Giro Tactics: Sagan Ignites Racing Amid Covid Concerns By Nick Bull

Real life and racing may have dramatically collided once again at the Giro d’Italia on Tuesday, but at least the four hours, one minute and 56 seconds of the latter gave everybody a brief distraction from all things Covid-19 for a while. The tenth stage of this year’s race between Lanciano and Tortoreto was a breathless affair, one that energetically kick-started the second week of a race that has yet to truly come alive and, given the events of this morning, may never get the chance to really do so.

By Nick Bull

Coincidentally, it was also on the morning of the 10th stage at this year’s Tour de France that the reality of staging a grand tour during a pandemic was thrust into the spotlight when Christian Prudhomme’s positive test emerged. Whereas the stage that momentarily diverted our attention back in September combined echelons and a thrilling bunch sprint on the Île de Ré, salvation at the Giro this afternoon came in the form of attacks, a classic-style parcours and Peter Sagan’s first victory in 461 days.

The Slovak was involved in the action for nearly 140 kilometers of the 177-kilometer stage. A three-time runner-up in this Giro already, he survived a Movistar and INEOS tag-team and still had the strength to ride everybody off his wheel when taking it to a sprint finish would have still been favorable for him. He adds a Giro victory to the 12 Tour de France and four Vuelta a España stages he has previously taken and, while a points jersey challenge looked optimistic at best midway through the Tour, his 37-point gain on competition leader Arnaud Démare today means it looks more than possible in the Giro.

The GC contenders came out to play, too. Admittedly Jakob Fuglsang, the biggest and only true GC hopeful to lose out, was derailed by an unfortunate puncture as opposed to condition, but the sight of maglia rosa João Almeida, Pello Bilbao and Domenico Pozzovivo (who did survive an ill-timed flat) attacking on a seemed transition stage only adds to the feeling that this race will end early à la Paris-Nice.

130.4KM TO GO

Sagan and Filippo Ganna attack from a huge breakaway group on the day’s first climb, a fourth-category rise through the town of Chieti. The pair had been part of a second chase group who had earlier bridged to a five-man break that featured Ben Swift (Ganna’s Ineos teammate) and Simon Clarke (EF Pro Cycling). “Peter decided to follow Ganna’s attack on the climb,” said Bora director sportif Jan Valach. “There had to be a selection in the breakaway because it was too big a group to collaborate.” Groupama-FDJ’s Ignatas Konovalovas tries to follow the two leaders but fails. However, he is given a reprieve when a chase group of eight, again including Swift and Clarke, forms. After a near 10-kilometer chase, groups one and two come together. At this point the peloton trail by just 41 seconds.

Given that only five teams had won stages and two had seen their riders grace the maglia rosa going into Monday’s rest day, over half those competing in the Giro have little to show for their time in Italy thus far. But desperation alone is worth very little when the racing is this intense. Sagan’s presence in the breakaway once it swelled to 11 riders prompted Groupama to respond – even after their own rider had managed to fight his way into it. A fascinating pursuit, one that clocked in at a little under 30 kilometers, followed as the French team sought to neutralize Sagan’s threat before the day’s first intermediate sprint at Giulianova (67.5 kilometers to go). Cofidis – who have won just two grand tour stages since 2015 – placed Stéphane Rossetto and Nicolas Edet in the break, but neither could handle the pace. Konovalovas and Trek’s Giulio Ciccone were also shelled.

Even Démare contributed to the chase but, having reduced the gap to just 14 seconds through a feed zone (nobody at the head of the peloton notably took their musettes), the advantage quickly increased. Data shown on the TV broadcast noted that Sagan had been in the red for 24 percent of the opening 80 kilometers.

The escapees who survived featured those from teams with Giro success (Ganna and Swift for Ineos and EF’s Clarke), others experiencing baron seasons (Sagan’s winless run dated back to last year’s Tour while Movistar, represented by Dario Cataldo and Davide Villella, have just one victory to their name all season) and Jhonatan Restrepo from Androni Giocattoli – Sidermec because, well, any breakaway has to have some wildcard representation.

87.6KM TO GO

Sagan’s first victory of the day comes when Groupama call off the chase. The team would ride in TTT formation once again, this time joined by Konovalovas, as they crossed the finish line nearly 22 minutes behind Sagan.

After the break’s gap was allowed to go out, UAE-Team Emirates take over at the head of the peloton. They manage to reduce the advantage from 4’45” some 70 kilometers out from the finish to three minutes with 45 kilometers remaining. NTT then begin chasing as the race begins the undulating finishing circuit around Tortoreto.

