The Giro Rosa continued to mix up its GC with a hilly stage at the foothills of the Alps, taking in the hometowns of multiple Italian champion riders, including rainbow jersey winners Alessandra Cappellotto and Tatiana Guderzo and Giro and Vuelta-winner Giovanni Battaglin. The latter two both hail from the same town - Marostica - and two laps around the town punctuated the early part of the stage, with an intermediate sprint early in the day and a GPM on the second time up the ascent which leads out from it. Lucinda Brand - ever combative - took maximum points and, more crucially, bonus seconds, in the first sprint, as she continues a somewhat unexpected assault on the podium - last year perhaps but on this course I have to say I did not have her pegged as a podium rider; she has won multiple difficult stages at the Giro, including last year's queen stage and the 2015 Naso di Gatto stage, but the former was won because Anna VDB, Annemiek and Elisa were marking one another and she utilized her superb descending skills to bring back solo breakaway Tetyana Riabchenko, and a lot of the gradients were lower levels last year - 4-5% ascents rather than the more serious 7-8% ramps we've seen more of here to punctuate the more gradual ascents - as well as this year's route featuring precious little descending in the key stages thanks to Unipuerto MTFs and a cronoescalada; the latter was won in a breakaway.
The first climbs split the group up into two, with the number of riders dropped amounting to just under half of the péloton. This enabled a typically aggressive late-race move to develop, with Rossella Ratto - who showed plenty of aggression in the relatively similar stage 5 - leading the move and drawing two national champions, Aude Biannic and Ana Maria Covrig, out with her. Covrig is a staple of these late-Giro moves over the last five years or so, she seems to have good recovery to be able to get into them but not the nous in either climbing or sprinting to make the most of them. Another surreal moment saw Chloe Hosking, of all people, trying to bridge, but Boels wanted to put somebody up the road to join them, sent Christine Majerus, and the other big teams were not keen on allowing them to offer Guarnier a stepping stone and the group was recaptured. Several of the riders also got involved in a move between the climbing loops, including Ratto and Hosking alongside other rouleuses like Pieters and Lepistö, but also, more threateningly, Elisa Longo Borghini, which doomed any hope the group had of success.
After the second intermediate sprint, in which Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio took the maximum bonus in order to sneak slightly closer to the head of the race, only for Brand to also push toward the podium with another two seconds' bonification. Around 20km from the line, Katie Unknown went on the attack, ensuring that the Universal Laws of Women's Cycling were adhered to (rule 274.48/b: "if the road gradient tends towards positive numbers, Katarzyna Niewiadoma must attack"), but it was only a minimal ramp and not the actual final climb for real, and there was no way the other big guns were going to let the Polka go up the road. Boels pulled her back, and the method for this swiftly became clear as Chantal Blaak was next to try her luck, with van Dijk and Jasinska in tow. The group reconvened as the road started to turn up towards the genuine climb, with the likes of Stultiens and Merino quickly finding their way to the front, although this only necessitated a phony war as Sunweb happily controlled the front of the bunch for a while, perhaps forgetting they were no longer carrying the maglia rosa among their number.
Annemiek for her part wasn't really too bothered about whether her teammates were there; she was fixed entirely on the wheels she was keeping an eye on, and on the climb that meant the wheel of Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio above all else. She clearly felt she needs to mark Ash more tightly than Brand with Monte Zoncolan tomorrow, as the other rider in podium contention is Spratt who is of course her teammate. There wasn't too much in the way of real attacks on the final climb, but we did see the bunch trimmed down drastically as sprinters who'd been clinging on like Lotta Lepistö were sent packing by the increased pace of a nervous GC bunch. Longo Borghini was the most active, as she seems to have designs on wrestling the QOM away from Spratty's shoulders, but she was marked tightly by Marianne Vos, who seemed to have earmarked this stage as the best for her characteristics - even at her peak this wouldn't have been a Giro for her, as Abbott's success in the 2013 edition at the height of Vos' domination shows.
