Giro d'Italia

Analysis: How the GC stars fared in the Giro d’Italia’s monster stage 18 over the Passo Stelvio

João Almeida finally ceded pink, while Wilco Kelderman took a tenuous grip on the race lead. Tao Geoghegan Hart emerged as perhaps the best contender to win the overall. Thursday's stage 18 at the Giro d'Italia upended the GC picture.

The 2020 Giro d’Italia was once again upended by a crazy day in the mountains. Thursday’s stage 18 to Laghi di Cancano included the fearsome ascent of the Passo Stelvio, and the big and burly climb did not disappoint. Team Sunweb finally dislodged race leader João Almeida (Deceuninck–Quick-Step), but the accomplishment came with a bittersweet reality. The team’s GC star, Wilco Kelderman, was also dropped, and he lost big time on the stage. His teammate, Jai Hindley, won the day and emerged as the team’s possible strongest card to play for the overall.

Lurking just a few seconds behind is Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers), who emerged from the stage as perhaps the best contender to win the overall. It was a zany day in the high mountains. Let’s break down how the GC favorites fared:

João Almeida (Deceuninck–Quick-Step)

João Almeida finally ceded pink, but he gave us plenty to cheer for. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

The good news: João Almeida confirmed himself as a grand tour star for the future throughout this 2020 Giro d’Italia. While he finally fell out of the race lead on Thursday, his improbable 16-stage run in the maglia rosa put him on the shortest list of valuable grand tour stars under the age of 25. There’s a chance that we’ll be watching Almeida battle Remco Evenepoel, Egan Bernal, and Tadej Pogačar at the Tour de France in the coming years. And, if Almeida does win the Giro someday, we’ll fondly remember the dogged fight he put up on Thursday to try and defend pink — even if he ultimately failed.

The bad news: The moment we all kind of thought was coming finally occurred with 48km to go in Thursday’s stage. Almeida started to yo-yo off the group of GC contenders about halfway up the Passo Stelvio as Team Sunweb ramped up the pace. It looks like Almeida took a narrow line on a few of the steep hairpins, and the grippy ramps may have delivered the pain needed to ultimately dislodge him for good. He was among the first GC guys to lose pace with the front group and fell away before Vincenzo Nibali, Jakob Fuglsang, or Pello Bilbao. He then spent the rest of the stage chasing — and what a chase! Almeida was 3:37 behind the leaders by the summit of the Stelvio, and he finished the stage 4:51 in arrears. He slipped from first to fifth place on GC. He’s now 2:16 behind Kelderman.

Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo)

Vincenzo Nibali lost a lot of time today. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

The good news: There’s not a ton of good news for Vincenzo Nibali today. He finished the stage.

The bad news: There will be no heroic long-bomb attack to victory for Vincenzo Nibali this year, and all of those Italian cycling fans can forget about a week three resurgence or a dramatic old-school push through the mountains for the Shark of Messina. Thursday’s slog through the mountains was Nibali’s best opportunity to launch one of his textbook chaos-inducing raids, and it didn’t happen. Instead, Nibali was reduced to flotsam on the Stelvio, and he lost pace with the Sunweb group just past the climb’s halfway point. Nibali rallied on the climb and linked up with Pello Bilbao and Jakob Fuglsang, and appeared to be in a good position to rise up the ranks. But at the climb’s three-quarter mark he unexpectedly blew up and lost touch with the duo, eventually cresting the climb by himself. He was caught and absorbed by Almeida’s group on the last climb.

The final toll: Nibali lost 4:51 and fell to 8th place in GC, 5:47  down. His run at the Giro d’Italia podium is officially over. But hey, we love Vincenzo Nibali. Even big champions have bad days.

Jakob Fuglsang (Team Astana)

Jakob Fuglsang roared back into contention on the Stelvio. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

The good news: We finally saw the resurgence of Jakob Fuglsang! After two weeks of setbacks in the mountains, hills, and time trials, Fuglsang finally had a ride worthy of his career palmares. The Dane was dropped on the Stelvio, and for a moment it appeared he was destined to hemorrhage minutes on the mountainous finale. Then, he linked up with Pello Bilbao and gunned it to the finish, eventually catching and passing Wilco Kelderman on the final climb. Fuglsang was fourth place on the stage, just 1:25 down. He was among the biggest winners on the day, vaulting from 12th place to 6th place overall, 3:59 behind Kelderman. Now, Fuglsang is on pace for his best grand tour finish ever — maybe even a top-5 result. It’s something we’ve always thought him capable of achieving.

