Arriverderci” as I made my way to the finish.

Scandolara also suffered from the attacks up front and was also dropped but the remaining four riders held on to the line by the skin of their teeth. Van Vleuten made her move with 1km to go and powered to the line to take a comfortable victory and her second stage win of the tour.

Vos lead home the peloton one second behind the last of the breakaway survivors and retained her pink jersey.

It’s always tough when you come so close to battling it out for the win after spending the day off the front. Looking back I probably did a bit too much work in the second half and ultimately paid for it in the final. As they say though, you have to be in it to win it.

Tomorrow should be a very picturesque stage as we head up the Adriatic coast. A fairly flat stage for the most part with a nice little category 3 climb cresting at 10km to go — surely a launch pad for a late attack?

Until then,

Tiff

Stage 3: Caserta > San Donato Val di Comino - Stage Result

Monday 7th July 2014

1. nl
VAN VLEUTEN Annemiek
Rabobank-Liv Woman Cycling Team
03:20:50
2. it
BERLATO Elena
Alé Cipollini
0:10
3. jp
HAGIWARA Mayuko
Wiggle Honda Pro Cycling
0:16

Previous stage reports

Prologue
Stage 1
Stage 2

You can read more of Tiff’s writing at her website and you can follow her at Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Head to our Giro Rosa preview to find out what’s in store for stage 4 of the Giro Rosa.