Calling It Home: How the Giro made it to Milan

Calling It Home: How the Giro made it to Milan – To celebrate the publication of The Road Book 2020,we have a special extract from this year’s book for you written by Rob Hatch

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Calling It Home: How the Giro made it to Milan

To celebrate the publication of The Road Book 2020,we have a special extract from this year’s book for you written by Rob Hatch.

This is undeniably the most essential ‘Road Book’ published in it’s short life to date. The 2020 volume inimitably documents the biggest threat to professional racing and how it bounced back from the COVID-19 pandemic to produce some of the most pulsating and dramatic moments in recent history. Immerse yourself into the winners words of Tao Geoghegan Hart, Anna van der Breggen and Wout van Aert, extensive race reports, infographics, data and much more. Order your 2020 first edition in time for Christmas and receive a free exclusive Road Exercise Book (RRP £10) when you use the code RBVELO20. Offer ends 20 December 2020 10pm.

Calling It Home: How the Giro made it to Milan
by Rob Hatch

Amore infinito. It’s been that way since I first stepped off the boat onto a Venetian island for my first Giro d’Italia in 2009.

It’s become part of my biological clock. As a TV commentator around the world, but mainly on Eurosport, I build up to May, then wind down a little when it’s over. Alongside the Flemish Classics, it’s the thing against which all other things are measured and placed during my year. The thing I wouldn’t miss for the world. As the race’s own marketing line goes, it’s ‘The toughest race in the world’s most beautiful place’.

This year, the realisation that it wouldn’t be run in May, like most of the events of the spring, sent me into a disorientating tailspin. A lockdown work project meant I’d be lucky enough to revisit some classic Giro stages, a first nervous foray into home broadcasting and a chance to avoid spending all day clicking the refresh button on the news websites. Despite that welcome distraction, we all missed the real thing and, once those news stories began to improve enough to allow it to happen, we were told that this year’s ‘fight for pink’ would take place in October.

The start was typically chaotic. A sunny, warm build-up during the week gave way to cloud and wind on day one. The scirocco blew in and blew straight across the road of the time trial course, some of which – with a wacky uphill start to a paved cathedral square in Monreale and old city roads down below in Palermo – resembled an obstacle course.

Like the 2009 centenary edition of the Giro, this year we’d start on an island, except not on the same one where I sat commentating. My employers had understandably decided we wouldn’t be sent on-site to cover the pink race this year, and instead we were to use the studios in London and Bath. No problem; it’s something we do for a good portion of the racing each season, given the impracticalities of travelling between multiple races.

But then another issue appeared: rising cases of the virus that had invaded our lives in my country of residence, Spain, meant I wouldn’t be able to travel to the UK. Time to put all that home broadcast research into practice. Bulletproof fibre internet was ordered, as well as a cable to take it through to a space between my living room and bathroom (useful for six-hour broadcasts). An online shopping spree began, with two desks and a printer among the purchases. Plus laptop and tablet stands, and blu-tack – lots of blu-tack – to hang up notes and stage profiles. I was as ready as I’d ever be.

Before Corona (BC) the event had been scheduled to begin in Budapest. Quickly accepting that would no longer be possible, the race organisers, RCS Sport, moved forward a planned start in Sicily by a year. The first Italian stages of the race had been due to take place on the Mediterranean island anyway, so with the addition of a day here and there, the reduced race caravan knew most of the terrain that it would have to take on. It promised three weeks of racing in a natural arena where style and beauty are as important as hard work and tenacity.

‘They’ll ride through a land of St Peters, Madonnas, natural beauty… this country is a living monument.’

A peak inside the 2020 Road Book

The start was typically chaotic. A sunny, warm build-up during the week gave way to cloud and wind on day one. The scirocco blew in and blew straight across the road of the time trial course, some of which – with a wacky uphill start to a paved cathedral square in Monreale and old city roads down below in Palermo – resembled an obstacle course. It turned out to be a bit of a lottery, with British favourites Simon Yates and in particular Geraint Thomas putting in the best times among the big names. Others with a different start time struggled, and poor Miguel Ángel López even crashed out. The stage and first leader’s maglia rosa went to a debutant: Filippo Ganna rides across the wooden boards of the track as quickly on his own over 4km as a team of four men did not too long ago, and just days after securing the world ITT title on the road, here he showed why.

