Giro Tactics: GC Contenders Ruin the Sprinters’ Big Day Out By Nick Bull

Who doesn’t love a #FlashbackFriday? With memories of how they wreaked havoc on peloton on the Côte de Luzençon and Col du Beal climbs en route to Lavaur and Lyon respectively during this year’s Tour de France – efforts that resulted in Peter Sagan placing 13th and fourth — still fresh in our memories, Bora-Hansgrohe were once again victims of their team leader’s reputation during Friday’s Giro d’Italia stage between Cervia and Monselice.

By Nick Bull

This wasn’t quite Flèche Wallonne, where watching the final ascent of the Mur de Huy is the only part of the race cycling fans need to tune in for these days. But whereas the first 150 kilometers of Friday’s stage were entirely forgettable, the final quarter of it combined two brutal climbs and stunning scenery. It was as much a showcase for the Provincia di Padova as it was for the somewhat stuttering Giro.

Things were looking good for Sagan over the top of the first climb at Roccolo as the peloton had once again split under pressure from his Bora team. Whereas Sam Bennett and his green jersey were their targets at the Tour, here it was Arnaud Démare. Unstoppable in bunch sprints thus far in the race (actually, since the end of lockdown), a stage win for Sagan could have moved him into the ciclamino jersey. Handily, they had managed to distance the Frenchman, so all the Slovak seemingly had to do was survive the final climb, another fourth-category ascent at the Muro di Calaone, and a second stage victory in four days would be his. Unfortunately, the GC contenders didn’t play along.

Instead, it was Diego Ulissi who took his second victory of this year’s Giro, narrowly ahead of race leader João Almeida. The Portuguese continues to look strong, but he also needs to hone his race craft, particularly given the strength of his Deceuninck–Quick-Step team once again. We’ll touch on this later on. The time bonus he gained at the finish means he leads Wilco Kelderman (Team Sunweb) by 40 seconds going into Saturday’s time trial. Bahrain-McLaren’s Pello Bilbao (49 seconds in arrears) is the only other rider within a minute of him.

32.7KM TO GO

Sagan’s teammate Matteo Fabbro sets the pace on the lower slopes of Il Roccolo, a 4.1-kilometer ascent that features sections of 20 percent (early on) and 17 percent (within the final 200 meters). A third Bora rider — Paweł Poljański — is also visible at the head of the peloton with British champion Ben Swift (Ineos Grenadiers) in his wheel. Stage winner Ulissi cannot be seen in the shot but his teammate and unsung hero of the day Valerio Conti is the UAE rider behind the BORA train. The rider Bora are trying hard to drop, Démare, can be seen at the bottom of the still in the ciclamino jersey. He has two Groupama-FDJ teammates in close proximity.

However, Fabbro’s work quickly pays off, as the Frenchman begins to lose contact with the peloton three kilometers from the top of the climb. Cofidis sprinter Elia Viviani is also distanced. Thanks to Ignatas Konovalovas, the Démare group almost bridge across to the reduced peloton halfway up Il Roccolo, before Fabbro kicks again. Somewhat ominously, though, Sagan drifts back and rides the second part of the climb in the middle of the bunch. Was this a move to save some energy or was the former world champion already finding the going too tough?

First to the top of Il Roccolo is AG2R-La Mondiale’s Geoffrey Bounchard, who pips Alessandro Tonelli (Bardiani-CSF-Faizanè) to maximum king of the mountains points. The duo, remnants of the day’s seven-man breakaway, led the peloton by half a minute at this point, with the Démare group a further 40 seconds in arrears.

19.9KM TO GO

The efforts of Konovalovas and Swiss rider Kilian Frankiny help Démare rejoin the peloton on the approach to the final climb. Their work doesn’t end here as they ride straight to the front of the bunch. This is a smart tactical move, one that will allow their team leader space to drift back on the Muro di Calaone.

Up front, the two leaders begin the final climb with a 36-second advantage. A little over a kilometer into it Tonelli, the last man standing, is caught.   

17.8KM TO GO

Groupama-FDJ should be able to rest easy this evening in the knowledge that they did everything they could to help Démare claim his fifth victory of the race. His position at the base of the Calaone climb (just 2.1 kilometers long, but with an average gradient of 9.8 percent) is excellent — he is just ahead of Sagan, who sits in the middle of the circle, in the above still.

