Having started on some notes following yesterday’s time trial, all thoughts were Evenepoel having a slender 45 second lead that he’d couldn’t just defend. Instead he’d have to try and attack once he’d got beyond the rest day and two likely sprint stages that might offer him more recovery after his crashes. But that’s all been binned with the news he’s out of the Giro following a Covid test.
In the space of a week we’ve gone from the pre-race scenario of an exclusive duel between Evenepoel and Roglič, to Evenepoel not building the lead he needed, and now to Ineos leading the race but only just.
Yesterday evening’s notes did already mention Covid keeps lurking and as this blog’s argued before it’s a whole new risk category where just as a rider could crash or puncture and lose the race, now they can get Covid-19 and quit the race as well. Now anyone could get ill before 2020 but this virus is much more contagious than, say, influenza, and there’s a testing regime and protocols for it that don’t exist for other viruses. So it’s a constant Sword of Damocles hanging over any rider. To reprise an example, if you are betting on someone winning a grand tour five days away from the finish and they lead comfortably by five minutes you should demand longer odds because Covid can still take them out; and this is just punters having a flutter, imagine what this does to team plans? As well as Evenepoel, Giovanni Alleoti, Nicola Conci, Filippo Ganna, Clément Russo and Rigoberto Uran have also left the Giro because of Covid, that’s six out of the 15 riders to leave the Giro already and so as a big a cause as any.
Evenepoel’s withdrawal is a bombshell to the race and the sport in general, the leader and a star name. It’s very rare to leave a grand tour while in the lead, the last time it happened in the Giro was Pantani’s ejection in 1999 following his failed haematocrit test in Madonna di Campiglio. But this case has been something waiting to happen, João Almeida was out when sitting fourth overall in the third week last year and while Ganna and Uran were the big names to go already in the Giro, it’s a matter of time until a race leader was involved.
Some are asking whether he does the Tour de France now. First we don’t know when he’ll recover but surely it’s too soon in his career to target the yellow jersey? He really needed this Giro – whether he won it or imploded in the final week – to learn more. Going to the Tour would mean huge pressure, and after hurriedly resetting his goals. The course doesn’t suit him either. He could go just to soak up the atmosphere and target stage wins as a joker but that would be still be difficult, the pressure in July would mean that’s no picnic.
The sport’s Covid protocols have changed for 2023. No longer must a rider present a negative test or vaccination certificate as a requirement to starting a race and grand tours don’t test riders as a matter of routine. But teams do, this is why Jumbo-Visma kept switching riders in the days before the race started. One thing is the same in that a positive test isn’t an automatic exclusion, it should lead to a discussion under the rules between the team doctor, the race doctor and the UCI’s doctor who review the case but in this case once the team doctor saw things he decided that was that.
Mention Covid online and plenty of people will say we need to live with it, it’s nothing to worry about. Sure, fine for kids in a classroom, a trip to the supermarket or normal workplace policies and it’s great society has got past most of the challenges and fears of 2020, even Japan has eased its mask mandate this month, a sign things really are better. But cycling is different, as Soudal-Quickstep team boss Patrick Lefevere said just last night, “it’s not a 9-5 job”. There’s a consensus among team doctors, the UCI’s medical staff and others that the long term post-viral effects are unknown, citing heart disease like myocarditis and pericarditis which can occur if riders burn the candle at both ends. A lot of the pandemic research has rightly looked at public health rather than the fortunes of elite athletes. A few riders have gone public with the post-viral problems they’ve had, some have not for fear of damaging contractual talks to come and either way the count of riders with post-Covid issues seems bigger than those who’ve had post-viral issues from other bugs although nobody’s keeping a precise tally. We’ll know more in the coming years but for now what’s happening at the Giro could keep happening in this race, likewise at the Tour de France.
Evenepoel’s test was done by his squad and it’s Soudal-Quickstep’s decision to pull Evenepoel, not a decision made the Giro’s doctor nor UCI officials. There’s obviously a big commercial incentive to keep Evenepoel in the race and hope for the best, so the decision wasn’t taken lightly but Evenepoel is Soudal-Quickstep’s prime asset and they’re not going to risk anything detrimental over the long term and from the sounds of things, once the medical staff saw the positive the rest of the Quickstep management agreed… plus he just looked off the pace, there’s the test but we could also the performances, visibly something was wrong with him.
Anyway back the Giro…
..but staying with illness for a moment as Thibaut Pinot is sick. He’s Covid negative but under the weather and hoping the rest day does him some good. This shines a light because if he was Covid positive he’d be out but since he’s not he’ll stay and be monitored by his team. Unfair, double measures? Not really, there’s a body of knowledge to manage this that team staff feel comfortable with. Before arguments break out in the comments section they’re the rules and this blog doesn’t write them so ideally any expert advice should be given to the UCI and its Covid committee.
