Energy management or lost opportunity: Could GC contenders regret riding conservatively at the Giro d'Italia?

As the final week looms, will the pink jersey contenders rue their decisions not to take on the race earlier?

That’s the second week of the 2023 Giro d’Italia done and dusted then, and the situation in the race for the pink jersey is…well, pretty much the same as it was at the start of the week.

Sure, there’s a new leader in the shape of Bruno Armirail (Groupama-FDJ) but everyone knows the pink jersey is only on loan to the time-trial specialist, and that he’ll return it as soon as the serious climbing gets going in the final week. But behind him, the hierarchy of the GC candidates remains pretty much the same: Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers) is best of the rest at 1-08, followed by Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) at 1-10, then João Almeida (UAE Team Emirates) at 1-30, then Andreas Leknessund (DSM) and 1-50.

That’s a consequence of what has been, from a spectator’s point of view, a disappointingly conservative race. There were no attacks on Gran Sasso, the big mountain top finish in the Apennines towards the end of the first week; and neither did anyone make a move on Crans-Montana, the second massive summit finish that was tackled a few day ago.

Today’s stage in Bergamo followed a similar pattern. Billed as a ‘Mini Tour of Lombardy’ with its punchy parcours and similar climbs to that classic, it seemed like an intriguing opportunity for bold, crafty moves from punchy climbers seeking to regain some time lost in the time trials, ahead of tomorrow’s rest day and the major mountain stages of the final week. But save for a late acceleration from João Almeida a few kilometres from the finish, which ended up causing the most minor of minor splits at the finish with two GC groups separated by two seconds at the line, there was once again no GC action to report home. 

As a result, we have a GC hierarchy that remains pretty much the same as it did the moment Remco Evenepoel (Soudal-QuickStep) abandoned the race at the end of the first week while in the pink jersey, with Covid.

The only significant changes occurred this week when riders have succumbed to crashes and illness, underlining how this Giro has been an attritional affair rather than one with attacking racing and riders looking to make gains. The aforementioned GC hierarchy may look pretty much the same as did at the start of the week, but there are two noticeable absentees: Aleksandr Vlasov (Bora-Hansgrohe), who couldn't continue during Tuesday’s stage ten when illness took its toll while poised prominently in seventh overall; and Tao Geogheghan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers), who crashed out of Wednesday's stage ten while fourth on GC and looking in the form of his life.

With such fears of crashes and infection inside the peloton, it’s understandable are reluctant to take risks; such has been the carnage in the race that you sense the winner of the pink jersey won’t be the rider who makes the strongest and more impressive attacks, but rather whoever emerges from the rubble as the last man standing. But might some contenders currently in contention for pink live to regret their conservatism?

Much depends on how each rider is currently feeling. Anyone who is feeling under the weather will see these stages simply as days to get through with their GC position intact, and wait until hopefully feeling better in the third week. Given all the virus circulating in the Giro right now (shown by just how many abandonments there have already been), it’s plausible that many GC contenders are currently in this citation.

On the flip side, those who have not (yet) been affected by illness might have missed a trick by not making hay while the sun shines. Take the Evenepoel situation last week. Nobody decided to attack on the Gran Sasso on Friday last week, meaning that only after the stage was done did we realise how much he was struggling with illness. Had riders have chosen to attack, they may have dropped him and gained time.

Sure, the point regarding Evenepoel is moot seeing as he has been taken out of contention anyway by withdrawing from the race. But if there are other riders currently suffering, there’s no guarantee that they won’t recover in the final week. It may be that the time to attack certain riders was this week, rather than in the high mountains next.

Of course, there's no way of knowing for sure if any riders are feeling sub par currently. Roglič's antics last week, when he mischievously, and misleadingly, repeated rumours that he had COVID to a perplexed Geraint Thomas, illustrates just how much confusion and misinformation there can be in the peloton. But the surest way of any would have been to use some of the favourable parcours on offer to try a speculative dig, and see how everyone else responds.

Such conservatism will, by the end of the race, be confirmed as either sensible energy management, or a failure to capitalise at the right time. We'll have to wait a week to see which riders have made the right call.

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