Wilco Kelderman can see Tao Geoghegan Hart and Jai Hindley riding away, he’s losing time and there’s still the toughest section of the Passo Stelvio rising up ahead of him. For weeks he’d tracked race leader João Almeida and after a strong ride to Piancavallo the Dutchman looked set to inherit the race lead when the Portuguese rider discovered his limits in the high mountains, only now the Giro is slipping away from him.
The race started in Palermo with a stage win by Filippo Ganna, his first of four stage wins. He brought certainty to the time trials, finishing well ahead of the second placed rider each time. He also took a stage from the breakaway, climbing up Montescuro in the dark, his path illuminated by the headlights of the RAI motorbike.
Arnaud Démare would prove to be the other certainty in the race, he was the best sprinter but not quite Ganna-esque as each time there was a sprint finish you never knew whether he could win. He’d win the points competition, correcting the bungled loss of the maglia ciclamino last year. His season over, he’s on 14 wins, and unless Sam Bennett or Pascal Ackermann win every sprint stage in the Vuelta and go away on breakaway days for more wins he finishes the season as the rider with the most wins in the pro peloton and 14’s not bad for a season abbreviated by a pandemic.
Were there any other certainties? Peter Sagan kept racking up placings, a new certainty but he traded that for the old with a masterful stage win Tortoreto Lido after riding the peloton and then the breakaway off his wheels. Diego Ulissi was perhaps one too, taking two stage wins to take his career total in the Giro to eight. Bad weather’s long been a theme in the Giro and so is a polemica and we got both, more on this in a moment.
The stage to Etna saw the uncertainties begin. As the peloton rolled out of Enna they crossed some old flagstones, a few full bidons bounced loose, one of which rolled across the road like a miniature bowling ball until it got a struck Geraint Thomas’s wheels and he had no time to hop it, crashed and would lose 11 minutes that day before abandoning with a fractured hip. British hopes took another cold shower on the same day when Simon Yates looked out of sorts, losing four minutes on the slopes of Etna, he’d later leave the race positive for Covid-19. At the time Wilco Kelderman clipped away from the GC contenders and we got a battle behind between Jakob Fuglsang, Vincenzo Nibali, Domenico Pozzovivo and Steven Kruijswijk and in the absence of Thomas and Yates these looked like the big contenders. Etna was also where João Almeida’s pink parade started. Second in the opening time trial he was crucially also fractions of a second faster than the stage winner on Etna Jonathan Caicedo so when the two were tied for time atop the volcano it was Almeida who collected the maglia rosa and he’d wear it for 15 days.
Almeida had a long spell because the race didn’t go into the high mountains but he wasn’t passive, he kept harrying for bonus seconds on every mid-mountain stage going and extended his lead in the long time trial on Stage 14. When things went higher and longer though he was in trouble and the mini-summit finish in Roccaraso saw him lose time. It was a small climb and the end of a long day, but telling. It was where Tao Geoghegan Hart took 19 seconds on Jai Hindley thanks to a late attack but at the time “TGH” could ride away, with Lucas Hamilton, because nobody saw them as an immediate threat. Almeida lost time but so did Vincenzo Nibali. Also Ruben Guerreiro won the stage and took the mountains jersey which he’d eventually win after his only challenger Giovanni Visconti got injured and left the race.
The Valdobbiadene time trial didn’t shake up the general classification and it’s only with hindsight that the significance is apparently. Geoghegan Hart was 13th on the day but among the GC contenders only Almeida and Kelderman were ahead. Majka, Fuglsang, Nibali, Hindley, Pozzovivo were all behind. Geoghegan Hart just moved up one place on GC to 11th, with Hindley, Konrad, Masnada, Pozzovivo, Majka, Nibali, McNulty, Bilbao, Keldermann and Almedia ahead. Looking back you can see how these riders could be picked off but at the time it looked like Kelderman held the keys.
It was only on the road to Piancavallo for Stage 15 that Hindley and Geoghegan Hart emerged as GC contenders. 10th and 11th on GC respectively they leapt up to third and fourth overall with Almeida and Kelderman above them and the likes of Nibali, Majka and Fuglsang distanced. This was a crucial moment in the race, it wasn’t the moment the race was won but it did tell us who could win the Giro only then it looked like Wilco Kelderman again as he now had minutes on the rivals and the final time trial to suit.
Ben O’Connor took a deserved stage win on the stage to Madonna di Campiglio and seemed to win a contract with Ag2r La Mondiale off the back of it, although the team have had their eyes on him. This was the Giro as the Vuelta, a late season careers fair this time heightened by the likely exit of NTT and the ending of the CCC team. Stage wins for Josef Czerny and Alex Dowsett were hopefully as precious but they’re the ones who converted the breakway into a win, plenty of others kept trying but couldn’t get the win, think of Victor Campenaerts or Joey Rosskopf. On the subject of breakaways Simon Pellaud proved great value to Androni, after his performances last year it was a surprise he “only” landed with this Italian team but rode the Giro and won the “flying sprint” competition. The stage itself didn’t deliver much though from the GC battle, an example of the Giro’s course design sometimes needing a twist or two.
