Despite COVID’s Wrath, the Stage Is (Hopefully) Set for a Great Giro Showdown Between INEOS and Jumbo-Visma
After starting in the Abruzzo region along the Adriatic coast and then working its way through the center of the country, the first “week” of the 2023 Giro d’Italia ended on Sunday, with Belgium’s Remco Evenepoel (Soudal-Quickstep) in the maglia rosa (“pink jersey”) as the leader of the race’s General Classification–or so we thought.
The Belgian did end the day in pink, but after failing a routine test for Covid later in the evening, the 23-year-old was forced to abandon the race, leaving Great Britain’s Geraint Thomas (INEOS Grenadiers) as the leader of the Giro’s General Classification, with the next four riders clustered within 22 seconds of the 36-year-old former Tour de France champion.
Here’s everything you need to know about what’s happened so far.
By the end of Stage 9, it looked as if Evenepoel, who won individual time trials on Stages 1 and 9, was set to enter the Giro’s first Rest Day in pink. But that honor now goes to Thomas, who won the 2018 Tour de France and reinvigorated his career with a third-place finish last year.
Wearing the maglia rosa for the first time in his career, the Welshman heads into the Giro’s second week just two seconds ahead of Slovenia’s Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) and five seconds ahead of his teammate and compatriot, Tao Geoghegan Hart, who won the Giro in 2020. Portugal’s João Almeida (UAE Team Emirates) and Norway’s Andreas Leknessund (Team DSM) share fourth-place overall, 22 seconds behind Thomas.
As far as the Giro’s other competitions are concerned: Italy’s Jonathan Milan (Bahrain-Victorious) wears the maglia ciclamino (“cyclamen jersey”) as the leader of the Giro’s Points Classification, and his compatriot Davide Bais (EOLO-Kometa) wears the maglia azzurra (“blue jersey”) as the leader of the King of the Mountains Classification. Almeida wears the maglia bianca (“white jersey”) as the Giro’s Best Young Rider.
The 106th Giro d’Italia opened last Saturday with a 19.6K individual time trial along the Adriatic coast from Fossacesia Marina to Ortona. Evenepoel (Soudal-Quick Step) crushed the competition, winning the stage and pulling on his first maglia rosa. But more importantly, the Belgian put 43 seconds into Roglič, the rider expected to be Evenepoel’s greatest challenger. Evenepoel’s winning margin was a bit of a surprise considering the fact that the Slovenian is the reigning Olympic champion in the discipline.
The next two stages were hectic affairs, with crashes and rain leading to messy field sprints. Milan won Stage 2 in San Salvo to take an early lead in the Giro’s Points Classification, and Australia’s Michael Matthews (Jayco-AlUla) won Stage 3 in Melfi, his first victory since he won Stage 14 in last year’s Tour de France. Luckily, neither the crashes nor the rain had major impacts on the General Classification.
The rain continued into Stage 4, a day that saw the first uphill finish and the first successful breakaway of the Giro. France’s Aurélien Paret-Peintre (AG2R Citroën) won the stage in Lago Laceno, but his breakaway companion Leknessund finished second taking the pink jersey as the Giro’s new leader. For Evenepoel, losing the jersey was all part of the plan, as it meant his team no longer had to bear the responsibility of defending it–and Evenepoel was freed from the daily post-stage hoopla that goes along with wearing it.
Stages 5 and 6 saw more more field sprints: Australia’s Kaden Groves (Alpecin-Deceuninck) won a rainy Stage 5 in Salerno; and Denmark’s Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) took Stage 6 in Napoli, which means the Dane has now won stages in all three grand tours–all in the last year.
Stage 7 brought the longest stage of the race so far (218K) and ended with the Giro’s first true summit finish: the long ascent of the Gran Sasso d’Italia high in the Apennines. The race overall contenders seemed happy to call a cease-fire in the cold, rainy weather, allowing four riders to escape early and gain an advantage that twice went over 11 minutes. Three of the four escapees survived all the way to finish, fighting with what little they had left in their legs to take the stage. In the end, Bais had just enough to take the victory–and the lead in the Giro’s King of the Mountains competition. Evenepoel led home the leading peloton (which also contained race leader Leknessund) a few minutes later, surging to the front of the group to cross the line ahead of his closest competitors, a move he might have paid for the next day.
Stage 8 went to another breakaway, with Ireland’s Ben Healy (EF Education-EasyPost) finishing-off a 50K solo move to win the stage in Fossombrone. The 22-year-old attacked from a 12-man breakaway late in the race, holding-on to take the biggest win of his young career.
