The finish-line camera on stage six of the Giro d’Italia panned out from its zoom with 100m of road remaining, the eye naturally drawn towards the wrestling of the bikes and the sight of Mads Pedersen powering through on the left, about to take the win by the beach in Naples.
On the right of the road, a heartbroken Simon Clarke bobbed his head, raised his right arm and patted Alessandro De Marchi on the back. He tilted his head towards the Italian’s shoulder, yearning for comfort, almost pleading for a fatherly you-did-your-best assurance.
Seconds earlier, they had been rivals, both hoping to lock horns with each other and fight it out for the stage victory, a proposition that nobody had expected at the start of the day. With 800m to go, they had a gap out front of around 200m, and even with the peloton’s might and brute force charging down on them, it looked as if both 36 year olds were about to stay away, one of them about to pull off an unfancied and heroic breakaway triumph, delighting just about every viewer at home but disappointing the sprinters and their teams who were about to pay for a mistimed catch.
What followed is a story as old as cycle racing itself. Clarke and De Marchi opted to engage in cat-and-mouse tactics, reduced their speed and swung across the road, an invite to the approaching bunch. At 275m to go, they were caught, a day’s work rewarded with the most heartbreaking of finishes. Veterans of the peloton, highly respected comrades of just about everyone, they had seen their chance of a maiden Giro triumph snatched away at the final moment. De Marchi repaid the pat and let his left arm linger on the shoulders of Clarke’s for a second, despondency etched on his face.
Cycling’s a cruel game, but two men’s distressing failure is one man’s success, and capitalising was Trek-Segafredo’s former world champion Pedersen. It was a win that further demonstrated the Dane’s ever-improving turn of speed, and underlined the confidence he has that he can win a second successive points jersey in a Grand Tour, having topped the Vuelta a España’s points classification last September.
In conversation with Rouleur in December, Pedersen was unequivocal about not only his ability - “they [Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel] are the biggest stars in cycling right now, and I truly believe I am just below them. 100%. I know I can beat them - I have shown it already. More than once.” - but also his ambitions going forward: “If I could win all three [Grand Tour points] jerseys, it would be something special. That’s my ego speaking [but] when my career is over it’d be nice to have the purple and the two greens.”
Victory in Naples moves him up to third in the hunt for purple, and knowing that he climbs better than the two riders in front of him (current leader Jonathan Milan and stage five winner Kaden Groves), Pedersen is well-placed to achieve his dream.
For Clarke and De Marchi, however, they will wallow in defeat, go to bed in a city celebrating their football team’s historic championship title, pondering how they too might have been lionised tonight alongside the footballing heroes, in a city that thrives on underdog stories. Instead, it was Goliath, incarnated as a 27-year-old from Denmark with rainbow stripes on his sleeves, who stormed in late to break their hearts. Naples, it seems, can’t keep producing sporting miracles.