Démare gets his hat-trick
In one of the last opportunities for the sprinters at this year's Giro d'Italia, Arnaud Demare (Groupama-FDJ) cemented his position as the best fast man of this year’s race.
A chance at a third win hung in the balance with just a few kilometers to go but once the break had been caught and Démare started his sprint, there was only one winner. Only a fast charging Phil Bauhaus (Bahrain - Victorious) seemed capable of spoiling his day but in the end it was too little, too late.
Démare’s return to form has been one of the stories of the Giro so far. His last success at a Grand Tour had been at the same race two years previous. In between there were still victories but none at the highest level. So while it would have been premature to suggest he was past his best, his struggles did hint at a man at the crossroads.
But no more. This hat-trick of wins brings his career total to 86, with eight of those coming at the Giro. It also makes him favorite for the last sprint chance on stage 18 to Treviso. There is the small matter of three mountainous stages before that but with the Maglia Ciclamino to defend, the 30-year-old has plenty of incentive to get himself up and over the steep stuff to stay at the top of the 2022 Giro's standings for the sprinters.
As for the Ciclamino jersey, Démare’s victory helped him extend his lead over Mark Cavendish (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl Team) to 117 points, with Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates) a further four points behind him.
Sprint teams leave it late
The stage profile at first glance seemed to suggest that a bunch sprint was likely. The only climb was a cat 3 and came early in the race, leaving those interested in the stage almost 100km of the Giro d'Italia route on stage 13 to bring back any breakaway.
But like a well-written thriller, not all was as it seemed. Dig a little deeper and a sub-plot emerged. The Colle di Nava climb was long and steep. The weather was hot. If the sprint teams let a break go, as they surely had to, it came with the risk that it could get away from them.
And that’s exactly what happened.
The five-man breakaway was allowed to form soon after the start, with Fillipo Tagliani losing contact on the climb to leave a group of four that consisted of Nicolas Prodhomme (AG2R Citroën Team), Julius van der Berg (EF Education - EasyPost), Mirco Maestri (Eolo–Kometa) and Pascal Eenkhoorn (Jumbo-Visma). They were just the protagonists this gripping story needed; only Prodhomme would be considered a climber, with the others adept at rolling along quickly for long periods.
We’re so used to the peloton calculating the catch perfectly it’s easy to forget that it doesn’t take much for their maths to go wrong. Certainly, the quartet proved to be far stronger than any of the sprint teams probably imagined. The final 35 kilometres also featured plenty of twists and turns on the way to Cuneo as it wove through small towns and villages, as well throwing in ten roundabouts in 10km for good measure.
With 20 kms remaining the gap was still 2-26 and concern had turned to panic in the peloton. It was fascinating to watch the likes of Groupama-FDJ, Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl, Israel - Premier Tech and Team DSM taking turns as their hopes of stage win hung in the balance. The level of concern was demonstrated by the fact that lead out men, such as Rick Zabel (Israel - Premier Tech) and Bert Van Lerberghe (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl) were being used to help the chase rather than saving their efforts for the finale.
In the end this gamble paid off and the breakaway was caught with around 600 metres to the finish. If you’d joined the race in the closing moments you'd have been forgiven for thinking it was business as usual, another example of the peloton’s mastery at timing. But those who watched the race from the start will know differently. This was a story that was so close to having a very different ending.
Romain Bardet leaves the race through illness
With 114 km of the stage remaining, a television graphic announcing the abandonment of Romain Bardet appeared.
It seemed like a TV equivalent of a typo.
Bardet started the day fourth in the GC, just 14s back. On the climb to Blockhaus he’d looked unflustered by Ineos’ attempts to drive the pace, seemingly in great shape with plenty of mountain stages still to come. There had been no rumors of injury or illness.
But the camera shots of Bardet in the DSM team car, sitting next to team director Matt Winston, confirmed both the accuracy of the announcement and French cycling fans' worst fears.
A statement from his team quickly followed making his exit from the race official.
