Giro d’Italia 2021: what have we learned?

The champagne has flowed, the twirly trophy has been awarded, and the (presumably pink) dust has settled on the 2021 edition of the Giro d’Italia. I can only speak for myself when I say it’s been absolutely exhausting, hasn’t it? As for the riders, those that made it through from day 1 in Torino to day 21 in Milan deserve at the very least a year off and long holiday. Obviously, as they’re professional cyclists, they will be back on their bikes in a couple of days and preparing for the next challenge. Because they’re bonkers. And that’s why we love them.

So what did we learn over the course of the three weeks? Many, many lessons, that I’ll summarise for you now, in something vaguely resembling chronological order.

INEOS Grenadiers proving that ‘wardrobe malfunction’ isn’t in their vocabulary

Fillippo Ganna is part machine #wattbomb

The Jumbo Visma boys know how to time trial

Sometimes, the slowest time set for a stage isn’t slow enough (see stage 2)

A Peter Sagan day apparently equals BORA Hansgrohe riding themselves into the ground only for a man named after a Mexican foodstuff to win instead

A man named after a Mexican foodstuff can win a bike race

Italian television companies are ill-equipped for inclement weather

George Bennett is ill-equipped for inclement weather (he needs at least #2coats)

Giulio Ciccone is everyone’s favourite surprise

Road furniture is terrifying

Mikel Landa and Pavel Sivakov are extremely unlucky

Watching a race enter a tunnel causes a rip in the space-time continuum causing a Schrodinger’s bike race scenario in which everything and nothing happens at once but the tension is unbearable

Gravel finishes trigger Egan Bernal’s hidden turbo mode

Look up ‘train’ in the dictionary and you will find a picture of Fillippo Ganna

It doesn’t matter whether or not you think they belong on a Grand Tour: gravel racing is an awesome spectacle and makes for incredibly exciting racing

A man who has only managed to come second in Grand Tour stages eleven times before can finally win a bike race

Edoardo Affini is such a valuable team mate, he’s worth riding up a massive mountain twice for

A man whose name translates as ‘Lucky’ can win a bike race, and trigger Alberto Contador to shout for five full minutes on social media

Slovenians know how to party

You cannot rely on the Italian Spring to produce a climate conducive to good bike racing

Italian television companies are STILL ill-equipped for inclement weather

INEOS Grenadiers are masters of putting on, and removing, rain jackets

Romain Bardet is a demon descender. (We assume. As we didn’t actually see the evidence).

Is it even a breakaway if it doesn’t contain one of the following: Simon Pellaud. Dries de Bondt. Victor Campanaerts?

If you can see Simon Yates, he’s doing it wrong*

*except on stage 17**

**and 18

Don’t make Joao Almeida angry. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry

Egan Bernal is a complex individual comprising class, endurance, and raw power. He is both a machine, and human

Look up ‘grit’ in the dictionary and you will find pictures of Dan Martin and Alberto Bettiol

Giant pandas are indigenous to the slopes of the Dolomites

Peter Sagan can, on occasion, resemble an angry shepherd rounding up naughty sheep

Dani Martinez can wear a medallion and still set a lightning-fast pace up a mountain. He will work for you when you have nothing left to give. Then he will shake his fist in your face and goddammit, you will work some more

Fillippo Ganna and his dog are everything

Damiano Caruso appreciating Pello Bilbao is everything

It will take more than a puncture to slow Fillippo Ganna down

Remi Cavagna could use some cornering practice

Damiano Caruso didn’t miss out on first place, he won second place

Egan Bernal is a true champion

AND FINALLY

Bike racers are crazy, and this is why we love them. See exhibit A, George Bennett, who (1) arguably sabotaged his own chances of a stage victory following a spat with Gianluca Brambilla on stage 12; (2) rode back UP Monte Zoncolan to accompany his team mate Edoardo Affini back down (3) rode over the top of the snow-capped Passo Giau in 1 degree with no gloves on, then crossed the line still wearing his food bag.

Still, I love the guy dearly, and as a partisan George and Jumbo Visma supporter, I’m comfortable ending this list with his wildly varied attributes as doesn’t the chaotic nature of this Giro d’Italia feel as though it’s adequately represented by such a character? I vote yes.

