Three contenders, two stages, fifteen seconds. The margins could hardly be tighter, the suspense could hardly be higher, and the names could hardly be more unexpected. When the Giro d’Italia set out from Palermo three weeks ago, who would have wagered that the last men standing in the battle for final overall victory would be Wilco Kelderman, Jai Hindley and Tao Geoghegan Hart?
After nineteen stages of a race that once seemed like it might never reach this point, however, their superiority brooks no argument. That trio was a level above everyone else at Piancavallo on stage 14 and their teams – Sunweb and Ineos – saw off the rest of the race on the Stelvio on Thursday.
The combined wattage of the star power on this Giro was a mite dimmer than normal due to its awkward position on the revised UCI calendar, and three more favourites – Geraint Thomas, Steven Kruijswijk and Simon Yates – left along the way, but Grand Tours aren’t won by reputation but by performance. And, as at last month’s Tour de France, the level of the top riders at this post-lockdown Giro appears to have been stratospheric.
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“My data says that here at the Giro, the leading riders are going stronger than at the Tour in terms of absolute values,” Trek-Segafredo coach Paolo Slongo told Cyclingnews. “Even the best Nibali mightn’t have been able to compete with the top three in this Giro.”
While anything can happen on the final weekend of the Giro – witness Thomas De Gendt’s late charge on the Stelvio in 2012 – it seems clear that this race has been reduced to a contest between the Sunweb duo of Kelderman and Hindley, and Ineos’ Geoghegan Hart, even if Pello Bilbao (4th at 1:19) will be primed in the event of any late collapses.
Kelderman carries a 12-second lead over his teammate Hindley and 15-second buffer over Geoghegan Hart into the final weekend, which features a summit finish at Sestriere on Saturday and then a concluding 15km time trial in Milan on Sunday.
Logic says that Kelderman, 4th overall at the 2017 Vuelta a España and the strongest time triallist of the three, should be able to do enough to wear the maglia rosa on Piazza del Duomo, but there is plenty of hard road to travel between here and then. Or, as his teammate Chad Haga put in on Friday morning in a rainy Morbegno: “There’s plenty of opportunity for craziness, it's far from finished.”
Stage 19 was originally slated to rival Thursday’s slugging contest as the tappone of this Giro, but it was confirmed earlier this week that coronavirus restrictions in France would prevent the corsa rosa from scaling the mighty Colle Agnello, Col d’Izoard and Montgenèvre. Race director Mauro Vegni’s preferred plan B would have routed the Giro over the Colle delle Finestre, but the grim weather conditions for the weekend meant that it would not have been feasible to race over the dirt roads on the climb.
Instead, Vegni has reached for Plan C, which sees the Giro tackle three ascents of Sestriere in the final 70km. The stage totals 3,500m of climbing, but its profile is in no way as imposing as the original route over the Agnello and Izoard.
The first ascent towards Sestriere is from Perosa Argentina and classed as category 2. The race then descends to Cesana Torinese and tackles two laps over the category 1 finishing climb, which climbs for 11.4km at an average of 5.9%, with maximum gradients of 9%.
Kelderman was distanced by Geoghegan Hart and Hindley on the steeper slopes of the Stelvio, but Haga believes the absence of the Agnello should benefit the maglia rosa, as should the shallower and more regular gradients at Sestriere.
“It’s not such a steep climb or so long. I mean, we saw that [João] Almeida could hang on 6% climbs and the way those leaders climb at 6%, there’s a big benefit to drafting,” Haga said. “It’s really tough to drop them at that grade.”
In Asti on Friday evening, Kelderman suggested that his strategy on the road from Alba to Sestriere will be straightforward: hold Geoghegan Hart’s wheel at all costs. “The only thing I need to do is follow the guys of Ineos and try to hold my position on GC,” Kelderman said. “Tomorrow is hard but it’s maybe less hard than the other days so we will see.”
Hindley looked to be climbing more strongly than Kelderman at Piancavallo last week and the impression was borne out on the Stelvio, where he tracked Geoghegan Hart when his leader could not. The Australian proceeded to claim stage victory atop Laghi di Cancano to move into second overall, just 12 seconds down, though he insisted bluntly that Kelderman remained the team leader. “Mate, he’s in the pink jersey. I’m going to put my arse on the line for him,” Hindley said.
And yet, Hindley must surely be aware that a similar situation could arise this weekend, and therein lies the great dilemma for Sunweb. Geoghegan Hart might reasonably be expected to recoup three seconds on Hindley in the final time trial. If Geoghegan Hart attacks, should Hindley follow as he did on the Stelvio, or wait to pace Kelderman, which was the Dutchman’s avowed preference on stage 18.
“Those were our tactics [on the Stelvio]. Everybody can criticise or be an armchair quarterback,” said Haga. “It’s hard to stay completely calm after such a hard race, but we’re here to win the race. Hindsight is 20/20 but we’re here, in a good spot, we had a great race yesterday and we’ll move forward.”
Haga insisted there was no internecine strife at Sunweb, and Kelderman and Hindley’s ease in one another’s presence in Thursday’s press conference seemed to confirm as much. Of greater concern to Kelderman will be the collective strength of the opposition. Ineos placed Rohan Dennis in the early break on Thursday and the Australian proved the stage’s MVP, dropping back to pace Geoghegan Hart (and Hindley) over the Stelvio and through the valley to the base of Laghi di Cancano.
With men like the on-form Filippo Ganna and Jonathan Castroviejo also at their disposal, Ineos have the depth to attempt a similar manoeuvre at Sestriere, even if directeur sportif Matteo Tosatto was coy about the prospect on Friday evening in Asti. “I haven’t thought about tomorrow’s stage too much,” he said. “We’ll have a plan. We’re very happy with the podium now, but tomorrow we have nothing to lose, so we’ll see with the guys tonight.”
While Ineos must seek to break the race apart all over again, Kelderman holds the (apparent) trump card of the final time trial in Milan on Sunday. “It’s short so the time gap shouldn't be that big,” Haga said. “We shouldn’t depend on it but it’s sure good to have.”
Then again, at the end of a season and a Giro like this, there is no such thing as an insurance policy.