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by Matt de Neef
October 6, 2020
Photography by Cor Vos
We’re just three days into the Giro d’Italia and already the GC battle is in sharp focus. Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers) was looking like the clear favourite after a great stage 1 time trial but a couple days later the race has been blown wide open.
On stage 3, Thomas was just one of a couple GC contenders to fall by the wayside. A crash in the neutral zone, seemingly caused by a stray bidon, left Thomas bruised and battered. He soldiered on but was dropped before the final climb up Mt. Etna even began, ending the day more than 10 minutes behind his GC rivals. On the final climb, Simon Yates, Mitchelton-Scott’s big GC hope, also tailed off, unable to keep pace with 10 km of climbing still to go. He finished the day nearly three minutes behind the other GC men.
Just about anything can happen at the Giro — see stage 19 of the 2018 edition — but it seems fair to say that Thomas’ GC tilt is over (indeed his time at the race might be finished). Yates GC campaign also seems to be over. Not because three minutes is impossible to make up — again, see stage 19 of the 2018 Giro — but because of how early he was dropped on stage 3.
All of which leaves us with an intriguing question: who’s the favourite to win the Giro now?
Perhaps Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) is. The Dane looked great on Etna, putting in a few moves on the upper slopes and riding strongly to lead most of the GC contenders across the line. His chances won’t be helped by the departure of Miguel Angel Lopez who crashed heavily on stage 1, and the withdrawal of Alexsandr Vlasov due to illness on stage 2. With his two best climbing domestiques gone, Fuglsang’s likely to find himself isolated in the mountains later in the race. Then again, he was isolated on Etna and seemed to manage just fine …
Maybe Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo) is the rider to beat. The Italian certainly knows how to win the Giro — he’s done so twice — and he and his team raced with intent on stage 3, setting the pace and paving the way for some late aggression from Nibali. The 35-year-old sits sixth overall now, ahead of most of the GC men. The fact that he’s looking strong already will be a concern for his rivals — Nibali only has a tendency to improve as the Giro goes on (see the 2016 and 2020 Giri).
Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb) has shown good signs early and could well be a contender too. Somewhat surprisingly he wasn’t great in the time trial, but the Dutchman made up for that on Mt. Etna, riding away from the remains of the peloton to take at least 12 seconds over all the other GC contenders.
Kelderman gained time on his rivals with a late attack on Mt. Etna.
Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma) needs to be factored in too. The Dutchman struggled to keep pace with the other contenders on Mt. Etna but in the end he only lost five seconds to the likes of Nibali and Fuglsang. And remember: this is the Dutchman’s first race since crashing out of the Dauphine with a fractured and dislocated shoulder. It seems likely he’ll get better as the race drags on.
Other GC men are in the mix early too; riders like Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe), Domenico Pozzovivo (NTT), Pello Bilbao (Bahrain-McLaren) and 22-year-old American Brandon McNulty (UAE-Team Emirates). And let’s not forget about the guy who’s actually leading the race after the first mountain stage: Portugal’s Joao Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep).
At just 22, in his first WorldTour season and his first Grand Tour, Almeida is showing he’s an incredible talent. He was second in the stage 1 ITT, beaten only by world champ Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers), and on Mt. Etna he dropped just 12 seconds to the big GC favourites — little enough to move into the maglia rosa. If his body holds up over three weeks, and if he can ride as well in the remaining two TTs as he did in the first, well, he could well be in for a great result.
Those time trials are worth a mention too. Thomas was clearly the strongest time trialist among the GC contenders and, on paper, he would likely have won the Giro if he could have matched the other GC contenders uphill. Now, the GC playing field has been levelled considerably. None of the remaining GC contenders stands head and shoulders above the others against the clock, and the strongest of them on stage 1 — Almeida — seems likely to lose some time on the others in the mountains.
So while it’s hard not to feel for the likes of Thomas and Yates, the Giro just got a whole lot more interesting. There’s a chaotic unpredictability about this race that the Tour de France simply doesn’t have. Already, just three stages in, we’re seeing that on full display. The Mt. Etna finish was raced aggressively and impulsively and lacked the stifling team-train control that we often see in the mountains of the Tour. And with no team having its strongest line-up at the Giro, we’re bound to see more chaotic racing in the weeks ahead.
So who’s the favourite from here? If I was a betting man I’d be backing Nibali, and the bookies seem to agree. As a two-time winner, Nibali’s experience at the Giro shouldn’t be understated, nor should the fact he has a history of clawing his way up the GC in the back half of grand tours.
But it’s close: Fuglsang, Kelderman and Kruijswijk all have a legitimate chance too. Almeida might even have a shot — he wouldn’t be the first rider in his early 20s to win a grand tour this year. Maybe Yates even finds a way to claw back time as the race goes on.
But really, who knows. It’s incredibly early to be looking ahead to the latter stages of the race. The Giro has barely begun and as we saw on stage 3, the entire complexion of the race can change in an instant, even before the day’s racing has begun.
We’ll get more of a feel for the GC battle on stage 5, where a 24.2 km climb peaks just 12 km from the finish line. One thing’s clear though: there’s going to be plenty of great racing in the weeks ahead.