GIRO TACTICS: WHERE THE RACE WAS WON

by Nick Bull

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


So, congratulations then, Tao Geoghegan Hart. The first man to win the Giro d’Italia without wearing the maglia rosa on the road and only the second Briton to win the Italian race in its 111-year history. Unlike the Tour de France’s time trial on La Planche des Belles Filles last month, the formbook was upheld into Milan on Sunday, removing any possibility of this race ending the 1984 Vuelta’s lengthy run as the closest Grand Tour in history. His winning margin, 39 seconds over Team Sunweb’s Jai Hindley, reiterated Geoghegan Hart’s all-rounder credentials, even if it somewhat distorts how well matched the pair were during the race’s final week.

Bradley Wiggins famously declared in 2012 that “kids from Kilburn aren’t supposed to win the Tour”. Geoghegan Hart, raised 10 kilometres further east in London, admitted that he felt something similar even as recently as three weeks ago. “It’s bizarre, to be honest,” the 25-year-old said. “Not in my wildest dreams did I imagine that this would be possible when we started. All of my career I’ve dreamed of being top five or top 10 maybe in a race of this stature. [Winning it is] something completely and utterly different to that. It will take a long time to sink in.”


THE EVOLUTION OF TIME

Tao Geoghegan Hart, Stage 21 from Cernusco sul Naviglio > Milan (15.7KM) ITT – photo CorVos/SWpix.com

When Tadej Pogačar was beaten by his biggest rival at this year’s Tour de France – the vent d’autan – on stage seven, he trailed Primož Roglič by 1’25”. Compare that with Geoghegan Hart, who was 3’12” behind race leader João Almedia (and two-and-a-half-minutes exactly down on Wilco Kelderman) after just three days of this year’s Giro. 

Geoghegan Hart’s comeback saw him put time into Hindley in five of the race’s final 12 stages. He should be commended for how he gained seconds wherever he could on the road: nineteen at Roccaraso (stage nine), 10 – with bonuses – at Piancavallo (stage 15), three (again helped by bonuses) atop Sestriere on Saturday. This ability to capitalise on opportunities likely explains why he accelerated off the front of the peloton in the technical final kilometre of Friday’s wet stage in Asti. His attempt to create a small split in the bunch didn’t pay off, but it was worth a go.

Then there were the time trials. Hindley may have put 49 seconds into the Briton on opening day, but Geoghegan Hart gained 1’15” on him in the 34.1 kilometres between Conegliano and Valdobbiadene, then the race-winning 39 seconds in Milan. “It’s not often that your DS will tell you to slow down in a 15-kilometre time trial,” Geoghegan Hart said after Sunday’s stage, outlining how superior he was on the day.

This is the third-consecutive edition of the Italian race that has defied modern GC norms. Last year’s winner, Richard Carapaz, was over three minutes behind Roglič after 11 stages. Chris Froome, the first Briton to win the Giro, was 12th overall, 3’20” down on Simon Yates going into the fourteenth stage in 2018. 

The sample size is not yet big enough to declare a complete shift in how Grand Tours should be raced, particularly since recent editions of the Vuelta have been rather conventional, even despite the organiser’s love affair with mountain stages. However, Geoghegan Hart is the latest to prove that conceding time at the start of a three-week race does not necessarily spell the end for a rider’s GC hopes.


FLYING BIDONS

Second at Tirreno, fourth in the time trial at the worlds and then fourth in the Giro’s opening day time trial: Geraint Thomas undoubtedly started in this race in excellent form. However, Sky/INEOS history includes three notable examples of the team successfully switching from their leader to their back-up in Grand Tours, so Geoghegan Hart may have still usurped him as the protected rider without the inadvertent help of the flying bidon that felled Thomas rolling out of Enna on day three. Thomas turns 35 next May; combined with the GC options that INEOS have in 2021, the stray bottle may have cut short his last time leading a team at a Grand Tour. 


IN-RACE TACTICAL DECISIONS (PART ONE)

Rohan Dennis (right) and maglia rosa Filippo Ganna are called back to assist Geraint Thomas during stage 3 – photo Cor Vos/SWpix.com

When Thomas was distanced from the peloton approaching Mont Etna, INEOS afforded him the support of maglia rosa Filippo Ganna (who had little hope of retaining the race lead on the climb), Salvatore Puccio and Ben Swift. Once the severity of the Welshman’s condition became clear, Swift was quickly freed from his duties.

The decision not to call Geoghegan Hart back ultimately saved the GC for INEOS, particularly since Matteo Tosatto’s post-stage comments suggested that the champion-elect was not necessarily the team’s plan B at that point. “It’s still a long Giro,” he said. “We have Filippo and Rohan [Dennis] with some good chances in the time trials and we also have [Jonathan] Castro[viejo] and Tao riding well. We’ll take stock and look at our approach for the rest of the race.”


THE SUPER DOMESTIQUES

Rohan Dennis’s rides on the Stelvio (a 10-kilometre turn) and at Sestriere (over 15 kilometres combined across the two ascents) will be the two domestique performances most people will remember from this race. Geoghegan Hart described the Australian as “a machine”, one that “blew the race up” at key times. What a difference a year makes: Dennis shocked everybody when he abandoned his last Grand Tour, the 2019 Tour de France, without warning. He later attributed that decision to his mental health. INEOS’s decision to sign him may have raised eyebrows aplenty but it now looks to be an inspired move. Dennis mixed maturity and strength as he elevated himself to Geoghegan’s super-domestique in the Giro’s final week. But, most importantly, he looked happy. 

Ganna’s domestique work in the final two mountain stages did not attract as much attention as Dennis’ efforts, but he also deserves recognition. Both times he softened Geoghegan Hart’s rivals up beautifully, pushing them close to the red in time for Dennis to see them off completely. On the Stelvio his 500-metre turn (which came after he got himself in the day’s breakaway) proved too much for Sunweb’s climbing domestique Chris Hamilton as well as Pello Bilbao (Bahrain McLaren), who went on to finish fifth overall. The Italian then whittled the peloton down to under 40 riders as he blew the race apart during the second of three ascents of Sestriere on Saturday. Ganna did this and won four stages on his Grand Tour debut. We are fast running out of superlatives to describe the 24-year-old.


IN-RACE TACTICAL DECISIONS (PART TWO)

Jai Hindley and Tao Geoghegan Hart sprint to the finish of stage 20 – photo CorVos/SWpix.com

Team Sunweb’s decision not to call Hindley back to assist Kelderman on the Stelvio led to Sunday’s time trial showdown in Milan. Team coaches Luke Roberts and Matt Winston deserve credit for the decision to “cover” Geoghegan Hart, one that showed that they were considering the bigger picture as opposed to solely the general classification. Their forward thinking ultimately gave the team two GC cards to play going into Saturday’s final mountain stage at Sestriere.


THE GC FIELD

As the old football saying goes, you can only beat what’s in front of you. This is not intended as a slight on Geoghegan Hart’s victory, nor the performance of Hindley, but the effects of a readjusted and condensed cycling season during a worldwide pandemic impacted on the quality of the Giro’s general classification contenders. The Vuelta startlist, it should be noted, features seven of the top 15 finishers at this year’s Tour de France. The Giro had one – Miguel Ángel López, and he crashed out on day one.

Nonetheless, in just his fourth season with INEOS, Geoghegan Hart has achieved what the likes of Thibaut Pinot, Romain Bardet, Richie Porte, Mikel Landa, Rigoberto Uran never have in significantly longer professional careers. History will forever record him as a Grand Tour winner. This is an accomplishment that cannot be fluked, nor gained without excellent form, consistency and a racing brain.

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

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