BASSANO DEL GRAPPA (Italy), VN – Pink jersey-wearing João Almeida Deceuninck-Quick-Step) received a round of applause from watching spectators as he rolled from his team bus to sign on at the Giro d’Italia on Wednesday morning. He may not have the garment on his shoulders much longer.
With the race set to hit the first of three high-altitude, low-temperature stages through the Alps this week, the Portuguese youngster is going to be batting away challenges from all sides in a race that his rivals insist is far from done and dusted.
“The Giro is very much open,” said Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers) on Wednesday.
Though Ineos pivoted to racing for stages after the loss of Geraint Thomas, Geoghegan Hart confirmed his team is now aiming for “as much as we can,” and that a GC bid is back on the agenda.
“Tomorrow we go up to a very high altitude on the Stelvio, and there’s super-long climbs today and tomorrow,” he said. “It’s far from done, we’ve seen in almost every grand tour big changes in the final couple of stages in the last few years so I’m sure this one will be the same.”
Geoghegan Hart currently sits fourth overall at 2:59. The Brit has risen as one of Almeida’s main challengers for the GC, alongside Wilco Kelderman, now just 15 seconds off the race lead.
The Giro could come down to more than just Almeida, Kelderman, and Geoghegan Hart, however. If there’s any man capable of delivering the race-shifting “Hail Mary” alluded to by Geoghegan Hart, it’s Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo). Though the wiley Sicilian veteran is back at 3:31 and looked cooked on the climb to Piancavallo on Sunday, his team insists “The Shark” still has bite.
“We wouldn’t sign for a stage win and the podium, no, we would not sign,” team coach Paolo Slongo told La Repubblica this week. “Vincenzo wants to win the Giro. And we still have the chance to do it. It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible.”
Having dislodged Steven Kruijswijk and Esteban Chaves from their pink jersey positions in a dramatic final turnaround in the 2016 Giro on the very same climbs to be featured this week, the Sicilian could be causing Almeida some sleepless nights.
“The Giro isn’t won by those who do amazing things for a while, but by those who are consistent and don’t fade,” Slongo warned. “We have seen it many times in the past, sudden collapses have always been there, and especially in recent years.”
Nibali and Trek-Segafredo will be using all the accumulated knowledge of twice winning the Giro and finishing on the podium a further four times. Deceuninck-Quick-Step however, are veritable neo-pros in the grand tour GC game.
“Today will be a very crucial day,” said team rouleur Iljo Keisse. “But the team is going really well. It’s true we don’t usually do this, but we do have some good guys in the climbs, with three guys in the top 15 in GC. We have good climbers here, and they can help him really to the last moment, and that’s very important.”
Keisse and Quick-Step will have to manage tactical plays from two teams both packing the luxury of two riders in the top 10. Sunweb has Kelderman and Jai Hindley (thrid), while Bora-Hansgrohe has Patrick Konrad and Rafal Majka (ninth and sixth respectively).
“Yeah, it’s still open,” Majka said. “We have two guys in GC, and we want today to be good…. Today is a very important stage for the GC. It should be hard racing.”