In Greek mythology, Proteus was a prophetic old man of the sea who knew everything about the past, present and future, but avoided divulging what he knew by constantly changing shape, eluding almost anyone’s clutches. Like him, this Giro d’Italia seems to have protean properties, its central narrative constantly reconstituting itself, escaping any prediction or prophesied result.
Just days after it was upended by Remco Evenepoel’s withdrawal, the general classification was once again reconfigured today as Tao Geoghegan Hart, who began the stage in third place overall just five seconds away from the maglia rosa, was forced to abandon after he crashed heavily.
It has been a Giro marked more by its abandons than its racing so far, one where crashes, illness and wet weather have swept through the peloton. And that pattern continued on a seemingly innocuous stretch of road of what had been a straightforward stage, 68 kilometres from the finish as the peloton navigated the descent of a category 3 climb.
On a patch of wet road, Geoghegan Hart, his teammate and maglia rosa Geraint Thomas, Primož Roglič and almost all of the Ineos Grenadiers team crashed, sliding out on a corner. While Thomas and Roglič were able to continue almost immediately, Geoghegan Hart stayed down and left the race in an ambulance. His team hasn't yet released an update although he was conscious and moving on the roadside.
For a rider so obviously reaching his best form since winning the Giro two and a half years ago, it is a devastating blow.
It is a devastating blow for his team too, who were sitting with five riders in the top 11 of the general classification at the start of the day. Pavel Sivakov, who began the stage in eighth place overall, 2:15 behind Thomas, was also badly affected by the crash and crossed the finish line almost 14 minutes after the peloton today, battered, bloodied and out of the general classification picture.
Ineos Grenadiers had established themselves as the strongest team in the race in the opening ten days, even following Filippo Ganna’s withdrawal on stage seven due to a positive Covid test, but this crash has dampened some of their advantage.
After Evenepoel’s withdrawal, the race briefly morphed into a battle between Ineos’ collective strength and Roglič, but it now seems to be settling into a battle between Thomas and Roglič. They are separated by two seconds, and there is now the faintest chink of daylight between them and the rest of the field. João Almeida is twenty seconds back in third but says he has been feeling sick. Andreas Leknessund, the early wearer of the pink jersey, is in fourth and is the last rider within a minute but his position is artificially bolstered by time gained in a breakaway and is likely to fall away. Damiano Caruso moves up to fourth at 1:28. Lennard Kämna is in sixth but has lost almost two minutes already and has never targeted GC at a Grand Tour before.
Barring incident, which in this Giro is an admittedly enormous caveat, it seems unlikely that any of these riders will have the firepower to match Thomas and Roglič, both Grand Tour winners who will now be hyper-focused on each other.
For all the difficulties of managing two riders in the top three separated by five seconds, Geoghegan Hart’s withdrawal removes Ineos’ trump card and their tactical advantage of possessing two riders capable of winning the race. Where they could have afforded to launch attack after attack which Roglič would have been forced to chase, he will now only have to mark Thomas.
But Ineos cannot simply defend Thomas’ pink jersey with the resources that they have left. Two seconds is no real buffer at all, easily extinguished by the bonus seconds available at the finish every day which Roglič – with his finishing kick – is so adept at picking up, or in stage 20’s mountain time trial.
Like Roglič, they will have to attack in some form even though, depending on the fitness of Sivakov, they might effectively be racing with five riders.Roglič did not emerge from today’s crash unscathed either. Pictures taken at the finish line show deep cuts on his left leg and hip, where his lycra has ripped. He does, however, still have a complete team of riders replete with strong domestiques including Rohan Dennis, Sam Oomen and Sepp Kuss with which he can launch his offensive. Ineos might still hold the maglia rosa and the upper echelons of the overall standings, but it remains to be seen whether they are still the strongest team in the race.