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The youngsters surged, the old veterans struggled, and a few pure climbers rode better than expected. And Wilco Kelderman avoided back luck for an amazing 14th stage in a row — wow!
Saturday’s stage 14 individual time trial at the 2020 Giro d’Italia again shook up the general classification, and the 34-kilometer route set the stage for a thrilling final week of action in the high mountains. Cagy veterans like Jakob Fuglsang and Vincenzo Nibali must now attack, while the youngsters João Almeida and Brandon McNulty will have to hold on.
How did the GC stars fare in the race against the clock? Let’s break it down:
João Almeida (Deceuninck–Quick-Step)
The good news: Woah — turns out João Almeida is legit. In the last few days we’ve spoken to a number of riders about Almeida’s impressive if somewhat improbable run in pink, and more than one pointed to Saturday’s ITT as the logical bookend to this feel-good story. The conventional wisdom was that Almeida is simply too inexperienced a grand tour racer to survive two weeks of racing and then uncork a top ride in a challenging ITT course like the one in Conegliano. Looks like they were wrong! Almeida finished in 6th place overall, and expanded his lead on Wilco Kelderman to 56 seconds. Not only did Almeida defend pink, he actually took time out of Kelderman, Jakob Fuglsang, and Vincenzo Nibali.
The disparity between the expectations and the result were reminiscent of Julian Alaphilippe’s improbable ITT win at the 2019 Tour de France, when he upset Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal. Back in 2019, the TT win was a turning point in our perception of Alaphilippe’s chances to win — hey, maybe he’s a contender and not a pretender! Such is the case with Almeida’s ride today. Sure, Almeida is young and untested at the grand tour level. Guess what? He’s now a bona-fide contender to win the big prize.
The bad news: The only bad news is that Almeida’s next big test comes in 24 hours with the hulking summit finish to Piancavallo. Should he pass that test, well, then anything is truly possible.
Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo)
The good news: Nibali did what he needed to do to stay in the GC hunt. He was OK, if somewhat below average, completing the stage in 23rd place, 2:54 down on Ganna. He retained his 5th place overall in GC, however he did cede 1:23 to Almeida. Cameras showed him shifting around on his saddle, trying to find the best pedaling position. It wasn’t the shark of old, who won the stage 18 ITT en route to winning the 2013 Giro d’Italia.
The bad news: Saturday’s result is confirmation that Nibali just doesn’t have it anymore in the ITTs, and his strategy for victory is now completely dependent on the huge mountain stages. We all kind of suspected this coming into the race, and Saturday’s result simply confirmed it. He’s not as good as Almeida, Brandon McNulty, or Wilco Kelderman at the ITT, and thus he’s going to need to drop those guys by a wide margin in the mountains. He needs 2:30 on Almeida and 1:34 on Kelderman just to break even, and that’s not good enough to secure the win, since there is the final ITT looming on the horizon. In all reality, Nibali must now put multiple minutes into those three in the mountains if he wants to win. Hey, it’s the Giro, so anything can happen. But right now, with potential bad weather threatening the huge climbing stages, Nibali’s window to win has narrowed.
Jakob Fuglsang (Team Astana)
The good news: Fuglsang is still in the hunt, but he lost more time than he would have wanted during Saturday’s race. He now needs to ramp things up in the mountains if he wants to win.
The bad news: There was a time in the not-so distant past when Jakob Fuglsang was among the best ITT racers on the planet. Those days appear to be long gone, and the Dane just never looked comfortable during Saturday’s ITT. The final result is proof of this eye test: He finished in 29th place, 3:13 down on winner Filippo Ganna. And Fuglsang was the worst of the GC favorites in the race against the clock, which is an oddity, given his pedigree as a TT rider. He was behind pure climbers Domenico Pozzovivo and Rafal Majka. Even Pello Bilbao was better. Fuglsang lost two spots after his poor GC ride, and he now sits in 12th place overall, 4:08 down on Almeida. Now, like Nibali, Fuglsang is going to need to claw back all of that time and then put minutes into some of this other rivals prior to the final ITT. It’s a situation that looks highly unlikely at this point.
Wilco Kelderman (Team Sunweb)
The good news: Kelderman needs to keep rubbing his rabbit’s foot, hunting for four-leaf clovers, or doing whatever ritual that has propelled him to such good fortune throughout this Giro d’Italia. The flying Dutchman uncorked a superb ITT on Saturday to finish in 9th place overall, 1:47 down on Ganna and just 16 seconds behind Almeida. He retained his second place in the GC, and now sits 56 seconds behind Almeida in the hunt for pink.