The bad news: Fuglsang is finally riding like a grand tour veteran with a results sheet teeming with big results. Unfortunately, all of his bad days during the first two weeks of the race have dug a mighty hole for him. So, at this point, his biggest goal is the top-five.

Wilco Kelderman (Team Sunweb)

Wilco Kelderman took the race lead — but his is a tenuous grip on pink. Photo: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

The good news: Sweet and salty day for Wilco Kelderman. Kelderman seized the pink jersey! After several days of chipping away at Almeida’s advantage, Team Sunweb finally dislodged him and placed Kelderman in the race lead. It was hardly an easy gig for the Dutchman. Everything seemed to go to plan on the Stelvio, as Sunweb stomped the GC group and spat out all of the contenders at the climb’s midpoint. Kelderman rode ahead with Jai Hindley and Tao Geoghegan Hart, with Rohan Dennis in the front group as well. All was set for Kelderman to slide into pink, and then, he got dropped. The Stelvio was just a bit too long for Kelderman, and he lost pace with more than 5k to to to the summit. He limited his losses, and at the summit appeared to have everything in control — he was just 47 seconds behind.

But then, after the descent, Kelderman’s lights went out. He was caught and passed by Bilbao and Fuglsang on the climb to Laghi di Cancano. He rallied to save his race lead, but only by 12 seconds. He now leads the Giro over his teammate, Jai Hindley, with Geoghegan Hart in third, just 15 seconds behind.

The bad news: Kelderman got dropped! Hard! Geoghegan Hart and Bilbao have to be licking their chops as the race continues in the mountains because Kelderman definitely appeared weak on the Stelvio.

This fact could throw a curveball at Sunweb and its plans to win the race. Jai Hindley is the better climber. Kelderman is the better TT ride. So, which man do you back in the slugfest for pink in these final three stages? It’s a decision that won’t be easy to make, especially if Kelderman’s climbing legs have been ripped to pieces. Kelderman is a heckuva ITT rider, so that final ITT in Milan could be his saving grace. But the mountain stage on Saturday to Sestriere could prove to be Kelderman’s undoing. He’s in the pink jersey, but his lead is tenuous.

Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers)

Tao Geoghegan Hart has a clear pathway to pink after Thursday’s stage. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

The good news: Tao Geoghegan Hart is on the virtual Giro podium, and the pink jersey is oh so close for him to grab. He’s in third place, just 15 seconds behind Kelderman, and just three seconds behind Hindley. And now, there is a clear pathway for Geoghegan Hart to win the Giro d’Italia for Ineos Grenadiers, salvage 2020 for the British team, and restore order to our sport’s topsy turvy grand tour hierarchy. It’s obvious now that Geoghegan Hart and Hindley are the two best climbers in this year’s race — Kelderman is a step behind. On paper, Geoghegan Hart is a better time trialist than Hindley. So, the British rider needs to force the pace on Saturday’s stage 20 to Sestriere and seriously drop Kelderman. Then, he just needs to uncork a strong ITT to win the pink jersey on the final stage.

It’s easier said than done, of course. But Geoghegan Hart does have a strong lineup of domestiques at his disposal. He also has that Sky/Ineos/Grenadiers je ne sais quoi that can propel riders to victory.

All of this is very good news for Geoghegan Hart, who is the heir apparent to the Union Jack-emblazoned thrones of Geraint Thomas, Chris Froome, and Bradley Wiggins. Team GB’s young star-in-waiting Tom Pidcock is still a few years from attaining highlights of this level, so the time is now for Geoghegan Hart to strike. He’s a strong rider, and his interviews are hilarious and full of personality. If you throw a grand tour victory into that potent mix, you end up with a national celebrity with a big ol’ earning potential.

The bad news: The only bad news for Tao Geoghegan Hart is that he didn’t win the stage after doing all of the work on the final climb. And boy, did his facial expression voice that displeasure as he crossed the line behind Jai Hindley.

Jai Hindley (Team Sunweb)

Jai Hindley took the stage and stepped closer to pink. Photo: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

The good news: Hindley overcame the Stelvio, the Ineos Grenadiers duo of Rohan Dennis and Tao Geoghegan Hart, and even a pesky and uncooperative gilet to take his first grand tour win and step into the spotlight as Team Sunweb’s best climber at the 2020 Giro d’Italia. Let’s address all of these foes one by one.

