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Front loaded with flat sprint stages, the format of this year’s Giro d’Italia harks back to grand tours of 20 odd years ago. Quite why any race organizer has ever been keen on shaping their race in such a prescriptive manner is a mystery. But back in the 90s, that seemed to be the way things were.
Now teams have got their science and collective psychologies dialled, sprint stages are more forumulaic than they’ve ever been. Outwitting a peloton hellbent on a gallop is next to impossible.
That’s why, in these attention-grabbing times, the trend has been for organizers to counter predictable racing by throwing more and more curveballs into the opening weeks of grand tours. Little lumpy stages. Uphill finishes. Cobbles. Gravel. Exposed coast roads. Whatever shakes things up a little.
That the Giro organizers have gone back to the old format has fetched considerable criticism. But the opening eleven stages have not been without opportunities either. And in each instance, some bonafide opportunists have made it their chance to shine. Let’s take a look at a few of them.
Valerio Conti (UAE-Emirates)
The week-long pink jersey wearer has been knocking on the door of some Giro limelight for a good couple of years. An aggressive rider who attacks with confidence, Valerio Conti might have won a stage in 2017 had he not crashed through a hairpin corner as he launched a solo bid for glory on the finishing climb into Peschici.
Last year he made a bold solo attack ahead of a ravaging bunch on a draggy climb towards Caltagirone. While he impressed with how long the move endured, he was swept up with 3km to go and again came away empty handed.
That’s not to say Conti’s never pulled off one of his escapes. In 2016, the Italian won an undulating stage of the Vuelta with a solo attack from the day’s main breakaway. But at his home grand tour, his moves have always been frustrated.
Conti’s escape with Fausto Masnada (himself worthy of a mention amongst these opportunists) on stage 6 of this year’s race, was characteristic of his style. He got in the large early break and, recognising the potential in following Masnada’s attack, rode with full commitment for his share of the spoils.
While there was no doubt an element of calculated surrender from Primoz Roglic, Conti knew he had a shot at the pink jersey and seized the opportunity. It was odd to see the 26 year old having to ride untypically defensively for his overall lead the next day, but Conti’s spirited tenantship of the pink jersey has been just reward for a rider who boldly and repeatedly livens up races.
Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo)
24 year old Giulio Ciccone has been wearing the blue jersey of mountains leader since the very first day of this year’s Giro. He claimed it by setting the fastest bottom to top ascent of the final 2.2km of the stage 1 time trial. A calculated effort to deliberately take the jersey, he had ridden the opening 6km of the time trial reservedly and switched to his lightweight road bike before hitting the foot of the climb to the San Luca sanctuary.
Job done, blue jersey on his shoulders, Ciccone then joined the early break on stage 2 to clean sweep the mountain points on the two categorized climbs towards the end of the stage. With more point-grabbing, unchallenged, on the single climb that punctuated stage 3, it wasn’t until he watched the break ride away on stage 4 that his 100% points record in the competition came to an end.
While none of these climbs were any more than third category, past form suggests the Italian could take home the mountains jersey at the end of the race. Last year he finished second in the competition – no thanks to Chris Froome and his long range attack in the mountains.
Although still up and coming, Ciccone climbs proper mountains well. He won a hilly stage in his debut Giro in 2016, and took another at the Snowbird resort in the 2017 Tour of Utah. Earlier this year, riding his first stage race since signing for Trek-Segafredo, Ciccone got the better of Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet in an uphill stage finish at the Tour du Haut Var. A bright future beckons for this climber, but if in this Giro he continues to ride strategically and specifically for the mountains jersey, it should be well within his grasp.
Richard Carapaz (Movistar)
Ecuadorian Richard Carapaz is no stranger to past success at the Giro either. Last year he won the eighth stage to Montevergine di Mercogliano with a blistering late attack from the group of main favourites on the 1250-meter high finishing climb.
Really, 25 year old Carapaz is GC material, finishing fourth overall -and a close second in the young riders’ competition to Miguel Angel Lopez- in 2018. But in a Movistar team, top heavy with overall climbing talent, he’s not always going to be top pick for leadership.
At this year’s Giro, he’s theoretically co-leading with Mikel Landa. But while the Spaniard was falling around on the floor and berating Simon Yates on stage 4, Carapaz was once again seizing the opportunity to apply his rapid turn of uphill speed to win the stage.
While on paper it was more a day for robust sprinters, none of them had any hope of following Carapaz when he went for the line with 600m remaining. Caleb Ewan found his speed once the climb flattened, but Carapaz was too far ahead.
Pello Bilbao (Astana)
It might very well have been Jose Joaquin Rojas included here, if only his legs had lasted on stage 7 and he’d finally broke his grand tour duck after so many close calls. But, alas, the Spaniard was brought back from his desperate attack with a kilometer and a half to go. Neither the pink jersey or the stage would be his.
Instead it was countryman Pello Bilbao who was able to seize the most from landing in, and surviving, the day’s main break on the hotly contested stage to l’Aquila. The 29 year old’s counter-move as Rojas was recaptured was the stuff of textbook. Everyone else in the remaining break of six had lulled. Bilbao got his gap. And the dragging climb to the finish suited his strengths.
Like Carapaz, Bilbao is the kind of rider who might be afforded more opportunity on another team. As it is, as a strong climbing domestique, he has to pick his moments for personal success. His most memorable before last week’s Giro win was a mountain stage of the 2018 Criterium du Dauphine ahead of Geraint Thomas and Dan Martin.