If you would have told me three weeks ago that Damiano Caruso (Bahrain Victorious) would finish in the top five at this year’s Giro d’Italia, I would have said you were crazy. But if you would have told me that he would finish a close second to Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers), and minutes ahead of riders like Simon Yates, (Team BikeExchange), Aleksandr Vlasov (Astana-Premier Tech), Romain Bardet (Team DSM), João Almeida (Deceuninck-Quick-Step), I would have said, “So pigs fly now, too?”
Perhaps that’s a bit too harsh on Caruso – he’s one of the strongest GC riders in the world, but one who has sacrificed most of his career for others. The 33-year-old Italian has ridden for the likes of Ivan Basso, Vincenzo Nibali, and Mikel Landa; and it was the Spaniard who was set to lead Bahrain-Victorious at this year’s Giro, until a serious accident in stage 5 forced the abandonment of Landa. The very next day, Gino Mäder (Bahrain-Victorious) won atop San Giacomo, and it was a sign of what was to come for Bahrain-Victorious.
It wasn’t until the third week of the Giro that fans started talking about Caruso as a genuine podium contender. On Sunday, the Italian sealed his second-place finish with a brilliant time trial into Milano, capping off the best grand tour of his career with a scintillating win on stage 20 that made the whole world cheer.
The fireworks began during the stage that hardly happened – stage 16 from Sacile to Cortina d’Ampezzo had already been shortened by cutting out two of the major climbs in the second half of the stage. Just the Passo Giau remained, covered in rain and snow, and followed by a long and wet descent to the finish. The cameras cut out just as the GC action kicked off, when the maglia rosa, Bernal, attacked the thinning GC group.
At 9.8 kilometer-long and an average gradient of 9.3 percent, the HC-rated climb of the Passo Giau was already going to be one of the toughest on the Giro, but just before that was the Colle Santa Lucia. The peloton hit the Colle Santa Lucia as hard as the Passo Giau, adding a 20-minute opening effort to the Passo Giau’s 30-minute test.
When Bernal finally went on the upper slopes of the Passo Giau, Caruso barely upped his pace – the climbing veteran knows his own pace and stuck to it. It’s a theme that we’ll see throughout these stages: unlike other GC riders like Yates and Almeida who had lots of good and bad days, Caruso stayed incredibly consistent, never blowing up on any of the climbs, and saving his big attack for the very last opportunity.
Stage 16 – Colle Santa Lucia and Passo Giau:
Average Power: 375w (5.6w/kg)
Peak 30-min Power: 398w (5.9w/kg)
Only Bardet caught up with Caruso on the cold and wet descent, where the Italian hit 500-600w out of every corner. In the end, Caruso lost just 27 seconds to Bernal, who took his second stage win of the Giro.
Following the rest day, the Giro headed to Sega di Ala for another major summit finish. As we saw so many times this Giro, the breakaway looked to have a great chance at the stage win, and so the fight was massive before the first climb of the day. Once the move went, the peloton kept them on a tight leash, which meant the pace was high on the first categorized climb of the day, the Sveseri.
Stage 17 – Sveseri:
Average Power: 414w (6.2w/kg)
Next up was the Passo San Valentino – 14.8km at 7.6 percent, this climb was one of the longest of the Giro, and one where the pace was hot as the peloton kept the breakaway just two minutes ahead.
Stage 17 – Passo San Valentino:
Average Power: 366w (5.5w/kg)
The peloton then approached the summit finish atop the Sega di Ala climb, where Astana Premier-Tech took control for their leader, Vlasov. However, the Russian couldn’t keep pace, and soon, Ineos Grenadiers came to the front. Simon Yates attacked about halfway up the climb, and as the attacks continued, Bernal was suddenly dropping. With Dani Martinez for company, the maglia rosa dug deep, but couldn’t keep Yates and Almeida in his sights. Caruso rode as steadily as ever, and was even able to gap Bernal in the final few meters. Bernal did more than enough to keep the jersey, but his struggles presented an open door for Caruso and others to attack in the final few stages.
