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How time bonuses are keeping this Giro knotted up

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Notice how breakaways are not panning out so far in this Giro d’Italia?

You can thank — or blame — the time bonuses.

There are a lot of factors that go into the art of the breakaway, but perhaps the most convincing reason why this Giro is still wound up so tight is the bonuses sprinkled across each stage.

The 2018 Giro is turning into an epic tug-of-war between explosive climber Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) and TT ace Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb).

Time bonuses are an essential tenet of Yates’s strategy to try to win the maglia rosa. So long as Yates is feeling strong, Mitchelton-Scott will keep driving the peloton toward the line with the hope of winning the stage to take the bonus and gap Dumoulin. That’s bad news for wanna-be breakaway artists in this Giro.

“The more time I can get on Dumoulin, the better,” Yates said. “Maybe I will blow up later in the race, but we have to try.”

How effective are time bonuses? Yates started Thursday’s stage 47 seconds ahead of archrival Dumoulin. Without time bonuses, Yates would only be 32 seconds ahead of the defending Giro champion. Maybe that doesn’t sound like much, but the Giro’s been won or lost by less.

“I’m not scared of the third week — I’m scared of the time trial,” Yates said. “That’s why I am chasing every bonus I can.”

This year’s Giro offers time bonuses of 10, 6 and 4 seconds for the top three (except in time trials) and 3, 2 and 1-second bonuses at one of the day’s intermediate sprints in each stage.

These intermediate and finish-line time bonuses are producing wild inside-the-race skirmishes and real-time finish-line battles. Yates was burying himself Wednesday to Osimo just as much to win the stage as he was to win the bonus and gap Dumoulin. So far, the speedy Brit has been able to snag some intermediate sprints as well use his finishing punch with lethal efficiency.

“Yates is so strong, it’s unbelievable,” Dumoulin said after stage 10 when Yates darted out to snag the day’s mid-race prime. “He took the intermediate sprint so easy.”

As a result of those valuable seconds in play coupled with the GC still largely unsettled, breakaways are having a harder time finding room to move.

Only two breakaways have been successful, and both of them have an asterisk.

In stage 6, Esteban Chaves (Mitchelton-Scott) took the flowers after riding clear in the day’s main break to Mount Etna. He was the group’s sole survivor and probably wouldn’t have fended off the pack’s top riders if he wasn’t a GC-caliber rider. Matej Mohoric (Bahrain-Merida) won stage 10 in a late-race attack off the front of the main pack that technically could be argued was a breakaway. Early attempts at an escape were stifled in when the GC teams piled on to gap a struggling Chaves and gobbled up a 12-rider move. Neither were classic long-distance, early-stage groups that fended off the main pack by minutes to the line.

This highly controlled edition of the Giro can be frustrating for riders trying to earn their pay in the breakaways.

“It’s been hard to try to win out of the breakaway,” said Israel Cycling Academy’s Guillaume Boivin, who attacked in stage 2 and 3. “You still try anyway, but you know sometimes it’s not going to work.”

Of course, the presence of time bonuses isn’t the only reason why this Giro has been so tightly controlled.

The way the stages have unfolded leaves little room for would-be stage-hunters to move. Nearly every stage has been a sprint opportunity or featured a mountain-top finale for the GC contenders. The collective interests of the peloton don’t want to see breakaways stay clear. Even on the day with breakaway written all over it — stage 10 to Gualdo Tadino — changed when Chaves struggled early on.

Teams are also hesitant to let big groups ride away because they are racing with one fewer rider during this year’s Giro. New rules mean there are eight riders per team instead of nine, and teams are wary of letting renegade breaks open up too much asphalt.

This year’s Giro offers relatively few chances for mass gallops, so that means sprinters don’t want to miss their opportunities for the win.

There’s another factor: with so many teams hunting for stage wins with their respective GC captains, formations like EF-Drapac, Bahrain-Merida, Astana, and Groupama-FDJ are helping to pull on key stages in hopes of setting up their leaders on days when breaks might have otherwise had chances.

Through 12 stages, there have been four sprints, one time trial, six stages for the GC riders and one wildcard. Even though that’s front-loaded a bit even by Giro standards, that’s not so different than any other grand tour.

What’s different this year is that the Giro is the surprising emergence of Yates. If a rider like Chris Froome (Sky) or Dumoulin were patrolling the front of the bunch knowing they can take big gains in the time trial, more breakaways might have had chances.

Yates, however, knows that he will likely lose minutes to Dumoulin and Froome in Tuesday’s TT, so he’s been trying to pile it on while the iron is hot.

“We are going for the bonuses when we can,” said Mitchelton-Scott sport director Matt White. “We know Simon is going to lose time to Dumoulin in the time trial, so you got to pick up those up when they’re there.”

Time bonuses have spiced up this Giro, but not everyone is a fan. By their very nature, they skew the overall classification. Bonuses favor fast finishers at the expense of bulkier all-rounders or skinny climbers with no kick. It can seem cruel that a rider can gain valuable seconds at the top of a grueling 20-minute summit finish by simply stabbing their bike across the line first just inches ahead of a rival.

Detractors say that a race should be measured on “pure time” and not be adulterated by gimmicky bonuses. A few years ago, the Tour de France eliminated time bonuses based on many of those assumptions. What happened? A relatively dull first week that saw one rider remain in the leader’s jersey until the first major mountains.

The Giro has always stuck with bonuses, but this year’s race the bonuses are having an added punch.

Look no further than stage 2 on the road to Tel-Aviv. BMC Racing shut down the day’s early move and then set up Rohan Dennis to earn a mid-race three-second bonus to slip ahead of time trial winner Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb).

Some say Sunweb just let the pink jersey ride away uncontested, but BMC had to work hard to force the race to tilt their way. Their reward was four days carrying and defending pink that will pay future dividends for emerging GC rider Dennis.

“Just look at the Garibaldi [race book]. The Giro’s been won by 16 seconds, another by nine seconds,” said BMC sport director Max Sciandri. “That tells you a lot what a second can do for you.”

This incessant chase of the breakaways will eventually break. This Giro should slip back into the familiar grand tour script with final-week breakaways. Saturday’s Zoncolan and Tuesday’s time trial will see the top of overall classification much more settled, and that should mean non-threatening riders will be given more space to run.

But maybe not. If Yates cedes the pink jersey as expected in the time trial, but remains within striking distance of Dumoulin, this Giro might be a drag race for time bonuses all the way to Rome.

And that would be bad news for teams or riders who live and die by the breakaway. But very good news for everyone who’s been watching what’s been a nail-biting Giro so far.

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