And a few things we already knew, but were reminded of…

Italy is incredible and we all want to live there

Cycling is about so much more than just a race

Passion, guts and class are what make a bike racer a truly great rider

In this most unpredictable of bike races, anything can, and probably will, happen (see: car collides with rider; Queen stage shortened due to extreme weather conditions; rider forgets to corner, etc)

When a race like this ends, it’s hard not to feel as though you’ve left a small part of yourself behind in the process

Thanks for reading everyone, more Grand Tour adventures await in just under a month… join me there?

/Finito

Giro d’Italia 2021: Rest Day Reflections 2

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.

  1. 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.

Giro d’Italia 2021: Rest Day Reflections 1

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.

  1. 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.

And breathe…

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.

Giro d’Italia 2021 Alternative Preview: Who let the underdogs out?

underdog (noun): a competitor thought to have little chance of winning a fight or contest.

I don’t remember exactly when rooting for the underdog became my default sporting position. Probably in the dark days of Watford FC’s pre-Premier League years, standing on the terraces (yes I’m that old) listening to my Dad moan about tired tactics and wingers lacking in drive.

It translated down the years through many other sports: tennis, ice hockey, university sport, some more Watford FC (losing 6-0 to Man City in the 2019 cup final, where I finally put to rest my lifelong love of the game). There was an upside to it though: always the underdog; never disappointed.

Because, much like sitting down on a comfortable sofa, being the underdog is easy. You can scream at the TV, enjoying your sport of choice, safe in the knowledge that it’s probably not going to be your day (as it rarely is), and sink back into that familiar, well-worn spot right after, shaking your head knowingly.

But on those magical days, those rare occasions when the underdog comes good? Now that is what sport is all about.

There had to be a pay-off, somewhere along the line, however, and the tables were turned when I nailed my colours to the mast with Team Jumbo Visma. So, now it’s my turn to support a winning team. Right? Wrong. I mean sometimes, sure. But the beauty of cycling is nothing is a given; there’s no obvious result, or done deal. Even when you have one of the race favourites on paper, nothing is guaranteed.

And so to the Giro d’Italia 2021. With a field jam-packed with GC contenders, it’s safe to say that Jumbo Visma’s team leader George Bennett has got his work cut out for him. So, is it time for me to settle back down onto that comfortable sofa, and confidently state that I’m back in my safe place: supporting the underdog?

Maybe not. Browsing through the leading contenders for the overall win in Italy, I began to wonder… is there anyone who couldn’t be considered, in their own way, an underdog?

Here for you now, I’ll argue that each and every one of the main contenders are all underdogs in their own unique ways. I’ll then go on to shine a spotlight on some of the actual underdogs, and suggest reasons why this year might be their year to take home the Maglia Rosa. And I’ll try to work out who the smart money is on – the guys in between.

BOOKIES’ FAVOURITES – the front runners. The main contenders. The guys we expect to see battling it out all the way to Milan on the final day.

Name: Egan Bernal (INEOS Grenadiers)

Er, he’s going to win, right? Probably. INEOS will send a stacked line-up to support their leader. He sat out the Tour de Romandie but that may have just been to preserve his fitness. And did you SEE him sticking it out all the way to the final of Strade Bianche? If Bernal is feeling good, everyone else is in big trouble.

Underdog credentials: I’ll admit, going to be tricky. The 2019 TDF winner has already proven himself in top form this season; as well as Strade Bianche he came 4th in Tirreno Adriatico. It’s by no means a done deal though. Despite his good form there are still question marks over his back injury, and it’s a big ask for such a big injury to hold out over a three-week grand tour.

Name: Simon Yates (Team Bike Exchange)

No actually, he’s going to win, right? Probably. Yates is arguably THE form rider going into the Giro, taking the GC at the Tour of the Alps with an assured performance. He showed effortless ability to distance his rivals on climbs, and his confidence is brimming. He’s happy to take on a climb alone, and give it everything right to the finish line.

Underdog credentials: Like a classic case of twin theory, separating out the Yates twins this season might finally provide an answer to the question: which Yates is which? Purely by nature of being the one not at INEOS, Simon could be viewed as an underdog. Adam’s form this season is arguably stronger, taking the GC at Volta a Catalunya and coming second in the UAE tour. Yes, Simon’s shown he can put down a win over a week, but can he do it over three? As yet, it’s an unknown.

