Grand Tours are strange and enigmatic beasts. They creep up on you, quietly occupying your mind as they draw closer. Once they begin, they take hold insidiously; you try to keep up with the early stages. You read an article, listen to a podcast, have an exchange or ten on social media.
A few days later and your previous life is eclipsed. Who are you, if you’re not a full-time cycling pundit? What is life, if it’s not discussing the finer points of Italian weather systems, the significance of the maglia rosa, or whether or not Remco looked a bit tired today (spoiler alert: he didn’t).
Ten days, people. It’s been ten days of our lives and yet, it’s hard to recall life without the Giro d’Italia. I’ve been writing daily stage reports for TJV Supporters, so if you’ve missed anything because of some life-altering emergency (no other reason is applicable) then please feel free to check them out here – they have a black and yellow leaning, but so much has happened in the first ten days, it’s hard to focus on just one team, even when it’s your remit to do so.
In these rest day reflections, I will summarise some of the key takeaways and expand on talking points that have cropped up in the previous week’s racing. Given the nature of this Giro so far, this could potentially be a long one, so buckle in and enjoy the ride.
- Breakaway Dominance
All too often in cycling races these days, the breakaway is doomed to fail. It’s the way of things; the peloton exerting order over the chaos that might have been as they slowly reel plucky breakaway groups back in, usually timing it to perfection just in time for the final.
The Giro d’Italia 2021 edition is tearing up that rule book and throwing it off of the top of the Apennines. Breakaways at the Giro are a different beast, for three key reasons:
- They are hard fought. There have been a couple of stages where it’s taken in excess of 60km for a breakaway to form. You have to really want to get away. Once they’ve finally been established, the peloton takes longer to recover from the exertion and bigger gaps stretch out in the meantime, giving the advantage to the breakaway who don’t have as far to ride free of the peloton as the ordinarily might
- They’ve been substantial. It’s pretty simple; strength is in numbers and where breakaways are concerned, the bigger the better. Some of this Giro’s breakaways have been like mini pelotons – day 4 had a 25-man breakaway, and unsurprisingly, they won the day through Joe Dombrowski
- They have belief. They genuinely think they have a chance of a stage win. And it’s contagious – once one breakaway victory was recorded on the second road stage of the Giro, it became clear that this was not a pipe dream – it was a real possibility. More breakaway victories would, and did, inevitably follow.
2. Romance isn’t dead
As I talked about at length in my preview piece, everybody loves an underdog. The success of the breakaway has manifested some unexpected and wonderful outcomes, including a raft of winners that the average cycling fan had probably never heard of before this race.
With the sport increasingly dominated by big teams, it’s arguably growing more and more difficult for lesser-known riders to make their mark, but winning a stage of a Grand Tour is no mean feat, and these riders have earned their place in cycling history. Add to that the pink jersey landing on the back of young Attila Valter, the first Hungarian to ever wear the maglia rosa, and this year’s first grand tour has proven beyond a doubt that money isn’t everything – and romance most certainly isn’t dead.
- Taco van der Hoorn wins stage 3 in dramatic style. The Dutchman’s career had faltered after he left Jumbo Visma last year, but the eagle-eyed among us will have noticed Taco in the breakaway group at Milano-San Remo, where he was one of the last men standing, and here at the Giro he raced to victory in spectacular style, treating us to a display of pure unfiltered emotion as he crossed the line. Absolute perfection
- Joe Dombrowski beats the weather in Sestola. A rider who paled into obscurity despite a promising early career, it was a huge surprise to see Dombrowski snatch victory on a day when the horrible weather conditions had thinned the field down to just the strongest riders. He hung on to take the first stage win of his senior career at the age of 31.
- The redemption of Gino Mader. After his heartbreak in Paris-Nice (where he was ‘Roglic’ed’ as some have termed it), Gino Mader fought tooth and nail for Bahrain-Victorious as the team united following the loss of their leader Mikel Landa to a crash. Matej Mohoric rode for Mader in the break before leaving him to take on the final stages alone. The cycling world was united in roaring him to victory and it was never in doubt. Mader took the mountains jersey and earned his place in the annals of Giro history
- Victor is Victorious for France. With the confidence high in the breakaway, everyone had a dig on stage 7, but it was Victor Lafay for Cofidis who timed his attack to perfection, and the French and their team who have struggled in recent years had reason to celebrate their first Giro stage win in 11 years
- Groupama-FDJ work for the jersey. There has been much talk of ‘respecting the jersey’ so far this Giro. Whatever your opinion on the matter, there’s no doubt that the French team did their leader Attila Valter proud with their stringent defence of the maglia rosa. It meant a great deal to them and they did the work. When they finally lost the jersey on stage 9 after three days in control, the sight of Valter kissing the jersey was enough to bring a tear to the eye of the most pragmatic of fans.
3. Remco rides again
I’ll preface this with the obvious comebacks that are being parroted daily in the media: it’s a three-week race. The hardest stages are yet to come. It’s Remco’s first ever grand tour and he’s only just come back from injury.
RIGHT. Now we’ve got all those boring ‘facts’ out of the way, it’s time to throw some more fuel into the engine of the hype train which, with ten days gone is very much still rolling. Remco has ridden maturely, riding within himself and using his team well, and he has taken his chances when they’ve presented themselves without leaving himself exposed. The long and short of it? He’s fit. He’s smart. And he hasn’t made any mistakes as yet.
There were rumblings suggesting he was dropped on the steep gravel section where Egan Bernal detonated on stage 9, yet if you watch Remco’s progress up the climb, despite starting out near the back of the leading group he makes stunning progress and is probably second only to Bernal. The difference between the two is negligible at this stage; Remco is working for everything, even attacking the intermediate sprint in the final stage before the rest day to claim a single second.
