The game of chicken: Why the sprint teams got it wrong at the Giro d’Italia

A stand-off between the likes of Lidl-Trek, Visma-Lease a Bike and Alpecin-Deceuninck gave stage five to the breakaway

It should have been nailed-on bunch sprint to the finish line. The third category Passo del Bracco climb came with still over 100 kilometres of the stage remaining, and the only other obstacle for the fast men was a short, fourth category ascent with 20 kilometres to go, before a false flat to the finish in Lucca. There shouldn’t have been any reason for sprinters to get dropped, and this was a straightforward, crucial chance in a tough edition of the Giro d’Italia for them to duke it out for victory. Stage five did not go to script, however, and the peloton got things very, very wrong.

In a game of chicken, the loser is the first person to yield or lose their nerve. It’s a game theory that can be applied, to some extent, in the stand-off between the sprint teams in stage six of the Giro d’Italia. 

There was a four-man breakaway made up of Benjamin Thomas (Cofidis), Michael Valgren (EF Education-EasyPost), Andrea Pietrobon (Team Polti Kometa) and Enzo Paleni (Groupama FDJ). The first mistake that the teams of the sprinters made was underestimating this quartet.

It was not a usual breakaway in a flat Grand Tour stage because it was only established halfway through the day’s racing and the riders involved had simply rolled off the front of the peloton, with no real fight to get a gap (because most thought that a breakaway today would be doomed, anyway). This meant that each man in the foursome had fresher legs than if they had been off the front of the race all day – this was one thing that helped them succeed.

Image by RCS

The second mistake that the sprinter’s teams made was playing the game of chicken. As they crested the second categorised climb of the day and there were around 20 kilometres of the stage remaining, the gap to the front group of four sat at almost two minutes. Lidl-Trek were the first team to sense the danger, sending Andrea Bagioli to the front to pull with the aim of bringing things back together for Jonathan Milan (the winner of yesterday’s stage.)

As the time gap stayed stagnant, Bagioli could be seen shouting at the other sprint teams, looking at the likes of Josef Černý from Soudal-Quick-Step to help him do the work so Tim Merlier could have a chance at sprinting too. Bagioli was met with shaking heads in response to his pleas. The other teams would not work with Trek because they didn’t want to use energy and they hoped Milan would have a depleted lead-out train in the final kilometres before the finish. Visma-Lease a Bike refused to work. Jayco-Alula didn’t send any men to the front. No one would be the first to chicken out. It was all part of the game.

Image by RCS

It was only when Bagioli pulled off the front and barely a dent had been made in the gap to the breakaway in five kilometres of racing that other teams began to panic. There was a slow realisation then that Lidl-Trek would not pull back this charging breakaway alone, but by then it was too little, too late. Futile attempts came from riders from Alpecin-Deceuninck to take a turn on the front, but the Belgian team had played their cards earlier in the stage when they’d paced on the first climbs to try and put some of the other sprinters under pressure.

In the end, the breakaway made it to the finish and Benjamin Thomas took a well-deserved win for Cofidis. Behind, they fought for the scraps. In the game of chicken, every sprint team had lost out. The saying goes that you must be prepared to lose in order to have the chance to win, and it seems that sprint teams today were so scared of losing to Lidl-Trek and Jonathan Milan that they threw away any chance at all.

The lesson of the day? It’s risky to play chicken in a bike race.

*Cover image by

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