Joao Almeida’s loose grip on the pink jersey
Two weeks on from first moving into the overall lead at the top of Mount Etna, João Almeida (Deceuninck - Quick-Step) begins the third and final week of the 2020 Giro d’Italia still in the pink jersey. However, after being dropped on yesterday’s summit finish to Piancavallo, his hitherto firm grip on the jersey suddenly looks a whole lot more vulnerable than it did before.
Having ridden the whole Giro until now in such a composed, steady manner, this was a very different Almeida we witnessed yesterday. He had to dig deep, and visibly endured a lot of suffering on the climb to defend the jersey, with the pain of the effort etched across his face from the moment he was dropped halfway to the top.
Yet, despite appearing to be deep in the red zone and on the verge of collapse, the 22-year-old actually gained time on most of his rivals, with only the leading trio of Wilco Kelderman, Jai Hindley (both Sunweb) and Tao Geoghan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers) finishing ahead of him. The problem was Kelderman: the Dutchman was already the biggest threat to Almeida’s overall lead, and following the climb now lies just fifteen seconds behind.
With so much more climbing still to come this week, fifteen seconds is a very slender lead, and if what happened on Piancavallo is anything to go by, Kelderman should inherit pink on Wednesday’s summit finish to Madonna di Campiglio.
However, Kelderman barely has any more experience of fighting for the top spot at a Grand Tour than Almeida does, so there’s no guarantee he’ll continue to be as strong as he has been so far. And Almeida isn’t fatiguing as much as you might expect a 22-year-old to do so in the final week of a Grand Tour — fourth place on yesterday’s stage was actually better than how he performed on the previous mountain top finishes. His dream of winning the Giro d’Italia on his first attempt isn’t over yet.
Kelderman and Sunweb on the brink of pink
A clear favourite has emerged to win the Giro d’Italia as we enter the race’s endgame, and it is not a rider many were talking about at the start of the race two weeks ago.
Until now, Wilco Kelderman has been a solid but unspectacular rider at Grand Tours, generally hovering around the lower realms of the top ten without ever really threatening the podium, aside from the 2017 Vuelta a España when he achieved a career-best fourth place.
Now, however, he’s reached a whole new level, and rode imperiously on Sunday’s summit finish to move to within just 15 seconds of João Almeida. Better yet, all of the rest of his rivals now have an enormous amount of time to make up on him, with Tao Geoghan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers) his closest challenger in fourth overall at a distant 2-42 adrift.
It wasn’t just the performance from Kelderman yesterday that underlined this strength of his bid for pink, but that of his Sunweb team as a whole. They managed to obliterate the field on the climb, with 24-year-old Jai Hindley even managing to stay with Kelderman until the very summit, meaning he himself moves up to third overall, ahead of all of Kelderman’s other rivals.
That extra card to play could prove essential if Almeida continues to stubbornly hold on to the jersey, giving the team another option when attempting to put the Portuguese rider under pressure, while also offering insurance should Kelderman suffer a reversal of form and fall out of contention.
Just like at the Tour de France, Team Sunweb have defied expectations and appear set to take control of the race.
Experience and inexperience face-off
With 22-year-old debutant João Almeida leading the overall and the three riders immediately behind him (Kelderman, Hindley and Hart) without even a Grand Tour podium finish between them, the top of the general classification has a distinctly inexperienced feel to it.
As superior as they all looked on Sunday’s mountain top finish and as big as Almeida and Kelderman’s lead over the rest may currently be, there’s no telling yet whether any of them can cope with the demands of defending their high places in the final week of a Grand Tour.
The riders just behind them, by contrast, are all seasoned veterans. Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo) in particular cannot be written off, despite being 3-29 adrift. The Italian has won four Grand Tours in the past and tends to get better the deeper he gets into a race, and memorably turned around an even bigger deficit than he currently faces in even less time to win the 2016 Giro.
The riders either side of him on GC (Bora-Hansgrohe’s Rafal Majka at 3-18 and NTT’s Domenico Pozzovivo at 3-50) are similarly experienced, between them boasting a total of thirteen top 10 finishes at Grand Tours. They might lack Nibali’s pedigree, and are less likely to mount a convincing late bid for pink, but will relish the mountains of the final week and could both yet make the podium.
Whether their experience will trump their rivals’ youthful freshness could be the defining narrative of the final week.
Three mountain top finishes in the Dolomites and the Alps
There has been plenty of climbing over the first two weeks of this Giro, but nothing compared with what’s to come now that the riders have arrived at the Dolomites and the Alps, which will between them host three mountain top finishes in the final week.
Of the three, stage seventeen is perhaps the least severe, but that’s not to play down its difficulty. It features four climbs in total, including the category one, 15km-long Madonna di Campiglio at the finish.
The next day features the highest point of the entire Giro, and probably the most brutal climb of all — the Stelvio. A semi-regular feature of the race, it’s always a special occasion when the peloton climbs the Stelvio and has been positioned in a way on the day’s stage to ensure it will have a big impact on the race. Upon summiting, a 20km descent and short valley road will bring the riders to the foot of the category one Lago di Cancano, a climb which is hard, but not hard enough so that the riders can wait until reaching it to make their moves. The race should, therefore, spark into life on the Stelvio.
Finally, another famous mountain awaits at the finish of stage 2020: Sestriere. The climb to the ski resort, which is 11.4km long and features a steady gradient that averages 5.9 per cent, is the last of four successive climbs with barely a flat road between them. It also provides one final chance for the GC riders to better their standings heading into the climactic time trial in Milan.
Limited chances for the non-climbers
In between all the climbing, there are at least a couple of chances for sprinters and puncheurs to go for glory.
The week begins with a hilly stage that ends with three laps of a 27km circuit of the San Daniele del Friuli commune in the province of Udine. The 2.8km Monte di Ragogna is climbed each time and includes gradients that ramp up to 16 per cent, so should be another stage suited to two-time stage winner Diego Ulissi (UAE Emirates) rather than sprinter Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ).
Démare will, however, have the chance to become the first rider since Mark Cavendish in 2013 to win five stages at a single Giro on stage nineteen, which has a pan-flat route that his Groupama-FDJ team should have no problem controlling the break on.
These two stages will also determine the fate of the Maglia Ciclamino, which currently lies with Demare, Sagan lagging behind by 34 points. Sagan will need to put in the ride of his life to overturn that deficit, but will no doubt put his all into chasing every intermediate sprint point available.
A climactic time trial in Milan
Unlike the Tour de France and Vuelta a España, which end with ceremonial dead rubber stages in Paris and Madrid respectively, the race for the pink jersey will continue until the final day, with an individual time trial in Milan.
You only have to look back to the Tour last month, when Tadej Pogačar so shockingly ousting Primož Roglič off the top of the overall classification, to see how exciting a time trial can be in the final days, and the organisers will be hoping for something similar here at the Giro.
At just 15km, it’s closer in length to the opening time trial in Sicily than Saturday’s route in Treviso, and so the gaps at the top of the GC will have to be a matter of seconds rather than minutes if there’s to be any possibility of late changes to the fate of the pink jersey. But if they are, this will be an unmissable stage.
Either way, one guaranteed sub-plot will be Filippo Ganna’s quest for yet another stage win. The time trial world champion trounced the field in both of the Giro’s previous two stages against the clock, and even added a road stage win to his tally in Calabria, meaning victory here would be the fourth of his Giro. Not bad for a rider making his Grand Tour debut.
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