'You can't take anything for granted' – Ganna takes aim at first pink jersey of Giro d'Italia
The problem with dominance in any sphere is that the extraordinary eventually comes to be seen as routine. By now, Filippo Ganna knows the drill and he's reluctantly made his peace with it.
Victory in the opening time trial of the Giro d'Italia in Ortona on Saturday will be greeted as something of an inevitability given his 5-0 record against the watch from his first two outings in the Corsa Rosa. Defeat, on the other hand, will lead to extensive inquests and the dusting down of old debates over whether Italian cycling's new leading man is spreading himself too thinly across disciplines.
The margin between success and failure is tight at this level, and there is rarely much space for nuance in the commentary afterwards.
"Up until the World Championships last year, that was a frustration," Ganna tells Cyclingnews. Seventh place in the time trial in Wollongong, it seems, heightened his resolve to ignore the outside noise.
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"After the Worlds, I realised that I didn't care any more about what people were saying. If I lose and they say there's a 'caso Ganna,' that's fine. I'll just keep doing my Giro, it's not like I'll pull out over it or something. And if I win and they say, 'beh, it's normal that he wins,' well, that's fine too. I'll have won and their opinion won't change anything.
"If this were a computer game or something, with no outside factors, then fine, you could say it's 'normal' that I win given what I've done in past time trials. But nothing is 'normal.' You can't take anything for granted in this world."
Ganna set himself a high bar by living up to his billing on the opening day of his two previous Giro appearances, claiming crushing victories in the opening time trials in Palermo in 2020 and in Turin the following May. This time out, even without the rainbow skinsuit on his shoulders, he is the favourite to claim the opening maglia rosa, though both the opposition and the course mean that it's no foregone conclusion.
Remco Evenepoel, Stefan Küng, and Primož Roglič are among the men in the mix on the 19.6km run down along the Adriatic coast, while the uphill finale in Ortona is clearly an element Ganna could have done without.
It would be the hardest earned maglia rosa of his career to date.
"I've looked at the course with my coach Dario Cioni on Veloviewer. Obviously, I would have been a bit happier without that final climb, but I'll just have to adapt. I'll have to try to make more of a difference earlier and then hold that advantage in the closing kilometres," says Ganna, who insists the elite competition won't change a jot about his mindset ahead of the test.
"I treat every time trial the same way, I just try to win it. It doesn't change anything if certain riders are or aren't there."
Evaluating the spring Classics
Ganna arrives at this Giro buoyed by the best spring Classics campaign of his career to date.
Ever since winning the under-23 Paris-Roubaix in 2016, the Italian had been couched as a Classics contender in waiting, but his one-day record was decidedly underwhelming through his opening years as a professional.
Fine performances at the Vuelta a San Juan and Volta ao Algarve early in the year – not to mention a typically decisive cameo in the team pursuit at the European Track Championships – augured well this time out, however, and Ganna proceeded to impress at Milan-San Remo, where he took second behind a rampant Mathieu van der Poel, and at Paris-Roubaix, where he battled his way to sixth.
From the outside, it looked a wholly positive Classics campaign, but Ganna confessed to nursing some regrets after Milan-San Remo, where he hesitated over following Van der Poel's decisive acceleration atop the Poggio.
At Paris-Roubaix, meanwhile, the energy expended in chasing back on after the Arenberg perhaps caught up with him in the finale.
"I was only thinking about it the other day: I'd give myself 7 out of 10 for the Spring, because I was always close, and it was the first year where I focused totally on this objective and where the team gave me a lot of support and morale," Ganna says now.
"For the first year, I think it was good. Perhaps in three or four years' time, if I have the same performances and the same results, I might see it differently. For now, I was happy to have hit my objectives, but you want to improve every year."
In any case, it was a marked improvement on last season, where Ganna's Spring was blighted by illness and he seemed to be chasing his form thereafter. Only in October, with his epochal Hour Record, did he eventually deliver a performance commensurate with his gifts.
Everything has run altogether more smoothly in 2023.
"The Spring gave me a good base and it also gave me a sort of cushion, which can help you going into the rest of the season. It gives you a bit of confidence going forward," says Ganna, who has spent the bulk of the four weeks between Paris-Roubaix and the Grande Partenza training at home in Switzerland under Cioni's watch.
