How are we all holding up, folks? I spoke in my rest day piece last week about the nature of Grand Tours on the psyche of us, the fans; how they creep up and take hold and before long you can’t remember life without them. We are well and truly in the throes of this phenomenon now, people. I’m willing to bet if you have a significant other, friends, children, who are not involved in the cycling world as you are, that you feel a little alienated from them right now. You might have drawn closer to friends who are on your wavelength, or taken to social media to find your tribe.
Cycling is a collective sport, both on and off the road, and it’s at times like this, entrenched deep into a three-week race, that we really begin to need one another. Like the team mates that the GC contenders lean on to help them through the increasingly difficult stages, we need one another for emotional support, to vent to when the tension of the big stages is becoming all too much, and to express our disappointment to others who grasp the extreme hold that this sport has over us.
Legendary football manager Bill Shankly was once reported to say: ‘Football is not a matter of life and death. It’s much more important than that.’ With cycling, it’s the same. Perspective is lost to us, for now. We are committed. We’re in this for the long haul. But at least we have each other. So let’s spend some time on this rest day reflecting on some of this week’s talking points.
- Romance STILL isn’t dead
In my last post I talked at length about the exceptional properties of the breakaways of this edition of the Giro, and that trend has not diminished in week two. In fact, it’s becoming tradition. The longer the race goes on, the more convinced riders become that they have a chance of a stage victory, and INEOS, in their role as peloton controllers, have had no interest in disavowing them of this notion. This is the year for firsts. First grand tour; first stage win at a grand tour; first stage win for a team at a grand tour. The records are tumbling, and it’s brilliant. Let’s remember the winners of week two:
STAGE 11: MAURO SCHMID: First win of his career, first win of the season for Qhubeka-ASSOS
Following a grinding day on the gravel roads of Tuscany, Swiss Mauro Schmid beat UAE Team Emirates’ Alessandro Covi in a sprint finish leading into Montalcino to claim his first professional victory. He would begin a spectacular second week for the South African team and continue the breakaway’s winning run.
STAGE 12: ANDREA VENDRAME: First Grand Tour stage win
Following a four-man breakaway effort, AG2R’s Vendrame and Team DSM’s Christopher Hamilton fought it out to the finish after a tough day over the Apennine ridge, Vendrame proving the strongest the claim his first ever stage win in a Grand Tour.
STAGE 13: GIACOMO NIZZOLO: First Grand Tour stage win
It seemed a cruel irony given his eleven second place finishes without a win in Grand Tour stages, that prior to the stage, the odds on Nizzolo taking the victory in this stage apparently hovered briefly at 11/2. Finally on stage 13 he broke his duck, beating Jumbo Visma’s Edoardo Affini across the line; the emotion was palpable amongst the Italian crowd and Nizzolo’s team, and rightly so.
STAGE 14: LORENZO FORTUNATO: First win of his career in his first grand tour; first Grand Tour stage win for EOLO-Kometa
If you’re going to score your first professional victory, for a UCI ProTeam who haven’t won a Grand Tour stage before (and happen to be managed by a certain Alberto Contador), is there any better way to do it than atop the misty peak of Monte Zoncolan? Lorenzo Fortunato had us all out of our seats and willing him to victory on Saturday as he ground out one of the most stunning performances of the Giro so far. His winning smile and charming, halting English in his post-race interview undoubtedly catapulted him into the hearts of cycling fans around the world. A more memorable moment you could not wish for.
STAGE 15: VICTOR CAMPANAERTS: First Grand Tour stage win
Only a heart of stone wouldn’t have been moved to joy by the victory of the Belgian former hour world record holder. He’s been on fine form this season, attacking in almost every race he has been a part of, and he has been part of the breakaway a huge number of times in this Giro. His win was fully deserved after a miserable day fighting through the rain and the joy in the Qhubeka-ASSOS camp was a beautiful thing to see, as they grabbed their third stage win in five days.