Ganna shares a surname with the first-ever Giro winner, Luigi, who triumphed back in 1909. A perfect beginning, then, for the tifosi, who are more important to the colour of the race than any other Grand Tour, and Ganna turned up for day two all dressed in pink. As the bunch rode past Ancient Greek temples to Agrigento, we saw a reminder that the lands of the Mediterranean have changed hands more than I’ve eaten margherita pizzas. Astana suffered another blow as Alexander Vlasov, talked up as an outsider, felt unwell and failed to complete the stage. The finish was uphill but, where GC riders had triumphed on its last appearance in the race over a decade before, this time Peter Sagan – who somehow had never previously ridden the Giro – fought it out with Diego Ulissi, a former multiple stage winner. It would be the latter who was fastest to the line. Ulissi, from a family of Tuscan winemakers, is now into his thirties. At least 2020 was a good vintage for someone, as he won his seventh career Giro stage.

 

‘Like water off a Duck’s back’

Etna, Sicily’s fiery mountain, would stage the first sort-out of the favourites for overall victory. Was I going to be dragged into using clichés about GC explosions or eruptions of action from the favourites? I hoped so. Usually coming early into the race, Mount Etna finishes had tended to be cagey affairs.

I’d always thought Etna needed a sunny day to be fully appreciated. Perhaps that’s a bit of my own bias coming through, with the area reminding me of the landscape of my favourite place on the planet, the Canary Islands. Cloudy days on recent visits meant we had been denied a chance to see the mountain and its surrounding unique beauty in all its glory. It had been almost a decade since Alberto Contador danced away in the sunshine and the long shadows as we looked down to Catania. There’d be no repeat of that; the morning cloud didn’t budge and, as the day rumbled on, it became darker before emptying itself on the slopes of the mountain. That didn’t dampen the action, however.

Before that action began – and minutes before the TV cameras began rolling – we received reports of a crash in the neutral zone involving Geraint Thomas, who many had expected to pull on the maglia rosa at the end of the day. It was later revealed that the drama had been caused by a stray bidon. After initially looking OK throughout the stage, the pre-race favourite struggled to keep the pace in the bunch as they approached the foot of the final climb. Thomas would soon be on his way home, questioning his luck, and our TV executive bosses would be fearing for the ratings, with Simon Yates inexplicably losing time.

Recovering from the shock of the ‘action before the action began’, we looked on from a distance, while the breakaway fought to victory. In the peloton, Wilco Kelderman, the forgotten man, became the invisible man. Since coming onto the scene surrounded by hype as the next big GC challenger from the Netherlands, he had broken more bones that he could remember, suffered illness and injury, and – save for one strong Vuelta showing – had always fallen short of a top finish. His attack came just before a move from Vincenzo Nibali, and the Italian broadcast director naturally wanted to spend time flicking between the Shark’s progress and the fight for the stage win, which by this point was between Giovanni Visconti and the national champion of Ecuador, Jonathan Caicedo.

The EF man from South America would take the win, but we’d almost forgotten about Kelderman by the time he was again shown on our screen (or open computer window, in my case). All the talk prior to the race had been of EF’s brand-new kit – a mixture of random colours, patterns, strange faces and images of ducks – which was a love-it-or-loathe-it, masterful piece of marketing, but Caicedo put in a career-best performance, leaving us to fall into the trap of talking about a quacking performance.

Rainbows – in a year where the rainbow has taken on a new emphasis in daily life during a pandemic, the shortened season saw the rainbow stripes on the backs of the World Champions fighting for victories

Bad jokes aside, something rather serious was happening. First-year professional João Almeida, after putting in one of the best time trials on the opening day, rode well enough to take the maglia rosa by a fraction of a second from the stage winner, becoming the first Portuguese rider in 31 years to lead the race. History has a funny way of popping up and repeating itself, and just over three decades before, Acácio Da Silva had also pulled on the pink on the top of Mount Etna.

