Primož Roglič rides up Monte Lussari on his way to the stage win and the maglia rosa. If you’d been away for three weeks and glanced at the final results you’d spot Evenepoel didn’t finish and see the other pre-race pick won. Only it wasn’t so simple…
The start on the Adriatic coast brought warm sunshine and Remco Evenepoel in sparking form, both proved to be a mirage. The Belgian prodigy was 22 seconds clear of Filippo Ganna, a surprise margin but otherwise this was expected with Evenepoel in pink and rivals hoping to get ahead in the mountains.
Jonathan Milan won in San Salvo, a breakthrough result for the team pursuit rider who is now bidding to become a top sprinter. With a stronger leadout he’d have won more, but he could be a supreme leadout himself, a human battering ram and either way he’d win the points competition. The next day Michael Matthews won in Melfi, ahead of Mads Pedersen and Kaden Groves who’d each get a stage win in the coming days.
One of the themes of this year’s Giro is that none of the GC contenders wanted the race lead too soon, it was a Saint Augustinian fight for pink: “give me the maglia rosa, just not yet”. Evenepoel said before the race if he was in pink he’d be happy to loan it to someone else and by Stage 4 he was almost using a loudhailer on the start line. Lago Laceno saw the first of ten early breakaways stay away – almost half the stages – and Aurélien Paret-Peintre took the stage while the overall lead went to Andreas Leknessund, and the white jersey too meaning Evenepoel was free from all podium protocols for a while. Leknessund went on to have an excellent Giro with an eighth place finish overall. Evenepoel might have unloaded the lead but not his troubles as he crashed twice on Stage 5, first an errant dog and then a careless mistake in the finish.
The Gran Sasso was the first mountain rendez-vous for the GC but stage proved the equivalent of a cancelled appointment, unless your name was Davide Bais. A small breakaway got away without much fuss and stayed clear, Bais winning the stage and taking the mountains jersey, a boost for the endangered Eolo-Kometa team. The Gran Sasso finish has featured before, in 2018 it was the perfect finish with a win by Simon Yates with small time gaps among the other contenders, it didn’t decide the race but gave us action and told us a bit about rider form. This time a headwind blocked any ambitions and the riders came in together.
The stage to Fossombrone might be the best day of the race, end to end action and battle for the stage win and scrap between the GC contenders. The breakaway needed two hours to get away. Ben Healy could have been cooked from trying but with 50km he jumped and took a fine solo win. Behind Roglič attacked on the last time up the climb of i Cappucini and Evenepoel couldn’t close the gap as the Ineos tandem of Tao Geoghegan Hart and Geraint Thomas bridged across to the Slovenian. Panic stations for Evenepoel? Not ideal, yet this was exactly how the race was supposed to unfold with Evenepoel managing his lead and a 14 second loss was tolerable, especially with the time trial coming the next day where he was expected to take back molto time.
The Cesena stage was where Evenepoel’s Giro ended. He was one second faster than Thomas, with Geoghegan Hart a further second back, then the Groupama-FDJ pair of Küng and Armirail, with Roglič next at 16 seconds. At this rate Filippo Ganna should have won but he’d left the race with Covid, a clue as to what was coming. With everyone extrapolating Evenepoel’s gains per kilometre from Stage 1 to this stage, to win only by one second was really a loss for Evenepoel. He was back in pink but had less than a minute on his rivals, hardly the cushion he wanted and something was up. Indeed his cushion turned to car seat or the drive home to Belgium given he tested positive for Covid and was out of the race.
It was a shock because of who was involved. All season riders have been thwarted by Covid. There was a cluster in the Tour de Romandie, Jumbo-Visma kept making switches to their roster on the eve of the race. But suddenly the virus stole the limelight, here was the race leader going home among others. For all the virology chat, just remember public health and the performance of elite athletes are not the same. You might not sport a mask in the supermarket nor take a rapid antigen test if you have a sore throat, but pro cyclists certainly will behave differently for some time to come, just as they have long tested for other viruses at the first sign of symptoms too. Evenepoel’s departure was a loss to the race with a superstar out, but also a blow for his ambitions. He’s won the Vuelta, the Worlds and plenty more but the Giro, just finishing it, would have been an important lesson given he’s targetting the Tour de France next year.
