A Tour de France victory does not guarantee success at the Giro d’Italia.
Just ask Louison Bobet.
In the mid 1950s Bobet was the world’s top stage racer, having become the first man to win three consecutive Tours de France in the postwar period (1953, 1954, 1955). For 1957, Bobet set upon a new challenge. He wanted to become the first Frenchman to win the Giro d’Italia, opting to race the Italian tour instead of the Tour de France that year. Bobet had previously struggled at the Giro, finishing 7th in 1951 and abandoning in 1953. This time, however, he had a plan.
Bobet took the lead early in the race, and eventually surrendered the maglia rosa to alleviate the pressure on his team. He planned to win it back during the race’s final week, which featured punishing stages in the Alps.
On the final climbing stage, Bobet dropped race leader, Italian Gastone Nencini, on the steep summit finish to Monte Bondone. The Giro seemed to be in his hands. And then, the tides turned. First, Italian tifosi began to push Nencini up the steep slopes. And then, Luxembourger Charly Gaul dropped back to pace the Italian rider up to Bobet—it was revenge for Bobet attacking Gaul during a nature break several stages before.
Bobet lost the Giro by just 19 seconds, and learned a valuable lesson: Tour de France winners are fair game at the Giro.
Such a lesson could be on display in 2018 as Chris Froome looks to add a Giro d’Italia victory to his growing palmares. Froome is on a mission to rewrite history. A Giro d’Italia win would mark his third-straight grand tour victory. It would also elevate him into the elite class of men to have won all three grand tours: Jacques Anquetil, Felice Gimondi, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Alberto Contador, and Vincenzo Nibali.
On paper, Froome enters the race as the outright favorite. His Sky team boasts the largest budget in the WorldTour; some of his domestiques are strong enough to themselves challenge for grand tour glory. And Froome’s four Tour de France and one Vuelta a España victories are proof that he has the legs, lungs, and temperament to win any grand tour.
But this is the Giro — the race of chaos.
One could write thousands of words about the Giro’s long history of bedlam and unforeseen disasters. The Italian peloton attacks with relentless aggression. Pacts are made on the road. And every year the Italian grand tour serves up unpredictable hurdles that can derail even the most seasoned stage racers. While other races have strived for control and calm, even the modern Giro is a race of turmoil.
In 2014 the peloton slowed on the descent of the Stelvio, believing that race officials had neutralized the downhill due to heavy snow. The lull allowed Nairo Quintana to escape and snatch the maglia rosa from Rigoberto Urán. Race organizers allowed the result and winning gap to stand.
In 2015 a spectator rode his fixed-gear bicycle into the peloton; the ensuing crash destroyed Domenico Pozzovivo’s chances at the overall. In 2016 a waist-high snow bank on the Colle dell’Agnelo became a hurdle too great for race leader Steven Kruijswijk; the Dutch rider catapulted into the snow and saw his slim lead vanish.
And who could forget the chaos of last year’s Giro? On stage 9 a poorly parked police motorcycle caused a catastrophic pileup that derailed the GC ambitions of Teams Sky and Orica-Scott, and weakened Team Sunweb. Then, Tom Dumoulin had to fight through diarrhea at the base of the Umbrail Pass to protect his lead. The image of Dumoulin sprinting into a roadside ditch to relieve his gastrointestinal pain will live on in Giro lore.
For a champion of Froome’s level, the Tour de France is a controlled and predictable race. To win, a champion must simply excel on the climbs and time trials and then rely on his team to keep him out of harm’s way. That’s not the case with the Giro d’Italia. Lurking around every corner is the opportunity for a crash. Directions from the race organizer can be ignored or followed. The finicky springtime weather may dump rain and even snow onto the peloton at any moment. And even the best-laid plans for the maglia rosa can vanish in a snow bank, or in a crowd of excited tifosi.
Such was the fate of Kruijswijk, Urán, and Pozzovivo. And yes, it even happened to Bobet. Will Chris Froome suffer a similar fate, or will he tame the unpredictable Giro? It’s the story to follow at this year’s race.