The 2023 Giro d'Italia is starting to make sense. Up to this point, the overall picture has been indistinct, blurred as if viewed through a rain-spattered car window, but a stage win for João Almeida at Monte Bondone at the end of stage 16 and a small but telling time gain for the Portuguese rider and Geraint Thomas over Primož Roglič has brought things into much sharper focus. The British rider has regained the pink jersey that he loaned to Bruno Armirail on stage 14; Almeida is in second, 18 seconds behind; Roglič is another 11 seconds in arrears after conceding almost half a minute to his rivals on the line. In this messy Giro d’Italia, nothing can be taken for granted, but with fourth placed Damiano Caruso sitting at 2:50 from Thomas and nobody else within three minutes, the final podium looks fairly set in terms of personnel, if not order, unless Roglič’s concession of time today is the harbinger of bigger losses to come.
The 2023 Corsa Rosa has been an exercise in patience, for both riders and fans. (Some race followers ran out of it some time around the middle of week two, but if this race is anything, it is a reminder that, to quote Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the Owl of Minerva spreads her wings only at dusk: we can only truly assess with hindsight, once all is said and done.) We watched and waited as stage four to Lago Laceno, stage seven to Gran Sasso and stage 13 to Crans Montana came and passed with no resolution to the stalemate between the favourites. Even the stage nine time trial didn’t create significant time gaps. The only hint of a real battle had come on stage eight to Fossombrone, where Thomas, Roglič and Tao Geoghegan Hart, who later retired hurt, put some seconds into their rivals.
But while fans complained about the inertia, their mood further dampened by the incessant rain on their television screens, by Covid withdrawals and by crashes, Thomas sat patiently, waiting for a series of stages which have loomed all the while over the first fortnight of the race. They say that a Grand Tour is won by the energy a rider saves, not by the energy they spend, and with such a hard final week, it’s arguably no surprise that the favourites have been holding something back.
Thomas has made a late-career speciality of grinding his way defensively but consistently through Grand Tours – he did so to finish a very impressive third at the 2022 Tour de France while Tadej Pogačar and Jonas Vingegaard knocked lumps out of each other, and the same strategy may well give him an unexpected pink jersey to add to his 2018 yellow. It’s not exciting to watch, but it’s exciting to win, and so the Welshman will continue in this vein. The shape of the percorso, and the way things have panned out through the first two weeks, have meant that the race has turned into a pure test of strength, no matter how much fans might like to see a tactical battle. And currently, Thomas looks like the best rider in the race.
The situation is this: the three strongest riders also represent the three strongest teams. Thomas’s Ineos Grenadiers outfit is down to five with today’s withdrawal by the injured Pavel Sivakov, but Laurens De Plus and Thymen Arensman are looking brilliant and Ben Swift is climbing well. Roglič’s Jumbo-Visma set the pace for most of the second half of the day, (it’s not the first time they’ve paced a UAE rider round to a big win) and Sepp Kuss was fifth on the stage. Almeida’s UAE Emirates team had four riders in the front group when it was down to 20 or so. But there’s one more pertinent fact which suggests that whichever of these three riders ends up feeling the strongest in the final three mountain stages starting Thursday will win: no other team other than Ineos Grenadiers has any numbers at the top of the GC. If Almeida or Roglič had somebody sitting a few minutes down, somewhere in the top 10, they would have options on a tactical race to put pressure on Thomas. As it is, the presence of three strong riders well ahead of the rest, riding for three strong teams, with three summit finishes coming up, and nobody with a Plan B, means that Monte Bondone likely showed us what the pattern will be for the remainder of the Giro.
Geraint Thomas has been waiting a long time for this. His previous attempts at winning the Giro have ended in absurdist drama: his tilt in 2017 was derailed by a badly parked police motorbike; three years later a stray bidon knocked him off. But if the 2023 Giro d’Italia has taught us anything, it is that patience can win bike races, and that sometimes we have to wait for what we want.