Over the summit, however, the chase became a notable one as the front of the bunch became detached from the rest of it as Vos, Longo Borghini and Brand, three of the best descenders in the péloton, sought to force home an advantage over the summit. Narrow, twisty roads plus top quality descenders meant the bunch had to work especially hard to bring them back, even after it opened up and the splintered remains of the péloton had the trio in sight. There were only 30 or so riders left in the group, many of whom weren't really bothered by the trio's small gap, so it fell to Cervélo to try to reel them in, with Moolman-Pasio the most at threat (and Spratt, but clearly preserving Annemiek's GC lead is the higher priority and they were a long way from causing Annemiek any headaches) from the move with Brand poised to move into 2nd overall. The three worked smoothly together - Lucinda and Elisa stood to gain on the GC from the move while Vos, some way further down the GC, stood in the best position to win a sprint as well as not wanting the group behind to come back owing to the presence of some decently fast riders like Eugenia Bujak and Amy Pieters. Van Vleuten was happy to allow the group some time but not too much, so Gracie Elvin was tasked with pegging them to only a small time gain, which the ever-willing Aussie was only too happy to do, while Boels were happy to help a little, in the hope of a sprint for Pieters, but without wasting any energy for Megan Guarnier, so we were left with Vos, Brand and Longo Borghini vs. Elvin and Canuel in a TT battle, which the former unsurprisingly won. Some surprising contributors, Ratto and Santesteban, got involved late on, but too late to bring back the elite trio up front, so they contested the sprint, in which unsurprisingly Marianne Vos won, with enough time to celebrate comfortably and still almost merit a time gap - you can see how cooked Lucinda Brand was by her efforts because Longo Borghini beat her in a sprint, and I'm not convinced on a normal day that Elisa could even beat Niewiadoma that way.
The method in the madness of Ratto's last minute contribution to the chase became clear late on, however, and in fact made it questionable why she hadn't contributed earlier, as it turned out there was another strong sprinter in the group - employing the same mysterious ability to go unnoticed as she used to win the World Championships all those years ago, Giorgia Bronzini emerged from the group to take the sprint for the minor placements (seriously, go back and watch those Geelong Worlds - every lap the GPS picks up the first 20 or so riders through the checkpoint. At the end of the race there's only 24 in the bunch - but Giorgia is only picked up among the first 20 or so once or twice in the whole race). There's also quite an interesting battle at play for the maglia bianca, between World Tour U23 leader Sofia Bertizzolo and Top Girls Fassa Bortolo's Nadia Quagliotto, with both making the selection and battling for the sprint too.
1 Marianne Vos (WaowDeals Pro Cycling) NED
2 Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle-High 5) ITA +st
3 Lucinda Brand (Team Sunweb) NED +st
4 Giorgia Bronzini (Cylance Pro Cycling) ITA +23"
5 Asja Paladin (Alé-Cipollini) ITA +23"
6 Maria Giulia Confalonieri (Valcar-PBM) ITA +23"
7 Sofia Bertizzolo (Astana) ITA +23"
8 Elena Cecchini (Canyon-SRAM) ITA +23"
9 Nadia Quagliotto (Top Girls-Fassa Bortolo) ITA +23"
10 Eugenia Bujak (BTC City-Ljubljana) SLO +23"
1 Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) NED 19'32'24
2 Lucinda Brand (Team Sunweb) NED +2'29
3 Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (Cervélo-Bigla) RSA +2'51
4 Amanda Spratt (Mitchelton-Scott) AUS +2'53"
5 Katarzyna Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) POL +4'21"
6 Megan Guarnier (Boels-Dolmans) USA +4'33"
7 Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (Cervélo-Bigla) DEN +4'39"
8 Ruth Winder (Team Sunweb) USA +5'52"
9 Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle-High 5) ITA +6'05
10 Sabrina Stultiens (WaowDeals Pro Cycling) NED +6'36"