Giro d'Italia finale boils down to battle of youth against experience

John MacLeary
·4 min read
Vincenzo Nibali (right) looks over towards Jai Hindley (centre) and Tao Geoghegan Hart — Vincenzo Nibali poised to pounce on young upstarts at Giro d'Italia - GETTY IMAGES
Vincenzo Nibali (right) looks over towards Jai Hindley (centre) and Tao Geoghegan Hart — Vincenzo Nibali poised to pounce on young upstarts at Giro d'Italia - GETTY IMAGES

When Fausto Coppi purportedly said "age and treachery would always overcome youth and skill" one assumes he was at the tailend of his career.

If not the greatest Italian rider of all time, then with five Giro d'Italia titles, along with three from Milan-Sanremo, five at Giro di Lombardia and a hatful of Italian one-day classics on his palmarès, few would be able to argue convincingly that Coppi should not be named in the top one. Little wonder he was nicknamed Il Campionissimo, the Champion of Champions.

Like Eddy Merckx, it is doubtful the likes of Coppi will ever be seen again.

Although his palmarès falls some distance short of Coppi's, just one rider in the current peloton carries the sort of clout that despite trailing race leader Joao Almeida by 3min 31sec can be considered a danger: Vincenzo Nibali, the 35-year-old Italian who has won all three grand tours.

While it is simply impossible not to be impressed by Almeida, 22, and his brilliantly organised Deceuninck-Quick Step team-mates, the grand tour debutant is about to enter uncharted territory. And he knows it. On Tuesday, Almeida said he was "expecting the worst" before adding "anything" could go wrong this week. It was far from inspiring stuff.

Sunweb leader Wilco Kelderman and his relatively inexperienced team-mate Jai Hindley, riding his third grand tour, are looking good in second and third respectively. Tao Geoghegan Hart, the de facto leader at Ineos Grenadiers following Geraint Thomas's premature departure, meanwhile, has ridden a particularly impressive Giro, growing into his new role and looking increasingly mature as each stage clicks on by. 

It is difficult, though, to dismiss the feeling that something dramatic is about to happen. This is the Giro and this race does drama like no other.

With the race scheduled to go over the Stelvio Pass — 2,758 metres above sea level — on Thursday and with temperatures plummeting, it is highly possible that the stages will be re-routed. Although the snow-capped pass is perfectly navigable on a bike as it is regularly done in the Giro's regular slot in late May, the cooler October climate means the windchill factor on descents would potentially bring temperatures down to as low as -40°C.

Whether or not Wednesday and Thursday's stages in the high mountains go ahead as originally planned, along with Saturday's penultimate stage — scheduled to crest the Colle dell'Agnello (2,744m) — remains to be seen. If they do then Almeida, Kelderman, Hindley, Geoghegan Hart and whoever else is hoping to finish on the podium in Milan on Sunday may want to ride with one eye focused on the wily old campaigner Nibali.

In fact, Geoghegan Hart alluded to this after his stage win on Sunday. With reference to team-mate Chris Froome's sensational turnaround on the Sestriere in 2018, Geoghegan Hart said: "I would expect some of the big names didn't come here for 11th or 12th on GC [general classification], so maybe they will try something spectacular, Froomey style."

The Italian may have lost three key team-mates — Gianluca Brambilla, Giulio Ciccone and Pieter Weening — and he may have looked out of sorts of late, but not until Nibali has hung up his wheels should he ever be dismissed. He is one of the greatest bike racers of a generation.

Lest we forget, Nibali has form when it comes to these situations at the Giro.

Four years ago Nibali trailed race leader Steven Kruijswijk by almost five minutes with three stages remaining. After the Dutchman crashed on the descent of the Colle dell'Agnello, Nibali went on to win the stage and climb to second overall on general classification. The following day Nibali took pink and all but sewed up his second maglia rosa. It was peak Nibali.

Coppi, though, did not only win bike races by virtue of age and treachery. In 1940, through a combination of youth — aged 20 years and 268 days — and skill he became the youngest winner of the Giro. A record that, quite remarkably given the advancements in sports science, still stands.

Whether or not age and treachery will win this most unpredictable of Giri, or youth and skill prevails remains to be seen. But if there is one thing we have learned this year it is this: the dogmas of cycling mean little to the new generation. Just like a young Coppi would have wanted it.