For the first two weeks of the Giro d’Italia, the GC favourites seemed more interested in how they could avoid wearing the pink jersey rather than with winning it. After Remco Evenepoel (Soudal-Quick-Step) won the opening time trial, he bluntly stated that he was looking to give it away on stage four, and proceeded to do so by letting the break get up the road and allowing Andreas Leknessund (DSM) to take it. Then, when Evenepoel’s withdrawal after the stage nine time trial saw Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers) inherit it, Thomas too was happy for a break to gain a huge advantage on stage 14 so that Bruno Armirail and his Groupama-FDJ team were left with the responsibility of defending it for a few days.
Stage 16 was the first time at the Giro that the GC contenders rode with the explicit intention of actually wanting to end the day in the pink jersey. That was clear from early on when Jumbo-Visma, who had up until now ridden so conservatively, assembled their forces at the front of the peloton. They were signalling their intent for Primož Roglič, and that the time had come for the Slovenian to make his move on the overall lead — with only five more days to race after today, defending it no longer seems like such a difficult burden. Whereas earlier in the race the two seconds Roglič trailed Thomas by were seen as an advantage as it eased the pressure of his Jumbo-Visma (who, after all, were already strained after Covid and illness had compromised their preparations into the race), now everyone wants to lead from the front.
Despite Jumbo-Visma’s confident approach, however, it’s not them who take over the overall lead, but Ineos Grenadiers again with Thomas. In one of the most dramatic moments in the GC race of the Giro so far, Roglič was unable to follow when the Welshman accelerated about 4.5km from the top of Monte Bondone. Thomas quickly joined up to João Almeida (UAE Team Emirates), who had attacked shortly before, and the pair rode away together to the finish with Almeida claiming the stage and Thomas the overall lead.
It was certainly a blow for Roglič, but his hopes of winning the pink jersey are far from over. The Slovenian rode intelligently after being dropped, being careful never to go too deep in order to try and follow, and using his ever-reliable climbing super-domestique Sepp Kuss (who, yet again, proved worth his weight in gold) to pace him up the climb. He had the legs to make a customary final kilometre kick to the finish, and reached the line just 25 seconds after Almeida and Thomas, having earlier been over 30 seconds adrift. That leaves him third on GC, 29 seconds adrift from Thomas, so hardly out of contention. The big concern is whether today's pattern is repeated during the rest of the final week, and his form remains just a little below that of Thomas and Almeida, but, as such an experienced three-week racer, who has overcome similar setbacks to win past Grand Tours, there’s still every chance that he grows into better form in the coming days, and strikes out for pink again later.
Ineos Grenadiers are therefore set to defend the pink jersey as the race enters the Dolomites on Thursday, and, though they'll be happy to have the lead, they still have a very tough job ahead of them. Their already depleted line-up lost a third member today as Pavel Sivakov abandoned, still struggling from injuries sustained during the stage 11 crash that also took out Tao Geoghegan Hart, leaving them with just four riders to help Thomas. Thankfully, two of those riders are Thymen Arensman and Laurens De Plus, who both once again looked very strong on Monte Bondone as they arrived home in the chase group close behind Roglič. Those two riders should provide Thomas great support in stifling attacks on the upcoming mountain top finishes, and make him very difficult to attack.
Where Thomas and Ineos Grenadiers could be vulnerable are on the valley roads and tough climbs that precede the mountain top finishes. Both stages 18 and 19 feature lots of tough terrain before the respective finishes at Val di Zoldo and Tre Cime di Lavaredo, and it’s in these earlier stages that their diminished numbers could be exploited.
UAE Team Emirates look especially well poised to try something like this, based on the way they rode today — after Jumbo-Visma were down to just Sepp Kuss with about 15km of Monte Bondone still to climb, they took over with Davide Formolo, Jay Vine and Brandon McNulty each pulling before setting up Almeida for his decisive attack. Only 18 seconds behind Thomas on GC, and having looked his match on Monte Bondone, the cautious move for Almeida would be to continue to wait until the final climbs to duke it out and continue to gain seconds here and there prior to the climatic mountain time trial on Saturday. But given how uncharacteristically aggressive the Portuguese rider was with his attacks today, perhaps we’ll see him and UAE Team Emirates try something bolder in search of a bigger, long-range collective move in the Dolomites instead?
Ineos will be grateful that Almeida and Roglič are the only riders now within 2-50 of Thomas’ lead, but they will still have to wary of any sneaky moves tried by other riders Eddie Dunbar (Jayco-Alula) was especially impressive today, finishing the climb alongside Roglič, and cannot yet be discounted in fifth overall at 3-03. If he continues to climb this well for the rest of the week, Ineos cannot afford to let him slip up the road. Neither Damiano Caruso (Bahrain-Victorious) and Lennard Kämna (Bora-Hansgrohe) climbed quite so well, but remain two riders that Ineos also can’t afford to keep their eyes off, in fourth overall at 2-50 and sixth at 3-20 respectively.
Ineos Grenadiers will no longer be looking to give away the pink jersey like they did last week, but that doesn’t mean they’ll face a straightforward task in keeping it. The Giro remains fascinatingly poised.