The 2018 Giro d’Italia started with more attention on controversy than racing. The race’s Grande Partenza in Israel sparked a global political debate, and Chris Froome’s unresolved salbutamol case had cycling fans debating whether the four-time Tour de France champion should have even been at the race.
As the race headed into the final week, Froome looked to be out of contention entirely after a series of crashes and missed opportunities. Simon Yates of Mitchelton-Scott held a comfortable lead and appeared to be strongest on the climbs. Rather than give up, however, Froome and his Sky teammates hatched a plan for victory. The plan focused on stage 19 and the fearsome climb of the Colle delle Finestre.
David Brailsford, Team Sky manager: “[Froome] was well out of it. Most people would say, ‘I am just going to ride around now.’ Not Chris Froome. He was always saying, ‘Never give up’ and saying that he was going to win the race. That’s tough mentally — and yet he came bouncing back.”
Nicolas Portal, Team Sky sport director: “Yates was a surprise. We did not expect him to be as strong as he was and we were really worried about him. He was really flying. It seemed he was on his upper limit and it seemed like he was really pushing into his red zone. So let’s plan that maybe Yates and [Tom] Dumoulin might pay for it in the final days. If they did not blow up, well, chapeau to them.”
Chris Froome: “That crash [in stage 8] forced me to start thinking about how to approach the last few stages differently in my mind. Normally I would not look at a stage like Finestre and think that I am going to attack from 80 kilometers out and solo to the finish. Because I was three minutes back, we all knew it was going to take something pretty wild and be a big risk — a move where you’re all or nothing.”
‘Going solo? That’s risky.’
The road up the Colle delle Finestre rises like a serpent, slicing over two parallel river valleys, disgorging themselves from the Italian Alps. At 18.6 kilometers with an average gradient of nine percent, it’s long by Giro standards. While its lower slopes snake through over 30 tight switchbacks, the final 8km are covered in dirt and gravel, adding to the drama and danger of punctures. What made the Finestre decisive in 2018 was its location on the day’s route. Appearing about midway through the stage, with the summit some 74km from the finish line, the climb was the ideal scene for a long-distance raid.
“We were talking scenarios and outcomes over dinner, but it was only on the morning of the stage when we were on the bus that it really came together. I was looking at the profile and it made sense to attack on the Finestre. In my mind, it was three climbs and two descents. There really wasn’t that much flat. Having people to work with wouldn’t really have been massively beneficial on that kind of terrain. That’s when I started thinking: ‘I am going to give it 100 percent on the Finestre.’ The first person I spoke with about it was Tim Kerrison.”
Tim Kerrison, Team Sky trainer: “Going solo on the Finestre? That’s risky because there is a lot of racing after the Finestre.”
Froome: “Kerrison broke it down for me on each section of the stage, and predicted what kind of power and speed I would need to hold for each climb. Then it was all translated into energy consumption and what fueling requirements I’d need to pull that off. I’ve never eaten so much as I did that day on the bike.”
Kerrison: “It’s a big risk, but it’s going to be something big if you want to win this Giro.”
Salvatore Puccio, Team Sky domestique: “We made a plan to destroy the race on the Finestre. We had the plan from the morning.
“The plan was to control the start and not let a big break go away so we could go to the Finestre and try to blow up the race.”
Matt White, Mitchelton-Scott sport director: “We knew Sky would be coming for us. That wasn’t a surprise. We already saw them in the days before that stage and putting riders into breakaways. They were putting pressure on us. That’s okay. It’s a bike race, not a Sunday club ride.”
Portal: “We never stopped believing — it’s the Giro. We’ve seen in the past, like with Vincenzo Nibali, things can change very fast in the Giro.”
‘I was not hanging around.’
Once on the Finestre, Sky’s plan unfolded better than Froome could have imagined. Sky’s relentless pace dropped Yates early on the climb, and then Dumoulin’s teammates began to fall away. Finally, Froome uncorked his solo attack with 6km remaining to the summit. He disappeared over the crest and began his 80-kilometer solo attack to the finish.
“When you’re on the switchbacks, and you know the other riders are suffering, it makes you go even harder. I pushed as long as I could and when I pulled off, I could see there were only 20 or 30 riders left. I thought, ‘Okay, something could happen now.’”
