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Giro d’Italia GC ambitions hid behind poker faces

BAGNO DI ROMAGNA, Italy (VN) — Cycling is just as much a game of poker as it is a test of strength. If this Giro d’Italia is a game of Texas Hold ‘Em, everyone’s got their cards very close to their chests.

And the poker faces were out in force in Wednesday’s potentially explosive, four-climb stage across Italy’s spine.

You might think there would be a sense of panic following Tom Dumoulin’s huge gains in Tuesday’s time trial. But you’d never know it walking around the team buses Wednesday morning.

“We are exactly where we expected to be right now,” said Movistar’s Rory Sutherland at the start. “We knew we’d be behind after the time trial — we knew we’ll have to attack to win this Giro. Nairo is confident he can win.”

No one was ready to give away a thing, not before, during or after the frenetic stage.

Dumoulin turned the Giro upside-down Tuesday with his dramatic time trial victory. He took a commanding lead of 2:23 to Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and a pack of climbers.

And Wednesday, Movistar gave him a taste of things to come. The Spanish team placed Andrey Amador, JJ Rojas, and José Herrera into a big group, putting the pressure on Dumoulin and his out-numbered Sunweb crew.

Dumoulin coolly answered the threat. American Chad Haga and Tour de France stage-winner Simon Geschke controlled the pace. Laurens Ten Dam snuck into the breakaway to be there in case things blew up. “Laurens is our old warrior, he’s getting better with age. Like a good wine,” Dumoulin told AFP.

“We didn’t see any weakness in the direct rivals, but nevertheless, the weariness is starting to add up. And one day they will feel it,” Quintana said at the line. “You have to keep looking ahead and remain optimistic. You have to wait for the right moment to take back time.”

The buzz around the peloton Wednesday morning was that this Giro is far from over.

“It’s still a long way to Milan,” said Trek-Segafredo sport director Kim Andersen. “To beat Dumoulin, first you have to isolate him, then attack. Things will change when we reach the stages with more than one climb.”

Dumoulin’s rivals know they must be patient. They sense that his team is weakened following the exit of Wilco Kelderman, who crashed out Sunday after colliding with a motorcycle. They also believe that Dumoulin will cede time once the Giro hits the steep, longer climbs stacked up in the Dolomites.

Across the peloton Wednesday, most teams emphasized patience. However, a few others showed a few of their cards. Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) and Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) both attacked on the final climb.

“I know they have to make up a lot of time on me up a lot of time on me in the mountains,” Dumoulin said. “I think the pressure is on them, not on me.”

The all-in bet will come in the final week. Everyone’s said that since before this Giro started. No one scripted Dumoulin’s race-changing time trial, which flipped the GC card table.

“The differences are important, but we believe that things will change dramatically in the final week,” said Nibali helper Giovanni Visconti. “The hard stages of two, three, and four climbs will count more. That’s when this Giro will be decided.”

The main protagonists now regroup for back-to-back transition stages ideal for sprinters (their last chances). The next big skirmish comes with the one-climb, uphill finale in the 131km, stage 14 to Oropa on Saturday. Dumoulin’s rivals will need to up their ante.

Quintana’s difference to Dumoulin might be manageable, considering the Giro’s hard third week. The final-day time trial could tilt things in Dumoulin’s favor. He knows his rivals will have to take riskier bets, not only to erase Tuesday’s TT gains, but also build up a buffer for the inevitable final-day TT losses.

“It’s nice to have a big gap on GC,” Dumoulin said. “It gives me more room to play with. I was never in stress, and always in control.”

Professional cyclists are loath to give away any hint of weakness. They know if they do, the sharks will pounce without pity.

The poker faces will remain in place, at least until the pain of the final climbs in the Dolomites strip them away.