Richard Carapaz is solo on the Colle San Carlo on Stage 14, he’s got a slender lead of 20 seconds but behind a team mate in Mikel Landa is marking Vincenzo Nibali and Primoz Roglič and they’re both marking each other. Carapaz maintained his advantage on the descent and once on the valley road to Courmayeur the “Locomotive of Carchi” pressed on, hunched low on his bike, hands in the drops and taking for every second he could. It put him in the maglia rosa and he never trembled for the remaining week.
The start in Bologna was perfect and accidental. After the plans for a grande partenza in Matera fell apart at the 11th hour the route of the first week had to be redrawn. If grand tours are reflections of the country this wasn’t ideal but the initial result was satisfying. Bologna stepped in and provided us with the spectacular climb to the San Luca Basilica. The prime riders all started early with the exception of Simon Yates, this seeding is something television producers may want to revise. Primož Roglič came to Bologna as a burning favourite and showed it, torching the field to win by 19 seconds on Simon Yates.
Then came a parade of sprint stages. The beauty of Italy’s geography is that Giro is always within reach of a hilltop town or a mountain pass, if not every day then at least the next day. Only this time the opening week had fewer features than the Tour of Denmark. Perhaps the revised course was to blame and the already marathon stage distances meant the route couldn’t afford to bend inland in search of spice. It left audiences cold and the peloton didn’t fare better with cool temperatures and frequent rain. Another storm blew in, called Operation Aderlass, it saw a rider and team staff suspended during the race but surprisingly didn’t blow up into anything bigger.
The best stages in the opening two weeks were those that did venture into the hills, with Fausto Masnada’s win in San Giovanni Rotondo and Pello Bilbao’s win in L’Aquila. Sprint stages can be good but need not be every day and the opening 11 days of the race were something you could catch on the radio while doing something else rather than a compelling drama.
Pascal Ackermann won two stages on his way to winning the points competition, a great grand tour debut that sets up a headache for Bora-Hansgrohe management as they try to juggle his ambitions and those of Peter Sagan. It could prove perfekt if the German team hawk Sagan to the Giro next year for a substantial appearance fee and then deploy Ackermann in France. Arnaud Démare got a stage and if Ackermann wins the maglia ciclamino, Démare lost it too after a bungled sprint. Caleb Ewan took two wins but quit like other several sprinters before the Alps appeared for fear of altitude sickness.
Richard Carapaz’s stage win in Frascati wasn’t really a sign of things to come, more a sign of things past. In a hectic finale where the peloton was split by crashes, Carapaz managed to stay with the front group and delivered a late attack that resembled his punchy stage win atop Montevergine last year. This was also the day the Tom Dumoulin crashed, sustaining injuries that would seem him leave the race the next day. It left Team Sunweb orphaned but Chad Haga rode on to stay as fresh as possible and win the final time trial.
Breakaways had a great time. Excepting the Verona TT, from Stage 12 onwards every stage went to the breakaway which suggests the race was open and no team was able to lock the race down, the Ineos jersey was sometimes hard to spot in the mountains. The wildcard teams were good value, or at least Androni-Sidermec and Nippo-Vini Fantini who got a stage win each via Fausto Masnada and Damiano Cima, and their sponsors invest in cycling for moments like this. Bardiani-CSF tried but weighed less on the race while Israel Cycling Academy were the odd one out, often all in for Davide Cimolai on the flat days rather than the breakaways but typically this resulted in a sixth or seventh place finish.
Another satisfaction was seeing promising riders on the up. Away from the pressures of the Tour de France, the Giro is a good test for Under-25 riders. Lopez’s repeat white jersey doesn’t add much, his fast-track career trajectory has slowed a touch but he’s still a work-in-progress. Pavel Sivakov’s confirmed the talents shown during his final amateur year when he won the Ronde de l’Isard, the U23 Giro, the Giro delle Valle d’Aosta and the final stage of the Tour de l’Avenir, a sweep and much like Tao Geoghegan Hart – who didn’t get to show us what he could do – he seems a polished product already, at ease in front of the cameras and he’s still 21 meaning he can come back again and again to win the white jersey; but will he if Ineos come back with other leaders and bigger ambitions. Hugh Carthy is still only 24 and had a great Giro, resembling he days when as a Caja Rural rider he’d climb with the best only this time he was doing it deep into the third week of the Giro. Valentin Madouas rode the spring classics and came to the Giro just to bank a grand tour but came close on stages and showed climbing ability beyond what many predicted. Giulio Ciccone took the mountains jersey and a stage and was all over the race with more than double the mountain points of his nearest rival, he’d won a stage in 2016 aged 21 but has since had heart surgery. Eddie Dunbar only got the call to ride during the Tour of Yorkshire after Egan Bernal crashed out but showed versatile talent too.
