The winning moment? It’s hard to distil three weeks of racing into one instance, the story of so many roads, places characters into one snapshot but Tom Dumoulin’s stage win at Oropa stands out. He didn’t just control his rivals, he beat them on their terrain and took a prestigious stage win while wearing the maglia rosa.
The first stage went to Lukas Pöstlberger, a surprise win for Bora-Hansgrohe and the rest of usin an first week marked by youth with stage wins for Fernando Gaviria and Caleb Ewan, both eligible for the U23 Worlds. All against the azure backdrop of Sardinia, Sicily and southern Italy where the race never seemed far from a beach. Ewan and Orica-Scott seemed to lose some sprints through mistakes but these were chaotic contests, so many teams came to the Giro with ambitions for the overall classification and it showed, teams dashing for the three kilometre banner to protect their leader rather than taking a sprinter to the final metres. Along the way André Greipel got his stage to prolong his record of winning a stage in every grand tour he’s started since 2008 and Fernando Gaviria took an impressive win after his Quick Step team shredded the bunch in the crosswinds, as if Cagliari was Koksijde for the day.
In a sport where riders occupy specialist niches to thrive Gaviria seems exceptional. Even as a sprinter his repertoire is varied with the ability to go long or short but he can do more, he’s good on punchy climbs and probably has the talent to pick off short prologues as well as Milan-Sanremo. He won four stage wins and the maglia ciclamino points competition by making it to Milan and if he keeps this up then we’ve finally got a challenger for Peter Sagan and the points competition in the Tour de France, although that’s for 2018 and beyond.
Mont Etna was supposed to be the first summit finish, the fear was that it could be too much too soon, just like 2011 when Alberto Contador took the race lead and was never challenged for the remaining two weeks. But the wind got up and we saw the riders grouped in echelon formation at 1,700 metres above Wevelgem. Nothing happened, right? Actually with hindsight we saw Nibali try an attack, Dumoulin and Pinot had a go and Zakarin was able to take time. Tiny moves but those who moved on Etna would be active in the Alps.
Blockhaus was going to be a crucial climb. Quintana won the day after a series of attacks on this hard ascent but the stage had turned to “block-chaos” after a police motorbike parked on the side of the road, the lead group thundered around a corner, Wilco Kelderman couldn’t avoid it and crashed, setting off a wave that brought down others including Geraint Thomas, Mikel Landa and Adam Yates. This was a sour moment, we could regret a dog running into the peloton or some other freak accident but a police moto? It’s because they normally do such a great job that this was bad. There was a nervous feel with countless roadside tributes to Michele Scarponi reminding us how a ride, let alone a race, contains an element of fatal risk.
Thomas would leave the race leaving Landa to stage hunt and take the mountains jersey, nice prizes but probably crumbs for Team Sky’s management. Adam Yates dusted himself off and rode a steady race and if he lost the white jersey on the last day in Milan he probably learned a lot. And if Bob Jungels won the white jersey at Yates’s expense, he hardly took it by accident thanks to a stage win and often, but not always, matching his rivals in the mountains. He’s hot property in the market now.
The second week allowed the race to progress around Italy, the 100th edition had to cover as much of the country as possible. A noble idea but easier said than pedalled. An impressive stage win for Omar Fraile in Bagno di Romagna as the peloton was racking up more and more 200km stages and the accompanying fatigue, with added long transfers and grumbles about the hotels, even bed bugs according one account (jump in at 16 mins).
Oropa marked the start of the Alps and the race sped into the foot of the climb and quickly the lead group was reduced to a few riders, Bauke Mollema among those ejected. Nairo Quintana attacked but crucially he couldn’t get away. Tom Dumoulin was the chaperone who never let Quintana out of sight. As much as the Colombian tried, Dumoulin just kept a level pace, a theme for the rest of the race. It must have been psychologically disturbing for Quintana to look back down the shady road and see the bright pink jersey just seconds behind. This was Dumoulin stomping on the climbers’ terrain and he didn’t just match the likes of Quintana, Nibali and Pinot, he beat them for the stage win and took the time bonus too.