The fourth day of the race was the final stage before leaving Sicily. Forecast to be a sprint, it ended up being just that, but not before a panic had some of the top names missing out on their opportunity. Arnaud Démare had made it through the splits and the rain, and he continued his excellent pre-Giro form.

After the race I started to think about the post-stage transfer, one of my most vivid memories of covering the Giro. Taking the few steps from my spare room to the sofa, my mind was somewhere in the middle of the Strait of Messina. Or perhaps that was being optimistic, forgetting the frustration and boredom of the wait for the ferry. I should’ve still been stuck in a big traffic jam at that moment, wondering why they’d never built the long-rumoured bridge to the mainland. See, you even miss the shit bits!

The weather failed to improve, even in my little corner of the Mediterranean. The view out of my studio window mirrored that of the misty mountains in Calabria, where Ganna was in the breakaway. The Ineos Grenadiers were reeling from the loss of their leader, and along with Salvatore Puccio, Ganna had been given the freedom – a rare luxury in that team down the years – to chase stage glory.

Up front, British rider Alex Dowsett hung tough on a hilly finishing circuit, before going away on the run-in to win his second Giro stage, seven years after the time trial victory that shaped his career. Seeing what it meant to him (one of many still without a contract for 2021) and his team (who had never previously won a stage in a Grand Tour) was just as lovely as the scenery we’d enjoyed all afternoon.

Dropped on a couple of occasions, and with Thomas De Gendt and young Colombian climber Einer Rubio for company, the Italian TT specialist seemed out of contention. But, after fighting back while the other two were fighting each other, Ganna powered on to a win that told us he was much more than ‘just’ his machine-like performances against the clock.

One of the more uneventful days of the Giro occurred on the road to Matera, and a second Démare win in three days might have you suspecting that it was a simple run to a sprint finish. With a complicated uphill drag to town, and with GC favourites fighting to stay out of trouble, most of Démare’s fellow fast men were dropped, but he re-found his own position well inside the last kilometre before launching an unbeatable uphill sprint. The Frenchman was on fire.

Matera. Why have I never visited? It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, and looked a picture as the Giro circus made its way through the neutralised zone. The sun shone, the camera helicopter showed off this hidden gem of the Basilicata region, and all the attention was on local favourite Domenico Pozzovivo, who at 37 years old and a year after a horrific training crash, had started the Giro superbly. Most of the pre-stage talk, however, was of the wind that was forecast to blow across the race as it entered Puglia.

The 2020 volume inimitably documents the biggest threat to professional racing and how it bounced back from the COVID-19 pandemic to produce some of the most pulsating and dramatic moments in recent history.

With an unthreatening move up the road, we were set to play the waiting game. But then it started just as it looked to have calmed down: Deceuninck-QuickStep and Jumbo-Visma accelerated and caused carnage. There were splits everywhere, with Yates being the biggest casualty among GC contenders. Home boy Pozzovivo was also briefly caught out. Only halfway through the day did things settle down again.

Nervousness then set in and little else would happen, as much as we were trying to build up the possibility of it happening in our geographically distanced ‘commentary boxes’. The end of the stage was nowhere near as dramatic as the start, with the result like a song on constant repeat. No shuffle at this Giro: another fast finish, another Démare victory, with no scratches on the record. A solid lead-out finished perfectly by Démare, by this time in the maglia ciclamino as leader of the points classification.

The Parco del Gargano. A picture-postcard day in Puglia that had us attempting to channel our inner Judith Chalmers on the telly as the peloton rested as much as they could while still pedalling their bikes, allowing a breakaway to contest the stage win. Another one added to the post-pandemic holiday destination list – a pandemic that was starting to have a direct influence on the race, with Yates testing positive for the virus and unable to start this eighth stage.