The Stelvio featured on Stage 18. It’s a climb used sparingly, partly because it’s so difficult but also because at 2,758m above sea level it’s a gamble in May, the Giro has crested the pass 14 times but also had several cancellations. The poet Tennyson asked “What pleasure lives… in height and cold, the splendour of the hills?” and not having raced a bike he was yet to know the satisfaction of seeing your rivals several hairpins below you. This was a feeling Rohan Dennis must have enjoyed and for some time as he set a pace that only Hindley and Geoghegan Hart could follow and, crucially, both race leader Almeida and Kelderman could not. This was the start of Kelderman’s undoing, he looked to have the key to race but was dropped here and left to fend for himself while TGH had Dennis to tow him across to the next climb and this helped close a three minute gap on GC for the Londoner.
Stage 19 was notable for the rider protest. In sporting terms it was a footnote but in image and sports politics it was a cock-up . Like many disasters there’s an amalgamation of circumstances that provoke the incident and here it was the long stage of 250km deep in the third week and yes, everyone knew about this. But there were long transfers with riders leaving their hotels before dawn, plus it was raining. There’s also the CPA union, its leaders pressure from some riders to react faster and others outright contesting its legitimacy, it’s also struggling to communicate with riders, it uses chat apps but many riders are not part of the discussions. All this collided with the race organizers who suddenly had to restart the race with hours to go while respecting police and TV time tables and who have been under pressure for months after moving the Giro to October, and doubly-so when entire teams decided to quit the race mid-way, and one even went over their heads to ask the UCI to consider ending the race. As luck would have it was all on the day that media tycoon Urbano Cairo, the president of RCS, made his annual visit to the race so imagine how race director Mauro Vegni felt? You didn’t need to as even behind a mask and wearing a hood to shield him from the rain you could tell. Tempers flared and nobody could articulate why the riders had taken a stand, nor apologise to the locals who’d miss the race. The CPA union has since published an open letter which tries to set things out but the time to publish this was on the morning of the events. There are lessons to learn for all, a 250km stage late in the third week isn’t a great idea, nor is skipping a stage without a clear explanation and an apology to those waiting by the road who’d miss out. One side effect was that Matteo Spreafico’s positive test – for banned substances, not Covid-19 – was totally eclipsed when on another day it would have been a big issue and a deep embarrassment for the Vini Zabù team who rely on wildcards.
The “fight for pink” resumed in the roads around Sestriere and it was a repeat as Kelderman was cracked again by Rohan Dennis and Geoghegan Hart, again he could only watch as his team mate Hindley rode away on the back of the Ineos tandem. L’Equipe dubbed Dennis “the kingmaker” and you can see why, his work was invaluable in towing the riders clear, neither Geoghegan Hart nor Hindley had to attack the pack and on the descents and flat sections could count on continuous pace-setting. It set up a plot twist the organisers couldn’t have dreamed of as the pair went into the final time trial tied on time. In the final time trial Geoghegan Hart pulled out a lead from the start, seemingly able to muscle a bigger gear and won his first stage race.
The chart above shows the GC standings with Almeida in the lead for 15 days. Wilco Kelderman made gains on Stage 9 to Roccaraso but look as Almeida takes time throughout the following week including the Stage 14 time trial. The pink and black lines of Geoghegan Hart and Hindley are a long way down and off the radar for the first two weeks. They make their ascension on Stage 15 to Piancavallo, the day Nibali, Fuglsang and others fell away. But it’s Stage 18 where the curves cross and Stage 20 where Kelderman collapses.
A race of surprises. We have to start with the viral pandemic and the calendar revision that moved the Giro to October. Were it in May then Geoghegan Hart wasn’t going to start. Perhaps he wasn’t even due to start in October either, as back in August he looked to be on Ineos’ Tour team only to crash hard in the Tour de l’Ain, so he went to the Giro instead. Thomas wasn’t supposed to start either, but did only to last a few days, while the virus took out Simon Yates and Steven Kruijswijk.
There are sometimes surprise winners of the one day classics, outsiders who get lucky on the day. It’s tempting to see the 2020 Giro in this light but a grand tour is long exercise in hierarchy, a three week Bayesian contest and Geoghegan Hart didn’t get in a lucky breakaway. Back in the 1956 Tour de France Roger Walkowiak became synonymous with a lucky breakaway propelling a modest rider to win the Tour, but Walkowiak was a better rider than that, he earned his win even if he did get in a breakaway that took 18 minutes. Geoghegan Hart didn’t win à la Walko, instead he rode away from all the other GC contenders, starting with the Valdobbiadene time trial and then in the Alps. A grand tour tends to settle questions, this one threw up plenty: what would Yates and Kruijswijk have done, although without them Geoghegan Hart and Hindley were also dropping Fuglsang, Majka and Nibali too. The questions go beyond the Giro, to see if Geoghegan Hart can lead Ineos into another grand tour and what would happen, to see what Almeida can do in week-long stage races, to pit Démare 2.0 up against more sprinters and is Ganna incontestably the best time triallist or just in the groove this autumn?
The tight finish brought suspense but only at the end, both this Giro and the Tour can go on a pedestal for suspense but for the finish, not their entirety. The general classification didn’t change much between Etna and Piancavallo but with no team in control this left space for plenty of good stage battles along the way, the breakaways often succeeded. As well as Geoghegan Hart, the Giro and Italy were the big winners, to reach Milan after everything was a triumph too.