GIRO TACTICS: ADVANTAGE GEOGHEGAN HART AFTER CLASSIC SESTRIERE STAGE

by Nick Bull

Race analysis by Nick Bull | Main photo by CorVos/SWpix.com


And then there were two. We can be confident that this year’s Giro d’Italia, a race that has come alive in its final week, will be won by either Jai Hindley or Tao Geoghegan Hart. As was the case at Laghi di Cancano on Thursday, the Australian Sunweb rider and INEOS’ fledgling Briton were inseparable on Sestriere, a class above the other GC contenders, of whom the highest-profile names will seemingly all finish outside of the top five. Who would have predicted that about Vincenzo Nibali and Jakob Fuglsang three weeks ago?

Separated by less than two bike lengths after three ascents of the climb and split on GC by fractions of seconds, Hindley and Geoghegan Hart go into Sunday’s time trial between Cernusco sul Naviglio and Milan as history makers. Never before have two riders started the final stage of any Grand Tour tied on time. The pair started this race with just seven professional victories between them. By tomorrow afternoon one of them will write their name into Giro history. A career-making and possibly a career-defining moment awaits.

Of course, the biggest victory for Geoghegan Hart on Saturday wasn’t the stage win. It was the 95 seconds he put into Hindley’s team-mate Wilco Kelderman, whose tenure in pink lasted as long as Filippo Ganna’s at the start of the race: two days. The Dutchman is arguably the best time trialist of the three, however since the Stelvio he has looked cooked. He is surely now out of contention, which simplifies the equation for the Briton, historically superior against the clock than Hindley. The Australian will wear pink into Milan on Sunday, but his time in the maglia rosa may end within 20 minutes of it starting. For the second time in four editions of the Giro, not to mention the second Grand Tour in a little over a month, a time trial is going to decide the overall champion, the last man standing after a gruelling but sometimes slow general classification by stealth.


37KM TO GO

Although the Giro ends with a stage that looks tailor-made for him, INEOS did not spare Ganna domestique duties on Saturday. As the peloton began the second of three ascents up to Sestriere via Cesana Torinese, the time trial specialist was sharing the turns on the front alongside compatriot Salvatore Puccio. 

The size of the peloton on the lower slopes is evident in the still above. Within four kilometres of his turn starting, Ganna had reduced the group to under 40 riders. Three of those made up the Sunweb climbing corps: Martijn Tusveld, Sam Oomen and Chris Hamilton. BORA-hansgrohe’s Rafal Majka was the first high-profile rider dropped; his early loss of contact with the peloton saw him slip two places to 12th overall. 

At the head of the race, Deceuninck-Quick Step’s Davide Ballerini held a solid but rapidly-shrinking lead. Ganna’s five-kilometre turn saw the lone leader’s gap reduced from four-and-a-half-minutes to a little over three.


32KM TO GO

Having blown the race apart with an unforgettable turn on the Stelvio on Thursday, Rohan Dennis comes to the head of the peloton with the aim of achieving something similar. When the Australian hit the front, only 22 other riders remained in the maglia rosa group. That number shrunk quicker than Geraint Thomas’s hopes of ever leading INEOS in a Grand Tour ever again: circled in the above still is one Sunweb rider being distanced. 

That’s not all: within 500 metres of his turn starting, Dennis had dropped all three of Kelderman’s/Hindley’s climbing lieutenants. Just eight riders could handle the time trial specialist’s pace to begin, before one-by-one they also lost contact. Trek-Segafredo’s Vincenzo Nibali was first to fall back, followed by NTT’s Domenico Pozzovivo.


31KM TO GO

If INEOS’ game plan going into the stage was centred around dropping Kelderman as early as possible they didn’t have to wait long before their prized scalp fell. Four kilometres from the top of the climb, the Dutchman, along with Bahrain-McLaren’s Pello Bilbao (whose performance in the final kilometres of the Stelvio likely garnered some attention from both INEOS and Sunweb management alike), and former race leader João Almedia (Deceuninck-Quick Step), was distanced. The main in the pink was in the red. “It was like we expected,” said Kelderman. “We had the plan up front to react, and Jai was good enough to follow but I wasn’t.

Dennis was so strong that, possibly encouraged by being told over his radio that Kelderman was being dropped, he even put a couple of bike lengths into Geoghegan Hart momentarily. Once again, one rider who wasn’t going anywhere was Hindley. By the time this trio got to within three kilometres of the summit they had put 16 seconds into Kelderman – enough to make his Sunweb team-mate the virtual race leader.

Even though the maglia rosa found himself in a sizeable group alongside Nibali and two of his team-mates; Bilbao, and Pozzovivo, he lost nearly 10 seconds a kilometre in the 4,000 metres between getting dropped and reaching the climb’s summit to begin the final lap of this stage’s hastily-arranged circuit. 