The GC battle ignited on the final climb, with Roglič launching a hard attack that gapped Evenepoel, who had been left isolated by his team. Thomas and Geoghegan Hart soon joined the Slovenian, and the trio combined forces to gain 14 seconds on Evenepoel by the end of the stage. Leknessund did enough to retain the pink jersey, but Evenepoel moved to within 8 seconds of the race leader. But after losing time to his three biggest rivals and his team again failing to protect him, the Belgian had to be disappointed.
The Giro’s first “week” ended just as it began: with a time trial victory for Evenepoel. But the Belgian’s winning margin on Stage 9 was much smaller this time: he defeated Thomas by just one second, Geoghegan Hart by two, and Roglič (who finished sixth on the stage) by 17. The stage win put Evenepoel back in the maglia rosa, but his rivals had to have been feeling better about their chances heading into the second week.
And then the unthinkable: news broke that Evenepoel failed a routine pre-Rest Day test for Covid-19, sending the Belgian home from the race he had built the first half of his season around, and altering the course of the race entirely.
What It Means/What Did We Learn
Evenepoel’s departure makes the race a battle between two of the sport’s best teams: INEOS Grenadiers and Jumbo-Visma. And frankly, it’s hard to pick a favorite.
On one hand, there’s INEOS, a team that’s won 12 grand tours since 2011, two of them with Thomas and Geoghegan Hart. The British team brought professional cycling into a new era thanks to a giant budget and a focus on marginal gains–but hasn’t won a grand tour since 2021 and seems to have lost its swagger as of late.
At least part of the reason is the emergence of Jumbo-Visma, who spent years playing second fiddle to INEOS, but has since adopted the British super team’s formula–and to great success, winning three straight of Tours of Spain (with Roglič from 2019-2021) and last year’s Tour de France (with Denmark’s Jonas Vingegaard).
The teams look evenly matched at the moment, with INEOS having strength in numbers and Jumbo having one of the best and most consistent grand tour riders of the past five years in Roglič. We expect both teams to race cautiously throughout the second week, with neither squad looking to do anything more than take advantage of any missteps made by the other. The Giro’s third week is ferocious, and it’s unlikely that any insurmountable advantages can be gained before then. Instead, we expect to see more jabs than upper cuts, as each team sizes-up the opposition in preparation for a showdown in Week 3.
And we likely haven’t heard the last of COVID. Several riders (four of whom ride for Jumbo-Visma) were unable to start the race after testing positive following the Tour of Romandie, and others have been forced to abandon after testing positive since the race began (including Italy’s Filippo Ganna, a key support rider for Thomas and Geoghegan Hart). There were even rumors that Roglič was battling the virus: Thomas reported that the Slovenian said, “Not bad for a guy with Covid,” to him at the end of Friday’s Stage 7. Evenepoel is certainly the biggest rider lost to the virus in this year’s Giro, but it’s unlikely he’ll be the last.
The Giro’s second week opens with two stages we expect to end in field sprints: Stage 10 covers 196K from Scandiano to Viareggio, and Stage 11 covers 219K from Camaiore to Tortona. Averaging over 200K per stage, expect to see breakaways go early, only to be reeled-in by the sprinters’ teams in the final hour.
With an undulating 179K ride from Bra to Rivoli, Thursday’s Stage 12 should be the perfect chance for a breakaway to go all the way–especially with INEOS most likely looking to let the pink jersey go to another team, sparing itself the burden of defending it sooner than it wants to. The riders summit the Category 2 Colle Braida about 28K from the finish line, which should rule out the sprinters–although riders like Matthews and Pedersen can climb well enough to survive if their teams keep the breakaway in check.
But all eyes will be on Friday’s Stage 13, an Alpine stage from Borgofranco d'Ivrea to Crans Montana, which sits atop a plateau in the Swiss Alps. Covering 207K and featuring three major ascents–including the Col du Grand Saint Bernard (the highest climb in the 2023 Giro)–this stage is likely the first opportunity for someone to try and assert themselves before the final week, with INEOS perhaps looking to use its depth to put Roglič and Jumbo and on the ropes.
The weekend opens with Stage 14, a flat ride from Sierre to Cassano Magnago that should give us the final field sprint of the second week, and closes with Stage 15, a hilly stage from Seregno to Bergamo that resembles il Lombardia, a hilly autumn Monument that favors punchy climbers. This stage is ideal for an aggressive, punchy rider like Roglič, and if Thomas and Geoghegan Hart aren’t careful, they could lose time. From a pure racing standpoint, this could be one of the most exciting stages in this year’s Giro.
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