Fuglsang punctured on a descent, prompting the main drama of the day in the bunch as Nibali sent his men to press on. Apparently, the Dane had been rather unkind to the Shark’s native Sicily in a daily newspaper column. Lesson learned, I expect. Up front, British rider Alex Dowsett hung tough on a hilly finishing circuit, before going away on the run-in to win his second Giro stage, seven years after the time trial victory that shaped his career. Seeing what it meant to him (one of many still without a contract for 2021) and his team (who had never previously won a stage in a Grand Tour) was just as lovely as the scenery we’d enjoyed all afternoon.

 

‘The Mighty Ducks have done it again.’

The addition of an extra mountain stage in Abruzzo was one of the changes introduced to make up the three lost days in Hungary. Its inclusion made this Giro more difficult, as it replaced a supposed sprint day in Central Europe. The pouring rain made it even harder, but it won’t be remembered as an entertaining one. The man whose name translates as ‘warrior’, Ruben Guerreiro, continued the Portuguese success, taking EF’s second stage win as the GC riders behind had little left in the tank and were only really able to make small gaps on each other in the final kilometre.

‘Everything you thought you ever knew about bike racing, rip it up, throw it away, start again. Peter Sagan is back, he’s reinventing the rules.’

A hundred and sixty riders made it to the rest day, but news on the morning of stage 10 meant the peloton would lose two entire teams plus another of the big names, Michael Matthews. Plenty of valid concerns were aired and now, without the infirm Kruijswijk or Jumbo-Visma, the virus had spread to more staff in camp Mitchelton-Scott, who also had to pull out. Were we going to reach Milan or would the brakes have to be applied to this out-of-season Giro? Mauro Vegni said we were, and whatever Mauro Vegni says at the Giro usually goes. Only the Italian government could stop the race.

The Giro calendar change meant it would be competing for attention with the cobbled Monuments. Those races would also be run without one of their greatest stars, Peter Sagan. So cycling’s greatest showman decided to bring Monument-style riding to the land of monuments, flaunting what northern Europe was missing. From the first pedal stroke he was off. Only Ganna and Ben Swift, the British road champion, could keep up with him. Groupama-FDJ chased and threatened to bring back the breakaway, with Sagan a contender for Démare’s points jersey. After what seemed like an eternal tug-of-war, the French squad called off the chase.

Up front, the show continued, with Sagan going so well he was even able to share jokes with his fellow breakaway riders. There was no let-up; this was being raced as a Classic. Sagan had forced the selection since the beginning and he was determined to win. The Classic-length short climbs came and, with each passing obstacle, Bora-Hansgrohe’s showman was putting on one of his greatest displays. He won in style, even as a GC group rode on behind him, threatening to spoil the party on the streets of Tortoreto. There was time for an encore and bow before the curtain of the final kilometre. Doing it ‘in his style’, Sagan became the hundredth rider to win a stage in all three of cycling’s big three-week epics, ending the longest winning drought of his career.

At this point, loose talk from riders and journalists of bubbles burst in hotels angered the organisers. The weekend flurry of coronavirus positives and withdrawals had placed more obstacles on the road to Milan. Was this going to be a proper Giro? Would we call the winner a winner? Confusion and negativity understandably infiltrated that supposedly more permeable bubble. Instead of withdrawing its own riders, one team even sent a letter to the UCI, attempting to begin a conversation that could’ve ended with the Giro concluding at the end of the second week.

With time, this would turn out to be a misreading of the room, easily done in emotionally charged times. This irked me, but it enraged the organisers. It reminded me of a particular issue ‘old world’ cycling has with ‘new world’ cycling. The ‘new world’ (mainly) anglophones sometimes don’t understand what the event can mean to the territory where it’s held or the purpose it serves. Particularly here. Italy isn’t yet 160 years old. The nation hadn’t yet reached retirement age when the Giro began. Almost the entire history of Italy could be told through the prism of the Giro d’Italia. After the war, it symbolised the reconstruction of a nation and its riders’ success mirrored the country’s economic miracle. This year more than ever, it had to be a unifying force – unless unsafe or impossible, it had to get to Milan.

