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Of course this would happen. Did you really think otherwise?
Of course Chris Froome, the reigning Tour de France and Vuelta a España champion, would not go down without a fight.
The Team Sky rider who some felt shouldn’t be allowed to complete due to an ongoing anti-doping violation — the rider who some speculated would abandon the race after a pair of early crashes — completely turned the Giro d’Italia on its head Friday, soloing to victory for 80km on the race’s queen stage and taking the maglia rosa with just one mountain stage standing between him and Rome.
Of course he did.
But how? How did it happen?
For starters, Froome had nothing to lose and everything to gain. He went into Stage 19 sitting fourth overall, 3:22 down of race leader Simon Yates, and 2:54 behind defending champion Tom Dumoulin. He’d already won a mountain stage — the summit finish at Monte Zoncolan on Stage 14 — so no matter what happened, he wouldn’t be leaving the Giro empty handed. He’d come for an overall win, and nothing less. He had no interest in a lower GC placing, and he was willing to risk everything.
It was all or nothing. In the end, it was all.
“I’ve never raced that way before,” Froome told Eurosport. “It was a risk, but it was a calculated risk. It was a well-executed plan with the team. We discussed last night whether we were going to just ride for a podium position or if we were going to try to win this race. We decided to take the bull by the horns and really give it everything today.”
Stage 19, with four categorized climbs, was the perfect playground for Froome’s audacious exploit. The highest point of this Giro, the Colle delle Finestre, came midway through the stage, followed by Colle Sestriere and then finishing on the short, steep climb up the Monte Jafferau.
Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) had shown his first sign of weakness on the previous day, losing 28 seconds on Prato Nevoso. He looked vulnerable. He’d admitted he was tired.
Only Dumoulin was close to Yates on GC, 28 seconds back. The rest of the podium contenders were perched around three minutes down, with Italian Domenico Pozzivivo admitting he was just hoping to defend his third-place spot. Fatigue had set in, and most GC contenders would be without domestiques when the inevitable attacks came.
Meanwhile, Froome had a strong team of climbers supporting him who had not yet been fully utilized, names like Wout Poels, Sergio Henao, Kenny Elissonde, and David de la Cruz. Everyone knew a Team Sky attack was coming, the only questions surrounded when and where it would happen.
Team Sky massed at the front on the early slopes of the Colle delle Finestre and immediately put Yates into difficulty. That was phase one.
Then Froome went to the front and attacked, putting Dumoulin on the defensive. He opened up a gap of 38 seconds over the summit, and his gap grew to nearly two minutes at the bottom of the long, technical descent. That was phase two.
The third and final phase played out for the next two hours, with the maglia rosa hanging in the balance.
“I had a feeling that if I went on Finestre, the other guys wouldn’t follow me, because it was such a long way to go,” Froome said.
This Giro was always positioned as a battle between Froome and Dumoulin, and for the final 80km, that’s what it was. Froome rode alone at the front, while Dumoulin towed along a group of four other riders that included Groupama-FDJ teammates Thibaut Pinot and Sebastien Reichenbach, looking to boost Pinot’s GC position from fifth overall, as well as Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana), and Richard Carapaz (Movistar), sixth and ninth overall — and first and second in the Best Young Rider competition.
Over the top of the Finestre, Dumoulin had gambled on collaborating with a group across the valley that followed, and that cost him a minute on the descent as he slowed and waited for Reichenbach to come across to Pinot. Meanwhile Froome went all in on the descent, slicing the corners in an aggressive aerodynamic tuck.
Making matters worse for Dumoulin, two of the riders in the group, Lopez and Carapaz, refused to work, more concerned with one another and their battle for the white jersey. Following suit, Pinot contributed little, pointing to Reichenbach and his podium position.
“I would have liked to ride with Dumoulin, but the other two were determined not to do it,” Pinot said. “It’s not cycling that I love, but I had to think of the podium and so I [rode] like them. I took care of my race.”
