Throughout the 2021 Giro d’Italia we will be running columns from La Course En Tête.
Jai Hindley’s rainjacket in 2020, Remco Evenepoel’s earpiece in 2021. The moment in the penultimate sector of sterrato on the road to Montalcino, when the 21-year-old Belgian pulled the offending piece of plastic out of his ear will, I suspect, loom large in television montages of this year’s Giro d’Italia, in the same way that Hindley’s tortured attempts to get his jacket on at the top of the Stelvio did last year.
There had always been a question hanging over Evenepoel since his strong ride in the opening stage of the Giro in Turin: just how long could he live the dream? He had, after all, never raced for more than a week in his career, and he had come to the Giro without any racing in his legs since August 2020 when he crashed into a ravine during the Il Lombardia. As a French commentator muttered while watching him struggle in Tuscany, “He wasn’t born in Lourdes.” Miracles don’t happen, and if they do happen in cycling, eyebrows are raised.
The day before, during an assured, confident rest-day press conference, Evenepoel had been asked – inevitably – if he thought he could win the Giro. He wasn’t going to answer that one beyond saying that if he didn’t believe in himself he wouldn’t be at the start. He also replied, later, that his legs had begun to hurt, and he hoped that it was the same for the other riders around him.
Montalcino was far from the first time Evenepoel had encountered adversity in his young cycling career. Merely to get to the Giro he’d had to recover from a broken pelvis, taking several months off the bike, and then he had had to deal with the fact that, late in the winter, recovery took longer than expected, meaning he couldn’t race the start of the season. Getting to the Giro in the shape he had done was remarkable in itself.
Having said this, Evenepoel faced adversity of a different kind. He hit trouble on the road before, cracking in the finale of the road race world championship in Yorkshire in 2019. But here he had started the day a whisker behind Egan Bernal, with whom he had been scrapping on equal terms, he was wearing a classification jersey and – in theory – he was the sole leader of the Deceuninck-Quick-Step “Wolfpack” after João Almeida struggled earlier in the race.
This wasn’t the ’Pack’s finest hour. Normally, they circle their prey in a cohesive unit, but in the Tuscan dust, they looked more like Red Riding Hood’s grandmother than a big, bad grey predator. They exhausted their energy in bringing Evenepoel back to the front after a rocky moment or two in the first portion of sterrato, meaning he had only Almeida for support. The Portuguese is leaving the team at the end of the season and seemed in no hurry to rally around his young teammate when the Belgian slid off the back in the penultimate section. Wolf-tails were very much between legs.
If there was any comfort for Evenepoel, he wasn’t the only team leader making a close acquaintance with the man with the hammer. Peter Sagan was an early casualty as was Dan Martin. But Mr. Marteau had a particularly busy time on the final draggy, paved climb, where EF Education-Nippo cruelly put the 15 riders in the lead group into the gutter, spitting them out one by one. To see Vincenzo Nibali shake his head and swing out of the line was one thing – the “Shark” isn’t that menacing these days – but it was quite another to watch Mauricio Soler or Giulio Ciccone give best after looking effervescent in the opening week.
At the pointy end, the Giro is increasingly becoming Egan Bernal’s race to lose; by the end of the dusty day, only Alexandr Vlasov remained within a minute of Bernal. Emmanuel Buchman shone on that final gravel ascent, a reminder that in the not too distant past (2019) he had been tilting for the podium at the Tour de France. Hugh Carthy benefited massively from EF’s strong collective showing, while Simon Yates and Damiano Caruso flew elegantly under the radar. Both remained well within reach without ever earning a mention in dispatches which is the best way to be at this stage.
The biggest winner, along with Qhubeka-Assos’s Mauro Schmid? The Giro. Televisually, this was sumptuous. It lacked the brutally dramatic images of the mudfest in 2010, but, as Jorgen Leth said when shooting A Sunday in Hell, dust is visually more appealing than mud, and it offers the riders a better chance to race if they aren’t slogging just to stay upright. The clouds of dust floated across the cypress avenues like gunpowder smoke on a battlefield, the riders floated in and out of focus like ghosts in fog, and the racing never relented for the final 70 kilometers.
And here’s a final thought. Freddy Maertens once told me that after a dusty Roubaix, it took days to work the grit out of the eyes and lungs. There will be red eyes and sore chests on Thursday morning at the stage start in Siena, and the effects of this one day on the dirt roads to Montalcino may last – for some – as far as Milan.