Froome: “Yates cracked after 10 to 15 minutes of the pace on the switchbacks, even before we hit the dirt part of the climb. That was a huge boost. We just kept pushing, pushing, pushing to try to isolate Dumoulin. I knew as soon as we hit the dirt part of the climb, I would go as hard as I could. That was when I was going to make my move.”
3. Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott):
“I was just completely empty on the Finestre. We still don’t know what happened. I was beginning to wonder if I was designed to only race two-and-a-half weeks. That early effort just caught up with me, I suppose.”
4. Domenico Pozzovivo (Bahrain-Merida):
“It was a surprise to see Sky go so hard so early in the stage. You could sense that something was going to happen. Everyone was already very tired. I had hoped to have the legs to follow but Froome made it difficult for everyone. He dropped us all and we didn’t see him again.”
“On the descent, I was pedaling like a madman or sitting on the top tube trying to get as aero as I could. I was moving on that descent. I was not hanging around.”
“I was with [Froome] in the car. He was calling back to me, ‘Can you give me some guidance on the corners?’ I was looking at the GPS and I was able to tell him, ‘Okay, it is right, left, and then it is straight.’ Those details really helped to be able to attack the downhill especially hard. It was really tense, but it is something I will remember all of my life.”
Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ): “At the moment, we thought it would be better to have a teammate to help chase. Everyone was on the limit. I was already feeling not at my best.” (Pinot would abandon after being diagnosed with pneumonia).
“Once Chris was over the Sestriere climb, I did not speak so much. I remember some of my old sport directors when I was a racer were always yelling and screaming into the headphone like they were crazy — oof, that is too much. I would tell him to keep the same speed, don’t go too hard, or to change his position on the bike. Then he would say, ‘Nico, it’s so long on this valley.’ When I said they were not cooperating too much, he was very encouraged by that.”
Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb): “Maybe I made a mistake there, but maybe not. No one expected Froome to go all the way to the finish. Normally with a group of five chasing riders, one rider gets caught.”
“Chris riding alone helped him. No one wanted to pull because they wanted to attack Pinot on the final climb. Dumoulin was pulling and he was not getting help. Chris just kept pushing. Dumoulin was looking to Pinot, ‘Come on man, let’s pull.’ In the end, it was legs against legs.”
“I was wondering if those four or five guys were going to take two minutes back on me and how much they had been saving for the last climb. I just went as hard as I could. About three-quarters of the way up I heard the time gap wasn’t really moving. I remember thinking this is really happening now.”
Froome: “If I am completely honest with myself, I think if Dumoulin had gone into TT mode on the Finestre like I did, he would have taken pink that day. He is a better time trialist than I am, in general, and the fact that he had four or five guys sitting on his wheel, it actually slows you down. I genuinely believe that if Dumoulin had gone mano-a-mano with me, I wouldn’t have taken any time on him that day.”
‘It was a perfect storm.’
Instead, Froome defended pink and rode into Rome victorious. His audacious attack didn’t come without controversy. Many questioned how it would be possible for one rider to drop the entire peloton and ride alone for 80km. Already battered by two years of criticism, Team Sky needed the victory. The way Froome pulled off the win energized the entire squad.
The day had a major impact on Froome, Sky, and other riders in the peloton, too. And it will go down as one of the most improbable days of racing in pro cycling.
Froome: “I wouldn’t be able to do what I do if I was lying and cheating everyone. It is not who I am. It is not true to my character or not who I am as a human being. I would rather ride and enjoy it for what it is and not win races if that’s what it took to win. People who know me know it’s completely beyond me to do some of the things that people accuse me of.”
White: “That experience in the Giro was critical for Simon [Yates]. He learned what it was like to lead a grand tour. When Yatesy cracked that day, well, there’s not a lot you can say inside the team car. We chose to look at the big picture. He won three stages and held the pink jersey for two weeks. Without that Giro he might not have won the Vuelta.”
“When I look back, it was one of the most special wins of my career because of the nature of the day. It really was a perfect storm that came together to allow me to win and take the pink jersey. If one or two factors had not gone my way, I doubt I would have won.
“I cannot remember the last grand tour winner who went so far out like that to be able to get the leader’s jersey. It was a bit of a longshot, quite literally. It was one of those things you think, ‘Okay, I will try it,’ but in the back of your mind, you almost know it’s not going to work. It’s almost suicide. It’s just incredible that it paid off.”