While Reichenbach was contributing to the workload across the valleys, the battle for the maglia rosa was essentially a pursuit race between Froome and Dumolin, with Froome taking on the virtual maglia rosa over the penultimate climb, the Colle Sestriere, with 45km remaining.
At the base of the final climb, the short but steep Jafferau, there was no question as to who would win the stage, or which rider would be doing the chasing behind. All that was left to ponder was which rider would lead the race at the end of the day.
On the steepest sections, Dumoulin lost contact with the others; on the shallower sections, he clawed his way back on. Froome’s advantage, which had ballooned to 3:30, was slowly coming down. But he maintained while Dumoulin struggled, winning the stage by three minutes ahead of Carpaz — taking 10 seconds of time bonus as well — while Dumoulin crossed the line fifth, 3:23 down and out of the time bonuses.
“Today was really a crazy stage,” Dumoulin said. “I expected Sky to go for it and knew they were planning something. I had good legs and did everything right but Froome was too strong and I didn’t have the legs to follow. I knew the responsibility was mostly mine in the chase group. Everyone was riding their own race and I can understand why not everyone was riding.”
Froome’s audacious attack, bolstered by infighting among the chase group, had stuck. He now leads the Giro d’Italia for the first time in his career, with one stage remaining, on the cusp of being the reigning Tour, Vuelta, and Giro champion all at once.
It was an extraordinary demonstration, reminiscent of rides from cycling’s golden era, performed by champions like Coppi, Anquetil, Merckx, and Hinault.
It was the antithesis of Team Sky’s typical controlled, conservative riding. It was throwing caution to the wind.
It was also a ride that left many scratching their heads, in a state that hovered between wonderment and disbelief. It was a ride last seen at a Grand Tour in 2006, when Floyd Landis soloed across five mountain passes on Stage 17, winning the stage and reclaiming the maillot jaune — a performance, given what followed, that no active rider wants to be associated with.
“I don’t think I’ve ever attacked at 80km to go in my career, riding on my own and gone all the way to the finish,” Froome said. “The team did a fantastic job to set that up for me. It was going to take something special to get rid of Simon, and then to get way from Tom Dumoulin and Pozzovivo. To go from fourth to first, I wasn’t going to do it on the last climb alone. Colle delle Finestre was the perfect place to do it. I thought ‘Now is the time, I have to try.’”
Eurosport’s Brian Smith, a professional during the 1990s, said he had not seen a ride like Froome’s in the modern era. Sunweb team director Marc Reef said he couldn’t find words to describe Froome’s performance, saying Dumoulin could not possibly take back the maglia rosa from a rider who had just beaten him by over three minutes. Team Sky director Dave Brailsford called Froome’s ride “the best performance of his career,” adding that it was also one of the best days in the team’s history.
Mitchelton-Scott director Matt White echoed those sentiments, telling Eurosport, “I don’t think anyone expected an attack from 80km to go that would turn the Giro upside down. I’ve never seen a performance like that in a Grand Tour, not ever. He just decimated the bunch. It’s a tired bunch at the moment, and a few things fell in his favor, such as who was and who wasn’t chasing, but it’s a ride that will go down in history.”
As for Dumoulin — he started the day second overall, 28 seconds behind Yates. He finished the day second overall, 40 seconds behind Froome. In the end, it would be impossible to quantify whether waiting for Reichenbach over the top of Finestre had helped or hurt his cause. Froome’s GC advantage was less than the time Dumoulin lost on the descents of the Finestre and Sestriere, though Reichenbach did contribute to the chase.
“I decided two times to wait for Reichenbach because he wanted to ride with me,” Dumoulin told reporters at the finish. “Maybe that wasn’t a good decision. On my own, I can descend just as fast as Froome, but Reichenbach descends kind of like an old lady. With hindsight that wasn’t the best idea. But it’s easy to speak afterwards.”
And with one mountain stage remaining, Dumoulin was realistic about taking the maglia rosa from a rider who had been so much better on the day.
“At the moment I’m feeling a little bit pessimistic, but we will see when I wake up tomorrow,” Dumoulin said. “It’s going to be difficult.”