“After becoming sick during yesterday’s stage, his condition worsened overnight and despite all efforts he is no longer in a position to continue the race,” it read.
Having to pull out of any Grand Tour due to illness must hurt. But this will be particularly tough for Bardet to bear, given his position in the race and his apparent good form. Fresh off his first stage race victory in years at the Tour of the Alps he seemed ready to animate the race once it hit the mountains on Sunday. If you believed this was his best chance at a Grand Tour you wouldn't be overeaching, given the small time gaps between him and the current maglia rosa as well as the lack of a clear favourite in this year’s race. While Ineos have flexed their muscles in defense of Richard Carapaz, Bardet’s team had done a stellar job to date of juggling their priorities of contesting sprints while supporting their team leader.
The abandonment continues Bardet’s tumultuous relationship with three-week stage racing. After two podium finishes in his home grand tour riding for AG2R in 2016 and 2017 he seemed to struggle with the weight of expectation of being a French favourite on a French team. While his abilities as a climber, and his bravery on descents, made him shine brightest in the mountains, his frailties against the clock often hurt his GC chances. However his move to DSM seemed to have reinvigorated his love of racing, while easing the pressure on him to fulfill his potential as a GC man. The fact this Giro features a small number of TT kilometers will only make his exit harder to swallow.
Sprinters left to lick their wounds
Démare's third stage win meant that his rivals were again left frustrated. In a race with few chances for the sprinters for one man to bag a hat trick is significant.
Gaviria is likely to be the most frustrated by today's result and the race in general. The Colombian is still looking for a his win with only the stage to Treviso left. But his best chances are now behind him. Today's profile, with a slight rise to the finish, looked to suit his punchy style but it wasn't to be.
Likewise Cavendish will be disappointed with today's outcome, where he again looked well-beaten by Démare on his way to third. That said, he's won a stage and in commanding style, indicating that his form is decent, while his race craft is unquestionably as sharp as ever. His disinterest in contesting the intermediate sprints showed a lack of concern for the points jersey but also perhaps an indication that he may not stick around for stage 18.
Giacomo Nizzolo (Israel - Premier Tech) is another fast man who was left in out in the cold today, as he has been for the entire race. Like Gaviria there were finishes that suited him, including today where he finished 8th, and his ability to get up the climbs had him down as an outside favourite on a few stages. However, it seems that he may have to be content with his third place on stage five to Messina.
No change in the GC but the mountains loom
While it could never be described as an easy day for the GC contenders, they're now one step closer to both the serious mountains and the final TT in Verona.
A long, hot day in the saddle, with a furious chase by the peloton to catch the break, ensured that stress levels remained high. Today's stage was again blisteringly fast, averaging 45.393 km/h for the 150 kilometres. While it’s not quite as quick as the previous two days it does mean that for the first time in Giro history the race has seen three consecutive days where the average speed was at least 45km/h.
Nonetheless all of the top ten navigated the day successfully. In fact, the only change in the standings came as a result of Bardet's withdrawl, ensuring that everyone moved up a spot, including Alejandro Valverde, with the 42-year-old climbing into tenth spot.
Bardet’s absence has obvious permutations in the race for pink. Carapaz has one less foe to concern him in the last week, and it’s probably the one he feared the most. It means those with ground to make up, such as Jai Hindley and Mikel Landa, have had a considerable obstacle cleared from their path. It also leaves Guillaume Martin as the best placed French rider. No pressure then.
Given the week that lies ahead the GC men would have no doubt preferred an easier ride than they got today. Tomorrow sees a hilly stage with a shark-tooth profile that will have plenty of bite and little time to rest. Sunday is proper day out in the mountains, the western Alps to be precise, with two cat 1 and one cat 2 climbs in the last 80km.
Few will give Juan Pedro López (Trek–Segafredo) much chance to stay in the lead beyond this weekend but his defense of the jersey has been resolute to date. Tomorrow will mark day ten in the maglia rosa. His Giro has already been won.
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