41.2KM TO GO

Ineos and Movistar try to make their numerical advantage count as Cataldo and Swift (circled in the above still) attack on the Colonnella climb (3.1 kilometers, 9.2 percent average gradient). Sagan is forced to pick up the chase; within 700 meters he’s dragged Villella and Restrepo up to the leaders. Swift and Cataldo – former team-mates at Sky – kick again with 40.2 kilometers remaining before the latter accelerates again over the top of the climb. Although this move was merely Cataldo’s attempt to score some King of the Mountains points, Sagan doesn’t take any chances and keeps the Italian within reach. “I tried hard, I left all my courage and heart on the road – yet it wasn’t enough,” said Cataldo. “When you tackle roads like these, where riders like Sagan, who do so well as short, steep efforts and recover better, it’s really hard for someone like me. You try to anticipate their moves and jump ahead of them, because it’s impossible otherwise to beat them.”

NTT’s efforts reduce the gap to just 1’57” over the top of the climb. Twenty-five kilometers out from the finish, it’s cut to less than a minute, leaving the stage win in the balance. Even away from the categorized climbs, Sagan was still putting out fires; the previously-dropped Ganna cheekily attacked as soon as he had fought his way back to the leaders. The Slovak was alert to the danger here, as he was when Villella tried going clear with 23.5 kilometers left in the stage.

Not long after this, Bilbao (who started the day third overall, just 39 seconds down) attacks from the peloton and quickly rides into the distance. When Sagan and Swift then leave the rest of the breakaway group behind just inside of 20 kilometers to go, their lead is down to just 42 seconds and shrinking fast.

Tao Geoghegan Hart – yes, another Ineos rider – then enlivens the GC battle further when he puts in a little dig on the same uncategorized climb that his teammate and Sagan broke clear on. Almeida is briefly isolated, Fuglsang looks comfortable and Pozzovivo somehow manages to stay on terms having suffered a puncture a few kilometers earlier.   

Approaching the start of the final climb, Bilbao has made it to within just five seconds of the two leaders, with a significantly reduced peloton only half a minute further down the road.

12.2KM TO GO

Sagan drops Swift on the day’s final climb at Tortoreto. “Just not strong enough to stay with Peter,” the British champion said. Unfortunately for Bilbao, who has the two leaders in sight, this also proved to be a hill too far for him as he never gets any closer to the Slovak. “In the final climbs, especially the last one, I knew I had to give it my all because I needed to have a gap,” said Sagan.

12.1KM TO GO

Thank you, João Almeida, for giving us one of my favorite images in cycling: the sight of the maglia rosa attacking. “I don’t know how far I can go with this pink jersey, I’m just honored to have it on my shoulders for more than a week,” he said. Quite rightly, Deceuninck’s post-stage report said that the Portuguese had defended his lead today “with panache”. Sunweb’s Wilco Kelderman was the first to respond to Almeida’s kick, which neutralized it on behalf of the other GC contenders. The tireless Pozzovivo also tries and fails to break clear over the top of the climb. Sagan has a 10-second gap to Bilbao, with the maglia rosa a further 11 seconds in arrears at its summit.

Disaster strikes for Fuglsang as he punctures on the descent en route into Tortoreto and the stage finish along the Lungomare Sirena. With the race convoy spread out behind the numerous groups that formed over the climbs, the Dane ends up having to take teammate Fabio Felline’s bike. “We have to get over it,” he said after the stage.

FINISH LINE

Sagan takes the stage victory by 19 seconds, a margin that allows him to properly celebrate what will surely go down as one of the defining wins in his illustrious career. Bilbao is caught on the descent by the 12-man GC group before UAE’s Brandon McNulty, for whom a top-10 grand tour finish on debut is still in play, attacks. He gains four second on the big names, while Almeida completes his strong showing by taking third and a useful time bonus. Today’s stage profile may have looked somewhat transitional at first glance, but it proved to be anything but. The next group to finish after the race leader and co. came home 27 seconds later. Fuglsang crossed the line with 12 others after conceding 1’15” to his rivals.

This was Sagan at his imperious best. His performance here sits alongside his other unforgettable solo wins — Gent-Wevelgem seven years ago, the worlds in 2015 and Flanders the following season. He produced a ride that made you marvel as much as it did force you to question how he pulled it off. The Slovak came out swinging and saw off everything his breakaway companions threw at him. Sagan’s win came on arguably cycling’s toughest day yet during the Covid-19 pandemic, providing a short-lived timeout for all involved. But, after he crossed the line, attention quickly refocused back on the Giro d’Italia. Can the race somehow overcome adversity on an even greater level than what Sagan faced today? Only time will tell.

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