Every single cycling race is littered with dozens of sliding doors moments. It’s a sport of quick-fire decisions, minute advantages and the smallest of spaces in which to navigate. A brake too late, a bike throw too early, or just simple hesitation can be the difference between winning and losing.
Alberto Dainese of DSM-Firmenich must have thought he was to be steered down the wrong avenue with just over a kilometre left of the Vuelta a España’s stage 19. Having barely threatened in the race despite the low-quality sprint field, Dainese was desperate to put things right, instructing his teammates to execute a leadout that would slingshot him to victory.
At the 2km to go banner, Dainese was supported by four DSM riders in front of him; at 1.3km remaining, there were still three companions taking him into the bunch sprint fight, the quartet front and centre at the head of the peloton. But then one of those sliding door moments occurred. Tobias Bayer, one of Kaden Groves’ leadout riders for Alpecin-Deceuninck, looked right, looked left, and crashed.
It was a foolish and regrettable move, and the consequence was predictable: behind him Chris Hamilton fell, then Sean Flynn, and then Max Poole. Riders not from Alpecin, but from DSM. The domino also took Groves out of the battle, but he managed to avoid spilling to the floor. Cycling is a game of decisiveness and quick adaptation. Sighting his trio of leadout riders one by one tumbling to the floor, Dainese had a millisecond to react. He chose correctly, darting to the right and avoiding the pile-up.
But even with Groves, the stage favourite, out of contention, Italian Dainese still had no teammates left to power him to the line. It was time to go wheel-surfing, a high risk, high reward game of jumping across the road, dashing out of wheels and predicting whose slipstream is best. It’s genius when it works, but it’s rare that it does. Dainese, though, had no choice; the crash had made it a free-for-all.
He had to decide which one of the doors he was going to open. Should he follow Filippo’s Ganna’s Ineos Grenadiers train, hop onto the back of Marijn van den Berg’s EF Education-EasyPost freight, or cruise in the wheel of Movistar’s Iván Cortina? Decisions, decisions, decisions. Split second, if that, to decide. He opted for Cortina’s, powered out to the left and then charged towards the line. Ganna was leading, a remarkable Grand Tour sprint victory beckoning, but then Dainese appeared, a superbly-timed launch and an inch-perfect bike throw. He had won.
One thousand and three hundred metres back down the road, Hamilton and Flynn, bloodied from the crash and still off their bikes, hugged, celebrated and screamed as Dainese radioed through that he had pulled it off despite the circumstances. Some would say he was fortunate that Groves was unable to contest for the victory, while UAE-Team Emirates’ Juan Sebastián Molano was also missing at the sharp end. But Dainese, already a two-time stage winner in the Giro d’Italia, had slid through the right door to secure his maiden Vuelta a España victory.