"The first week after Roubaix was completely about recovery, both mentally and physically. My legs actually still felt good, but it was important for my head to take a break, above all because of all the travel to and from races. I've recovered well and then I was able to get back to training, so we'll just see how we get to May 6."
Tao Geoghegan Hart and Geraint Thomas
Ganna's unblemished record at the Giro is not limited to his time trial efforts. He also holds a 100% record in shepherding his Ineos leaders to overall victory, with Tao Geoghegan Hart emerging as the maglia rosa in 2020 and Egan Bernal claiming the honours the following year.
Geoghegan Hart's victory in the pandemic-delayed edition of 2020 was a surprise even to his Ineos team, and by seizing the pink jersey on the final day, he spared his teammates the rigours of having to police an unruly gruppo. Bernal, by contrast, was the overwhelming favourite for the 2021 Giro from the outset, and Ganna et al spent more than two weeks defending the maglia rosa on his behalf.
"I enjoyed the first one a lot more, I suffered a lot less in that one," Ganna laughs.
"The last Giro I did, with Egan, there were even some flat stages where the sprinters' teams weren't interested in riding, so [Salvatore] Puccio and I had to work a lot. We ended up doing a lot of kilometres at the front of the bunch even on days when maybe it wasn't really our job.
"When you're in a situation where you don't have the jersey and you're not obliged to work, it's a lot simpler. There's a big difference between every day riding on the front for the team and being able to spend half the Giro sitting in the middle of the bunch saving energy, and you see that at the end of three weeks."
Although Evenepoel and Roglič are the consensus favourites for this Giro, Ineos came within three kilometres of winning a third straight maglia rosa with a third different rider last year, and they set out with a team of considerable depth once again here. Geoghegan Hart and Geraint Thomas begin as the leaders of a squad that also features Pavel Sivakov and Thymen Arensman.
"Every year, there's a rider who comes in more in form than the others. This year there's Remco, there's Roglič… But I still hope to get to Rome with the jersey in the team again, I have confidence in the team," says Ganna, who was coy about his specific tasks out on the road, preferring to focus on his role in raising spirits off the bike.
"My role will be to make sure they eat well in Italy… No, seriously, it's important to keep the morale high in the team. I wouldn't say I'm a joker, but I'm someone who tries to keep the humour up in the team over the course of the 21 days. I hope my contribution can help the team in the head as well as on the road.
"If the head is right, you can withstand the hardship a lot better, it can get you through a period where you're not at 100%. If the head is right, then even the most difficult challenge can feel a bit easier."
It will, in any case, be another Giro with a dual mandate for Ganna. As well as the individual time trials on stages 1 and 9, the 27-year-old should also have the freedom to test the waters on at least a couple of more stages along the Giro d'Italia route.
Regardless of how he fares in the opening time trial, however, Ganna suggests he is unlikely to fight to stay in the GC battle once the road starts to climb at Lago Laceno on stage 4 in the opening week.
"I've learned the lesson a bit in the last years: when you spend something on one day, then you don't have it the next. I might be happy to fall out of GC early on so I can try to win a stage later on," Ganna says.
"If I had the choice between winning a stage or spending an extra day in the pink jersey, I'd rather win a stage."
Following Vincenzo Nibali's retirement, Ganna has inherited his mantle as the figurehead of Italian cycling. That status weighs heavier in May than at any other time of the year, even if Ganna insists the burden is one he scarcely notices.
"No, I don't feel the weight on my shoulders," he says. "I'm happy to be one of the riders to watch, but on the other hand I know it's not all on me either."
On Saturday afternoon on the Ciclovia Adriatica, of course, home hopes will rest squarely on Ganna.
He knows that already his result will either be greeted as a preordained success or as an unexpected failure, with nothing in between. But he is aware, too, that the outcome won't define his Giro. The road is long, and his range is widening.
"You try to prepare for it as best as you can without stressing about it too much," Ganna says. "I'll start the Giro with a personal objective, which is to take the pink jersey again. But if it's not to be, I know there will be other chances to show myself during the Giro."
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