Name: Remco Evenepoel (Deceuninck-Quickstep)

Surely he can’t win? You’d be right to have doubts, despite the bookies’ faith in the young Belgian superstar. Despite his long period off the bike following his horror crash at last summer’s Il Lombardia though, there’s no way he’d be sent to the Giro if he wasn’t feeling good. He comes as part of an incredibly strong wolfpack who have serious designs on the GC. The race starts and finishes with an individual time trial, which will be a great chance for Remco to gain confidence over his rivals, and snatch back any time he loses in the mountains. Which, let’s face it, he probably won’t.

Underdog credentials: You would be forgiven for laughing at the notion that Remco could ever be considered an underdog, in any bike race. It’s no secret that the former footballer has talent for days and is expected to have a huge future in the sport.  However, he’s been rehabilitating gradually and the decision to wait until the Giro to trial his form means that despite his talent, his ability to grind through three weeks of gruelling grand tour riding remains untested, and the team have been quick to play down his chances of success. Yet he’s one of the favourites for the race simply by reputation. It’s going to be fascinating to see how it pans out.

Name: Hugh Carthy (EF Education Nippo)

Hang on, that lad from Lancashire, one of the favourites? Yes, technically speaking. Some might argue he’s not quite up there with Yates and Bernal. Still, the enigmatic young climber from has shown good form this season and has the potential to be a serious contender. Who could forget his relentless attack on the Angliru at 2020’s Vuelta a Espana, which cemented his podium finish in that race? He’s been lurking at key moments this season and has ensured the eyes of the cycling world are firmly on him going into the lumpiest of grand tours.

Underdog credentials: Carthy’s time trialling isn’t the best, and he will have to ensure he keeps out of trouble on the sprint stages. He’s a bit of a lone wolf so if he gets the chance to attack and is feeling good, it’s likely he’ll go. But can he make it stick on the longest climbs when he’s up against the world’s best?

Name: Aleksandr Vlasov (Astana PremierTech)

This guy! Right? Vlasov is the kind of rider you want to get behind. He wears his heart on his sleeve and isn’t afraid to chase down an attack or to go solo on a climb. He will liven up proceedings where necessary and if he’s feeling good, will be a daunting prospect for his rivals. He’s already chalked up two podium spots in stage races so far this season, including an impressive second place in Paris-Nice. Nice.

Underdog credentials: Vlasov is incredibly talented, works hard and puts it all on the line. Astana have proven strong this season, but when working alone, Vlasov isn’t quite there tactically, and is prone to blowing up after attacking too early. He’ll have to pace himself and use his team wisely if he’s to stay the course.

PICK OF THE BUNCH: The good shouts. If you were a betting person, you’d go for one of these. Solid chances; sensible odds

Name: Pavel Sivakov (INEOS Grenadiers)

Hang on, haven’t we already had an INEOS guy? Yes. That’s how strong they are. For me, I think Sivakov has almost as good a chance as Bernal to take the GC. If Bernal’s not feeling at his best or if his injury plagues him, INEOS will switch leadership and Sivakov will have the full support of an extremely intimidating team at his behest. He has looked dangerous this year and if he’d had better luck, he may have challenged for podium spots.

Underdog credentials: as it stands, he’s second in line in the INEOS set-up, and if Bernal has the legs, Sivakov will ride in service of him and won’t get his shot. If he does get his chance, he will have to prove himself a leader – something he’s managed over week-long stage races, but the young Russian will need to step up to the next level to compete with the more experienced heads around him.

Name: Mikel Landa (Bahrain-Victorious)

Well, he’s got a good shot, hasn’t he? Yes. Landa’s climbing prowess has never been in doubt, and he has an impressive palmares that just falls short of a Grand Tour GC podium. Now leading the team at Bahrain-Victorious, in a race that suits him, he will be looking to go one better.

Underdog credentials: despite close calls on previous occasions, this season has proven more difficult for Landa, and he hasn’t been able to convert solid form into results. He’ll be looking to redress that balance but will have to find another gear if he is to stay in contention and challenge for the top spot.

Name: Bauke Mollema (Trek Segafredo)

Stalwart Dutch dude one of the GC contenders? You’d be a fool to rule him out. Mollema has looked strong all season, and has floated on the periphery of greatness for some time now. With team mate Vincenzo Nibali out through injury the team will throw their support behind him and hope he can convert consistency into results.

