After Tom Dumoulin was forced out of the race – and with Simon Yates lacking a bit of everything – the 102nd Giro d’Italia was always going to hit a very different note to the one we had anticipated. Astana struggled to impose their depth of talent on the GC, crippled somewhat by the obvious bad luck of a frustrated Miguel Angel Lopez.
In the end it was Movistar – who have so often underwhelmed at Grand Tours in the last decade – who deployed their pieces with the shrewdest strategy. And I’m not sure Vincenzo Nibali was prepared for this particular outcome.
Dumoulin has placed in the top five of every stage race he has finished since February of last year. Roglic has packed even more top five finishes into a streak stretching back to last year’s Tirreno-Adriatico (where he crashed). Yates is less consistent but can boast stage wins at Paris-Nice (twice), Catalunya, Andalucía and the Tour of Poland in the last eighteen months.
Then there’s Nibali. Just third at the Tour of the Alps, fifteenth at Tirreno, and without a stage win outside the Grand Tours since the 2017 Tour of Croatia. It should come as no surprise that Nibali is the peloton’s premium “peaker” but it remains one of the main reasons for his aura. Watching Nibali peak at the most pivotal moments is a thing of beauty. He doesn’t care for the majority of races he enters. He doesn’t attack without reason. He’s not a shark, he’s a postman! And at the Grand Tours he always delivers.
And yet, at this year’s Giro d’Italia what Nibali delivered wasn’t quite good enough. But maybe it should have been. Maybe there were wrong decisions. And maybe this was down to the fact that Richard Carapaz should never have been his chief rival for the Maglia Rosa.
Nibali lost less than 90 seconds to Roglic over the races three time trials. In those same time trials, he defused the threat of star climbers Lopez and Mikel Landa. He responded to moves far better than the faltering Yates. And, all the while, Carapaz was preparing a heist with an incredibly tidy performance. Nibali focussed on the obvious threats; and Carapaz wasn’t on his list.
I sympathise with Nibali somewhat; I read many Giro d’Italia previews (including my own) and found stark few mentions of Carapaz’s name. I had been lured into a false sense of security by the Ecuadorian’s low-key approach to the race. He had finished fourth last year but there was little to suggest he was on the verge of a performance so special.
Carapaz was a quietly impressive 14th on the opening bounce to the Madonna di San Luca; just quiet enough to avoid turning heads. A few seconds faster and he might have featured in a few more conversations. He defeated the sprinters in Frascati with what was assumed to be an opportunistic attack. But in just a few kilometres he stole 18 seconds from Nibali plus a stage bonus. That was nearly half his advantage in Verona.
On the longer time trial, Nibali celebrated gains of 1:58 and 2:40 on Landa and Lopez respectively. Carapaz lost just fifty seconds but remained an invisible 20th in a messy GC, a position he held until stage 12. With very few climbs in the first ten days – combined with Roglic’s reluctance to protect the Maglia Rosa and UAE’s scrappy stage management – it was hard to decipher the classification until Ceresole Reale.
Carapaz won the Giro in the first two days in the Alps. Nibali made the same mistake on both days; he only had eyes for Roglic. This was most obvious on the way to Ceresole Reale. I doubt the two-time race winner was in any major trouble on the final climb but he let both Movistar captains race up the road. He had probably calculated (and rightly so) that Landa could be given back 60 seconds without denting his hopes. But the gap grew as Nibali attempted to force a stubborn Roglic into panic. Carapaz gained a whopping 1:19. This was a huge swing on a day that Nibali could surely have ascended faster. He wasn’t dropped. He chose not to respond.
The following day Nibali let a lively Carapaz make a huge move 25 km from the finish in Courmayeur. Without discrediting the Ecuadorian’s flying attack, you get the feeling he was once again given far too much rope. I doubt Nibali could have gone with him all the way to the finish – but some of the two minute loss was due to mind games in the chasing pack.
Carapaz really proved his worth in the final week. He quickly transitioned to a wonderful race leader, balancing attack and defence with an experience far beyond his years. He looked comfortable in pink and Movistar swarmed a defiant Bahrain. Hector Carretero and Andrey Amador were pitched against a defiant Damiano Caruso and Domenico Pozzovivo in a battle of the domestiques. Carapaz is a top climber and Nibali had no chance of cracking him in the Dolomites. The Shark flew round the final time trial to snatch a remarkable ninth place amongst the specialists. Unfortunately, this was the only occasion he gained time on Carapaz since mid-way through the second week.
This was a Giro d’Italia that proved form is an unwise predictor and confirmed seasonal burnout very much exists. Roglic took an impressive podium spot but hit a very real flat spot in the mountains and was rarely seen smiling in the final week.
On a Lance-less episode of the Lance Armstrong podcast, Johan Bruyeneel suggested that plenty inside the peloton knew that Carapaz was the next big thing. This begs the question… why did nobody have a plan to stop such a wonderful climber?
Perhaps they were waiting for proof. If so, they got what they asked for.