Words by William Fotheringham | Photos by SWpix.com / Cor Vos
There are various ways of assessing the toughness of a massive Alpine climb like the Stelvio pass, but the race cape test is as good as any.
At the top of the 25 kilometres of climbing, an hour grinding uphill to 2,758m altitude, as Rohan Dennis, Tao-Geoghegan-Hart and Jai Hindley tackled the final pull up to the tiny cafe perched amidst the snowfields, you had only to watch Hindley’s desperate attempts to get his rain jacket on to understand just how desperately hard the effort had been, how cold his fingers were, how dulled his reactions by the thin air and the constant flirting with oxygen debt.
Under vaguely normal circumstances getting a rain jacket over the shoulders and zipping it up is relatively routine for anyone who spends time on their bike; for professionals, it’s bread and butter stuff. But although Hindley sensibly gave himself several hundred meters to get the jacket on, it wasn’t cooperating. At one point, riding with his hands off the bars, he wobbled perilously close to the retaining wall on his left, and almost dropped the cape into his front wheel. Try as he might, his right arm simply would not go into the sleeve, which kept whipping round.
The jacket went on eventually, but it was never zipped up. And at the time, it must have felt like the ultimate kick in the teeth: you are in the form of your life, you fight your way up a the biggest mountain pass in the Giro – the biggest mountain pass in the whole relaunched rejigged 2020 season – and the Gods of cycling won’t even give your fingers enough feeling and your legs enough momentum for you to put on the garment that will keep you from freeezing when you drop through the snowfield on the other side.
It was that kind of day on the Stelvio. The Giro d’Italia discovered its soul after two and half weeks in which the three biggest favorites had been eliminated one by one through crashes (Geraint Thomas) and positive Covid tests – Simon Yates and Steven Kruiswijk. Those who were left had seemed frozen in the spotlight at times, with no one willing to make a decisive move. They had good reason: anything they might have achieved at Roccaraso, Piancavallo or Madonna del Campiglio would risk being rendered null and void once they began the long false flat past the gleaming waterfalls at the foot of the great pass.
The gloves came off as they went past the series of little cascades. The initial push came from Sunweb, who had looked the strongest collective the previous Sunday at Piancavallo, and, as expected, were trying to break the pink jersey Joao Almeida to favor Wilco Kelderman’s push for the pink jersey. But higher up the climb, as the race reached the first smatterings of snow amid the pine trees, it was Ineos, who had played a tactical blinder by sending Rohan Dennis up the road.
The former world time trial champion then wrecked the Sunweb strategy by burning off Kelderman, leaving Hindley with an obvious dilemma: mark Ineos or wait for his leader. Behind, the rest followed in ones and twos, all the way to the Laghi di Cancano finish, where Hindley outsprinted Geoghegan-Hart – man of the match Dennis had come to a standstill at the foot of the ascent to the checkered flag – and Kelderman snuck into pink, just about. Few would bet on his holding it into Milan on Sunday.
Long, brutal Alpine ascents may have been overlooked a little amid the fashion in 21st century cycling for short, steep, abrupt climbs that don’t last as long, and certainly don’t flirt with 2,800m. But the greatest passes such as the Izoard, the Stelvio, the Iseran and Galibier take the sport into a different dimension. That’s partly because any weakness is mercilessly exposed and can be exploited, but also because they have an ironclad connection to cycling’s past.
There’s a good reason why the Stelvio has a plaque dedicated to Fausto Coppi by the “sportsmen of Valtellina”: there were no 15-foot snowdrifts this October day as there were when Coppi won the 1953 Giro here before having a tryst with the “White Lady” at a hotel lower down the mountain, but all the brutal romance of the past was there nonetheless. The mountain has written what should be the story of this Giro: Ineos, the biggest budget in the sport but leaderless for the moment, versus Sunweb, a team that has punched above its apparent weight all through this brief post-lockdown season.
The Stelvio settled several issues that have been festering for the past fortnight. Vincenzo Nibali won’t win another Grand Tour before he retires. The “shark” went under on the steepest section, couldn’t hold Jakob Fuglsang and Pello Bilbao and is now almost 6min off the pace. Joao Almeida’s dream run finally came to an end, although you wouldn’t bet against the Portuguese pushing himself onto the podium. Domenico Pozzovivo and Brandon McNulty have also lost their form of the first half of the race.
The twin gambles of holding the Giro, and running it over its biggest pass, had paid off. The weather had done its worst but to no avail as the big piles of snow cleared from the tarmac showed, and the previous week’s little rash of positive Covid tests hadn’t spawned anything worse. The organisers could face the loss of the vast ascents of the Agnello and Izoard on Saturday with something approaching equanimity: the final weekend of the Giro would begin with the race beautifully poised, with suspense maintained at least until Sestriere on Saturday and possibly into Milan on Sunday.