Could Dumoulin cope with high altitude and repeated climbs? Asking this meant an implicit admission that Dumoulin could cope fine with some climbs already and by extension Quintana et al needed to take more time across fewer stages.
Come the Stelvio and Dumoulin’s legs were ok but his guts were not and he had to make that infamous emergency nature break on the Umbrailpass. It was an undignified moment to drop bibshorts live on TV but if it had to be done, so be it. There is an unwritten rule that nobody attacks the race leader when they stop for a break and often this is how a breakaway goes clear because after a certain while the right move has gone and the race leader signifies this with the act of urination, it sounds like some tribal ritual but that’s often how it works and this moment typically this marks the end of the first phase of the stage when the day’s breakaway has gone and a chasing team can prepare to settle into a holding tempo. Only there’s no obligation to wait, unwritten or not, especially not on the final climb of the Queen Stage. Nor even much precedent. In the 1957 edition Charly Gaul was the defending champion and leading the race on Stage 18 with a slender margin. Gaul stopped to pee, his rivals attacked and it cost him the race: Gastone Nencini won.
Back to 2017 and Dumoulin did well. Perhaps he could have prepared better for the stop by adjusting his top and shorts before coming to a halt but maybe the urge was so sudden? After lightening the load he didn’t panic and rode fast over the Umbrailpass to limit his losses and keep the maglia rosa. Ahead Vincenzo Nibali took the first Italian stage win of the race, a long awaited ingredient of the “Giro 100” and the Italian was constantly part of the action during the last week, attacking and provoking moves in that familiar style, arms bent and hands high on the brakehoods, like a waiter carrying an invisible tray. He certainly served up action and crucially gave the domestic media plenty to talk about.
The next two days brought stage wins for Pierre Rolland and Tejay van Garderen, both riders tipped as the next big thing in countries, markets even, that yearn for this. Rolland said he tried to go for GC in other races but having to sit tight and play percentages wasn’t for him, besides there’s no guarantee all the hard work isn’t ruined by a crash. Van Garderen enjoyed his freedom too and is still a puzzle, we’ve seen him finish fifth in the Tour de France even by making mistakes such as forgetting to eat and drink enough during a mountain stage and on a good day he’s almost matched Chris Froome in the mountains during the Dauphiné so we can see where the hope and the hype spring from but up to him and his entourage to find a setting that suits.
The stage to Ortisei saw a late attack from Thibaut Pinot and Domenico Pozzovivo, the pair were proving strong in the third week, the same for Ilnur Zakarin. Behind Nibali, Quintana and Dumoulin marked each other and it led to a few angry words at the finish. Dumoulin told RAI TV that “if they only focus on me it would be nice if they lost their podium spot in Milan”. Beef? Bresaola more like, this was dry and thinly sliced rather than the sizzling, meaty differences that the Italian media adore.
By now time was running out for Nairo Quintana and with hindsight we know why: he admitted to having a “fever” during the race in the press conference after Stage 21. He kept trying to attack but couldn’t go clear, the same for Vincenzo Nibali and the others. It was like watching a set of identical 125cc scooters race uphill, there was no obvious difference most of the time. The one wobble was on Monte Cavallo were Dumoulin was dropped and lost 1m19s to Pinot and surrendered the maglia rosa to Quintana but with this kind of deficit and the Monza time trial ahead the jersey was merely on loan.
The final mountain stage saw more battling but Dumoulin only lost a few seconds on the scenic climb to Foza and the composite team time trial over the Asiago plateau where Pinot, Nibali, Quintana, Zakarin and Pozzovivo just held off Dumoulin with help from Bob Jungels, Adam Yates and Bauke Mollema.
So it came to the final time trial and Dumoulin needed to make up 53 seconds on Quintana. In the end he took 1m24s, a good performance by both riders and an inevitable outcome. Pinot slipped off the podium, his aim in the Giro was a stage win and the podium so he was close and the final GC of five riders within two minutes of Dumoulin was an outcome few would have imagined at the start in Sardinia.
