In the first bout in the predicted two-man fight for the pink jersey at the 2023 Giro d’Italia, there was a clear winner. Remco Evenepoel (Soudal - Quick-Step) produced a stunning effort to obliterate the field with a huge stage victory, while Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) underwhelmed to finish down in sixth, conceding a hefty 43 seconds to his rival.
For Evenepoel, it was not just a career first stage victory at the Giro d’Italia, but an intimidating assertion of his status as favourite. He was simply on another level to every other rider in the field; even two-time world champion Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers) — who had previously the claim to fame of having won all five of the previous time trials he’s ridden at the Giro — couldn't get anywhere near him, finishing 22 seconds slower. And behind him, only one other rider, João Almeida (UAE Team Emirates), finished within 30 seconds. As a result, Evenepoel wears the pink jersey for the first time in his career, and looks like he’ll be difficult to stop.
From a talent as special as Evenepoel, such a performance could not exactly be described as surprising, even if it is still astonishing to witness just how good he is. But Roglič’s ride genuinely was an upset; to put it into perspective, of the six time trials the Slovenian has previously ridden in at the Giro d’Italia, he’s won three of them. While he might have expected to lose some time to Evenepoel, and wouldn’t have necessarily expected to beat Ganna, finishing behind three other riders must certainly have been worse than he hoped for.
Remco Evenepoel dominated today's opening stage (Image by Getty Images)
He was typically phlegmatic in the post-race interview, claiming he was ‘super-happy’ with his ride and refusing to be drawn to talking about Evenepoel’s ride, but he must be feeling a little shell shocked at already having a 43 second deficit to make up after a discipline in which he has traditionally gained time over his rivals.
With the disclaimer that we’re only a mere fraction into the race, and a short time trial might not be much of an indicator of how riders will fare in the all-important high mountains, this stage did suggest that the pre-race prognosis of a two-man battle between Evenepoel and Roglič might not necessarily have been correct. Instead, today’s results suggest that Evenepoel’s main rival in winning the pink jersey may not come from an individual in Roglič, but in the collective strength of some of the other teams.
In particular, UAE Team Emirates and Ineos Grenadiers both looked very strong. The former had three successive riders in the hot seat in Brandon McNulty, Jay Vine and Almeida, while behind Ganna Ineos also had their GC leaders Tao Geoghegan Hart and Geraint Thomas place fourth and ninth respectively. Whereas both these teams had three riders each inside the top nine, Soudal - Quick-Step's next best rider behind Evenepoel was Ilan Van Wilder in sixteenth.
Geraint Thomas wasn't best pleased with his opening time trial (Image by Getty Images)
And though Soudal - Quick-Step are all unambiguously united behind Evenepoel compared with the more open leadership status of those teams, those inferior results weren't a result of Evenepoel’s domestiques taking it easy in the time trial. It was clear Van Wilder was going hard right to the line in search of a good result, digging deep for his sixteenth place. With strong climbers like Jan Hirt and Matteo Cattaneo joining Van Wilder in supporting Evenepoel, Soudal - Quick-Step can’t be said to have a weak team, but the form the Ineos Grenadiers and UAE Team Emirates riders showed today suggests they are going to be stronger.
Could Evenepoel therefore be exposed to attacks from these teams as he tries to defend his overall lead? Ineos Grenadiers in particular have the benefit of having not one but two riders with experience of winning Grand Tours, and of that pair, Hart produced a ride that was his best at a Grand Tour since his victorious Giro 2020 campaign. In fact, fourth place was the best time trial of his career, and comfortably better than anything he managed during that Giro.
Thomas wasn’t quite so strong, finishing fifteen seconds slower than Hart, but sounded more disappointed at getting his pacing wrong by going off too hard, too early than he was by the form of his legs. And while Ganna won’t be a GC threat, finishing over seven seconds ahead of everyone other than Evenepoel indicates he’ll have the form to be a very useful domestique for them later in the race. With strong climbers Pavel Sivakov, Laurens De Plus and Thymen Arensman all also finishing inside the top 32, Ineos are looking in great shape.
UAE Team Emirates’ designated GC leader Almeida was the quickest of their riders, and will be greatly heartened by his third-place finish. The Portuguese rider has been in great shape all season, but seems to have improved even more for the Giro, and there was clear daylight between himself in third and everyone else behind, with Hart a whole eleven seconds down in fourth. There might be some needle between him and Evenepoel after what happened at the 2021 Giro, where, as Quick-Step teammates, there was apparent tension between them, which could set up a juicy rivalry if the Evenepoel versus Roglič duel doesn’t come into fruition.
Primož Roglič didn't challenge the Belgian champion like we thought he would in today's stage (Image by Getty Images)
Almeida might have strengthened his case to be the team’s leader, but McNulty and Vine also greatly impressed during their respective eighth and seventh place finishes. Vine especially will be causing fear among the other GC rivals, who won’t have known what to expect from him after missing over two months of racing due to injury. The Australian is known for his climbing rather than his time trialling, so producing a ride like this suggests he’s all set to cause carnage in the mountains. Nobody knows where the 27-year-old’s ceiling is, and a ride like this indicates it's getting higher and higher.
Even if it does indeed transpire that Roglič doesn’t have the legs to compete with Evenepoel for overall victory, the Belgian could have many threats to deal with as he tries to defend his pink jersey.