Miserable weather, missed opportunities and a Movistar mistake: How stage 16 of the Giro d'Italia was set up for Pogačar victory

The Slovenian rode to the top of the stage's summit finish with ease to take his fifth stage win

Tadej Pogačar’s dominance at the Giro d’Italia has reached such a level that he’s now winning stages while not even trying to. He attacked today on the final climb of Monte Pana with the air of a man doing so merely to get warm in the miserable conditions as if the pace in the GC group, which was enough for favourites like Ben O’Connor (Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale) and Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers) to be drifting off the back, for him was too slow to keep his body temperature high enough. He made the move while still dressed in leg warmers and didn’t feel the need to take them off to the top, where he even had time to come up with a five-fingered salute countdown, signifying the number of stages he’s now won at this race. 

At the finish, both he and his trusty UAE Team Emirates domestique Rafał Majka, who once again delivered the final turn before the Slovenian made his race-winning move 1,500 metres from the finish, revealed that the plan was to let the breakaway go today: "Actually, today we didn’t want to go for the stage. But when other teams pulled, we thought: why now? Now we can try. Then, on the last climb, we went a bit faster, and when I saw that only Tadej was behind me, it was done.” 

Even when it was inevitable that the break would be caught, Pogačar still tried to find a way to let someone else win and asked Majka if he was feeling strong enough to go for it. "I felt already before that I was a little bit tired,” explained the Pole, “so I said: go on and win another stage.” 

The reason the stage win was in play for Pogačar and the maglia rosa group was due to the huge amount of work by Movistar. “The breakaway went, and it was a good breakaway for us,” Pogačar revealed, confirming that he didn’t see any of the quartet of Julian Alaphilippe (Soudal–Quick-Step), Mirco Maestri (Team Polti Kometa), Davide Ballerini (Astana Qazaqstan) and Andrea Piccolo (EF Education-EasyPost) who got up the road as a threat. “We sat back and tried to relax, but Movistar kept on pushing, kept the breakaway close, and then they went really fast on the second-last climb.”

From very early in the stage, it was clear that Movistar was on a mission. They took control of the peloton pretty much immediately after the breakaway quartet went clear, not to try and bring the group back and get one of their men up the road, but to control the tempo and ensure the break would come back. On a day when it was for a while doubtful the stage would even take place, as the organisers and the riders clashed while agreeing upon a revised route in light of the extreme weather, Movistar were up for a proper race. 

But what exactly was their plan? Their tactics became increasingly bewildering as the stage went on. Initially, it seemed as though the plan was to work for Einer Rubio, perhaps with an eye on moving up from ninth on the GC and, more ambitiously, even taking on Pogačar for the stage win from the group of favourites. But then, with just over 20km to go, their rider, Pelayo Sánchez, attacked out of the group. And despite now having Sánchez up the road, Movistar confusingly continued to set the pace in the peloton, even increasing it with a big turn from Nairo Quintana — another man you might have thought they’d hold back as a potential candidate if they were indeed going for the stage win. 

Things became almost farcical when having been brought back by the work done by Quintana (who himself had burnt himself out setting the tempo and subsequently dropped out of the group), Sánchez attacked again, only to be thwarted by a dropped chain. He dropped back into and then out of the group of favourites, leaving only Rubio left for the team, and even he wasn’t as strong as the team’s work anticipated. The Colombian was one of the first dropped when Pogačar made his move and came home in eleventh place, gaining some time over dropped rivals Filippo Zana (Jayco-Alula) and Romain Bardet (Team dsm-firmenich PostNL) but remaining ninth on GC.

If other teams are going to figure out a way of claiming some stage wins this week and not just handing them all to Pogačar, they’re going to have to ride smarter than this. Given the inevitable that he would be the strongest from the group of favourites should the stage win be decided that way, it was a surprise to see such a low-key battle to get into the day’s break and for only four riders to ultimately form it. Presumably, the uncertainty at the start of the day concerning whether the stage would even take place and the foul weather they were up against all day, were contributing circumstances that put many off from doing so.

Given that Pogačar and UAE Team Emirates only really started riding for the stage win in the final kilometres, it may be that stage-hunting climbers don’t need to get into the break at the very start of the day, nor wait for the final kilometres of the final climb, but make their move somewhere in between. Sánchez attacking 20km from the finish was probably the wrong man, but possibly the right place to make such a move, while Giulio Pellizzari (VF Group - Bardiani CSF - Faizanè) and Christian Scaroni (Astana Qazaqstan) managed to end up with second and fourth-place finishes today after following the Spaniard’s move. Had someone with climbing legs as good as, say, Rubio gone all-in here, the stage win might have been theirs. 

As for Pogačar, the records continue to tumble. Victory today sees him become the first rider in seven years to win five stages at a single Grand Tour when Marcel Kittel did so at the 2017 Tour de France; the first since Mark Cavendish in 2013 to do so at the Giro; and you have to go back to Giuseppe Saronni in 1980 for the last time a non-sprinter did. It’s as if the opposition are too in awe of him. Even the rider who came closest to beating him today, Giulio Pellizzari, looked star-struck by the Slovenian at the finish, looking like a fan when he handed him his sunglasses and maglia rosa jersey. It was a touching moment, but also one that demonstrated just how much reverence is shown to their all-conquering fellow professional, even by a rider who was bold enough to try attacking him today. 

Surely, stage 17 will be different. If the stage gets going smoothly without the controversy and confusion that marred today, the terrain is conducive for attacks from the flag, with the first of five climbs tackled immediately. Pogačar has already indicated that he isn’t intent on chasing stage wins this final week, so the chance is there for riders to get up the road with some freedom. The GC race might be over, but we can expect an epic race in the battle to claim the stage victory.

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