The next day, the Giro d’Italia returned to Rimini for the first time in 60 years. The town is famous for being Italy’s Benidorm or Blackpool, and after the super show the day before, most of the riders took a relative holiday before catching the breakaway late, as Arnaud Démare took stage win number four.

‘Viva Ecuador!’

More rain, this time on the roads where the late Marco Pantani used to train, and following most of the roads of the Nove Colli Gran Fondo, which this year celebrated its 50th birthday. Despite NTT committing early to work for Pozzovivo, who had never worn the maglia rosa despite always being there or thereabouts throughout his long Giro career, there was little left in the GC star’s legs when it came to the crunch on the final climb. Jhonatan Narváez become Ecuador’s second stage winner after his breakaway companion Mark Padun suffered an untimely mechanical. Although they’d lost their leader to a broken hip on Mount Etna, it was becoming a very successful Tour of Italy for the Ineos Grenadiers.

Another win followed for Ulissi in Monselice after Démare, Sagan and co. were put out of the game on late, short but horribly steep climbs. Bonus seconds for Almeida meant the fairy tale would continue into the end of the second week.

 

And so to Prosecco country.

A glass or two of its popular produce was raised in the direction of Ganna, who again showed us why he wears the rainbow jersey in the tests against the clock. A different, longer, hilly course to the opener in Palermo saw him go supersonic once more, beating teammate Rohan Dennis, who finally looked to be hitting top form. Two weeks into his Grand Tour debut, Ganna had already taken a hattrick of stage wins, and there was still one time trial to go. Another 16 seconds over his closest rivals went the way of Almeida, who, instead of fading, seemed to be growing into the pink jersey with every passing stage. The other big move among those aspiring to challenge for the podium, saw young Brandon McNulty, an Arizon native, move from 11th to fourth overall.

While the calculators and timekeeping equipment whirred, Mikkel Honoré’s nerves would’ve been experiencing the same sensation. The Dane – one of many cycling nomads – is an adopted local, having found love in Italy, and while dressed in his best TT garb he asked his girlfriend to marry him. She said ‘yes’ and he set off on his ride from Conegliano to Valdobbiadene. Amore infinito? We hope so!

Tao Geoghegan Hart, now 25 and from Hackney in east London, was the surprising survivor as Sunweb destroyed the opposition on the climb to Piancavallo. Major stars suffered and grandi campioni would ship time. For the first time in the race, the maglia rosa was also dropped. Almeida battled, fought and hung on to the race lead, albeit a smaller one. As Jai Hindley rode his leader Kelderman closer to the struggling pink jersey on GC, Geoghegan Hart came through to win the stage – his first in a Grand Tour, and the 30th by a British rider since Vin Denson had taken the first in 1966. Another victory for his team and, with a week to go, the Londoner suddenly found himself in the fight for pink.

‘You’ve heard of the wine trials. Now we have a cured ham stage.’

At times, Milan had seemed a mirage but, with a battery of mostly negative coronavirus tests on the rest day overshadowing a doping positive (how times have changed), the metaphorical fog hanging around the Po plain since the opening week’s uncertainty had finally dispersed. The final week began with the Giro d’Italia’s 2,000th stage and it looked as though we were going all the way to the finish.

With a horrendously tough final week planned, it would be a good day to be in the breakaway. Local boy Matteo Fabbro found himself at the front on the way from Udine to San Daniele del Friuli, before Australian cricket fan Ben O’Connor was bowled by one that ripped back at him violently off the surface of the last kilometre to the finish. O’Connor knew how the pitch had been playing, as they’d ridden it on three occasions over the final laps, but Jan Tratnik took the stage win – the latest Slovenian to do so in a Grand Tour.

‘Madonna di Campiglio remains an open wound in Italian cycling. We go back to the place of Marco Pantani’s fall from grace.’