What does this mean? Of all the seasoned grand tour veterans, Kelderman is now in the best position to win the entire thing. Sure, Almeida may surpass expectations and surprise everyone to win. If conventional wisdom prevails, and Almeida’s youthful exuberance eventually crumbles in the high alps, then Wilco Kelderman could finally become a grand tour winner.
As has been mentioned throughout this race, Kelderman’s strong ride thus far is confirmation of the talent and poise that coaches and directors have, for years, spoken of. Kelderman is the unfortunate super talent who always seems to suffer bad luck or the bad day at the worst possible time. He’s been 4th at the Vuelta (2017) and also 79th at the Tour (2015). At this point Kelderman appears to be on the good luck side of things.
The bad news: Kelderman did lose 16 seconds to Almeida, which just means 16 more seconds he’s going to need to find on the big climbs.
Brandon McNulty (UAE-Team Emirates)
The good news: Boy-wonder Brandon McNulty is now a big, strong man. He was the biggest winner of the GC guys during Saturday’s ITT, finishing third overall, 1:09 behind the world champion Ganna. McNulty vaulted forward on GC from 11th place to 4th place overall, and now the podium is just 12 seconds away. While there’s a good chance that McNulty’s developing engine will have good and bad days in the mountains to come, he’s already confirmed through 14 hard Giro stages that he’s a rider for grand tours. Chapeau, Brandon McNulty, you are now America’s newest and shiniest grand tour hope.
The bad news: No bad news today for Brandon McNulty. Let’s hope that his consistency continues in the punishing mountain stages to come.
Pello Bilbao (Bahrain-McLaren)
The good news: This is Pello Bilbao’s 11th grand tour, and it’s just the second or third one in which he’s been a true GC rider. He’s shagged bottles for Fabio Aru, Mikel Landa, and others over the years, so it’s great to see him seizing his opportunity to shine. Bilbao recorded a solid B grade by his standards in this ITT. He finished 22nd place, 2:53 down, but it was good enough to hold onto 3rd place in the GC. We’ve seen Bilbao go on the attack a few times in this Giro already, so the guy obviously has strong legs. He’s now poised to put together something special — could he land on the final podium? Is he a favorite for the top-5? On paper, Bilbao isn’t a real candidate to win. But he’s a veteran who can climb and attack, and those are two skills that will come in handy in this Giro’s final week.
The bad news: Bilbao lost some ground to the other GC guys, and he’s now just 12 seconds ahead of Brandon McNulty.
Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe)
The good news: Known for his climbing and not for his time trial skills, Majka’s ITT was better than expected, and he finished 16th overall, 2:37 down. That’s better than Bilbao, Nibali, and Fuglsang. More importantly, Majka climbed ahead two spots on GC and now he’s in 6th place overall, 2:33 down on Almeida. This bodes well for Majka’s run at the podium, as he’s one of the most feared pure climbers in the bunch. On Mt. Etna, way back on stage 3, Majka showed that he could follow Nibali in the mountains. Now, he’s beaten Nibali in an ITT and he is just 3 seconds behind Nibali in the overall.
The bad news: Majka is 1:36 behind Kelderman, and thus far, both men have looked good on the climbs. So, Majka will need to attack in the mountains to win.
Domenico Pozzovivo (NTT Pro Cycling)
The good news: Pozzovivo has been a liability in ITT races in years past, so the fact that he finished 27th and lost 3:01 to Filippo Ganna should be seen as moderate success. Pozzovivo beat Jakob Fuglsang, after all, so it wasn’t that bad of a ride. Plus, the race is now entering the high mountains, where Pozzovivo thrives. While the overall victory got a bit harder for him to win, due to Kelderman and Majka having strong rides, Pozzovivo could make a strong run at the podium or top-five. He’s an explosive and fun climber to watch, so the second half of the race is bound to feature some major Pozzovivo time.
The bad news: Pozzovivo’s OK time trial is a sign that he’s just OK at time trialing. Thus, like Nibali, Fuglsang, Majka, and Bilbao, Pozzovivo is going to need to attack like crazy in the mountains to bull back the time he’s already lost, and to make up more time on Kelderman and Almeida before the final ITT. That’s a tough ask.