PINEROLO, Italy (VN) — Thursday was busy for EF Education First at the Giro d’Italia.
The U.S.-registered team put a rider in the day’s main breakaway with grand tour rookie Sean Bennett and then hit the podium with British climber Hugh Carthy as best young rider.
Not a bad haul for the first day in the mountains in the 2019 Giro.
“It’s a special day,” Carthy said. “I knew it was an objective and I knew it was possible if the race played out in a certain way, which it did.”
EF Education First has been hanging low so far in this Giro. Without a sprinter in its lineup since Sacha Modolo abandoned in stage 7, the team has been largely cooling its jets and waiting for the mountains. And with relatively few realistic breakaway opportunities in the first half, everyone was cooling their jets.
The team also left stars Rigoberto Urán and Michael Woods at home to prepare for the Tour de France. That means this Giro squad is loaded with stage-hunters and opportunists.
Opportunity knocked Thursday, and the team answered by riding into the thick of the action.
Carthy, 24, has been one of the breakout riders so far, confirming his climbing chops with two solid time trial performances. In Thursday’s first serious mountain climb, he hung with the GC favorites. And although he lost time on the steep streets of the finishing town, he arrived in Pinerolo to receive a special prize: the best young rider’s white jersey.
“It was a hard climb,” Carthy said. “I was in difficulty over the top. It came back together and we were able to limit our losses to Lopez, so it was nice.”
Now that the mountains are finally here, EF Education didn’t waste any time. Knowing that a breakaway would likely stay to the line Thursday, dozens of riders were fighting for the break.
When a move stuck, grand tour rookie Bennett found himself rubbing shoulders with such bangers as Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal), Jan Bakelandts (Sunweb) and eventual pink jersey Jan Polanc (UAE-Emirates).
When the break hit the day’s main obstacle — the Cat. 1 Montoso climb — Bennett even decided to accelerate. To try to win? No, he just wanted a head-start on the suffering.
“I knew I couldn’t climb with the other guys in the breakaway,” Bennett said at the line. “So I decided to try and get a minute or so gap at the base of the climb, and maybe I’d hold on to something over the top — which didn’t happen, I came back like a rock! — but to be there to help the guys.”
How did he feel at the end of his first grand tour breakaway?
“Tired – very tired,” he said, gulping down rehydration drinks. “It was hard.”
The breakaway effort came just a day after Bennett kicked to 10th, matching the best EF Education First sprint result so far in this Giro (new-comer Tanel Kangert was fifth in the San Marino time trial). A rookie in a bunch sprint? That was Bennett just free-lancing.
“I don’t really know what I am good at,” he said. “I actually quite enjoy sprinting. We will see how that develops.”
Just how far does Bennett — whose resume includes stints at AM Post Chain Reaction, Jelly Belly, CCB Foundation and Hagens Bermans Axeon — plan on going in this Giro?
“Just making it through for me, man,” he said, “Just making it through.”
Carthy, meanwhile, will have his work cut out to keep the best young rider’s jersey. Miguel Angel López, who finished third last year overall and won the white jersey, is nipping at his heels. Going into Friday’s challenging stage, Carthy is just 35 seconds ahead of Lopez.
The Colombian climber attacked Thursday and reeled back 28 seconds to the GC favorites in a surge that included Movistar’s Mikel Landa in tow. The pair had teammates up the road who helped pace them in the final flat 20km to the line.
Carthy counted on veteran Kangert to help pace him to the line, and ended up on the winner’s podium as the new white jersey.
It’s these mini-battles inside of the race that Carthy and EF Education First will now be fighting for Friday, going into the first mountaintop finale in the 2019 Giro.
Lopez is sure to attack again, not so much for Carthy’s white jersey, but for the overall classification. If Carthy can hang with the Giro’s “bigs,” he might end up with more than just defending the white jersey.
“It’s going to be difficult, he proved how strong he was today,” Carthy said. “I am going to come out strong every day and try to defend it.”