Stage 17 – Sega di Ala:
Average Power: 392w (5.9w/kg)
Peak 30-min Power: 398w (5.9w/kg)
In Caruso’s power files, we can see just how steady his effort is – the only big undulations come correlate the gradient, as he eases off in the draft, or spikes his power on a 12 percent pinch. Stage 18 was a welcome rest for the GC riders, as Bora-Hansgrohe and Ineos Grenadiers helped let the breakaway go and fight for the stage win. Just how easy was it in the peloton? Most amateur riders could keep up with this pace.
Stage 18 – Rest day for the GC men:
Average Power: 178w (2.7w/kg)
Peak 20-min Power: 275w (4.1w/kg)
Stage 19 had the look of a medium mountain stage with a major summit finish. Like so many of the previous stages, the Alpe di Mera was basically a 30-minute effort on a steep, nearly-10km climb (Alpe di Mera: 9.6km at 9 percent, to be exact). With the pervious stage being a long recovery ride, and few climbs in the first part of stage 19 to sap the riders’ energy, the climb to Alpe di Mera was going to be explosive; and that’s why we see higher peak power numbers from Caruso and the others.
Stage 19 – Alpe di Mera:
Average Power: 410w (6.1w/kg)
Peak 5-min Power: 440w (6.6w/kg)
You can see about a third of the way up the climb, where Caruso attacked with Yates, Vlasov, Almeida, and George Bennett (Jumbo-Visma). For five minutes, Caruso averaged 440w (6.6w/kg) – but this is a pace that he can’t sustain on a climb of this length. However, Yates attacked out of the group and soloed to victory, averaging ~6.5w/kg for the entire climb, and holding off Almeida, Bernal, and Caruso, respectively.
Throughout this Giro, we can see the requirements for a GC rider, and what it takes to win. Most of the major summit finishes are 20-30 minutes in length, and require an average of ~6w/kg to stay in the front group. If you’re going to attack, or solo off the front, you need to be holding 6.3+w/kg for up to 30 minutes at a time.
Just one more road stage remained before the final time trial into Milano, and Bahrain-Victorious was determined to give everything for their leader, Caruso. After the re-routing of stage 16, the penultimate stage of the Giro became its Queen. Following 70km of flat run-in, there were three massive category 1 climbs packed into the final 90km of the stage: Passo San Bernardino, Splügenpass, and Alpe Motta. If something about that middle climb seems off, that’s because the road went into Switzerland before turning back into Italy.
The action started to kick off near the top of the Passo San Bernardino when Team DSM upped the pace in the peloton. Three of their riders led over the top, creating a split on the descent that only Caruso and his teammate, Pello Bilbao, could follow. The quintet caught the early break, and extended their advantage over the peloton to 20 seconds by the bottom of the descent.
Stage 20 – Passo San Bernardino:
Normalized Power: 343w (5.1w/kg)
Peak 20-min Power: 360w (5.3w/kg)
Bilbao and Team DSM pulled as hard as they could before and up the Splügen Pass, extending the breakaway’s gap to 43 seconds by the summit.
Stage 20 – Splügen Pass:
Average Power: 382w (5.7w/kg)
After this, we witnessed the most amazing performance of Damiano Caruso’s career. When Bilbao swung off at the bottom of the Alpe Motta, Caruso gave him a pat on the back before motoring away at 420w. After nearly three weeks of racing – breakaways, time trials, summit finishes, cold, wind, and rain – Caruso did his best power of the entire Giro, climbing the Alpe Motta at over 6.2w/kg. What is even more incredible is that Caruso dropped Bardet off his wheel in the final 2.5km. Here, the Italian is riding on pure heart, with the fans cheering him up every switchback, and three weeks’ worth of emotion being poured into the pedals.
Stage 20 – Final 80km:
Average Power: 326w (4.9w/kg)
Normalized Power: 350w (5.2w/kg)
Stage 20 – Alpe Motta:
Average Power: 413w (6.2w/kg)
Average Power: 431w (6.4w/kg)
There are few, more-popular winners than superdomestiques, and Damiano Caruso is no exception. It’s a story that defies the odds, and something you tell your grandkids about. After his win on stage 20, Caruso moved to 1 minute and 59 seconds behind Bernal heading into the final time trial. The Italian gave it his all, but Bernal was up to the task. Egan Bernal won themaglia rosafor the first time in his career, while Damiano Caruso finished second Overall in the 2021 Giro d’Italia.
Power Analysis data courtesy of Strava
Strava Sauce extension
Riders: Damiano Caruso