Pinot’s GC bid has vanished – with the long flat TT stages it was never really on – but he could stay for the mountains competition led by Davide Bais. If he can recover he’s got a good chance of taking points with the Cima Coppi on Friday on the Grand Saint Bernard. Absent Evenepoel there’s less chance of Ineos, Jumbo-Visma and Bora-hansgrohe mowing down the breakaway so they can fight for the time bonuses but all the same the big names going for GC this year could end up in the blue jersey especially as the points system rewards them. Note the English version of the rulebook is wrong and the Italian version mentions there are extra points where a climb is also a summit finish, it’s this that helped put Bais in a good lead. You’ll find these rules at inrng.com/giro in case you need more detail.
Andreas Leknessund is this year’s Juan Pedro Lopez, a rising talent getting thrust into the limelight with a spell in pink that he went and earned, then kept up a spirited defence. The sight of him hauling himself up the i Cappucini climb on Saturday exemplifies this. DSM is a Dutch company that’s just merged with a Swiss rival Firmenich and the new DSM-Firmenich management has apparently said it’s keen to stay in the sport and the team will unveil new kit in June. This is good several times over, first you might remember the team’s licence was only given for a year pending news on the merger so it looks safe for longer. Next the company clearly wants to use the cycling team to help share the new branding, a good sign and you might remember when Dimension Data became NTT the cycling team’s kit didn’t change for a long time, a sign that the squad wasn’t central to the firm’s image. There’s also talk of a budget increase.
Valentin Aurélien Paret-Peintre won in Lago Laceno. A paret is a small single seat luge used in the French Alps so people could slide down a snowy slope, maybe to take a cheese to market in the old days, and then carry the little luge on their backs for the journey back up. Normally it’s five pieces of wood assembled with some craft but if you feel like splashing out, Hermès offers a model for €10,000.
Jonathan Milan leads the ciclamino jersey competition on 113 points ahead of Kaden Groves on 100 and Pedersen on 89. Groves is surprisingly agile on some short climbs so there could be a battle between him and Pedersen as the pair hope to eject Milan on some of the hillier stages. As ever with the sprinters in the Giro there’s the chance of “altitude sickness” where they go home once the mountains approach and refocus on the Tour de France but Groves is surely likely to stay if he can.
Patrick Lefevere denounced 15 dogs on the race route and said southern Italy was like Colombia, and this wasn’t meant to evoke passionate crowds and spectacular climbs either. He’s got a roasting on Italian TV and in the press for this and it didn’t help Evenepoel’s popularity.
If you are at a race and see someone with a pet by the road, do encourage them to put it on a lead. No matter how obedient an owner thinks “Lucky” might be, the peloton, the helicopters can change all that.
The UCI decried the use of helicopters to take riders off the Gran Sasso after Stage 7, pointing out the inequity where race organisers RCS offer this service for a premium fee. Pay several thousand euros and teams can get helicoptered off a mountain rather than stuck in traffic jams or cable car queues, it’s been going on in the Giro for a decade I think by the way. In a sport of varying budgets where several teams have a rider on their books costing more than the budget of some squads in the Giro, financial inequality is baked in, and in many other ways including logistics and travel where some squads on the Giro have team buses others have camping cars. That’s the landscape of the sport and a few thousand Euros for a helicopter flight is a rounding error. Instead the issue here ought to be that RCS are incentivised to sell this service every time they find a dead end for a stage finish. If the alternative route off the mountain is awkward and tiring with queues for gondolas leaving riders shivering next to coughing spectators then this is borderline extortion by the organisers. By all means have helicopters but let the riders get off an icy mountain by priority cable car too, or use a police convoy to ensure all the race vehicles can get off the mountain fast.
Looking ahead the next two days are probably sprint stages but with plenty of climbing early on to encourage the breakaway and blunt the legs of the sprinters. Then come the Alps from Thursday. Friday’s high altitude passage of the Grand Saint Bernard pass
look OK with time to clear the snow off the road and reasonable weather this week: cold but not wintry update: looks like it won’t happen according to the Swiss media.
As for the GC competition, it’s all so close but advantage Ineos given they have two riders high on GC in new race leader Geraint Thomas and Tao Geoghegan Hart five seconds back. It’s hard to put a finger on it but “TGH” looks the best, the way he bridged across the Roglič on i Cappucini impressed and matching Thomas in the time trials is beating expectations, plus he can sprint well and likes the third week of a grand tour. Thomas is resilient too and if he can get a gap and away the Giro is there for him and in the case of both Ineos riders, they’d love to get a bit more of a lead and then deploy the team in defence mode: the mountain train of old. How to distance Roglič though? He is going to be very hard to contain and he’ll want to start attacking soon but his form doesn’t look outrageous, Ineos have got the measure of him so far but he’s still a first class contender. One challenge for Jumbo-Visma is they’ve not got the team they planned, Roglič’s traditional route to victory is harvesting time bonuses but can they mow down the breakaway and then have a rider or two to help on the final climb before Roglič launches? Almeida is solid but how to get the jump on his rivals? Bora-hansgrohe are still close but their move on i Cappucini helped launch Roglič and backfired when Vlasov and Kämna lost ground but they can still shape the race too. Plus there’s Covid…