With a mountain stage to Madonna di Campiglio next on the list, the Nibali mind games – a habitual feature of the Giro – began. ‘I’m starting to think that Kelderman’s biggest rival might be in his own house,’ he said, attempting to question the unity of the Sunweb team, who also had Jai Hindley close on GC. The Shark had been solid but not really stunned his prey yet, never mind filled his belly. Already several gregari down, and with the Baby Shark (younger brother Antonio) seemingly missing in action, he’d have to find friends or pull it off alone. There’d be a lack of GC action here, however, despite several thousand metres of climbing. The breakaway would once again triumph and, in a show of form and defiance, O’Connor would again be out in the middle, this time hitting the winning runs.

‘Here he is – judge, jury and perhaps executioner on some riders’ fight for pink, his majesty the Stelvio in all of his glory!’

A 22-year-old debutant still in the maglia rosa. He couldn’t win it, surely?! The likes of Merckx, Balmamion and Cunego all won at that age, but that was then and this was now. Almeida’s longest previous stage race had lasted ten days. The young Portuguese was already in new territory.

The finish at Laghi di Cancano would be a first in Giro d’Italia history, although the women had shown the way when the Giro Rosa took on its 21 hairpin turns in 2019. The main obstacle of the day would be the giant Passo dello Stelvio, however, a Giro staple down the years. Built by the Austro-Hungarian empire in the early 1800s, it allowed them to control access to Lombardy. Here in 2020, for the first time since 2005, it was to be climbed from the more difficult Prato side.

These were the bits of Italy I used to know very little about before my own amore infinito with the Giro began. The parts that all those afternoons spent watching Football Italia in the 1990s couldn’t convey. The German-speaking region, idyllic mountains and otherworldly rocks. The ones that slowly turn pink on a clear evening as you make your way over the pass between stage finish and hotel – rather like a Giro winner often does, becoming more secure in the colour and owning it by the final day of the race. By the end of this stage, the pink would have a different owner. Sunweb pulled for the first part of the climb and thinned the numbers. ‘Goodbye grandads’ was one of my lines as Ineos Grenadiers’ Rohan Dennis then started to ride and put Nibali, Fuglsang, Pozzovivo and co. in trouble. I hope old Enzo didn’t hear that one. Another day to mark the accelerating generational change.

It was as if Rohan Dennis had escaped the hotel in the middle of the night, tunnelled under the Stelvio and filled it with dynamite, returning during the stage on his bike to push the plunger that detonated the GC. His teammate Geoghegan Hart was on his wheel, as was Hindley, but Kelderman – by this point virtual leader as Almeida was distanced – also began to struggle. No call was made for Hindley to drop back and help. Yet help was definitely required as the Sunweb duo approached the top in their respective groups. Descending from 2,700m is cold enough for most of the year, but especially so with the temperature only just above freezing at the top. Kelderman couldn’t zip up his rain jacket among the panic of trying to close down the three-quarters of a minute deficit to the leading trio, where his mate Hindley had almost crashed trying to put on his own coat.

No Under-23 rider had ever led the Giro for so long. Younger riders had won it, but this had been a long stint of pressers, pressure and pink graffiti on Portuguese roundabouts. The gaps as the Giro went over the Stelvio suggested strongly that we’d have a new leader by the end of the day, but would it be Kelderman, Hindley or Geoghegan Hart? Dennis had already lost time throughout the race and so wasn’t a candidate, but that left him free to put in what will be remembered as a legendary performance as gregario, pulling the leading trio along to the final climb. Kelderman had lost time, and took a while to recover from having been up against the cold, discarding his jacket on the descent after losing the battle with its zip.

Hindley joined the Grand Tour stage winner’s club at the finish, beating Geoghegan Hart on the line after the Briton had been forced to do the riding. Kelderman recovered just about enough to take the maglia rosa, but he now had a fragile lead against the competition, including his own teammate. Had Nibali been right? In Hindley and Kelderman, were we about to witness another Roche and Visentini, Cunego and Simoni?

