Continental Race Report: Giro d’Italia
The organisers of the Giro d’Italia claim it to be ‘The toughest race in the world’s most beautiful place’. I’m sure both Tour de France fanatics and those who love the Spring classics would disagree with the first part of this statement, but in regards to the second part… it’s hard to disagree: cascading mountain views and magnificent coastlines are just two of the varying landscapes you’ll see when watching the three week stage race travel around Italy. In addition to this, it’s not just the panoramas that make the Giro such a popular race – it’s the race’s position on the pro cycling calendar. As the season’s first Grand Tour, it begins with the rider’s believing that anything is possible. From a viewer’s point of view, it’s still too early in the season to determine how all the riders are shaping up, which adds to the suspense and excitement surrounding the race.
Only the best of stage racers can dream of winning the pink jersey – known in Italy as the Magilia Rosa – and one only needs to look at the list of past winners to be aware of this: Gino Bartalli, Fausto Coppi, Eddy Merck, Bernard Hinault, Miguel Indurain, and most recently, Alberto Contador. Contador however, would not be riding, having prioritised the Tour and Olympics in what’s rumoured to be his final season. Instead, the burden of favourite fell onto the shoulders of Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), who was hoping for a repeat of the 2013 race, where he dominated – much to the pleasure of the Italian fans. It would not be easy however, with twice runner-up Rigoberto Uran sporting his new Cannondale team colours on the startline, along with Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who surprisingly, was riding his first Giro. As well as these two, 2015 Vuelta revelations Esteban Chavez (Orica) and Tom Dumoulin (Giant) lined up. Steven Kruijswijk (Lotto Jumbo) and Rafael Majka (Tinkoff) were also dark horses for the prestigious prize. Meanwhile, Team Sky were hoping to end their run of unsatisfactory results in the race and claim their first Giro. Their man most likely was Mikel Landa, a new signing from Astana who had claimed a podium spot in Italy a year before.
In terms of sprinters, there were many on the startline who were hoping to add a stage or two to their palmarés, most notably Marcel Kittel, who was riding his first Grand Tour with his new team Etixx Quickstep, after a disappointing 2015 season. Competing with him in the bunch sprints would be Elia Viviani (Sky), Caleb Ewan (Orica), Sacha Modolo (Lampre), André Greipel (Lotto soudal), and last year’s points classification winner, Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek).
The race got underway in the Dutch city of Apeldoorn, with a 9.8 km time trial. Much to the delight of the home crowd, Dutchman Dumoulin emerged victorious with a time of eleven minutes and three seconds – though he only beat Primoz Roglic (Lotto Jumbo) by a mere tenth of a second. In regards to the overall contenders, Nibali put in a solid time and was only 19 seconds back. Kruijswijk was a further three seconds back on the Italian, with Valverde lying five seconds behind him. Mikel Landa however, posted a mediocre time, finishing 40 seconds behind Dumoulin. This did not bode well for team Sky; less than ten kilometres in and they were already on the back foot.
Stage 2 saw the first road stage, which as predicted, ended in a bunch sprint. Even more predictable perhaps, was that Marcel Kittel was the one to raise his arms in victory, followed closely by Arnaud Démare (FDJ) and Sacha Modolo. As a result of a strong time trial, Kittel’s win moved him within one second of Tom Dumoulin, due to time bonuses for the first three over the line. This meant that if Kittel were to win the following day, he would claim the pink jersey – which he duly did on the race’s final stage in the Netherlands. There weren’t many other opportunities left for the sprinters over the next three weeks, making them extremely motivated for the days with flat profiles. Those that managed to win were Andre Greipel – who managed to get three stages – along with Roger Kluge (IAM), who claimed a shock win the day after it was announced that come the end of the season, IAM cycling (his team), were going to fold.
