Words by Peter Cossins | Photos by SWpix.com/Cor Vos
I’ll start by stating where I believe we’ll be at the end: Tao Geoghegan-Hart will win the Giro d’Italia. However, before explaining why, let’s go back to the start of this slow-burner of a race that looks likely to catch fire in its final days.
Grand Tours start with a good degree of certainty about the identity of the strongest contenders and teams. As the race got under way in Sicily, the Giro had a number that fitted the bill. Ineos Grenadier Geraint Thomas was in great shape having finished second at Tirreno-Adriatico and just off the podium in the World Time Trial Championship. Mitchelton-Scott’s Simon Yates, the Tirreno winner, was another obvious favourite, alongside Grand Tour perennials Vincenzo Nibali, Steven Kruiswijk and Jakob Fuglsang.
Yet, even before the Giro had reached the last of its Sicilian stages, that certainty had been severely eroded, firstly by an errant water-bottle that sent Thomas crashing to the road in the neutral zone on stage three, then by Yates’s surprising loss of ground at the end of the same day. Fuglsang’s hopes had also been undermined even before this by the loss of Astana’s two best climbers, Miguel Angel López and Aleksandr Vlasov.
The steady shredding of certainty continued once the Giro reached the mainland. Nibali and Kruiswijk yielded ground to their rivals at the Roccaraso summit on the Giro’s second Sunday, with the Dutchman then forced to quit the race following a positive Covid-19 test, Yates already gone in the same way.
The process continued this last weekend, when Nibali and Fuglsang lost more ground than expected in Saturday’s time trial, then failed to strike back at the Piancavallo summit finish a day later, as many were predicting them to do. As a consequence, with six stages of the Giro remaining, the pre-race favourites are on the periphery of the GC battle, currently looking more likely to cede more time than produce a turnaround in fortunes that would make it clear that they had judged their effort perfectly over the three weeks.
At the same time, a new generation of Grand Tour performers have not so much filled the gaps that have appeared in the hierarchy, as risen magnificently to the occasion. They’ve been led, of course, by the effervescent Joao Almeida, who took the maglia rosa by mere margins of a second on Mount Etna at the end of stage three. The Portuguese youngster has subsequently endeavoured to push out his lead at every opportunity, sprinting for bonus seconds on three occasions and gaining significant time on all of his rivals in Saturday’s time trial. All the while, he’s been solidly backed by Deceuninck teammates Fausto Masnada and James Knox, who have a total of six Grand Tour starts between them.
Other young cubs who have stood out include American Grand Tour debutant Brandon McNulty, who rose to fourth place after Saturday’s time trial, only to pay for that effort at Piancavallo, and two riders from – almost inevitably given the summer they’ve had – Team Sunweb. Australians Chris Hamilton and Jai Hindley blew the Giro apart on that Piancavallo stage, their fierce pace-making for team leader Wilco Kelderman seeing off everyone bar Geoghegan-Hart.
If Sunweb’s Dutch leader is to deliver finally on the Grand Tour promise that he showed when he finished seventh in the 2014 Giro at the age of 24, he will undoubtedly lean heavily on this pair, and Hindley particularly. The very slightly built 24-year-old has steadily moved up the overall standings and now lies third. His performance at Piancavallo, where he towed the grimacing Kelderman almost all the way to the line, suggests that he will be one of the riders who should thrive in the three high-rise stages that lie just ahead. He might even win the race himself.
Following his win at Piancavallo, I’d also include Geoghegan-Hart in that same bracket with Hindley. A little off the pace of the main contenders when the race got under way, the 25-year-old Londoner has steadily scaled the standings. Ineos have kept the pressure of him by talking up their focus on stage wins, a strategy bolstered by the fact that they’ve won plenty of them, Geoghegan-Hart’s success no less than their fifth.
As a result, in a race that has been characterised by persistently fluctuating fortunes, the Ineos Grenadier appears to have the form and, crucially, the confidence to win a first Grand Tour title. His victory on Sunday showcased both factors. I particularly enjoyed the moment when he switched across to the far side of the road in order to eyeball and assess Hindley and Kelderman, and the way that he waited until the line was almost in sight before making an acceleration that quickly ejected the Dutchman from his slipstream.
While Geoghehan-Hart does still have to make up the best part of three minutes on Almeida and Kelderman, that kind of swing is achievable on any one of the summit finishes at Madonna di Campiglio, Laghi di Cancano or Sestriere, assuming the elements cooperate and the stages aren’t shortened. Although the loss of Jhonatan Narváez in a crash on the road to Piancavallo deprives him of a very useful climbing ally, there’s still plenty of power and experience left in the first Ineos line-up this season where everyone is firing at the same time.