In her memoir Auto da Fay, the novelist Fay Weldon observed that the human condition tended towards ennui, punctuated by rare drama. “There seems to be a general overall pattern in most lives, that nothing happens, and nothing happens, and then all of a sudden everything happens,” she wrote.
I’m not saying that the 2023 Giro d’Italia made me think of this quote, but there was a general overall pattern for most of the race, that nothing happened, and nothing happened, and then all of a sudden everything happened. It’s hard to say whether the incessant rain and cold of the first two weeks of the event had more of a chilling effect on the race than the rather unsubtle design of the final week’s percorso, but as the exploits of entertaining rides by Derek Gee, Thibaut Pinot and a few others fade from memory, the abiding memory of the 2023 Giro will be of a long, long wait for something significant to happen. Nice stage battles; shame about the GC.
Weldon also wrote: “I long for a day of judgement when the plot lines of our lives will be neatly tied, and all puzzles explained, and the meaning of events made clear.” There was one day of judgement in the 2023 Giro and that was the penultimate stage, the mountain time trial to Monte Lussari, a hitherto obscure corner of Friuli Venezia Giulia that also happened to be one of the most beautiful settings I have ever seen in a bike race. A nice landscape can go a long way to blinding us to the fact that nothing’s changing in the GC, as the tappone to Tre Cime di Lavaredo demonstrated just 24 hours before Monte Lussari. Of course, it’s true that stage races, especially Grand Tours, are attritional – cumulative fatigue is always building, even when it looks like it isn’t, and you can argue that without everything that had gone before, quiet stages and all, we wouldn’t have had that upheaval. However, Monte Lussari both dazzled with its fairytale scenery and finally, finally gave us a bike race.
Primož Roglič’s stunning victory on Monte Lussari by 40 seconds over maglia rosa Geraint Thomas, giving him the overall win by just 14 seconds, was an irresistible and compelling story of redemption. He’d looked less strong than Thomas through the mountain stages of week three, and even the handful of seconds he did manage to squeeze out of his Welsh rival at Tre Cime di Laveredo were put down to Thomas mistiming his attack with 500m to go and fizzling out in the last 100m. And of course, the looming shape of La Planche des Belles Filles, where he’d quite spectacularly lost the 2020 Tour de France to his young compatriot Tadej Pogačar in a mountain time trial on the penultimate day, cast a long and dark shadow over the Slovenian’s preparation for Monte Lussari.
In the end, Roglič won the Giro while everybody else spent three weeks trying not to lose it. Sometimes, not losing is enough, but when you ride a Grand Tour like that, you run the risk of getting caught with your pants down, and Roglič knows that better than anybody. He rode a conservative race at the 2020 Tour, and he was so concerned with not losing it that he forgot to win it. You didn’t really think he was going to make the same mistake twice?
There was a pleasing symmetry to Roglič’s triumph at Monte Lussari, and the fact that it took place in such a beautiful setting, with such an obviously febrile atmosphere from the Slovenian crowds, went some way to rescuing the 2023 Giro. However, I’ve never bought the narrative that Roglič left a piece of his soul on La Planche des Belles Filles. He’s a more complex soul than many used to give him credit for, but his blood doesn’t run hot. Within 15 days of La Planche, he’d won Liège-Bastogne-Liège; seven weeks later he won the Vuelta a España. And for somebody who is reputed to suffer more than his share of bad luck, he gets a lot of very good results in big races – apart from 2020, he’s won at least two WorldTour stage races every season for six years now. He just hasn’t won the Tour yet, is all. For many fans, he is a tragic figure, but having observed him navigating the highs and lows of cycling life with laconic equanimity for quite a few years now, I’m not sure they didn’t feel the pain of La Planche far more than Roglič actually did.
Runner-up Geraint Thomas played Primož Roglič to Primoż Roglič’s Tadej Pogačar in this Giro. The Monte Lussari time trial knocked the stuffing out of him, though he rallied enough to lead out his old friend Mark Cavendish, who was in search of his own slice of redemption in Rome the next day. The Welshman, winner of the 2018 Tour de France, has enjoyed a late-career run of form that has seen him become one of the standout GC riders of the last couple of seasons. He was third in last year’s Tour behind Jonas Vingegaard and Pogačar, and has now finished a narrow second to Roglič in the Giro. He reflected immediately after the time trial that it was better to lose by 14 seconds than by a smaller number, but he was close enough that he may look back over the last three weeks and think a little too hard about where he could have found that time. The Slovenian faltered on Monte Bondone on stage 16, and he'd been recovering from a mid-race crash. Was that the time to twist the knife?