Movistar won the team prize and it showed, they had the strength in numbers again and again to put Sunweb on the rack. But Sunweb did their best without Wilco Kelderman and it’s worth remembering that this is a small team on a tight budget. It’s one that has developed a conveyor belt of talent but can’t retain its stars but perhaps that is its mission, its niche. There are no guarantees but there’s no much of a whiff of sulphur around the team, no ex-Ferrari clients on the roster, no TUE arbitrage and team manager Iwan Spekenbrink was an early supporter of the MPCC. Similarly the team has friends in the media, it was voted last year as the best squad for media relations by the press room. To add it all Dumoulin isn’t just a strong rider, he comes across well and will prove marketable so the team is likely to find more funding, especially if the Dutchman inks the contract being proposed to him.
If Oropa was impressive the chart above allows us to see pictorially where Tom Dumoulin took time on his rivals and the two time trial stages show the greatest changes. As you can see all riders are on the same time as Dumoulin during the opening stages except for the red line of Zakarin who lost a handful of seconds after being caught out in the finish of Stage 2. Stage 9 is Blockhaus and Quintana take time but look at how small the inflection is compared to Pinot and Dumoulin. The following stage, the Montefalco time trial, sees everyone lose minutes to Dumoulin, this was an impressive win for the Dutchman with Geraint Thomas the only rider within a minute. We expected as much given the way Dumoulin put a minute into everyone in the Tour de France last July too. Out came the spreadsheets and old envelopes to work out how much time Quintana needed to recover in the coming mountain stages, not just to reclaim the maglia rosa but to build up a buffer for the final time trial. He could never take enough and Dumoulin had the Trofeo Senza Fine waiting for him in Milan.
A slow start, Etna wasn’t significant but that’s no bad thing as it kept the overall classification tight to prolong the suspense. A lot of the early stages were boring to watch in their entirety but if you sit down to watch hours of a nailed-on sprint stage then don’t be surprised, even if we might have hoped for more from the smaller wildcard teams who often missed the move. There was plenty of action though, the stages to Peschici won by Gorka Izagirre and Bergamo for Bob Jungels were intense and great entertainment.
Dumoulin dominant but this wasn’t a metronomic performance, at times he seemed to be on the slide while the advantage swung, Quintana was great on the Blockhaus, Pinot recovered for the final mountain stages. But the exchange rate between the mountains and time trials was expensive, the climbers could only gain seconds while Dumoulin took minutes back against the clock. Sunweb were valiant but Dumoulin was often isolated which made the contest more lively compared to the black train of Sky every July; or Astana in previous editions of the Giro and Vuelta. His stage win to Oropa was convincing and authoritative. That emergency dump was unfortunate but with hindsight if his bowels hadn’t moved then nor would have the GC: he’d have probably matched Nibali and Quintana over the Umbrailpass, preserved his 2m41s on GC, thus rendering the final mountain stages at best sideshow about the lower steps of the podium and the final time trial would have been a victory parade rather than a nail-biter.
What next? It can be frustrating that as soon as one event is over the circus moves on leaving little time to savour the past three weeks. Dumoulin is 26 years old and now a Tour de France contender, presumably 2018. Quintana won’t race again between now and the Tour de France, he’s now stood on the podium of the last three grand tours including one win but held to a high standard by some as if a mere a podium place is loss rather than a satisfaction. That would have been the case for Pinot who has tasted the Giro will surely want to return but this will prove tricky to balance as the leader of a French team, even if the Giro’s TV ratings soared in France.
Talking of France The Tour de France looms large but the Critérium du Dauphiné starts next Sunday, the hors d’oeuvre to the July and a stellar startlist with Froome, Aru, Chaves, Simon Yates, Bardet, Porte, Oomen, Barguil, Contador, Talansky, Meintjes and more via Alpe d’Huez and the novel Plateau de Solaison. Summer is here.