With many getting Covid, others were just ill and the stage to Viareggio compounded things, it was “raining basins” as they say in Italian. A “Medicane” was approaching Italy and while this was uncomfortable for the riders, the flooding proved devastating for several regions in Italy and to watch the Giro on Italian TV was to see the disaster relief appeal messages. Some riders wanted to skip the start of the stage but the compromise was team buses would follow the race route in case things forced the race to stop and everyone needed transport. Magnus Cort won from the breakaway as the sprinters’ teams tried to chase but ran out of riders. Cort got the better of Derek Gee, who made a name for himself in the race, in a textbook finish, he knew the others knew he was the fastest. And trust me, the picture above is really from a beach resort in Italy and not Koksijde in February.
Pascal Ackermann took the stage win in Tortona but the stage was defined by a crash on the descent of the Colle di Boasi which took out several riders. One minute Tao Geoghegan Hart was third overall, the next he was being loaded into an ambulance.
Another day, another German win as Nico Denz won in Rivoli from the breakaway where he just held on over the Colle Braida so he could contest the sprint, beating Toms Skujiņš. Denz would win again too Cassano Magnago , saving Bora-hansgrohe’s Giro after their leader Vlasov left with Covid and Lennard Kämna rode to a discreet 9th overall.
The Alps were looming, the Alps were lopped. The first of the big mountain stages was abbreviated after rider protest about the descent of the Col de la Croix-de-Coeur, a course safety matter. After hasty negotiations a compromise was reached and the organisers invoked the Extreme Weather Protocol (EWP) to skip the first ascent, the Grand Saint Bernard via its tunnel. Only the weather wasn’t extreme on the climb, the Giro had raced through worse during the week and would do so the following day too. It was a bit like a Woody Allen stand-up routine about kidnappers:
The FBI surround the house, “Throw the kid out,”, they say, “give us your guns, and come out with your hands up.”
The kidnappers say “We’ll throw the kid out, but let us keep our guns, and get to our car.”
The FBI says “Throw the kid out, we’ll let you get to your car, but give us your guns.”
The kidnappers say “We’ll throw the kid out, but let us keep our guns – we don’t have to get to our car.”
The FBI says “Keep the kid.”
They kept the Croix-de-Coeur. This was a deal between the rider union and the race organisers rather than the EWP in action where teams, organisers, the race doctor and the UCI are supposed to confer. The rider union statement cited fatigue from so many days of racing in the rain. Now this is a real thing, especially with illnesses going around the peloton but as much as you can sympathise, nowhere in the rulebook does it say you can cite EWP because the weather’s been foul for days. It was a rider strike. If the decision was taken in a rush with the peloton having to think about the race ahead and the organisers the logistics change, nobody seemed to want to explain matters or apologise. Had the riders and the Giro announced their plans accompanied by a message to the waiting fans and a promise to locals to return as soon as possible things might have gone down better. Instead Aosta region’s politicians are calling on RCS to pay them damages.
Italian TV and the media blasted the race and the riders. The quotes from retired riders can make for tasty headlines but they’re imperfect for exploring the topic. Each generation races in its own conditions, road racing is a palimpsest of lived experiences. While yesterday’s riders boast of riding over mountain passes in the snow, in turn their elders could mock them because they didn’t have 350km stages. Previous generations rode through the night, others only had two gears and they were lucky because back in the day you only had one gear, and so on. We’re not going back to the Giro of 1909.
Anyway there was still a race and Einer Rubio won the stage, playing it cool while Thibaut Pinot got enraged by Jeferson Cepeda but took back the mountains jersey. If the race had visited Switzerland, it had to get out and went over the giant Simplon pass in grim weather with many riders frozen to the bone on the long descent, so much that the peloton finished 21 minutes down. Bruno Armirail rode into the maglia rosa, a reward for a luxury domestique whose pulling power ranges to fifth place in the Cesena TT. The sun came out for the Lombardia stage to Bergamo, at least the finish, and Brandon McNulty took a stage win.
