The Tour de France has the glamor and prestige, the Vuelta a España has the wild unpredictability, but the Giro d’Italia has the romance.
A pink jersey for the race leader. The mystique of what organizers call “The hardest race in the most beautiful place.” Amore infinito is the Giro’s motto: Infinite love.
This year’s race has dished out the romance and dream endings in spades, with Victor Campenaerts and Lorenzo Fortunato the latest to log their names in the Giro’s love story this weekend. The pair’s unlikely breakaway wins make for the continuation of a theme that has run through this Giro as underdog escapes have increasingly gone the distance due to shifting race dynamics in the peloton behind.
Also read: Campenaerts makes it three for Qhubeka Assos
In the space of 14 kilometers of interminable suffering Saturday, 25-year-old Italian rider Fortunato clocked his first-ever pro win after eight years of trying, conquering his nation’s newest kingmaker, the Monte Zoncoloan.
— EoloKometaCyclingTeam (@EoloKometaTeam) May 22, 2021
“For those who love this sport, the Zoncolan is a real monument: today Lorenzo has written his name among the great champions who have conquered it,” said team manager Ivan Basso. “I don’t think there is a greater joy than seeing our efforts rewarded with a performance of this level.”
Just 24 hours later, Campenaerts was the next rider to book in his fairy-tale ending, outsprinting Oscar Riesebeek after a bold attack from the break.
Campenaerts’ victory stood in stark contrast to his position last fall, where he was pledging to accept salary cuts as he desperately sought a contract for 2021. He was duly saved by a contract renewal with his Qhubeka-Assos (formerly known as NTT) team, which became a rag-tag ensemble of riders that had been contemplating early retirement as the market for contracts condensed due to COVID.
Part of Campenaerts’ bid to stay relevant in the rising wave of talent swamping the WorldTour had been to pivot away from the TT scene ruled by Filippo Ganna and Wout van Aert to become a stagehunter this season – and the gamble returned a jackpot Sunday.
“I’ve been chasing a WorldTour, and specifically a grand tour, stage win for so long; having been four times second, twice third, once fifth, and I’ve always targeted victories in time trials,” Campenaerts said. “I’ve come so close but I decided to change how I race and focus more aggressively on racing on the road bike and focusing a little less focus on the TT.”
Campenaerts sealed a hat-trick for his underdog team in Gorizia, finishing off what Mauro Schmid and Giacomo Nizzolo started just days earlier.
In the space of six months, Qhubeka Assos went from being on the brink of shutdown amid a sponsor crisis to the most prolific squad of the Giro so far.
“COME ON TACO, EVERYBODY WITH YOU!!!”
— Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert (@IntermarcheWG) May 11, 2021
They both seem unlikely stories, but they’re just following the script of this Giro so far.
From Nizzolo’s long-awaited triumph and the elated breakaway win of Taco van der Hoorn to the career-defining victories of Joe Dombrowski, Victor Lafay, and Gino Mäder, this year’s Giro has been one to make dreams a reality. Heck, even Tour de France winner Egan Bernal was elated to have finally netted his debut grand tour stage when he won last weekend.
Bernal’s rise up the GC ended the spell of unlikely classification leaders this month. First, Alessandro De Marchi’s years of fighting for breakaways were rewarded with a pink jersey at his home tour, and after him, Attila Valter became a household name with his three days in the jersey.
New belief in the escapes
Away from the Giro’s time trials and sprint finishes, eight stages have gone to the breakaway at this year’s Giro, with Bernal’s blistering win at Campo Felice the only exception.
It makes for a shift in the way grand tours have been raced in recent years, where successful escapes have been the exception rather than the norm. Primož Roglič and Tadej Pogačar shared four stages at last year’s Tour, and Roglič took a further three en route to winning the Vuelta a Espana.
Is the absence of the two heavyweight Slovenians what’s making the difference at this Giro?
Roglič reinvented the approach three-week races last year with his focussed hunt for mid-stage time bonuses. Resultantly, breakaways were kept on a leash, and classification action was at the front rather than the back of the race.
With Jumbo-Visma not sending its heaviest hitters to the Giro, and Bahrain-Victorious hobbled by injuries, there has been a vacuum in the race’s power play. And with Ineos Grenadiers taking a more pinpoint approach as to when it chooses to throttle the race, escape groups have repeatedly pulled out dozen-minute gaps that never get eliminated.
The Ineos Grenadiers vs Jumbo-Visma rivalry will undoubtedly return at the Tour where the pressure-pot of the year’s biggest race will return to squash the likelihood of against-all-odds stage triumphs.
But for now, the likes of Campenaerts, Fortunato, and Schmid are reveling in the freedom afforded them.
“This time last year I was hoping to get a contract but my chances were not very good and I signed quite late in the season,” Schmid said after his win in Montalcino. “Then at the beginning of the season, I wasn’t thinking about doing a grand tour or a big race and now I just won a stage at the Giro – it’s amazing.”
The Giro’s peloton has four more opportunities to upturn the applecart before the final time trial in Milano. Who will be next to hit a happy ending?