By Alasdair Fotheringham
PONTE DI LEGNO, Italy (Reuters) - Heavy snow forced Giro d'Italia organizers to call off Friday's mountainous stage 19 from Ponte di Legno to Val Martello.
"Due to adverse weather conditions and, in particular, snow on the stage route in its entirety, stage 19...has been cancelled," race organizers RCS Sport said in a news release on Friday.
Poor weather had already led RCS to make changes to the stage-19 route on Thursday, cancelling two of the three major mountain climbs, the Gavia and Stelvio, but they had hoped to retain the final ascent to Val Martello.
However, major overnight snowfall, temperatures well below freezing on the major mountain passes and sleet falling in the region's valleys early on Friday caused the entire stage to be cancelled, the first time that had happened since 1989.
Overall leader Vicenzo Nibali applauded the organizers' decision, saying: "The conditions are really extreme and so I think they've made the right decision.
"They'd already altered the stage route but because of the weather conditions and the snow we can't do the stage," said the Italian, speaking at his team hotel.
Racing will resume on Saturday, with a third straight mountainous stage finishing at Tre Cime di Lavaredo but all the climbs leading up to it will be cancelled because of the poor weather.
The race, rocked by the news of former winner Danilo di Luca's positive test for the banned blood booster erythropoietin (EPO) on Friday, is due to finish in Brescia on Sunday. Nibali leads by more than four minutes ahead of Australia's Cadel Evans and Colombia's Rigoberto Uran.
(Editing by Clare Fallon)