With the awareness of his time trialling prowess at the forefront of their minds, Remco’s rivals cannot afford to let him stay with them, which promises for some exciting attacks going into the next stages of the race. Will Remco be able to stick with them for the full three weeks? The weight of expectation he faces from the media and fans in his home nation of Belgium must be immense on the young man’s shoulders, and with the eyes of the entire cycling world upon him the question of how his body will react to the pressures of three weeks of racing remains unanswered as yet. But it’s so far, so good, and those who hoped, back at the beginning of the race, are now starting to believe in the Belgian wunderkind.
4. Rider safety could still use some improvement
I’ll keep it brief as I referred to it at length in my day five report, but in an era where the UCI are heavily involved in what riders can and can’t do during the course of a race, there are a great many further issues that are being either ignored or deprioritised, and rider safety, sadly, still seems to be one of them.
Sending pelotons going at high speed into twisting, turning town centres with the inevitable road furniture that these entail on the build-up to a bunch sprint is an unnecessary risk. The barrier issue has been addressed, albeit slowly and with varying efficacy from race to race, but until the UCI takes a stronger stance on route planning, or considers some kind of late stage neutralisation for GC riders, allowing sprinters and their trains the space to do their thing, then ultimately, we will continue to face problems the likes of which saw Mikel Landa and Joe Dombrowski crash out of the race.
Furthermore, the way the support vehicles interact with the riders is at the centre of heated debate, as ever, following Pieter Serry’s collision with the Team Bike Exchange vehicle. The driver was literally exchanging something with the commissaire’s car and was not paying attention to the rapidly decelerating rider in front. Sanctions had the driver of the BikeExchange car expelled but there has been a noticeable silence on the part of the race directors.
Matej Mohoric’s horror crash on the descent of Passo Godi early on in stage 9 raised concerns too, as the doctor appeared to offer a new bike to a rider whose had crashed so hard his bike had snapped in two and his body had been thrown head over heels in the process; thankfully Mohoric was not only alright, but somehow had the presence of mind not to just get on and continue the race.
Even the final stretch on stage 9’s gravel climb was hair-raising to watch as the motorbikes and team cars wove around in close enough proximity to the riders that one wrong move could have ended someone’s race.
What the answers are to these enduring issues are I don’t know; we can only hope they are given due care and attention by those who can make a difference, as soon as possible.
5. This sport is an emotional rollercoaster
I wrote about George Bennett on Saturday. Things haven’t been going so well for our George; he’s struggled in the poor weather conditions and shipped swathes of time on the GC, but I gathered up my hopes and poured them into the piece I wrote, and the next day, what should happen, but he goes in the break. It was immense. I felt as though I’d manifested it; brought about some kind of fabulous spiritual lift that had rippled outward through the universe, all the way to Italy. Somehow, it was even worse then, when it finally fell apart, leaving George further adrift than he had been before. My hopes raised and then dashed again, and I can’t deny my heart was heavy with the disappointment of it all that night.
All sport is laden with emotion. You’re high as a kite when your team or athlete of choice is winning, plunged deep into dark places when they’re suffering. Is cycling any different to any other sport, in that respect? My answer to that is yes. It is different: it’s worse.
The reason why lies in the rigours of the sport itself. Think of what you face, as a rider in a grand tour: you spend five hours a day in the saddle, working at high speed, across gruelling terrain, often in unpleasant or downright horrible conditions. While doing this, you are constantly judging how others around you are performing, whether you are where you need to be, how much fuel you need to take on, if you are working hard enough for your teammates; if you have the stomach for the fight. Not to mention the inevitable dangers that you face along the way; the odds are that one or two of your team mates, if not you, will be the next to crash, or fall, or suffer a mechanical. And oh, wait – that’s not just for one day. That’s every day. For three weeks. Consider what the average footballer goes through on a matchday, by comparison.
As fans we are subject to the same duration of emotional exertion. We can’t slack, as we’ll miss something: a key moment, a stealth attack, a decisive tactical move. We have to stay alert, keep our focus. Make careful mental notes as to who is where, and who is following, and what could that mean at the end of the day, the week, the tour? We gasp when they go into tight corners, hold our breath when they fly down sketchy descents; is it any wonder when they win, we shed tears of joy along with our favourites, or even those who we didn’t know were our favourites? Is it any wonder we feel deflated, defeated and desperate when things aren’t going our team’s way?
Three weeks is a long time for the riders, but they have trained for this. They are honed physical specimens, with plans and goals and data and directions in their ears all along the way. So must we become honed specimens of bearing the mental strain. We must discipline ourselves to suffer alongside those we would love to see win, and those we care less for; we suffer with them all. Because it’s not black and white; not like football, it’s not a win, lose or draw situation. It’s so much more than that. So many nuances, outcomes and possibilities. It’s all the more to love. You give your heart to something, and sometimes it will break. Yet on the days when the stars align, and everything goes the way it should, and your favourite rider is flying and you’re screaming at the television and nothing else matters… It will all be worth it.
With that, I’m going to leave you to enjoy the rest day – never mind the riders, I feel that after the emotional rollercoaster of the past week, we all need this brief pause to decompress before the race begins again in earnest. So give yourselves time to celebrate the victories, commiserate the losses, and refuel ready for those next all important stages.
I will be continuing to cover the race daily over at TJV Supporters, and I’ll be back next week for another round-up of the major talking points. Until then, thanks for reading, and please feel free to share your thoughts here or over on social media.