To win the Giro’s biggest and baddest mountain stage is a heckuva accomplishment for Hindley, who at age 24 is a rider for the future. His stock (and asking price) just went up a few notches today. And Hindley managed the strategic conundrum he found himself in perfectly. As the front group of four chugged up the Stelvio, Kelderman lost pace and began to drift off the pack. A younger and less experienced rider may have drifted back to help his team leader. Hindley stayed put and played the role of front-group anchor for the rest of the stage. He stuck with Ineos and then refused to do work on the final climb. You could tell that his inaction started to get to Geoghegan Hart, who was often looking over and, um, encouraging Hindley on that final climb. Those moments of conversation meant the duo lost speed and allowed Kelderman to claw back a few seconds here and there.

OK — what do we make of Hindley vs. flappy jacket on the Stelvio? Occam’s Razor says he was probably crosseyed from the climb and had frozen hands from the cold, and that duo of badness simply kept him from putting on the jacket and then zipping it up. We’ve all been there. I can barely accomplish that task while standing in front of a cafe.

Hindley now faces a strategic conundrum going forward. Should Kelderman’s climbing legs be toast for good, he will likely take over Sunweb’s leadership on the mountainous stage 20 to Sestriere. If that happens, then the pressure will be on Hindley to perform in the final ITT in Milano. And that begs the $64,000 question: How good is Jai Hindley at time trials? It’s tough to find a ITT result in Hindley’s recent past at a race where he was riding for a top GC finish. If this year’s Giro is any indication, he’s OK but not great in a race against the clock. But hey, Jai Hindley uncorking a stellar ITT result to win the Giro wouldn’t even crack my top-5 list for strangest stuff that’s happened in 2020.

The bad news: No bad news here. Hindley is da man.

Pello Bilbao (Bahrain-McLaren)

Pello Bilbao rebounded with a strong ride over the Passo Stelvio. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

The good news: Should we call it the Passo Pello Stelvio? No — of course not. But hey, Pello Bilbao rebounded from his mediocre day way back on stage 15 to have a truly impressive ride in the mountains. While Bilbao was dropped on the Stelvio, he mounted a strong push in the stage’s back half to erase a two-minute deficit and nearly catch Geoghegan Hart and Hindley. He finished third on the stage, just 46 seconds down, and vaulted from 5th place to 4th place overall, 1:19 behind Kelderman. More importantly than the result was the fact that Bilbao’s climbing legs returned, which bodes well for him as the Giro approaches Saturday’s stage to Sestriere. Since Bilbao struggles in the ITT, he is a rider to watch on the climbs. He’s 1:04 out of the podium, and if he wants to get there, he will need to attack.

The bad news: Bilbao had a very good day. Unfortunately, he’s trying to overcome some very bad days (stages 14 and 15) in order to claw his way back into the fight for pink.

Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe)

Rafal Majka struggled in the mountains and lost contention with the pink jersey group. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

The good news: Thursday was a tough day for Rafal Majka. He looked extremely tired on the Stelvio.

The bad news: Majka was dropped early on the Stelvio and he never really recovered. Cameras caught sight of him linking up with various groups on the long climb — at one point he was riding alongside Almeida, Nibali, and his teammate Patrick Konrad in a larger group of top climbers. But Majka didn’t look particularly comfortable in any group he was in, and the final result at the finish reflected this. At some point, he lost pace with that group. Konrad went on ahead and left him for dead, and the result at the finish line speaks of a hard day in the saddle. He lost 6:43 to Hindley and nearly two minutes to Almeida’s group. Majka slipped from 6th place on GC to 10th place, and Konrad really emerged as Bora’s man for the GC. Tough day out for the Polish climber.

Domenico Pozzovivo (NTT Pro Cycling)

Domenico Pozzovivo struggled on the Stelvio and lost time. Photo: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

The good news: Pozzovivo lost a lot of time today.

The bad news: Pozzovivo was the first GC contender to blow on the Stelvio, and once he went, we never saw him again. He finished 8:17 down, in 13th place, and slipped from 8th place to 12th place overall. As he drifted off the back, cameras caught sight of the bandages on his left side — a testament to the discomfort he must be feeling after hitting the deck earlier in the race. Pozzovivo’s Giro reflects this challenge. He’s coming back from a crash in 2019 that could have ended his career. He’s fighting pain and father time. While he may not win this Giro, or even finish in the top 10, his is a great story to follow.