Well, he did it! It was not the most convincing ride into the pink leaders jersey in Giro d’Italia history, but Dutch rider Wilco Kelderman put years of near-misses behind him to ride into the overall lead in this year’s race.
Going into the final week of this year’s Giro, Kelderman was by far the best-placed of the major contenders. Riding consistently throughout the opening two weeks, he was never more than 20 seconds behind race leader João Almeida. But as the days ticked by, many wondered if Kelderman would finally be able to close the deal and take over the overall lead. And while he struggled in the crucial phases of stage 18, at the finish line, the maglia rosa is finally his.
Today’s much-anticipated stage over the legendary Stelvio climb became the Queen stage of this year’s race, since Saturday’s stage to Sestriere was rerouted just yesterday as a result of new COVID-19 prevention measures in France.
But the Stelvio, which crests at 2,757 meters elevation is the Cima Coppi, the name given to the highest mountain pass in the Giro each year. And as is so often the case, the Stelvio renders its own verdicts.
It was here on the opening pitches where João Almeida’s Cinderella Story in this year’s Giro finally came to an end. It was here where the 22-year-old Portuguese rider’s 15-day run in pink finally came to an end, as he cracked under the intense pace set by the efforts of Ineos Grenadiers and Sunweb.
But just when Kelderman appeared to be cruising into the race lead, he too cracked, falling off the torrid tempo set by Rohan Dennis. The Australian of course, is one of the world’s best time trialists, and today he rode brilliantly, burying himself to pace his British teammate Tao Geoghegan Hart, who started the day in fourth overall. Kelderman could only watch as Dennis, Geoghegan Hart, and his own Sunweb teammate Jai Hindley steadily paced away from the Dutchman.
One of the world’s best amateurs of his generation, Kelderman, now 29, has long been hailed as one of Holland’s greatest talents since turning professional in 2012. While his career has not been without success, he has a long history of injuries and setbacks that have prevented him from scoring a big win.
There was his crash into a motorcycle in the 2017 Giro that forced him to drop out. There was his crash in the 2018 Tirreno-Adriatico where he broke his collarbone. And there were his back problems just last year in the Tour de France that forced him to drop out as well. Would the pressure of race leadership in a race like the Giro d’Italia prove to be too much?
For much of the Stelvio ascent, including the dizzying switchbacks found in the final kilometers, Kelderman appeared to be riding within himself and held the gap of the lead trio to well under a minute. And considering Kelderman started the day with a 2 minute 40 second gap ahead of Hindley and Geoghegan Hart (just one second behind Hindley at the stage start), he had time on his side.
But as he made his way down the long sinuous descent of the Stelvio his deficit nearly doubled. And when he was quickly caught and passed by Pello Biblao and Jakob Fuglsang on the opening pitches toward the finish at Cancano Lake, Kelderman appeared to be bonking.
Meanwhile, his Australian teammate Hindley was clearly at ease at the front, and many wondered why he simply did not go on the attack himself. “Hindley is clearly the best climber in this year’s Giro,” legendary sports director Cyril Guimard said on the French Equipe TV channel. “If he attacked he would be in pink tonight!”
But the Sunweb team clearly came into the day with a fixed plan and they did not waiver. Kelderman was their leader, and while Hindley could cover the Ineos initiative, he was not to go on the attack.
In the end, Kelderman kept his cool, rode within himself, and limited his losses. Finishing in fifth on the stage — two minutes 18 seconds behind his teammate Hindley, who sprinted to victory Kelderman was awarded the distinctive pink leader’s jersey, with a 12-second lead over Hindley and 15 seconds over Geoghegan Hart. While Kelderman’s ride will not go down in the history books as one of the great displays of strength, he managed to do what he had yet to do at this level. He managed to close the deal on the maglia rosa.
“It was a crazy day. Super hard. It was the hardest day of my life, I think. It was a big fight and couldn’t be any better for us, with Jai in the stage win and me in pink,” Kelderman said afterward. “We dropped Almeida quite early on the Stelvio and then it was just a race with Ineos. They were super strong with two guys. I couldn’t hold with them. So, for me, it was just a race for myself behind them. I knew it will be close, but I got it, so I’m happy.”
Hindley, who was ecstatic to score his first stage win in the Giro at just 24 years old, nevertheless confirmed that tactics were all about Kelderman. “I was told to sit on and not do any work, which I did, because I knew Wilco was most likely going into the jersey. It wasn’t our tactic for me to go solo, and I followed the plan. I saw the opportunity to take the stage win and took it. I’m happy with that.”
And now, while there are still three days remaining in this year’s Giro, really only one stage remains stands between Kelderman and his quest for overall glory in the Giro d’Italia. Friday’s stage is relatively flat and favors sprinters while Sunday’s time trial in Milan plays to Kelderman’s own strengths. But he still must negotiate a slim 15-second lead on Geoghegan Hart over Saturday’s final mountain stage that includes three ascents to the Italian ski resort of Sestriere.
“We’ll see,” Kelderman said simply afterward. I’m happy with today. “We see in the last days what happens.”