Words by William Fotheringham | Photo by SWpix.com
The 2023 Giro d’Italia won’t go down as one of the greatest Grand Tours ever, but it produced one of the greatest climaxes the Grand Tours have ever seen
Sport can put the passage of days, hours, minutes and seconds into a different dimension. It feels like a lifetime since Remco Evenepoel was a nailed on certainty to win the 2023 Giro d’Italia after dominating the opening day’s time trial, and a fair while since the heady moment when Team Ineos were bound to dominate the final half of the race, with Evenepoel back home nursing Covid, and Primož Roglič clearly outnumbered and probably outmuscled. The French have a saying that the truth of today isn’t the truth of tomorrow – briefly, that stuff happens and things may look one way but end up the opposite – but in cycling, at its greatest moments, the truth of one single minute isn’t the truth of the next. As we were reminded in the final few minutes of the Monte Lussari time trial, this sport at its best takes us through the full gamut of emotion in what seems next to no time.
Watching, with the blood pressure rising as you sat on the sofa, Roglič and his mechanic wrestling with his bike after his chain unshipped just as he seemed to be turning the tide against Geraint Thomas on those steep slopes, you thought, this has to be the cruellest blow of them all. Crueller than his near collapse on La Planche des Belles Filles to lose the 2020 Tour de France, crueller than touching Fred Wright’s wheel at the 2022 Vuelta just as he seemed to be turning the tide against Evenepoel, crueller than the pile-up in the cobbled stage at the 2022 Tour.
But no. A quick switch to the GPS time checks on Thomas and the boot of redemption switched to the other foot, kicking the Welshman, who – even if he once insisted to me that he’s not accident prone – has always raced to the maxim of the old blues singer who insisted that if it wasn’t for bad luck, he wouldn’t have any luck at all. Whoever won, there was always going to be ample, well merited, sympathy for the loser, because who knows how many more opportunities will open up for either man?
There was a double irony here. Not only had Roglič inflicted on Thomas exactly what he, Roglič, had suffered at the hands of Tadej Pogačar in 2020, but you could argue that Thomas had ridden a very similar race through the final week of the Giro to the one Roglič had ridden in the final week of the 2020 Tour. Thomas had been conservative, following the moves rather than making them, shadowing his rival rather than putting in the killer attack – watch the finish at Monte Bondone where he looks to be constantly calculating when to move – and hoping that seconds would suffice rather than seeking the certainty of minutes. That’s the way a lot of the teams play it in modern cycling, where you look at conserving what you’ve got rather than gambling your neck for what you might have, but the risks are as obvious as the rewards.
From the armchair, you could argue that Ineos had been weakened by the loss of Pavel Sivakov and Tao Geogheghan-Hart, but you could counter that with the fact that they had two of the strongest riders in the race in Laurens de Plus and Thyman Arensman, while Roglič’s Jumbo-Visma was hardly their strongest line-up given the riders they had lost for various reasons back in that distant era when Evenepoel was the Giro favourite.
Like the 2020 Tour, the 2023 Giro won’t go down as one of the greatest ever – I can’t recall a Grand Tour where two favourites have allowed “caretakers” to wear the leader’s jersey – but the two races can boast two of the greatest climaxes the Grand Tours have ever seen. This wasn’t the constant nip and tuck of the 1989 Tour de France, but a slow burner, inevitably so given the massive mountain stages in the final week. The “orgy of cols” as Alex Roos described it in L’Equipe, was always liable to inspire conservative racing, so too the dire weather and the absence of two of the race’s biggest names once Evenepoel and Geogheghan-Hart had departed.
Best not to lament the Giro that might have been had Covid, the weather, and that mega pile-up not intervened, and focus on the good things the last three weeks have given us: the emergence of Ben Healy as a Grand Tour racer, the consistent grinta of Derek Gee and Filippo Zana, the rollercoaster ride that seems inevitable when Thibaut Pinot is on the start line, some insane battles to get the morning break established, days in the sunshine amidst the pouring rain for Bruno Armirail and Tobias Leknessund, not to mention a fun little three-way on-line spat involving Pinot, Jonathan Vaughters and He Who Still Can’t Be Named. A race of constant activity, and a climax to match the best cycling history has to offer, with so much on the line for the two protagonists – I’ll happily settle for that.