Monte Bondone was the first big summit finish and did see the GC change with Thomas back in pink and Almeida climbing up to second place thanks to his attacking that got him the stage win ahead of Thomas. Bondone has seen more epic days but in retrospect this proved to a big GC moment. Aided by a big turn from Jay Vine that shredded what was left of the lead group, Almeida’s attack was arguably the boldest move among the podium finishers, launching with six kilometres to go and with 4.5km to go Thomas got across and the pair worked to distance Roglič. However Roglič limited his losses to 25 seconds as the lead two began to ease up in the finish with thoughts of the stage win. Perhaps Thomas did begin to stew in pink and this fatigue would come with a price; or equally not as it boosted him and the team?
Alberto Dainese won the sprint by the seaside in Caorle on one of those days where you could watch the final two kilometres and not miss anything, but the day had other effects, 200km but an active recovery day, of sorts, for the GC contenders.
Stage 18 was the first of two days in the Dolomites and a great day’s racing with a lively start with Thibaut Pinot able to infiltrate the breakaway and contest the stage win. In a battle of two animal lovers Pinot out to Filippo Zana; Pinot with his herd of animals back home versus Zana who used his prize money as an U23 to buy a horse from Serbia and he likes his chickens, rabbits and more. Behind there were animal spirits with Roglič here as he got away with Thomas, this time it was Almeida in trouble but only losing 11 seconds, again small gaps. Still this was Roglič becoming more provocative, the time losses of Monte Bondone forgotten and now he was making moves.
Stage 19 was the Dolomite tappone. But it was too much, like a feast presented to diners who’d already had their full, riders were tired from the previous day’s racing and concerned indigestion for the coming mountain TT. The GC contenders only moved within sight of the flamme rouge, newspaper Corriere della Sera – the same owner as the race organisers, the CS in RCS and with no axe to grind – described had called the racing il ciclismo dei ragionieri, “bookkeeper’s cycling”. Perhaps the margins were thin but credit was with Roglič even if it was hard to see his finish line sprint for three seconds translate into the thirty seconds he needed the next day.
So it all came down to the Monte Lussari time trial. Even during the stage things looked static with Roglič seeming to be on course for a stage win but Thomas keeping pink. Then Thomas cracked in the final two kilometres and was losing time. Roglič of course had to unship his chain at this point, so often he’s been the victim of misfortune but he unflappably put it back on and eventually got going again to take the stage and the maglia rosa.
Stage 21 was a criterium around Rome and won by Mark Cavendish with an imperial sprint that recalled his best days, launching off Fernando Gaviria’s wheel and finishing lengths ahead, and after Geraint Thomas had taken a long pull on the front to line out the peloton as a gift for his old team mate. Longevity is word often used with Cavendish these days and it’s especially remarkable for a sprinter to be winning at the age of 38.
The chart shows the GC standings for the top-5 overall relative to Roglič and as you can see there’s barely any movement in the lines for the podium finishers across the three weeks. Among the podium placers the lines are so close throughout, seconds in it and yet a good grand tour ought to see more peaks and troughs as fortunes wax and wane, or at least the lines crossing more often. Damiano Caruso finishes fourth without shaping the race but testimony to steady riding.
Thibaut Pinot’s line is more snakes-and-ladders, losing time in splits here and there, ill for the time trial in Cesena and a further time loss on Monte Bondone but this gave him just enough room to attack in search of lost time and stage wins. As much as he’d have liked that stage win he’ll be more than satisfied he could hang out with his peers on the GC, all while collecting the mountains jersey.
A damp, dull Giro. Spanish newspaper Marca – owned by RCS – remarked that Pogačar was trending on Twitter following the insipid stages; L’Equipe’s review this morning calls it “une course fade“, a bland race. The organisers can’t do much about the weather but some of the course design left riders tired and spectators frustrated. This was spoilt further by the intrusion of Covid and the rotten luck that saw other contenders crash out. Now incidents de course happen but when the race leader and a previous winner are taken out it’s worse. However until the Giro started no early breakaway had stayed away in a World Tour race for the win and now several got their rewards, there was a thrill in seeing riders thwart the sprinters some days and Monte Lussari did supply a late flourish.
