By their very nature, Grand Tours are a waiting game. So much time is spent patiently anticipating the right moment to attack and choosing the right time to follow, as each of the general classification contenders contemplate their next move against their rivals.
Friday’s much awaited stage to Gran Sasso was meant to end this Giro d’Italia’s stalemate. To the chagrin of those watching, that did not materialise, but the following day provided the first 10 minutes of telling GC action we’ve had outside of time trials so far.
On the slopes of the steep I Cappuccini climb, far behind stage eight’s sensational solo winner Ben Healy (EF Education-EasyPost), Bora-Hansgrohe pulled hard to string out a dwindling peloton in the last 10km. It was one of the race’s two big favourites Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) though, who made the most damaging move – as he did four years ago here at Tirreno-Adriatico.
It was our first chance to see Roglič in full flight so far this Giro, and his strength was initially clear simply by the riders who had immediately attempted to follow and were quickly dropped, including current race leader Andreas Leknessund (Team DSM). More tellingly however, it was the race’s former leader Remco Evenepoel (Soudal - Quick-Step) who led the pursuit of the escaping Roglič, but was unable to close the gap. Initially it looked like he would make the bridge, and for some time held the Slovenian within reach, but appeared not to have that last reserve of his usual power to finish the job, eventually being swamped and overtaken by riders behind.
Battered and bruised from his crashes on Wednesday’s rain-soaked stage, it’s still a surprise to see Evenepoel come unstuck for the first time on a climb such as this. With still much to prove on long, high-altitude alpine climbs - the kind he’ll find in the Giro’s third week - the steep slopes of I Cappuccini are more akin to the climbs of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, where the 23-year-old has remained unbeatable. Even a week of Grand Tour racing takes its toll though, and yet Evenepoel’s eventual loss of 14 seconds to Roglič still leaves him in the strongest position, particularly ahead of the race’s second time trial.
One team that did play the final climb perfectly was the Ineos Grenadiers. Having looked like the strongest and most organised of the overall contenders’ teams so far in this Giro, their experience told as they coolly allowed Roglič to escape with much of the climb remaining.
Geraint Thomas initially leant on Evenepoel to pick up the chase, but eventually retreated amongst his teammates again. He and his co-leader Tao Geoghegan Hart only emerged into camera shot again as they approached 6km to go, catching world champion Evenepoel and quickly leaving him behind in the final kilometre to the summit. Geoghegan Hart in particular looked formidable on the explosive final section of the climb, linking up with Roglič over the summit with Thomas soon to join them. No words need be spoken from there, with Roglič doing almost all the pulling into the final kilometre while Evenepoel did the same in the desperate chase behind.
Although the 14 seconds they gained is unlikely to be the most decisive factor in the final destination of the pink jersey, it’s the first glimpse of GC action the race has seen, and left the favourite immediately on the backfoot.
As the riders cross the rubicon into the second week after Sunday’s time trial (where Evenepoel could very well regain those 14 seconds and more), those telling 10 minutes of stage eight tease at the prospect of more thrilling, closely fought racing as we delve deeper into the Giro.