Can Kaden Groves beat Jonathan Milan in the battle for the maglia ciclamino?

Milan is 58 points ahead of Groves, but a lot can happen in the next two weeks

There has been no place for boring sprint stages this Giro d’Italia. Once again, some cannily placed late hills set up a thrilling finale to stage nine, with a bunch finish far from a foregone conclusion. This time, it was Jhonatan Narváez (Ineos Grenadiers) who nearly denied them, using the career-best legs that brought him victory on the opening stage to explode out of the peloton 7km from the finish, and were it not for a late push from Tadej Pogačar in the pink jersey, working for UAE Team Emirates sprinter Juan Sebastián Molano, he may well have made it. And Narváez was far from the only puncheur to give the sprinters a headache today, with Julian Alaphilippe (Soudal–Quick-Step) the most dangerous of several other attacks who used the hilly terrain in the finale to break clear.

While the hilly parcours were partly responsible for all sprinters’ difficulty, as the axiom goes, it’s the riders that make the race, and today, Alpecin-Deceuninck was determined to make things difficult for their rival sprinters. They took the initiative from the very start of the day, working to make sure the right break formed, then worked at the front of the bunch to keep the break within touching distance and the race hard. They again upped the tempo on the late climbs with powerful puncheur Quinten Hermans and had the desired effect of dropping some key rivals to their sprinter, Kaden Groves. Then, when the stage was eventually decided by a bunch sprint from a reduced peloton, it was missing the likes of Tim Merlier (Soudal–Quick-Step), Phil Bauhaus (Bahrain-Victorious) and Fabio Jakobsen (Team dsm-firmenich PostNL).

These aggressive tactics have been Alpecin-Deceuninck’s strategy throughout the Giroand they have been a major reason why these sprint stages have been so action-packed. But why exactly are they rising this way? The idea seems to be that their sprinter, Groves, is a significantly better climber than most of the other sprinters here and that their best chance of helping him win is to exploit the climbs as much as possible. And without a GC rider to work for, they have no other priorities to focus on – after all, with Jasper Philipsen on their books, sprinting is their forte. 

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Yet, for all their work, Groves hasn't really been delivering the goods. Alpecin might today have succeeded in reducing the peloton and then in closing down the late attacks, but when it came to the sprint, Groves could only manage seventh place. And that was, in fact, his second-highest finish so far, having only managed 12th in Fossano and 15th in Lucca – a runner-up finish in between at Andora on stage four is his only success so far. Considering how well he fared last season when he won a stage here before going on to win another three at the Vuelta a Espana, as well as the points classification, that is well short of what he had hoped for. 

Given that they continue to ride so hard despite the apparent unlikelihood of him winning a stage, it seems Alpecin-Deceuninck and Groves have something else in mind this Giro – the maglia ciclamino. Olav Kooij (Visma-Lease a Bike) might have been victorious in the sprint finish, stealing the headlines as he claimed his first-ever win at Grand Tour level, but Groves still leads him by one point in that classification, retaining second place. Merlier’s absence in the final sprint means he slips further adrift from Groves, too, now 16 points behind in fourth place.

It's clear from the way Alpecin-Deceuninck have approached the intermediate sprints that they are taking the points classification very seriously. As much was clear from the very first stage, when not only did Groves sprint for the points on offer, but his teammates even gave him a lead-out for it. He has continued to pick up points diligently since and did so again today, being the first rider from the peloton over the line at the second intermediate sprint of the day (behind the breakaway duo of Mirco Maestri and Andrea Pietrobon). It's a strategy that has worked to place him second overall in the classification, despite his low placings in the final bunch sprints.

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In this sense, then, things are going well for Groves and Alpecin-Deceuninck, but they are encountering one major problem – Jonathan Milan. He too has been picking up points at the intermediate sprints, but, unlike Groves, has also been consistently finishing right up there in the bunch sprints. He was second today, only narrowly missing out to Kooij, and has already placed fifth, second and first on the previous bunch finishes. All this means he leads Groves by a healthy margin of 58 points and looks well on his way to defending his maglia ciclamino title.

He's also doing so in much the same way as he did last year. Just as this year's sprints have been shared around three different riders (Milan, Kooij and Merlier), no one sprinter managed more than one stage win last year, with Milan taking the points classification as a result of his consistency. Despite his big frame, he is more than capable of hanging on over the climbs and always seems to be able to get himself in the mix, even when his positioning is wrong.

So, does Groves have any chance of taking the maglia ciclamino from him? Right now, that seems like a tall order, but there are still two weeks to race at the Giro. Milan may be a surprisingly good climber, but Groves probably still has the edge in this regard, so, could have a chance to make gains come the mountains of the final week. And then, there is the simple matter of surviving a whole Grand Tour, with crashes, illness, fatigue, and the time limit always looming possibilities. There's a long way to go, and if Groves can indeed land the maglia ciclaminoAlpecin-Deceuninck’s work this week may not seem so fruitless after all

*Cover image by Getty Images 

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