If the stage wins were chaotic sometimes, alas the GC was more of an attritional contest across three weeks rather than a race of daring attacks or drama, the spark of i Cappucini and the closeness of the Cesena TT were tantalising but the GC contest fell into a hiatus that even Monte Bondone and the Tre Cime di Lavaredo, theatres of so many past battles, struggled to break. Absent Remco Evenepoel and Ineos without the second card of Tao Geoghegan Hart, the surviving riders were on a similar level, with similar styles of racing, especially as Roglič was sore from crashes mid-race. We want dynamic racing but can’t always get it, there’s no action-or-your-money-back guarantee.
If it lacked some spectacular moments Roglič finishes as a satisfying winner, he was tested along the way. Yes he was the pre-race pick for many but absent Evenepoel he didn’t run away with things and for a while was on the back foot and even losing time in the mountains, albeit seconds. He finished just 14 seconds ahead of Thomas – the tightest margin since 1974 when Eddy Merckx pipped Gianbattista Baronchelli by 12 seconds – and both only got six seconds of time bonuses all race. Roglič gets a Giro to go alongside his three Vuelta wins and Jumbo-Visma now get their grand tour grand slam. There are so many other lines on Roglič’s palmarès and yet we can see him two ways. He’s a stage racing cyborg with wins in every week-long race worth winning, bar the Tour de Suisse and that’s just down to calendar clashes given he rode the Dauphiné. Yet he’s also been DNF in the Vuelta and Tour last year, the Tour before that too, and when he did finish the 2020 Tour of course he lost to Pogačar. A year before that he he crashed on the stage to Como in the Giro and his GC bid faded and in all kindness and respect he’s often been an unwitting loser, a victim of events. This Giro win is his triumph and he overcame obstacles, from missing team mates to crash injuries, and even a dropped chain on Monte Lussari didn’t bother him.
For Thomas, he’s the premium runner-up aged 37 whose second place ennobles Roglič’s victory. In last year’s Tour his third place was deserved but as good as he could get. Here he might feel like the race slipped from his grasp and torment himself about what could have been done along the way, but a faster helmet change in Valbruna or towing Almeida to the top of Monte Bondone might have gained seconds but more than the 14 he needed? He had a very strong team but once “TGH” and Sivakov were out it was riding in a defensive manner. He had a slender lead to start with and the Lussari time trial always threatened a reversal of fortune for some.
And a solid result for Almeida with his first podium and still eligible for the white jersey ahead of Arensman and Leknessund. UAE have Tadej Pogačar for the Tour de France for the foreseeable future, Juan Ayuso for the Vuelta and possibly the Tour as well so Almeida’s diary for May could be booked for years to come and with a stage win he’s making constant progress and can hope to swap white for pink one day.
Long live the Giro we might say and the Giro was the race of long lives, or at least long careers. Roglič came to cycling when he was 22 and now wins aged 33, finishing ahead of a 37 year old. In fourth place there’s 35 year old in Caruso and fifth place goes to Thibaut Pinot who turns 33 today and on the verge of retirement. A theme in cycling of late has been how the young generation is sweeping everything aside but the Giro shows experience and persistence can count too.
It was damp and dull at times, but it wasn’t a bad Giro. We’ve had editions where the police have raided the race, the race leader has been evicted, convicted cheats have thrived, and riders have died in competition: that’s bad. This year was just, alas, unremarkable for days on end, much like last year where the hierarchy of the Blockhaus stage remained until the final Saturday and several riders were written out of the script thanks to Covid (Almeida), illness (Bardet) and crashes (Simon Yates). If the 2023 Giro was a wine, nobody would be smashing the bottles in rage, nor sending this year’s vintage to the vinegar factory. No, the worry is this year’s Giro just leaves people indifferent. There sotto voce calls to shrink the Giro to two weeks tour as part of wider calendar reforms. The race and its long format needs all the defenders it can get. You’d like to think that the current Italian government which is big on national pride, to put it gently, would stop this but the Giro is really struggling to cut through into public consciousness, populist politicians don’t show up at the race. Italian cycling needs some home heroes but that can’t be magicked up. But RCS can plot the route and with Made-in-Italy becoming a slogan, logistics permitting, why not sprint up into the belleza of hilltop town rather than the industrial estate below it? Instead of several sprint stages with an early hill, why not the put the climb in late, or add a couple more Fossombrone-style finales because Italy has all geography to supply all of this, it’s a staple of Tirreno-Adriatico after all. All the ingredients are there. And maybe next year Mother Nature will supply some sunshine.