OK, here we go, Altopiano di Montasio ahoy.
My prediction: first moves at the first steep ramp of 14%, the big difference maker is the steep section after Sella Nevea. I think Annemiek will probably win the stage again, but perhaps she will sit in until the Sella Nevea this time rather than just riding away like she did on Torre di Fraele.
The problem is behind that it's a total crapshoot. Almost everybody had stretches of struggling, and stretches of looking strong on Torre di Fraele (relative to one another at least, not relative to Annemiek, who just looked a level above throughout). Van der Breggen is in the driving seat, others need a minute minimum on Niewiadoma to get to the podium (I see Kasia as more vulnerable than Anna VDB, there were rumours that she was struggling on the cat.1 yesterday but it came to nought as it was so far out; this climb is also a bit outside of what you'd see as her range, she is stronger over climbs in the 4-8km kind of range, Bira type climbs). Brand is the best placed on GC, 1'00" off the podium; she's a very good climber but she's very much a diesel, so that super steep section after the Sella Nevea may be a problem for her, having never really contended in the Ardennes and other races with real steep gradients. Spratt, needing 1'07" on Kasia or 1'22" on Anna to reach the podium, seems perhaps a more likely bet. ELB is a possibility - there will be a genuine battle for the maglia azzurra, and Elisa is currently holding onto it by just 20" from Soraya Paladin and with Erica Magnaldi having looked aggressive in the previous MTF. Elisa is 1'20" off Kasia. Soraya is 20" further back as mentioned, but, having been in the break yesterday, is possibly less of a threat, however she was in the front group at Lago di Cancano, albeit chasing back on on the sterrato section.
Then you have others who would have been pre-race contenders as super strong climbers, but who haven't really featured. Katie Hall, for example, has a bit of an excuse, and there is the possibility that, working together with teammate Anna VDB, she could gain a lot of time like happened on Mount Baldy; we all know Hall is a very strong climber who likes the longer ascents. However, she needs 1'57" on Kasia, 57" on Brand, 50" on Spratt and so on which seems unlikely seeing as she will also probably be working to ride FOR Anna at first. Ash Moolman-Pasio can outclimb anybody in this field on the right day (just witness Jaizkibel 2017 for evidence, yes that includes van Vleuten) and was Annemiek's main challenger last year, but she hasn't looked at her best in this race, and had an absolutely rotten ITT too.
Then you have a few just outside the top 10 who are fighting to get into it. First up is Juliette Labous; in all honesty I don't see her climbing up unless somebody in the top 10 bonks; she's in the maglia bianca and is just 20, I think she's just trying to hold that jersey. However, she's only 3 seconds off the top 10. There's then over a minute's gap back to Ane Santesteban in 12th, she's at +8'08", level with Sofie de Vuyst (who was also in the break yesterday so liable to drop away), so 3'42" away from the podium and 1'19" from the top 10. A few seconds behind her is Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, who won't be too happy with her Giro showing, not really having had the right form other than that uphill finish on stage 3. She is, however, combative, and far enough down that she might be given some leeway before anybody chases. Likewise Vollering who is a few seconds further behind, but in her first Giro she may just be happy to get to the end and bank a top 15; on the other hand, she does seem to be strong at recovering, getting better as the week went on in Britain and her results in the bunch have been improving here as well, so you never know. And finally Eider Merino is a further minute back, she's not been on the kind of form she hit last year's race or Bira the year before that in, but she is one of the lightest, if not the outright lightest, riders out there, and with the kind of steep gradients included later in the climb, she could profit.
Annemiek attacked early in the climb, but this time couldn't get away alone. Moolman-Pasio went with her, and then once they normalised tempo, Spratt, Hall and Brand joined her. Hall struggled to maintain tempo, but her teammate van der Breggen rode across to make it a group of 5 once more. Kasia was isolated early and unable to make the jump. Continued hard riding breaking the group apart leads to a situation of Annemiek and Anna VDB at the head of the field, with Spratt and Ash a few seconds behind. Brand a further few seconds behind, and Hall being joined by Elisa Longo Borghini at around 30". These gaps started to expand, and also Hall dropped ELB and caught Brand. Anna tried her utmost to rid herself of the maglia rosa, but Annemiek wasn't going to let her get anywhere. Approaching the Sella Nevea, it seemed like this duo was going to be the one to duke out the win, but they hadn't got to the steepest stuff yet. Nevertheless, after Anna attacked, that broke Spratt who had been trying to ride back on, and she dropped away from the two. She's still well poised to take the podium spot, however, with Brand and Hall 20" behind her; Moolman-Pasio is going to be the big benefactor in the standings today, climbing up to join Spratt too. Once the ramps got to their steepest, however, Annemiek broke her compatriot, and history looked like repeating; not sure from the reportage whether Annemiek attacked or Anna bonked (or a little from column A, a little from column B, which is perhaps most likely), but the gap swiftly expanded to 20", and it seemed like a third win for Annemiek was inevitable.
Anna now was falling into the clutches of Spratt and Moolman-Pasio; because of the podium being on the line and now Annemiek having dropped Anna, the Australian started collaborating again; now over a minute down, it looked like that ever-elusive podium would continue to be beyond Niewiadoma. BUT, as the gradient eased up again, van der Breggen got a second, third, fourth or whatever wind, and rode herself back into her rhythm, and as the red kite came into view, she had reduced her deficit back down to just seven seconds - with memories of La Course 2018 in her mind, she set about bloody-minded pursuit of the maglia rosa. Annemiek got out of the saddle and pushed again to keep the World Champion at bay... radio silence ensued as the entire women's cycling audience bit their nails. Still no news from the front, but we found out that Ash had dropped Spratt - but the steepest stretch of the Altopiano di Montasio had done its job, and there was over a minute between the two Dutchwomen and the South African. And still no news from the line. And still no news from the line. Following women's cycling plays havoc with your F5 key.
As the road flattened out, Anna made contact with her rival once more, clearly doing better over lower gradients but suffering more on the higher ones. So there we had it: World Champion vs. World Tour leader, World RR champion vs. World TT champion, 2018 champion and 2019 champion-elect vs. 2015 and 2017 champion. Drama... and Anna took it, avenging the ghost of La Course. Did Annemiek contest it? Possibly not. No reports yet. She has little left to prove at this race, and she'd typically be the stronger sprinter of the two. Anna will take 2nd in the GC; her absence from last year's race was a bit of a downside for Annemiek, because though she won the standalone La Course, there was some consideration of whether she'd have won if Anna had been there, since the latter was the defending champion and of course won the Worlds so convincingly. Those arguments are out of sight now.
Moolman-Pasio finished alone in 3rd, but the rest of the field are still scattered down the mountain. It'll be great to watch this one back for sure. This sounds like a stage to put into the library of "races to show people to show that women's racing can be great", alongside Signora della Guardia 2015, the final stage of Emakumeen Bira in 2015, Pooley to San Fior in 2014, La Course 2018, the Firenze Worlds, Errenteria in Emakumeen Bira 2017, Mendrisio, Baku, the 2016 Olympic Road Race, most editions of Strade Bianche, and anything involving a live microphone near Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig.