GIRO TACTICS: SHAKE UP ON THE SNOWY STELVIO

by Nick Bull

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


At last, a general classification shake-up in the Giro d’Italia. As was the case in the Tour de France, when the much-hyped debut of the Col de la Loze finally ended the race’s war of attrition, Thursday’s long-anticipated ascent of the Stelvio shattered the standings and ended João Almeida’s dreams of wearing the maglia rosa into Milan on Sunday. Eighteen of the top 20 riders overnight (including the entire top 10) changed position today, with Astana’s Jakob Fuglsang moving up the most (six places to sixth overall), while Almeida and Rafal Majka both dropped four (to fifth and 10th respectively). 

But this wasn’t solely a GC shakedown. It was a changing of the guard, with Team Sunweb’s 24-year-old Jai Hindley pipping INEOS’ Tao Geoghegan Hart (25) to the stage victory after the pair rode the final 10 kilometres together. Hindley’s strong performance leaves Sunweb with a huge tactical dilemma. His team-mate Wilco Kelderman (pictured) is the new race leader despite a tumultuous day. He cracked on the Stelvio, before TV cameras broadcast the Dutchman trying and failing to put his rain jacket on properly ahead of the descent. Kelderman must have been freezing as he made his way down the Stelvio; he discarded his unzipped cape into the roadside snow, but somehow did enough to avoid shedding the virtual maglia rosa. Just. 

Hindley (racing only his third Grand Tour) is now just 12 seconds behind him. He is the Sunweb rider with the form but lacks the jersey. Geoghegan Hart, who became the INEOS leader after a flying bidon ended Geraint Thomas’ hopes before the race had even reached mainland Italy, is a further three seconds in arrears. “Oh, it was a crazy day,” said Kelderman. “A super hard day, the hardest day of my life. Oh man, it was a big fight. But it couldn’t be any better for us with Jai taking stage win and me in the pink jersey.”

If the young guns confirmed their potential this afternoon, this will also be remembered as the day that Rohan Dennis showcased his prodigious talents in style. Such a statement may seem remarkable given the Australian is a double world time trial champion and a stage winner in all three Grand Tours, but his 10-kilometre turn on the Stelvio showed why INEOS had so much faith in a rider who has twice been the subject of two well publicised mid-season transfers. If Kelderman does not win this race, the Australian will have been a key contributor in his defeat. 

But there is a caveat. It wouldn’t be 2020 if there wasn’t a caveat. Primož Roglič put 15 seconds into Tadej Pogačar on la Loze during the Tour to push his overall advantage out to nearly a minute. Then La Planche des Belles Filles happened. How much will Kelderman pay for his jacketless descent? Can he make it through Saturday’s rejigged stage to Sestriere? What happens if Hindley is the strongest Sunweb rider on the day? 

Then there’s Sunday’s time trial into Milan. Kelderman put 36 and 37 seconds into Geoghegan Hart in the Palermo and Valdobbiadene stages earlier on in the race. Hindley beat the Brit by 49 seconds on day one but lost 1’15” to him last Saturday. Combined with Grand Tour fatigue, the unusual parcours (short climb followed by fast descent) of the first and the longer distance of the second (31.4 kilometres) means that they do not offer guarantees as to how Sunday’s 15.7-kilometre burst to the famous Piazza Duomo will play out.


55KM TO GO

Sunweb’s intentions were as predictable as they were obvious as the race reached Prato Allo Stelvio, the start of the 24.7-kilometre climb. Five of their seven remaining riders in the Giro were lined up in formation at the head of the peloton, with Dutchman Martijn Tusveld leading their train. Race leader Almeida had Fausto Masnada and James Knox for company. INEOS placed powerhouse Filippo Ganna and British champion Ben Swift in the breakaway but Geoghegan Hart’s key lieutenant today was Dennis, one of only two team-mates he had left with him on the lower slopes.


50KM TO GO

Not long after NTT’s Domenico Pozzovivo (eighth on GC at the start of the day) was distanced from the rapidly-shrinking peloton, the maglia rosa began to struggle. Sunweb’s Sam Oomen used a fortuitously-timed hairpin to spot Almeida in difficulty and duly injected a little pace shortly before the end of his turn. The Deceuninck rider managed to hold on to the back of the group for a little longer but, given the summit of the Stelvio was still 12 kilometres away, he had little chance of staying with his GC rivals all the way to the top. 

Almeida was finally distanced around a kilometre later. For whatever reason, it was only at this point that Masnada dropped back to assist his team-mate. The 17-second time gap he held over Kelderman going into the stage soon fell, but a top-five finish on Sunday is still possible for the Portuguese.


47.5KM TO GO

INEOS take advantage of Ganna’s presence in the breakaway by putting him to work barely 500 metres after he was caught by the peloton. His short turn is explosive, distancing Sunweb’s Chris Hamilton, Pello Bilbao (Bahrain-McLaren) and the BORA duo of Majka and Patrick Konrad. 

When Dennis begins his MVP turn, he has Geoghegan Hart, Hindley, Kelderman, Vincenzo Nibali and Fuglsang for company. However, the sextet is whittled down quicker than a Simon Cowell singing contest. Fuglsang and Nibali are the first to crack (Nibali couldn’t even stay with the Astana rider), then Kelderman starts to lose Hindley’s wheel. After a little toing and froing, Dennis eventually takes the prized scalp within two kilometres of his effort.

The three leaders go on to catch Wednesday’s stage winner Ben O’Connor, the sole survivor from the sizeable breakaway, with 45 kilometres remaining. He, too, is quickly distanced.


38.5KM TO GO

Cycling history contains numerous examples of riders losing races in unusual ways. From Pedro Delgado’s poor timekeeping at the 1989 Tour de France to riders attacking race leader Edvald Boasson Hagen as he and his Sky team-mates took a comfort break during the Tour of Oman 10 years ago, there are tales to make those involved either laugh, cry or possibly both.

We could have witnessed a truly unforgettable one at the top of the Stelvio today. While Dennis and Geoghegan Hart made light of putting on and zipping up their rain jackets, Hindley’s battle with his made climbing this year’s Cima Coppi look more like a recovery ride. Struggling to get his right arm inside his jacket, the Australian almost ended up on the ground. Although he eventually succeeded, he still wasn’t able to zip it up ahead of the descent, somewhat defeating its intended purpose. 

Over the top of the Stelvio, Kelderman was 46 seconds behind the leaders, a gap that almost doubled in the final six kilometres of the climb. Bilbao, who impressively rallied towards the summit to rejoin Fuglsang, trailed by 1’38”. Almeida was over three-and-a-half-minutes back by this point.

Kelderman’s struggles with his jacket prompted him to throw his into a ditch on the descent, a decision that he appeared to pay for by the time he reached the valley. It was on this short flat section between the stage’s two final climbs that Dennis provided a textbook lead-out for Geoghegan Hart to gain three bonus seconds in the day’s second intermediate sprint. The INEOS rider also pipped his compatriot for second place, meaning that Geoghegan Hart had turned a one-second deficit on Hindley into a two-second gain on the virtual GC. Dennis’ day ended at the bottom of the Torri di Fraele, a little over 10 kilometres out from the finish.


10KM TO GO

Kelderman’s decision to tackle nearly all of the Stelvio descent in just arm warmers may end up costing him the race. It was clear that he has already paid a little for that decision today: the 40-second gap to the leaders at the bottom of the descent increased by over a minute as he started on the Torri di Fraele. To make matters worse, when the Bilbao and Fuglsang train caught him it didn’t pick up any new passengers. The duo went straight past the Dutchman. 

Kelderman somehow avoided a sizeable time loss on the climb. He trailed the leading duo by 1’46” with three kilometres of the stage (and just 1,000 metres of the climb proper) remaining: this gap was exactly the same as his deficit with 10 kilometres to go.


FINISH LINE

Hindley rode intelligently on the Torri di Fraele as he allowed Geoghegan Hart to tow him up the entire climb. The Briton visibly accelerated twice near the top of the climb but never looked as if (a) it was a fully committed attack and (b) he could drop his breakaway companion. 

The Sunweb rider made use of Geoghegan Hart’s lengthy lead-out by outsprinting him at the finish. Hindley was more than equal to the INEOS rider’s initial move that came 200 metres out from the line and then managed to get in front of him with just under 100 metres remaining. Cue a handy 10-second bonus, too. Hindley said: “I knew Tao was going to ride all the way to the line to try and get as much time as he could. I was told to sit on him and not do any work. I followed the plan and saw an opportunity to take the stage.”

Kelderman conceded vital time in the closing two kilometre and crossed the line 2’18” behind his team-mate. Having started the day nearly three minutes ahead of Hindley and Geoghegan Hart, both are now within 15 seconds of him. Even Bilbao, a little over a month after finishing the Tour, is just 1’19” off the race lead.

A first-time Grand Tour champion will be crowned in just three days’ time. Incredibly, this likely three-way battle involves a rider who has never won a WorldTour race (Kelderman), Hindley (this year’s Herald Sun Tour victor) and Geoghegan Hart (three professional victories to his name, all of which have come in Italy).  There’s life in the Giro yet, thankfully.

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

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