Stage 4 was a lumpy one, with many short difficult climbs in the finale. On paper, it seemed too hilly for the sprinters, and this was proven on the road, as Diego Ulissi (Lampre) attacked on the final climb and held on to take the win. Tom Dumoulin put in a late attack to finish five seconds behind and move back into the pink jersey. Fellow Dutchman Kruijswijk managed to stick to his tail, whilst Valverde lead home a large group containing all the favourites, just a second back on Dumoulin. Along with stage 6 came the first summit finish, with an 8km long climb to Aremogna, including a very steep final kilometre. Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal) held on from the day’s early break to claim his first ever grand tour stage win, but it was the battle of the GC contenders that most of the spectators were interested in. Dumoulin lead them over the line in a strong performance that solidified his hold of the pink jersey. Chavez finished six seconds back, closely followed by Uran and Majka. Valverde and Landa came over the line soon after, and one couldn’t help but feel that they were saving themselves for more difficult days to come. Nibali meanwhile, lost over twenty seconds to Dumoulin, having faded after an early attack.
Stage 8 was a so called ‘medium mountain stage’ as a result of a tricky category two climb just 20 kilometres from the finish. Consequently, none of the sprinter’s teams wanted to work to bring back the break, meaning that it was the perfect day for attacks. The Italian Gianluca Brambilla (Etixx) took a career-defining win, after attacking from a break of six riders and soloing to the line. The main favourites came in just over a minute and a half behind, although the pink jersey was absent from this group, as he struggled to maintain the pace on the final climb. Therefore, Dumoulin was forced to relinquish the pink jersey, and Brambilla was awarded with it instead, which made for an extremely proud moment for the Italian. It wasn’t going to be easy for him to retain it though, with an undulating 40 km time trial course on the menu for stage 9. Second place on stage 1 Primoz Roglic finally got his win, beating his nearest competitor by ten seconds. Nibali seemed to have recovered from a difficult first week to lead home the favourites. Landa was only seven seconds behind Nibali, with Kruijswijk a further three seconds back on the Italian. Valverde finish 1 second behind Kruijswijk. Brambilla meanwhile, put in the performance of his life to claim a top 20 finish on the stage and to hold on to the Magilia Rosa by one second from his teammate Bob Jungels.
The following stage took place over difficult terrain, with four categorised climbs along the way, as well as an 8km climb to the finish. Once again, the breakaway held off the favourites, as Giucio Ciccione (bardiani) attacked his fellow ecapees on the final climb to take the stage win. Behind in the peloton, news was flying around that Mikel Landa had been dropped over the first half of the stage. This lead to a fierce tempo being set by rival teams Movistar and Astana, who had smelt blood. Their efforts were in vain however, as midway through the stage, Landa climbed off his bike and into the team car. It was later revealed that he’d been suffering from stomach pains and possible food poisoning. As the favourites crossed the line, the pink jersey was absent yet again, after being dropped on the final climb. His teammate Bob Jungles consequently inherited the coveted jersey.
The race ventured back into the high mountains for stage thirteen. Mikel Nieve (Sky) soloed to victory, in an attempt to find some success after what had been a disappointing first half of the race for Team Sky. The majority of those who were high up on the overall standings finished together, apart from the pink jersey of Junglels, who was dropped on the testing course to the finish. Amador moved into the lead, 26 seconds ahead of Jungels, and 41 seconds ahead of Nibali – who had leapfrogged Valverde in the General Classification.
Stage 14 had been dubbed the ‘Queen stage’ of the Giro, as the route finally moved into the legendary mountain range of the Dolomites. The finish was in Corvara, where – after tackling six categorised climbs – the riders would have to sprint up an incline to the line. It all came down to the final climb of the day, where Nibali was the first to attack. All the others in the group looked to Valverde for a reaction, yet there was none. Chavez and Kruijswijk therefore decided to bridge the gap up to Nibali together. Once they had reached the Italian, Chavez accelerated again, only to find both his rivals glued to his wheel. Kruijswijk then countered his move. Chavez seemed to follow it with ease, yet Nibali couldn’t close the gap to the two young climbers. Chavez and Kruijswijk came into the finish together, with Chavez sprinting to take the stage. Nibali finished 37 seconds back, Although disappointed at not following the winning move, Nibali couldn’t help but feel content with the fact that he’d distanced Valverde, who came over the line three minutes down on Chavez. Kruijswijk’s performance was enough to put him into the race lead, with Nibali lying 41 seconds behind him, and Chavez close behind in third. Valverde meanwhile, was in fourth, over three minutes behind the Dutchman from Lotto Jumbo.