Carapaz is a deserving winner. As the chart above shows, he was behind the superstar names in the opening stages but never out of the picture, his early stage win helped reverse time losses in the opening TT. But it was the Alps that made the difference. He went into the two opening mountain stages over three minutes down on Roglič and came out in the maglia rosa. First riding away on the Colle del Nivolet and then again on the Colle San Carlo, you can see the downward plunge of his rivals on the chart as they lose time to him. Once in the lead Carapaz was a fortress that resisted all attacks and saw others fade. As you can see on the chart the lines are almost parallel for the final week rather than a spaghetti bowl of plot twists. First Roglič lost time, the bungled bike change on the stage to Como and the crash soon after cost the Slovenian time, an embarrassing moment for the team and we’ll never know if his crash injuries also contributed to him losing ground on the Mortirolo or if this was his form fading. Probably both. Nibali was strong but as the red line shows in the chart, he never so much as dented Carapaz’s lead, even the stage to Como with the Civiglio climb and its descent, practically home to Nibali, saw Carapaz match Nibali. Combined Nibali and Roglič did mark each other but this might have been as much physiological as tactical in that their climbing speeds were similar in the two opening stages, neither could shake the other. It all meant that come the final mountain stage and the thing Carapaz feared most was an “incident”, a crash or a puncture more than fatigue or failure. His Movistar team were cohesive and effective and once again Mikel Landa played sherpa, pace setting on the Mortirolo and able to mark Nibali and Roglič in other moments.
Vincenzo Nibali finishes second. At first glance a second place doesn’t add much to his rich palmarès but it’s not always about victory, it’s his ability to reach parts of Italy that others can’t. He was a protagonist, able to shape the race and also to commune with the Italian public. Cycling remains one of Italy’s great sports but its cyclists rarely cut through to the general public. Nibali does, he can draw fans to the road and sofa alike. He’ll ride the Tour de France but wants a stage win and the mountains jersey rather than going for GC, a more realistic Giro-Tour ambition.
If Roglič was on a stronger team would he have fared better? Yes but the extent is hard to say because his biggest support fell away, first Robert Gesink couldn’t start the race and then Laurens de Plus – eighth in Bologna – got ill. But what difference would a stronger team have made? Roglič lost time to Carapaz on the two climbs of the Nivolet and the Colle San Carlo at points in the race when almost nobody had team mates left. If Roglič needed someone to reel in Carapaz on the climb to Lago Serrù, could Roglič have sustained the pace; if Roglič needed someone to contain Carapaz on the road to Courmayeur who in the world could have done this? Surely a team mate capable of this would be co-leader. Roglič’s third place is a consolidation of his fourth place in the last Tour de France and as rich in lessons learned for him and his team. He was strong in the time trials but didn’t rely solely on them, he was on the attack in the mountains too but for now he remains “the former ski jumper” rather than “the Giro winner”.
This year’s Giro lacked sizzle but it’s hard to pin down why. Was it down to the flat opening phase? Maybe but sometimes the early mountain stages aren’t selective either – Etna 2017 anyone? – , although it did take two weeks to reach the crucial stages this time. Then for all the promise of record vertical gain, the route felt flat in the whole with only two hard summit finishes meaning other mountain stages saw the action happen long before the line, on Stage 16 we knew the result of the Mortirolo long before the GC contenders reached Ponte di Legno. Did Carapaz have an easy ride? He wasn’t extravagant once in the lead but was hardly calculating, a rival only had to stand on the pedals for him to mark them although only Nibali and Roglič were threats.
Richard Carapaz is a surprise winner and the deserving victor, he triumphed thanks audacious attacks and dogged defence. He won in Courmayeur when others hesitated and profited from the rivalry between Vincenzo Nibali and Primož Roglič but neither looked capable of beating him in him in the mountains. Once Carapaz was in the lead he was never troubled, helped by a strong Movistar team but equally solid himself, there wasn’t a visible moment where he looked in trouble. Several rivals fell away, figuratively in Lopez and Yates, literally in Dumoulin and the shrinking competition and the plain stages made this an uncharacteristic Giro in the whole.