Altogether, there have been eight stage wins that have come from a breakaway. Ten first-time stage winners and two first career wins. Two people called VICTOR have been victorious, and if that’s not a sign that this Giro is blessed by fate I don’t know what is. Italy is the land of romance and this is well and truly the grand tour where anything can happen, and usually does. Speaking of which…
2. Never a Dull Moment
Bike racing is brilliant isn’t it? Even on the days that look straightforward on paper, there is always something to talk about. The pure distilled chaos of the sport that is somehow controlled for hours upon hours of riding, day after day, inevitably spills through on occasion, and there’s no greater example of this than in a Grand Tour where the parcours varies from day to day, numerous jerseys are being contested in addition to the GC and the stage win, and the mad interjections from the outside world combine with unpredictable weather conditions to create all kinds of unforeseen scenarios. Just this week, we’ve seen…
- Insane off-roading. Tuscany’s gravel stage really separated the bike handlers from the lesser mortals, as the frenetic pace set up by INEOS Peloton Godfather Fillippo Ganna caused the first major shake-up in the GC, thinning out a frantic peloton who spent the entire day playing catch up on a surface that few of them were comfortable on. It was bloody brilliant, wasn’t it?
- Battling (in more ways than one). The Bennett v Brambilla saga that concluded stage 12 was bizarre and effectively resulted in both riders cancelling out their chances at taking the stage win. Emotions undoubtedly run high in races and when George and Gianluca had a disagreement over who was working in the group, sparks flew, ultimately resulting in spat across the line which had Brambilla relegated a place
- Double mountain duty for Bennett. I poured my soul out lamenting George Bennett’s efforts in the breakaway on Monte Zoncolan in my post-race report, but was floored to discover that after the race, on sighting his team mate and helper for the day Edoardo Affini still making his way up the climb, George rode back up it himself to keep him company on his ride. Broken and beaten by the day, the two Jumbo Visma riders were united and it was truly heart-warming to see
- Crashes happen in the most unlikely places. The chaos at the beginning of stage 15 was a primary example of the absolute madness of cycling. Sure, crashes are always a possibility and we have seen some bad ones this Giro. It’s more usual though to see disaster strike on a sketchy descent or through a town centre.
It’s a constant source of wonder to me how there are so few crashes in the peloton itself; a thing that seems to function with a collective identity, moving together without incident for the vast majority of bike races. The crazy chasing down of breakaways that has typified this Giro somehow caused the entire back end of the peloton to come a cropper on stage 15 mere minutes after the beginning of the race, before the peloton had settled into their rhythm, resulting in three abandonments.
- Surprise Packages. It’s easy to predict who might win a Grand Tour, but for every Egan Bernal there’s a Damiano Caruso, and this Giro has been no stranger to unexpected breakthrough performances. In week one, arguably one of the great surprises of the race was the presence in the GC race of young Italian Giulio Ciccone. Prior to the Giro, veteran climber Bauke Mollema would probably have been Trek Segafredo’s nominal leader, with Vincenzo Nibali’s return from a wrist injury hampering his ability to compete at his best. In Ciccone though, Trek had a young, aggressive rider who had clearly timed his peak fitness to perfection. Ciccone had a storming first week and, whilst he’s been quieter in week two, he’s still very much in contention in 6th position on the GC. An impressive performance from the young Italian climber who just today proved his worth on the queen stage of the race with a 4th place finish alongside Hugh Carthy. He is very much here to stay.
Caruso for Bahrain-Victorious has come through in Mikel Landa’s stead with impressive form. He’s been a mainstay of the lead group for the entire race following the departure of his leader, and if he maintains his position, will step onto the podium at a Grand tour for the first time in his career.
I was going to write about Emanuel Buchmann, too. The German had quietly crept up the GC standings, as he quite often does, but he finally stuck his nose into the wind this week and had a dig. It wasn’t enough to shake off Egan Bernal but it made a difference, and so it was galling to see him crash out of the race in the chaotic opening to stage 15, yet another GC contender lost to the unpredictable vagaries of the sport.
Finally, Tobias Foss for Team Jumbo Visma has been a quiet revelation this Giro. He exploded out of the blocks with an incredible opening time trial in the Prologue and has maintained form ever since, sticking with the big guns through both flat stages and climbs and never dropping lower than 11th position on GC. Not bad for a young man riding in only his second grand tour, and a stand-out performer for Jumbo Visma whose leader, George Bennett, has failed to make the mark on the GC that the team (and certain fans of the Kiwi champion himself) would have hoped. Foss’ performance on the queen stage, finishing in 10th position on an extremely difficult day, is truly impressive and his potential over the years to come should not be under-estimated.