As with last year’s Tour, Thomas rode a very defensive race. He’s one of the strongest riders in the world, is resilient and experienced, and therefore in a tactically straightforward race, he’ll always do well if he avoids bad luck. However, Ineos Grenadiers showed a lack of daring in Italy, despite strength in numbers, that was understandable given the circumstances of the race, but also demonstrates where they now stand in the Grand Tour hierarchy, which is below UAE Emirates and Jumbo-Visma. There is considerable mitigation for Ineos in the 2023 Giro. While they finished with three in the top ten, the impressive Thymen Arensman and Laurens De Plus coming sixth and tenth, they were kneecapped by the loss of Filippo Ganna to Covid and to Pavel Sivakov and especially Tao Geoghegan Hart to crashes and injuries. With five riders, controlling the bunch had to be done cleverly, and the scope for tactical adventure was severely limited by Geoghegan Hart, who had looked the equal of Roglič and Thomas, crashing out. However, it is two years since they won a Grand Tour – no emergency yet, but that hasn’t happened since 2010-2011.
There were four main contributing factors to the general sense that the 2023 Giro took three whole weeks to come to life. The first was the weather. Low pressure pulled a blanket of cloud and chilly air over southern Europe through the middle of May, and the rain dampened any sense of adventure the peloton might have felt. Riders also reported that some of the earlier summit finishes were ridden into headwinds, which would have punished risk-taking. The second was the high attrition rate in the first half of the race from Covid and crashes – while 125 finishers is comparatively low for the Giro in modern history, the impact seemed worse because of the number of big riders who withdrew, including Remco Evenepoel, Geoghegan Hart, Aleksandr Vlasov and Filippo Ganna.
The third and fourth are more institutional. The route design of the 2023 Giro backloaded the difficult stages into the third week, and they loomed, figuratively and literally, over the rest of the race. The organisers obviously wanted the race to be decided in the last week, which is what they got, and it was to the detriment of the racing in the first fortnight. It’s one thing having suspense to the end; it’s another to kill the racing for two and a half weeks in order to get it. This also happened to an extent in last year’s Giro, where there was one very entertaining stage in the middle of the race – a middle mountain stage to Turin – and a very static GC battle either side of it, until Jai Hindley finally dropped Richard Carapaz on the penultimate day. For 2023, the Monte Lussari time trial was one of the most entertaining race days of the year, but along with the two very hard stages which preceded it, it was so hard that everybody was happy to wait for it to make the difference. And with no difficult stages left following the time trial, there was no chance to make amends. It felt a little like a 0-0 draw after extra time, settled by a really exciting penalty shootout.
Lastly, the strong teams have the Grand Tours in an iron grip at the moment. The realistic possible winners of the Giro – Roglič, Evenepoel, Thomas, Geoghegan Hart and João Almeida – ride for the four strongest teams in the world (Roglič for Jumbo-Visma, Evenepoel for Soudal-Quick Step, Thomas and Geoghegan Hart for Ineos Grenadiers and Almeida for UAE Emirates). Evenepoel contracted Covid and pulled out, along with most of the Soudal-Quick Step team, but it was noticeable that Jumbo-Visma, Ineos and UAE pretty much set tempo for the mountain stages. If they decided the break was going to stay away, the break stayed away. If they wanted to chase it down, they chased it down. And if they wanted the Giro to be decided in a straight shootout between the three strongest riders left in the race – Roglič, Thomas and Almeida – the Giro would be decided in a straight shootout between those three riders.
There was little subtlety, although that is not unusual in Grand Tours, and the modern trend of three-week events being won by super-elite riders representing very strong teams continued at the 2023 Giro. Of the last ten Grand Tours, nine have been won by either Jumbo, UAE, Ineos or Quick Step. Not much may have happened in the GC battle over the three weeks of the 2023 Giro. But for the smaller teams, this has been a fact of life going back much further than three weeks, with no sign of change.