The Giro d’Italia enters its second week Tuesday, and what had once looked a week of transition has taken on an altogether different flavor.
A downturn in weather and the heightening tension around COVID-19 after the shock swathe of COVID-19 positives in the peloton after Monday’s rest-day health checks leaves the race mired in uncertainty. If bad weather doesn’t soften the brutal final week in the Alps, coronavirus could shut down the race altogether.
The Giro’s new finish line has all of a sudden moved from Milan next Sunday to a date that riders may never know about until the moment arrives – and with that, every rider may have to race every stage as though it’s the last.
From bad to worse: Fall weather reshapes the race
The possibility of curtailed, shortened, or altogether canceled stages in the mountainous third week throws an altogether new light on what initially appeared to be a transitional week two.
Riders suffered in the chilly, rain-soaked stage to Roccaraso on Sunday, with many racing for six hours in winter jackets, gloves, and overshoes. They’re going to have to hope their cold weather kit has dried out and is ready for more use as the days shorten, and the race heads to higher ground. The weather in Bormio, the town at the base of the Stelvio pass slated for stage 18, is already hovering at around freezing point. And at 1,000 meters higher up, on the Cima Coppi’s summit, conditions won’t be any better.
With fears over the possibility of two key days through the highest Alpine passes next Thursday and Sunday being tuned down a notch, pink jersey hopefuls cannot gamble on swooping down on the overall at the last minute. Vincenzo Nibali, who pounced on the Giro’s pink jersey in the final stages through the Alps in 2016 as Steven Kruijswijk and Esteban Chaves faltered, cannot rely on a repeat of the tactic that delivered him his last Giro victory.
“It’s not straightforward,” he said of the uncertainty over the third week. “I’m maybe more suited to the longer climbs, but if those climbs were taken out, then it could make everyone ride more aggressively in the stages coming up.”
As uncertainty from not only the weather but the unretreating shadow of COVID-19 continues to hang heavy over the race, the second week, and particularly its closing duo of stages could prove the kingmakers.
Time trial test throws lifeline to Almeida
With riders unable to risk waiting to make their moves until stages reaching nearly 2,800 meters of altitude on stage 18 and 20, coupled with the continued threat of coronavirus putting the whole race under threat, this weekend’s racing could prove pivotal.
The 34-kilometer time trial for stage 14, Saturday, and Sunday’s 15km summit finish atop the 1,230m Piancavallo could become riders’ best-bet for guaranteed springboards in the GC.
The rolling individual test through the prosecco vineyards around Treviso Saturday stands as upstart GC leader João Almeida’s best chance of taking a race-strangling grip on the pink jersey. The 22-year-old took second place in the opening time trial in Sicily, putting over one minute on Nibali, Wilco Kelderman, and Jakob Fuglsang, and nearly 40 seconds on Pello Bilbao, who currently sits third overall.
The Deceuninck-Quick-Step ace will be up against it on the following stage to Piancavallo however. The multi-mountain test through the outskirts of the Alps could dissolve Almeida’s longer-term prospects as rivals look to take time ahead of the second rest day and the ever-uncertain third week.
“It’s too early to say if I can win the Giro, but I don’t think I can do it,” Almeida said Monday. “I have never raced three weeks and these riders have a lot of experience. I think I can keep the pink jersey to Piancavallo, and that day I will see if I can defend it again.”
Sunday’s race to the steep slopes of the Piancavallo marks the second mountaintop finish of the race. Despite its length and steepness, the relatively low-lying summit should be unaffected by bad weather and can be counted as relatively guaranteed to go ahead as planned. Pink jersey hopes could be made or broken on its steep 14-percent ramps.
Although both climactic and COVID conditions could change significantly before the weekend, riders could be treating Piancavallo as the race’s new finish line. If Almeida defends well through the week, carves out more time on the time trial, and limits his losses Sunday, he could still be in pink – and who knows, that could be the final leader’s jersey of the race.
Deceuninck-Quick-Step will have to be ready for anything in their bid to protect pink until the weekend.
The second-week trip up the Adriatic coast is about more than just moving the race from Sicily toward the Alps. Stage 10 Tuesday, and stage 12 Thursday offer the opportunity for moves in the closely-packed GC field, which currently leaves the top-10 separated by less than 80 seconds.
Stage 10 through the Abruzzo packs a procession of super-steep muro – “walls” – that could dissolve time gaps in the matter of one bad climb or mistimed mechanical. Stage 12, a loop around Cesenatico packing a saw-tooth profile of cat 3 and 4 climbs could likewise offer up something for opportunistic raids in the GC group for those wary of Almeida’s time trialing prowess.
“I think Tuesday can be an opportunity,” said Fuglsang, currently in sixth at 1:01. “We also have the Cesenatico stage, which from what I heard it should be very hard. There are opportunity days coming up, for sure. It’s about choosing the right moment to expend energy.”
All eyes on Kelderman
Kelderman has positioned himself almost perfectly going into the second week, and his rivals know it. The Dutchman currently sits in second, only 30 seconds behind Almeida and with nearly 30-seconds of a buffer over his most established rivals.
After grabbing a handful of seconds with a punchy acceleration on the summit finish at rainy Roccaraso on Sunday and backed by a strong team, the 29-year-old Sunweb captain has emerged as the man to beat.
“I haven’t thought much about the pink jersey yet,” he said. “So far it has been going very well and I am getting closer and closer. I watch from day to day and if possible I will certainly not pass it up.”
As arguably the most well-rounded of the pink jersey pack, boasting a confidence in the time trial and clout on the climbs, many are pointing in Kelderman’s direction as the Giro’s capo. Sunweb lost Michael Matthews in the COVID cull Tuesday, but still packs all of Kelderman’s climbing sidekicks. Meanwhile, Astana and Trek-Segafredo have both lost key men to support Fuglasang and Nibali in the mountains.
Fuglsang, one of the few able to match Kelderman’s acceleration Sunday admitted at his press conference “he wished” he still has key climbers Aleksandr Vlasov and Miguel Ángel López for support. The Dane knows who he and his remaining teammates need to focus on through the rest of the race.
“Kelderman has shown himself to be very strong and maybe stronger than we would have thought,” said the Astana man. “It’s still early in the race, but in my eyes, he’s one of the main favorites.”
Almeida similarly points toward Kelderman, but as a grand tour rookie riding a wave of luck and good legs, Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s young wolf sees threats from all sides.
“Jakob Fuglsang and Wilco Kelderman look very strong now,” he said. “I think everyone in the top 10 are possible rivals to take the pink jersey from me. Vincenzo Nibali was also strong in week one, but the other two seemed to have something more. Nibali, however, has the most experience of all, so it will definitely play into his hands in the coming weeks.”