If the riders needed to reach for a caffeine gel to get them round today’s six hour Giro d’Italia stage, I needed one just to keep me from falling asleep watching it from my sofa. Of course, it’s easy to criticise from the comfort of your living room when these guys are on their seventh day of racing mostly in the pouring rain, but could we not have been treated to just one or two attacks? Just a little bit of intrigue? A few fireworks? Something to make me feel like I didn’t just spend an entire afternoon watching paint dry?
Credit should go to the opportunistic breakaway trio who, when they escaped the peloton at the start of the day, very few expected to make it to the finish line and duke it out for the stage win. Davide Bais’s eventual victory for Eolo-Kometa is a huge one for his wildcard team, but through no fault of Bais, it won’t be a stage that is remembered in the history of La Corsa Rosa.
Even as the peloton let the gap to the breakaway creep up to the 10 minute mark, there was still that little bit of hope that the tension was simply building, that we were heading towards a nail-biting finish where the GC contenders would throw punches as the gradients kicked up to the Gran Sasso d'Italia. In the end, though, there was nothing of the sort. Riders chatted at the back of the more than 30 rider strong group, spread out across the road like they were cruising on a group ride. Movistar did, rather unexplainably, begin to pull on the front of the bunch in the closing kilometres, but to no real avail.
Around 500 metres from the finish line came the only real action from the peloton of the day, as the likes of Remco Evenepoel, Geraint Thomas, Thibaut Pinot and Primož Roglič decided to sprint it out for fourth place. No time gaps were created between them and this sprint finish seemed to solely serve as a chance for them to shake out the adrenaline that might have been building during the 20 kilometre stalemate up the Gran Sasso. Evenepoel won the scrap for fourth in the end ahead of his main GC rivals. Perhaps that’s the Soudal-Quick-Step rider dealing another subtle blow to his competitors, proving that the crashes and mishaps of the last two stages haven’t had an adverse affect on him.
But really, regardless of what sort of analysis we try to squeeze out of that final sprint to the line, or what we read into the rider’s facial expressions or physical demeanour, it didn’t matter much at all. In terms of the overall Giro d’Italia, this stage meant nothing and changed nothing. It didn’t serve as a great advertisement for watching bike racing, either. Race leader Andreas Leknessund even said in his post race interview: “I was expecting it to be harder, it was a bit boring out there, I was looking forward to having to fight [to keep the pink jersey].”
So why did we see such stagnant racing in a stage which many expected to be the first real general classification showdown between the climbers of this Grand Tour? Much of this could be attributed to the route design of the 2023 Giro d’Italia. The final week is incredibly heavily loaded with mountains, including a number of eye-wateringly difficult ascents as the peloton skirts through the Dolomites.
After the final rest day of the race, the riders start the final week with a stage which includes 5000m of elevation gain, finishing up the Monte Bondone – a climb which hits gradients of above 15%. Although it is one of the shortest stages in the race at 160km, stage 18 the following day then includes another 2700m of elevation gain, before the queen stage on stage 18. On this day, the riders will gradually climb up to the Passo Campolongo and take on more than 5,400 metres of climbing. They will face the Passo Valparola and then the infamous Passo Giau. A summit finish at Tre Cime di Lavaredo is the icing on the cake of a brutal day.
Once those savage climbing days are completed, the penultimate stage of the race is a mountain time trial to Monte Lussari with approximately 1,050 metres of climbing in just 18 kilometres. The final 4.5 kilometres of the climb to the finish reach a gradient of approximately 15% which RCS explained is “comparable to the Zoncolan”, not a phrase the peloton will be happy to hear with the climbing from the Dolomites already in their legs.
So have the route designers made a mistake by placing so much difficulty in this final week of racing? Some blamed it on the headwind up the final climb, but today’s stage seemed like many of the general classification contenders were nervous to put their cards on the table or try to make any differences this early in the race, knowing what still awaits them. While an explosive and exciting final week of racing is undoubtedly in store for us, it seems a shame that we have to endure days like today to get there. Of course, six hours in the mountains will still have an accumulative effect on rider’s fatigue over three weeks and does serve that purpose, but a little thought should be spared for the fans and the spectacle of the race when analysing the success of a Grand Tour route design.
It seems like this Giro d’Italia could simply be a waiting game as the final week poses such a challenge to the peloton. Here’s hoping that days like today might encourage others to take some risks earlier on in the race as it has become clear that the main favourites are preoccupied with watching each other. Bike racing needs to be exciting to keep fans engaged, and it seems like the designers of this Giro d’Italia route might have neglected to remember that when laying out the general classification fight this year.