Underdog credentials: he’s been knocking at the door for years now but despite his vast experience, Mollema has never quite been able to make it stick in the grand tours. He’s one of a big group of riders who seems as though they should have won something big, but he’s just never quite done it. With plenty of young guns coming through, is there any reason to believe this year will be any different?

WHO LET THE UNDERDOGS OUT? Want to take a punt on a true underdog, but one who might just have a chance of sticking with the big guns all the way to the finish? One of these might be for you…

Name: Dan Martin (Israel Start-up Nation)

Now we’re talking. Dan Martin epitomises what it means to support an underdog. He’s hard-working, tenacious and above all, a really nice guy. He has said this week that he feels at his strongest and with buckets of experience and a proven ability to hunt down stages, it might finally be time for Dan to achieve at the highest level.

Name: Romain Bardet (Team DSM)

Bardet has quietly gone about his business in 2021 so far, placing well in Tirreno Adriatico and the Tour of the Alps. He’s shown he’s got good legs on the big climbs and he’s a rider that’s always had a hint of possibility about him – will this be the year he comes good? Working against him will be his lack of all-round ability; if he can put down a good time trial or two, you never know.

Name: Joao Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep)

Almeida garnered attention for his incredible efforts in last year’s Giro which ultimately saw him just miss out on a podium spot. Almeida is brilliant and has potential to succeed but the field is a lot stronger than it was in the autumn, and he has work to do on his all-round skills. This year he heads to Italy as the nominal leader of DQS but methinks they protest too much – if Remco is in anything like the form he showed prior to his crash last year, they will surely ride for him.

Name: George Bennett (Jumbo Visma)

And finally we come to the reason I began this piece in the first place. My chosen underdog, Kiwi national road champion George Bennett.

Smart, experienced and an incredibly talented climber, George has ridden selflessly in the service of others for a long time, and was frustrated in 2020, losing out on his chance to lead in the Giro in favour of supporting Primoz Roglic at the Tour de France. He has no problem with the physical demands of a three week grand tour and he showed in the late season classics and Il Lombardia that he is knocking at the door of being at the top of his game. He will be driven to produce a good result in this make or break year as he comes up for contract renewal. It’s finally his time to shine: has he got what it takes? I’m going to be on the comfortable sofa, hoping, as is my default position, that the answer just might be ‘yes’.

Too much winning? Prefer a good, old-fashioned underdog?

Perhaps these tantalising glimpses of glory, though, are not for you. Perhaps, like the old me, you just want a good, reliable underdog, who you can confidently support without fear of them doing anything so silly as winning.

There are some outside contenders who for me, fulfil this role. Each a great rider, capable of brilliance, but who I don’t feel will have what it takes in the GC race this year. Take your pick from:

Pello Bilbao (Bahrain-Victorious): great showing in the Tour of the Alps, but likely a lieutenant for Mikel Landa

Jai Hindley (Team DSM): pushed Tao Geogeghan-Hart all the way in last year’s edition of the race, bags of raw talent, potentially too lightweight for this field of riders

Emmanuel Buchmann (BORA-Hansgrohe): had a cracking 2019 season and will be looking to back up that promise, but he’s showed inconsistent form this season

Marc Soler (Movistar): always in the mix, but his team’s tactics might let him down once again. Stage hunting sure but GC? Not for me.

write.bike.repeat: PROFILE

Intro: Hi. I’m Katy. I write. A lot. I watch cycling. A lot. I find I’m rarely able to contain my love for either and more often than not, the two go hand in hand. So here is my solution. Join me, if you like, as I explore the world of cycling from a decidedly random angle.

What to expect: opinion pieces that don’t fit anywhere else. Races previews and reports that don’t fit anywhere else. Short fiction inspired by bike racing. Rampant fangirling, on occasion. I’m always learning and love to chat, so please feel free to comment or catch me over on Twitter, where I can mostly be found shouting about races or posting heart emojis on Jumbo Visma news.

Likes: One day races. Week long stage races. Grand Tours. Big Mountains. Big Hearts. Smart tactics. Balls out attacks. Sacrifices. Cobbles. Wine-fuelled discourse. Learning Dutch. Muddy cross races. Wout van Aert.

Dislikes: Crashes. Photo finishes. Time trials on the last day of a grand tour. DQs for throwing bottles to fans. Missing cycling races. Writer’s block. Conflict.