Words by Peter Cossins | Photo by SWpix.com
Because the GC battle has taken so long to unfold, the Giro has showcased many of the peloton’s lesser lights and has been able the better a contest for that
There’s been plenty of talk during this Giro d’Italia of the contest for the maglia rosa failing to spark into life until the last few days. During a recent episode of the RadioCycling podcast, I was griping about how the weight of mountain tests during the Giro’s final few days effectively act as a handbrake on the GC action, inducing the favourites into adopting a wait-and-see strategy. My colleague Chris Marshall-Bell went further, suggesting that he wouldn’t be watching the race unless he had to for work purposes, adding that he’d prefer to see a 21-day Four Days of Dunkirk than a race that’s gaining a reputation for stalemate until a high-intensity final few days – Chris is at @cmbell310 if you want to come back to him on this.
Yet, while the GC battle has been a slow-burner, the flip side is that the Giro has showcased lots of lesser lights. Indeed, it’s put a spotlight on every type of racer found within the peloton. As a consequence, it has served up a very different spectacle to the one we’ve become used to at Grand Tours in recent seasons and at every major stage race this season.
To illustrate this point, let’s scroll back to day four and the stage to Lago Laceno. It ended with AG2R’s Aurélien Paret-Peintre outsprinting DSM’s Andreas Leknessund for the win, although the Norwegian had the considerable consolation of being the recipient of the maglia rosa that hitherto leader Remco Evenepoel was keen to give away, and with it the stress of leading the race. If my memory serves me rightly, this was also the first occasion this season that a breakaway at a WorldTour stage race had actually remained clear to the line. I still find this hard to believe, but a glance back at the results at Paris-Nice, Tirreno-Adriatico, Itzulia Basque Country and other races of this level confirms to what extent they’ve been dominated by the new breed of all-season stage race specialists, notably Tadej Pogačar, Jonas Vingegaard and, of course, Evenepoel.
Following that day, the GC riders slipped into the shadows, which is precisely where they wanted to be for most of the next fortnight, and other types of riders came to the fore. First to do so were the sprinters, both of the pure and the punchy type. Jonathan Milan and Michael Matthews had already won a stage, and Kaden Groves and Mads Pedersen joined them.
Next came the “hail Mary” breakaway hopefuls, riders mainly from wild card teams launching themselves on a long-range attack where they were almost certain to be reeled in by the favourites. Yet, thanks to a headwind that snuffed out the offensive plans of the GC hitters, a trio of apparent no-hopers stayed clear in the majestic landscape of the Gran Sasso, EOLO’s Davide Bais ultimately the strongest of them.
Then the raced reached Fossombrone and we saw the first appearance of several of the racers who’ve really lit up the corsa rosa. Still borne by the wave of good form that made him stand out during the Ardennes Classics, EF’s Ben Healy won it with a show of solo brilliance, with Israel-PremierTech’s Derek Gee (pictured) in second place, just ahead of Italian champion Filippo Zana, who would later be so impressive in his support for Jayco-Alula leader Eddie Dunbar.
Following the favourites’ fleeting return to centre stage in the Cesena time trial won narrowly by Evenepoel, who quit the race with Covid that same evening, in the next day’s freezing downpour, EF, Israel and Jayco were once again in the thick of it. The grime-encrusted Magnus Cort emulated EF teammate Healy in relegating Derek Gee to second place at the finish, with Alessandro Di Marchi in third.
After Pascal Ackermann just about held off Jonathan Milan in Tortona, we were treated to the Nico Denz show. This unheralded spectacle began with a gritty defiance on the hills into Rivoli, where he was rewarded with a first Grand Tour stage win. It continued two days later with a show of great force, as the German first pulled his group across to the three leaders in the final kilometre, then had enough zip left in his legs to clinch the sprint, man-of-all-breakaways Gee, almost inevitably, the next across the line. Not far behind them, the dominance of the everyday men was underlined as Bruno Armirail, the absolute epitome of the solid racing lieutenant, slipped into a maglia rosa that on that occasion Geraint Thomas wasn’t too concerned about retaining.
In between, on a stage shortened by the weather and much more frantic because of that, diminutive South Americans Einer Rubio and Jefferson Cepeda drove Thibaut Pinot to distraction. The pair took advantage of the Frenchman’s over-eagerness to win a stage on his farewell to the Giro by refusing to collaborate with him, before making their own sorties, Rubio’s ultimately proving decisive.
Only at Monte Bondone, on stage 16, did this Giro take on a more predictable aspect, the favourites judging that the time had finally come for their contest to begin in earnest. Even then, though, the duel that unfolded was one that few would have predicted coming into this race, João Almeida the pick of the GC leaders, ahead of Thomas and a surprisingly underperforming Primož Roglič.
Reflecting on these names and performances, what stands out is that the big-budget teams haven’t dominated in the same way that they did in the run-up in the Giro and will surely dominate at the Tour de France, when it will likely be difficult to see past Pogačar, Vingegaard, Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel. In saving themselves for the critical stages in the final days where the pink jersey would undoubtedly be decided, these teams effectively put the spotlight on breakaway specialists, on pure climbers, on punchy rouleurs, and these riders have served up treat after treat for us.
Thanks to the spoils being shared around in this more democratic way, we’ve found new names to follow and new tales have emerged. To adapt – rather clumsily, I’m afraid – a famous album, this Giro has been a fanfare for the common racer, and all the better for that.