- The bloody weather. Not everything can be predicted or controlled. And the Italian weather has been a thorn in the side of the riders for the entirety of this Giro. The sight of riders putting on rain jackets and setting their features in grim determination has been a constant, and combined with the crashes and the testing terrain it’s testament to their absolute iron wills and incredible resilience that there are any of them left at all.
As for us, stuck at home, we’ve been subject to varying levels of coverage and have been left guessing on more than one occasion, and it’s given rise to some great humour and conversation on social media, bringing us back to the point about the importance of the cycling community.
So, have I talked myself into actually being grateful for the insane weather conditions? Absolutely not. Seeing the suffering the riders have endured in the cold, and seeing rain bouncing off the road surface, is not my idea of fun. I’m already counting the days to the Tour de France and hopefully some idyllic summer sun.
3. Remco, Again
The Remco hype train somewhat ran out of steam in the second week of the Giro, as he settled into grand tour life and proved that ultimately, he was human after all. Whilst I’ll admit I was the first to hope he would show the flashes of brilliance we had come to expect from him, prior to his crash in August 2020, I’d like to qualify this with the following caveat: that I, along with the vast majority of cycling fans, viewed Remco’s return to the sport as a wonderful relief following the trauma of his crash, and from my perspective, whilst the hype around his participation in the Giro was overblown, to see him attempt his first grand tour was an exciting prospect.
Despite a great opening week, Remco returned from the rest day to the nightmare gravel stage in Tuscany, and after a quiet few days where he struggled to stick with the pace, his second week ended with him losing 24 minutes on the Passo Giau. While rumours circulate about whether or not he will leave the race, one thing is certain: he’s learning an incredible amount; but is he learning it the right way?
In a team renowned for their dominance in one day races and in sprint stages of grand tours, the paradigm shift to a general classification team will clearly take time to become fully embedded at Deceuninck-QuickStep. Their fabled reinvention, built around Remco, will presumably develop organically, along with the young man himself, however for me, they have not made the best of starts at this Giro. From downplaying Remco’s involvement in the leadership of the team prior to the race, boss Patrick Lefevre shifted his stance within the first couple of days as Remco made a promising start, and the resulting media frenzy would have heaped further pressure on the shoulders of a rider who is in completely unchartered territory.
To then undermine this by leaving him labouring alone for large portions of the gravel stage in Tuscany, and have him dropping back to get his own race jacket the following day on stage 12, does not sit well with this new found profile they are seeking to create. Rumours of unrest in the Wolfpack surfaced as Joao Almeida reluctantly helped Remco on stage 11, then finally broke free and went for his own shot at glory on stage 16, as in the intervening days Lefevre backpedalled once more, stating that if Remco needed to be sent home, he would be.
Remco himself has, from our perspective, stayed upbeat, and downplays the possibility of leaving the race. Undoubtedly it would be great to see him take on the final time trial. He was always an unknown quantity but the lack of clarity from the team’s DS surrounding Remco’s role, at a time when what he desperately needed was guidance and support, is concerning. He is simply a young man, returning to the sport after a deeply troubling accident, whose physical and psychological wellbeing are unproven in this level of racing. Even now when there is talk of withdrawing him, mixed messages are coming out, and it is hard to see whether or not the team have his best interests at heart.
Remco needs the kind of nurturing that is not in keeping with the Wolfpack mindset and, whilst they are not total strangers to a GC battle, having Julian Alaphillippe go deep in the 2017 Tour de France, Alaphillippe is a vastly different beast to Remco. The team will need to look at different strategies going forward if they are to get the best out of Evenepoel and I really hope they succeed; he is too bright a hope to be squandered through mis-management, especially if they plan to use him to spearhead their future grand tour efforts.
FINAL THOUGHT… Only five stages remain in the 2021 edition of the Giro d’Italia and it’s safe to say it’s Egan Bernal’s to lose. He’s looked utterly formidable so far and it’s going to take a monumental effort to oust him at the top – perhaps the GC could be considered now a race for second. More importantly, can George Bennett finally win a stage? Enjoy the conclusion of the action folks, and I’ll see you on the other side.