In their attempts to set Swift up for the stage win, Jhonatan Narváez led the peloton onto the climb. Londoner Tao Geoghegan Hart is next to his Ineos compatriot. Conte and Ulissi are well-placed, Deceuninck have good numbers surrounding Almeida and, lurking behind Swift, is an alert Vincenzo Nibali.

17.5KM TO GO

The turning point of the stage comes when Conte increases the tempo at the head of the main group. It’s the perfect softener for the Ulissi attack that quickly follows. Deceuninck’s Mikkel Frølich Honoré, who finished third behind the Italian and Sagan in Agrigento on stage two, looks impressively strong as he responds immediately to the acceleration.

Geoghegan Hart can be seen pulling Nibali and Almeida across to them in the screenshot above. Mountains leader Ruben Guerreiro (EF Pro Cycling), Sagan’s teammate Rafal Majka and Jai Hindley (Team Sunweb) are in the second group, while the Slovak (circled at the bottom of the picture) is going backwards. Those GC contenders who miss the initial split — Kelderman, Bilbao and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) among them — pull themselves back to the front group a kilometer from the top of the climb.

Any hopes that Sagan has of rejoining the peloton over the top of the climb are then dealt another blow by Movistar’s Albert Torres. Best known for his work on the track, the Spaniard goes into individual pursuit mode on the climb’s flatter section. The final injection of pace comes when Geoghegan Hart and Guerreiro attack approaching the summit. Although it’s clear that the latter is more focused on gaining more King of the Mountains points (not to mention that the Brit trails by nearly three minutes on GC), Almedia gets drawn out by this acceleration. Instead of letting teammate James Knox neutralize this attack, the race leader initially takes up the chase.

Sagan and Swift are just 20 seconds behind the peloton at the top of the climb. Démare and Viviani trail by a minute.

7.3KM TO GO

Although Sagan and Swift are towed down the descent into Monselice by Thomas De Gendt (for reasons unknown), the Belgian breakaway specialist cannot out-power Knox and Fausto Masnada. The gap between the two groups passes the 30-second mark just over seven kilometers out from the finish owing to the work of the Deceuninck duo. The Démare group is also falling back; a 44-second deficit with nine kilometers remaining swells to a minute 6,000 meters out.

Sagan, Swift and De Gendt eventually attack out of the chase group in a final but somewhat desperate last hurrah. Although a fourth rider joins them, he is of little use: it’s Deceuninck’s Davide Ballerini, who is predictably happy just to sit in their wheels. The Italian, whom Sagan narrowly pipped for second in Villafranca Tirrena on stage 4, goes on to lead the group across the finish line 23 seconds behind Ulissi. Sagan and Swift, who brilliantly battled it out during Tuesday’s stage into Tortoreto, don’t contest for the minor placings: they give each other a pat on the back for their efforts instead. “Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to reach the first group,” said Bora sports director Jan Valach of Sagan. “Deceuninck were pulling hard in the front to set their own sprint. He kept trying but it was impossible.”

FINISH LINE

The impressive Honoré moves Almeida into a prime position 700 meters out from the line, just in time for a double-apex left-hander onto the finishing straight. But Deceuninck’s plans are interrupted by UAE, as Brandon McNulty does a great job of positioning his team’s designated sprinter in the middle of the race leader’s train.

Honoré hits the front with 225 meters remaining, before Ulissi moves into clear air to start his sprint 150 meters out. Almeida’s starting position is faultless but he doesn’t have enough to go past the Italian. Despite the absence of Sagan, Bora still nearly strike it rich as Patrick Konrad almost pips them both on the line. The Austrian, who sat immediately behind Almeida as the sprint started, bravely opts for a line in close proximity to the advertising hoardings. He needn’t have worried: despite this being a showdown between riders more comfortable climbing mountains, this was a remarkably clean sprint. Unfortunately for Konrad, he also doesn’t have that extra kick to get the victory.

“We did a great job on the final climb to break away from the sprinters and arrive in a small group,” said Ulissi. “We knew that if we could keep them away we would have a chance to fight for the sprint. I have to thank the whole team who set this up perfectly.”

As was the case at the Tour, Sagan is running out of opportunities to wrestle the points jersey off of the leader’s shoulders. This finish felt incredibly similar to the aforementioned Lyon stage during last month’s Tour; Bora managed to put the pure sprinters in difficulty but couldn’t do anything to help Sagan when the race flipped and he became the nail instead of the hammer. Next Friday’s mammoth 253-kilometer leg between Morbegno and Asti is both the sprinters’ next and last chance for glory. The GC contenders almost certainly won’t be a factor that day, but the race has still got it make it that far.

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