It wasn’t over for Valverde though, as the following stage was a mountain time trial, where the riders had to climb a 9km climb at 8.3% – Devil’s Dyke is 3km at 5%. Alexander Foliforov (Gazprom) took a surprise win, posting a time of 28 minutes and 39 seconds. Kruijswijk, sporting his all pink skin suit put in a superb time to finish within a second of the Russian. Valverde was 23 seconds behind the magilia rosa, and Chavez was 40 seconds down. Nibali’s time trial however, had been jeopardised by a dropped chain, as he rode in over two minute down on Kruijswijk. The Dutchman consequently strengthened his hold on the pink jersey. Chavez moved up to second, Nibali fell to third, and Valverde remained fourth. The Spaniard took his chance the following day, with an attack on the final climb that only Kruijswijk could follow. Valverde won the stage, as Chavez lost over 40 seconds on the pair. Nibali’s Giro was going from bad to worse; he lost 1 minute 47 seconds on the pink jersey, causing him to fall to fourth overall. Chavez meanwhile, although remaining in second place, dropped to three minutes behind Kruijswijk, who looked to be in pole position to take his first Grand tour.
One of the final tests for Kruijswijk would be stage 19, which took the riders over the legendary col Angel, before descending into the French Alps, and then tackling the 12km climb to the ski resort of Risoul. The favourites stayed together as they climbed the Col Angel, but it was the descent that proved the most testing, with snow and ice built up along the side of the road. Kruijskijk took the wrong line around a corner, and crashed into this snow, which at least made his landing softer. Nibali, Chavez and Valverde capitalised on this error from the pink jersey and set a blistering pace all the way to the foot of the final ascent, where they all rode up the first part together, but it wasn’t long before Italian fan favourite Nibali attacked group. Instead of trying to follow him, Chavez set a steady pace to the top of the climb, where he finished 53 seconds behind Nibali, who took the stage in what was an incredible comeback following the disaster of the first part of his race. Chavez moved into the pink jersey, with Nibali only 44 seconds behind. Kruijswijk had recovered well enough to maintain a podium position, but was now over a minute down on the general classification.
The penultimate stage – and the one that counted – brought the race back into Italy, via the 2715 metre high Col De la Bonette, and the smaller yet arguably tougher Col de la Lombarde. Team Sky’s Mikel Nieve lead over the top of the Bonette and consequently gained the king of the mountains jersey, which he would hold onto until the end of the race. In the battle behind, things were getting very tense. Coming up the Col de la Lombarde, Astana set a blistering pace, before Nibali attacked from the group. Chavez initially followed, but the three weeks of racing had started to take its toll on him, as he lost the wheel of the Italian. Nibali pressed on, crossing the line first of the overall contenders. All Chavez needed to do was to finish within 44 seconds of Nibali, but it was not to be, as he lost over 90 seconds. Nibali moved into the pink jersey, and with one stage to go, it seemed as though he’d all but wrapped up his second Giro d’Italia.
The final stage around Turin was a processional one, and as a result of the rain, it had been neutralised. Nizzolo appeared to have taken the win, but was later disqualified for deviating from his line. The victory was instead awarded to Nikias Arndt (Giant), though Nizzolo took some consolation in winning the sprinter’s red jersey. Nibali took to the top step of the podium to claim his second pink jersey, and he was joined by Chavez and Valverde. The Italian had only worn pink for one day in the entire Giro, but it was the day that mattered.