Up front, Ballerini had been caught and passed by Einer Augusto Rubio (Movistar), another member of the stage’s original breakaway. Over the top of the climb (with 26 kilometres remaining) he led the Geoghegan Hart-Hindley group by a minute-and-a-half. That was now four-strong, having reeled in another Briton, Lotto-Soudal’s Matt Holmes, from the breakaway. Holmes, it should be noted, did not assist Geoheghan Hart in any way prior to being dropped on the final climb.


11.5KM TO GO

The GC group, who had also picked up AG2R-La Mondiale’s Andrea Vendrame from the break, moved a minute clear of the 12-man Kelderman group on the lower slopes of the climb. This only serves to confirm how strong Dennis was today: Nibali still had two domestiques (Julien Bernard and Nicola Conci) for company, Almedia was with team-mates James Knox and Fausto Masnada while Bilbao and Hermann Pernsteiner were representing Bahrain, and together they still couldn’t stem their time loss. 

The significance of this time gap was not lost on Sunweb. Team coach Luke Roberts said: “Dennis opened up such a large gap on the GC group that it put the pink jersey defence out of reach for Wilco.”

Meanwhile, the ever-changing nature at the head of the race had seen Rubio joined by Ballerini and a second Deceuninck rider, Pieter Serry. Ballerini was distanced again shortly before the GC group bridged the gap with 9.3 kilometres of the stage remaining.


7.4KM TO GO

Having been caught out at Thursday’s sprint, one in which even Dennis placed above him to cost him an additional bonus second, Hindley shows that he’s learned his lesson when he takes three seconds off his race time at the prime in Cesana Torinese. Thankfully, despite the passengers onboard the Dennis Express, those not involved in the GC battle do not interfere in the sprint – Rubio and Vendrame were dropped shortly after, so they most likely didn’t have the legs to even attempt getting involved. 

With six kilometres remaining, as Deceuninck engaged their train at the front of the Kelderman group, the gap to the leaders had increased to 1’45”. Impressively, Knox’s two-kilometre turn on behalf of former race leader Almedia saw this cut to barely a minute. Furthermore, it left only Kelderman, Bilbao and Attila Valter (CCC) with them. Sensing that a podium place was still possible, Almedia attacked four kilometres from the finish.

Deceuninck’s work will forever be overshadowed today, but tactically they couldn’t have played it better. Serry, who did well to hang onto the Hindley group for a decent amount of the climb, had dropped back shortly before his team-mate’s attack and then paced him for approximately 1,500 metres.


2.5KM TO GO

Imagine what it must have felt like for Hindley when, after launching his first attack 3.4 kilometres out from the line, he saw Dennis quickly recover and ride straight back to the front of the lead group. If that were me, my comments would have been unprintable. 

The Australian drops Dennis agains with a significantly bigger acceleration, a 300-metre dig that comes with 2.5 kilometres remaining. Geoghegan Hart reacted to that move and then Hindley’s third move passing under the two-kilometre to go marker. The Briton’s inability to counter any of them strongly suggests that he was on the limit, but he never looked like being distanced. 

“If Wilco lost a certain amount of time I had the opportunity to go for it and try to put time into Tao, which I tried to do,” said Hindley. “He was super strong and unfortunately I couldn’t put any time into him and it’s just the way it is.”

As the pair recover, they are rejoined once again by Dennis. Hindley has watched this film before and knows how it ends, so he makes sure to take his compatriot out of proceedings once and for all with another dig with 1,300 metres of the stage to go. 


200M TO GO

Whereas on Thursday Geoghegan Hart had to lead the sprint out – heck, he gave Hindley a nine-kilometre pull up the Torri di Fraele – in order to put as many seconds into Kelderman, here he could force his GC rival into riding on the front.

The Briton starts his sprint with 200 metres to go and opens up a gap immediately. Hindley does brilliantly to come back at him, though: he may not have been able to come round, but he made sure there wasn’t a small split. I’m not a fan of time bonuses – any artificial gimmicks are a no no with me – but in this case those seconds on the line have created what will surely be a once-in-a-lifetime GC with just one stage of the Giro remaining. Time parity going into the final stage. Incredible. 

Dennis took third, just 25 seconds behind the leading pair. Almedia crossed the line fourth, 1’01” after Geoghegan Hart but 35 seconds ahead of Kelderman and Bilbao. His ambitious, last-ditch bid to finish on the podium appears to have failed; he needs to somehow gain 102 seconds on Kelderman to take third. 

But then again, who knows what to expect from this Giro? Two weeks ago, as the race headed into its first rest day, Kelderman looked like the man to beat. Geoghegan Hart was 17th, over two minutes behind the Dutchman. He sat below the likes of Harm Vanhoucke and Ilnur Zakarin on GC. Impressively, Hindley and the Briton have put three-and-a-half-minutes into Kelderman thus far in the final week. On Sunday, after two stalemates in the race’s final mountain stages, the time that one of them puts into the other will be enough to crown them the winner of this year’s Giro d’Italia.

You can find more of Nick Bull’s race analysis on Twitter

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