No race does “epic” quite like the Giro d’Italia.
The amazing scenery, the changeable weather, the impossibly steep twisting mountain passes, and the sheer amount of accumulated elevation gain is what makes the Giro an annual war of attrition.
However, as we see so often, the more challenging the stage on paper, the less decisive it can be to the results. Highlighting weakness rather than strength, modern day racing is more about who doesn’t lose time rather than glorious rampaging attacks to win the race.
Unless your name is Tadej Pogačar, of course.
Tuesday’s monster route over the Mortirolo on stage 16 was our perennial 5,000m-plus Giro d’Italia stage, with long passes and technical descents made more tricky by the rain closing in. Watching the television coverage, I was reminded of many a stage when the team director would say on the radio that it wasn’t raining at the finish line, only for me to bark back, “yes, but are the roads wet or not?!”
The rain falling from the sky has little effect on the riders; it’s the rain that has passed before that makes the difference.
These guys would have started with dry tire pressures and were racing for the stage victory down a technically challenging road with frequent road surface changes under the trees. The skill of the riders is often overlooked.
Wednesday’s stage 17 saw a very similar composition to the breakaway, something that surprised many people, but those who went are the riders who still have legs in the race.
Seeing Mathieu van der Poel right at the front of a mountain stage with 12km to go was definitely unexpected, but it shows the character of the guy: he loves racing.
He astutely deployed his descending skills to get a head start on the climbers and it almost paid off.
But Leemreize? What a talent. Not many can put Van der Poel in trouble on a descent, but then to show his climbing talents as well — he is one to watch.
What next? Jan Hirt should now turn his attention to what looks a secure top-eight on GC, and I’m sure we will see Hugh Carthy back out there on Friday and Saturday. I think his last chance for a stage will be Friday, as I can see Saturday being a fight for the stage between the GC guys, which will add an extra element to the race, and hopefully we get to see more of the battle for maglia rosa!
So with four days to go we have three climbers who are seemingly inseparable, with a fourth contender in the stronger TT rider in João Almeida, still just in the game, who at a mere two minutes off the pink jersey shows what a remarkable race we have had so far.
Almeida has lost contact on each of the crucial stages so far, but has shown incredible resilience and strength of character to get through tough moments to limit his time losses.
Bahrain’s strength in numbers has been impressive but it means little as so far it seems Landa can’t rid himself of his two shadows in the form of Hindley and Carapaz, something that he needs to do now that he is one minute off pink.
On stages 16 and 17, the leading trio seemed more content to distance Almeida than attack each other, but that should change now they have enough of a buffer ahead of the TT.
The third week of a grand tour often sees a status quo, with the fatigue rendering the small differences between the contenders even less significant.
Tired bodies become incapable of explosive attacks and it becomes a battle of who has recovered the best and been the most economical over the whole race, but also who has the mental strength to not make mistakes and repeatedly deny their body’s demands that enough is enough.
Riders’ minds turn towards conserving what they have rather than risking three weeks’ work with one audacious attack. However, that’s when the GC is more or less decided.
Friday’s category-two finish, although on paper the easier stage, is a different type of climb and seems a perfect platform to see at least some gaps.
Saturday’s mountain finish at Fedaia is a real grinder, but we should see all the riders emptying the tank and go all in to the line.
It’s impossible to call the Giro at the moment, and I’m intrigued to see who blinks first in what promises to be a close battle all the way to the finish.