In defence of Team dsm-firmenich PostNL's tactics at the Giro d’Italia

Was it a dsm disasterclass or a show of determination from the Dutch team in stage 17?

The stage started how we all expected. A breakaway went up the road in the usual way it should in a mountain stage, with a group of opportunistic attackers making their move on the first major climb of the day. The peloton looked to be happy and things began to settle down. A rhythm was found and it was all going to script. Some of the breakaway came back to the main peloton of GC favourites, but the riders who remained out front worked well together, and it really seemed like the order of the day had been established. That was, until Team dsm-firmenich PostNL came to the front.

As the peloton approached the mid-way point in the stage, the Dutch squad worked their way, en masse, to the head of the bunch. The likes of Tobias Lund Andresen, Chris Hamilton and Kevin Vermaerke, put the hammer down like no one expected, splitting the race into pieces. They rode so hard that the gap to the breakaway tumbled at a rapid rate and riders like Einer Rubio (Movistar) and Filippo Zana (Jayco Alula) were dropped out of the back, their top-10 placings on the general classification in jeopardy. Dsm’s move was brash and bold, but when the breakaway was eventually caught still with 60 kilometres of the stage remaining, the rest of the peloton was a little confused.

Everything coming back together still with so much racing to come isn’t usually how a mountain stage of a Grand Tour plays out. It’s not a formula that the GC teams are familiar with, and when the stage was suddenly set back to square one today with hours still to go, everyone appeared befuddled at what to do. Rafał Majka of UAE Team Emirates gestured to his dsm-firmenich rivals in a state of confusion, and continued to ride for some time with his mouth aghast, shocked by their tactics and confused at the end game for the Dutch team. 

So, why did they do it?

Looking back to the start of stage 17, Romain Bardet, Team dsm-firmenich PostNL’s GC leader who currently sits seventh overall at the Giro d'Italia, stated his ambition to take the stage win. According to Matt Winston, dsm-firmenich’s sports director who spoke to Eurosport after the race, the team’s plan was to make things hard to set up Bardet for an attack, putting the pressure on the peloton and seeing the outcome. When the breakaway came back, Bardet and Vermaerke did try to apply pressure and get a gap on the peloton, but it simply didn’t work. This was for multiple reasons.

The first is that Tadej Pogačar was on Bardet’s wheel when he tried to make the move. Winston himself stated: “we were immediately marked during the attack.” It seems like dsm-firmenich tried to rely on the fact that Pogačar has been vocal about not wanting to go for stage wins, and were banking on him letting their Frenchman’s wheel go. As it turned out, however, UAE Team Emirates were not in the mood to give away a stage win potential today. 

The other problem is that Bardet poses too much of a risk to other GC contenders to be given enough of a gap to try and go on the attack. Even if he had perfect legs to make a strong move, Bardet would have been chased by the likes of Ineos Grenadiers, Bora-Hansgrohe, Bahrain-Victorious and Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale Team as he would have been a threat to their GC positions.

These factors combined made dsm-firmenich’s tactics today look bizarre, why had they made the race so hard? What was the point? The reality is that the plan was there, and based on events of previous stages, it made sense for the Dutch team to try it. You never know what is going to happen when you apply pressure, and if Pogačar had taken the approach he’s discussed in interviews about not wanting more stage wins and wanting to ride conservatively, it could have worked.

The team should also be praised for their attempt at trying something in this Giro d’Italia. Pogačar’s dominance, while impressive, has made the race boring and meant that many GC teams have been riding defensively. It was refreshing to see a team take a different approach and Team dsm-firmenich PostNL should be respected for their bravery to take some risks in order to have the chance of winning. Pogačar will always be there, does this mean that other teams shouldn’t even attempt to make the race themselves? Bardet wouldn’t have been allowed in the break of the day because of his GC position, so dsm-firmenich’s tactic made sense with the situation that they were working with.

We criticise teams for not trying something against Pogačar’s stranglehold on this race, yet then belittle them for trying if it doesn’t work out. There’s still one mountainous stage to come in the Giro, and ahead of that, dsm-firmenich should take confidence in the way they split the peloton today, as it showed impressive collective strength. They may have tried and failed, but at least they did not fail to try.

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