REGGIO EMILIA, Italy (VN) — It was only coincidental, but it felt like the sharks were circling Friday morning. In the team bus parking area, Movistar and Bahrain-Merida flanked Team Sunweb. Trek-Segafredo lurked around the corner. FDJ was trolling nearby.
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Tom Dumoulin and his Sunweb bus sat benignly in the middle. If the squad is getting nervous about defending the pink jersey, you wouldn’t know it. Everyone was smiles and back-slaps, like a day on the beach despite the treacherous waters.
“Tom knows he’s got really great legs,” said Sunweb teammate Chad Haga. “And we’ve got a strong team around him. It’s certainly not a given he’s won. We’ve got some time to play with.”
That sums up everything going into this weekend’s pair of challenging stages that, at least on paper, don’t look that complicated. Oropa isn’t as steep as Blockhaus. Sunday’s run into Bergamo has breakaway written all over it.
But the pair of potentially explosive stages, with a summit finale Saturday and the technically challenging finish Sunday, will provide a very good indication if Dumoulin can fend off the sharks to win this Giro.
“These are two tricky stages,” said Sunweb’s sport director Aike Visbeek. “We count them as GC days. The climb on Saturday is already steep, and it will be full-gas attacks. The stage into Bergamo has a tricky descent, and then a steep climb with the cobbles. There could be 20-30-40-second gaps in each of those stages. It’s a day to defend, and perhaps even take some time on your rivals.”
Anticipation is growing in this Giro, not only for the much-hyped final week — it could be a dud if snow forces the cancelation of one of the big days — but also to see if Dumoulin can hang on.
Quintana, Nibali, Pinot, and to a lesser degree, Mollema, represent the peloton’s most experienced and dangerous climbers. They’ve all come to this Giro to win, and with Dumoulin nursing a considerable lead, they won’t be able to leave it until the final week.
Teams will have to try something this weekend to put Dumoulin under pressure and consolidate their respective GC positions. That means there could be a shoot-out among the top-five. Dumoulin might just sit back and watch the fireworks.
“To be honest, Nibali and Quintana are the two big favorites,” Visbeek continued. “Tom still has prove himself in this GC work. It will be interesting to see how the others deal with it. If they focus too much on Tom, another guy might be flying, and might ride away to victory in the end.”
Despite Dumoulin’s enviable position, this Giro is not settled. Rivals would be racing for second place, if the Dutchman were an established GC rider like Sky’s Chris Froome. But everyone remembers the 2015 Vuelta, when Dumoulin cracked on the final mountain stage. Sunweb insists Dumoulin is more experienced than he was two years ago. Plus, he prepared specifically for this Giro. Still, his rivals will be ready to strike if he starts thrashing in the water.
“I came to this Giro aiming for the podium,” said Pinot. “I think that’s very realistic. The question is, which step will it be?”
Saturday’s run up Oropa suits Dumoulin’s style of racing. Much like last weekend’s stage at Blockhaus, it’s a singular climb after a flat run to the base. Less steep than Blockhaus, Dumoulin should be able to mark attacks. Sunday’s punchy stage into Bergamo looks more complicated. It will be interesting to see if the GC riders go all-in. With the Stelvio-double looming Tuesday, Dumoulin’s rivals might conserve energy if they don’t smell blood in the water.
If Dumoulin hesitates, however, the climbers will pounce. Even if it’s only a few wheel-lengths, any sign of weakness will act like chum in the water to attract the sharks.
Dumoulin remains defiantly confident with the stage 21 time trial waiting in the end. Sunweb estimates he can take back at least one minute in Milano. He knows the others have to take the race to him in the mountains.
“I know they will attack me. They have no choice,” Dumoulin said. “It’s nice to have the advantage I have. It can help us manage the race.”
Team Sunweb, despite losing Wilco Kelderman last weekend, is ready to fend off the sharks this weekend. Dumoulin would love to carry the pink jersey into the Dolomites with the biggest lead possible.
“Tom is very prepared. In the last week, it’s about having a bad day, and if you do, managing that as well as you can,” Visbeek said. “We still have an open approach. We want to defend the lead, but we will still keep looking for opportunities.”
As the lifeguards say, the best way to fend off a shark attack is to fight back.