Words by Peter Cossins | Photo by Zac Williams/SWpix.com
The opening four days of the Giro d’Italia have underlined that every Grand Tour is a long slog, an athletic challenge where every energy-saving opportunity has to be taken. In short, it’s started slowly.
After two road stages in Hungary that were both humdrum until the fireworks went off in the final 10 kilometres and a short time trial that looked fabulous but, from a competitive point of view, showed that there was not too much between the GC favourites over a 12-minute effort, the first stage on Italian soil to the Rifugio Sapienza on Mount Etna was widely hyped as a day that would bring an increase in tempo, a bit of duelling between the big guns.
Ultimately, though, we got what was almost a repeat of the 2020 stage on the other side of Europe’s most active volcano, with Lennard Kämna slipping into the Jonathan Caicedo role as the breakaway rider who proved the most resilient and won the stage, while Juan Pedro López emerged as the new and unexpected wearer of the maglia rosa, much as João Almeida had been two years ago.
As was the case back in 2020, the most significant GC action took place at the rear of the race. On the Etna stage of that corsa rosa, Geraint Thomas didn’t even make it to the end of the neutralized zone, his race ended on the third morning by a bottle that rolled through the bunch before being halted by his front wheel, resulting in a crash that left the Welshman with a fractured pelvis. This time around, Astana’s Miguel Ángel López was the GC favourite who didn’t even reach Etna. Hampered by a hip injury, the Colombian had to abandon, the fourth time in succession he’s failed to finish a Grand Tour.
That 2020 stage also all but finished Simon Yates’s hopes of overall victory, as the Briton trailed in more than three minutes down on his rivals. Caught in a crash on the road to Etna today, Yates was then seen receiving treatment at the medical car. But he ended the day as he started it, as the best-placed of the GC favourites.
However, as is often the case, the first mountain stage did prove too much for some. The most prominent of them was Tom Dumoulin, who was a close third in the Budapest time trial three days ago, but lost more than six minutes to his rivals on Etna, where he fell off the pace with 10km still remaining to the line. His performances over the last few days have followed the pattern established since his return to racing at last June’s Tour of Switzerland after his six-month sabbatical from racing: he’s still very competitive in time trials, but not as consistent as he was on climbs.
To complete Jumbo-Visma’s bad day, their Norwegian co-leader Tobias Foss also yielded a couple of minutes to the GC hitters, although some slight consolation may come from the fact that Tao Geoghegan Hart sustained a similar loss on Etna but ultimately emerged in the third week as the 2020 Giro champion.
It was less surprising to see Vincenzo Nibali fail to stay with the very best on Etna, bearing in mind he’s come to the race looking for stage wins and had been promising to support Superman López. Yet, seeing Cofidis’s Guillaume Martin unable to follow the hard tempo being set by Ineos in the group of favourites wasn’t expected. The metronomically consistent Frenchman spent the three weeks leading up to the Giro at an altitude training camp on Etna and got to know all sides of the volcano extremely well. So solid all season, there’d been talk of him winning on the mountain. Instead, he’s already got ground to make up.
Looking at the group of GC favourites led in by Richard Carapaz two-and-a-half minutes or so after Lennard Kämna had won the stage, it was interesting to note the extent to which Ineos got behind their Ecuadorean leader. Although Richie Porte is still right in the mix as well, the British team didn’t give a thought to sparing either Pavel Sivakov or Ben Tulett as another option if Carapaz happens to suffer some kind of setback. What we saw on Etna was the Ineos steamroller rumbling back up to speed.
Other teams are spreading their cards around a bit more. Bora have three to play in Kämna, Jai Hindley and Wilco Kelderman – the latter two second and third, respectively, to Geoghegan Hart in 2020 remember – Bahrain also have three in Pello Bilbao, Mikel Landa and Santiago Buitrago, while DSM (Romain Bardet and Thymen Arensman) and BikeExchange (Yates and Lucas Hamilton) have two each. Will they be able to make numbers count against the British squad in the long term?
Two things I was fully expecting of the Etna and were delivered were an endless sequence of magnificent shots of the moody volcano and its lava fields, as well as a very strong wind, which may well have nullified any thoughts of attacking, which has tended to be the case on the mountain’s slopes in the past. With two sprint stages to follow into Messina on Wednesday and Scalea on Thursday, the GC battle should come to life on the subsequent three stages, each of them different to the other two, but all of them offering the potential for attacks that could prove much more fruitful than any move would have been on Etna’s exposed slopes.