 

‘Out of the chaos…’

The longest, potentially least interesting stage of this Giro d’Italia suddenly became the shortest and, without doubt, most chaotic. We’d been talking about Hindley, O’Connor and Western Australia for a few days, but a man from the other side of the country suddenly became the focus. Adam Hansen – just three days from the end of his career, and reportedly with the will to go in the day’s breakaway – was forced into action as a mediator by his colleagues, some of whom had been rallying the CPA [the professional cyclists association] to try to shorten what they perceived as a needlessly long 260km flat day. It was dark, it was miserable, and with so many Aussies having taken centre stage, perhaps all that was missing was Dickie Bird and his light meter.

The weather was as gloomy as the mood around the race. Riders huddled in tents, buses drove off, organisers argued and eventually the event would honour its commitments to Morbegno, the start town, passing kilometre zero before stopping. Bike riders who could find their team buses – some of which had already set off on their own long drive to Asti and had been forced to turn around – remounted them, while others waited in the pouring rain. Once they got underway again (from what looked like a school or sports centre car park in Abbiategrasso) to the west of Milan, there would only be 124km left on the route. It was covered by the winner, Josef Černý, in just over two and a half hours. With the CCC rider’s victory would come the PR he hoped would bring him a new job in 2021, but his breakaway win also meant Peter Sagan would now be unlikely to catch Arnaud Démare in the race for the points classification.

‘From the Hackney marshes to the Italian Alps, and now the streets of Milan’

 

‘Dennis the menace’

We’d known for a few days that the French authorities had decided not to allow the Giro d’Italia to cross its borders. That would mean no Colle dell’Agnello. Having crashed into the snow banks at its summit while wearing the pink jersey, Steven Kruijswijk might have been happy about avoiding a reacquaintance, had he not already been at home since the first rest day – that ‘c’ word again on both counts.

The threat of bad weather had already produced rumoured alternatives, so this was a problem that Vegni and co. were prepared for. Very rarely has a Plan B looked so good. Sestriere – with all its history back to Coppi in the 1950s, and that extraordinary Chiappucci exploit in 1992 – would still be reached but, instead of two huge French, high-altitude passes, the peloton would contest the day’s honours on laps of a circuit up and down from the famous ski station in Piedmont. Kelderman lost contact on the first of the two laps and, with a small lead, there was no question of Hindley waiting up for him on this occasion. Just as on the Stelvio, Geoghegan Hart was with him, but everybody had been dropped and Dennis was the menace once more.

Having done his job on the final climb and with Geoghegan Hart responding well to Hindley’s attacks, the third wheel wouldn’t disappear: Dennis came kept coming back. Back home in Spain, I rose from my chair and echoed the disbelief on the face of Brian Smith, my co-commentator, staring back at me from my laptop on a video call. Once the Briton had taken the stage win, Western Australian Hindley donned the maglia rosa, but not until the organisers counted back the splits from the two time trials. Only hundredths of a second could separate the two riders. Why had Dennis ridden so well? ‘Happiness’ was his reply. The biggest victim of the virus, happiness had been generally in short supply in 2020, a missing performance-enhancing metric from most of our lives as we watched on, desperate to be distracted from the world around us.

The final time trial would decide the Giro. At the end of the stage, the Ineos Grenadiers had a head start in their particular pink Treasure Hunt, taking a helicopter transfer, while Team Sunweb were On The Buses all the way to Milan.

 

‘From the Hackney marshes to the Italian Alps, and now the streets of Milan’

The undercard was filled with heavyweights going for the stage win, although there hadn’t really been many bets placed on riders who weren’t called Filippo Ganna. But it was the featherweights we’d all been waiting for. We were about to witness the conclusion of a wonderful story that, three weeks earlier, had had very different protagonists. Jai Hindley and Tao Geoghegan Hart had been in the supporting cast and weren’t meant to take the leading roles.

‘It’s Sunday afternoon in Europe, evening for all of you watching in Australia. Whatever time of day it is elsewhere, whatever you are doing, wherever you are watching, however emotionally invested you might be, remember this moment. In almost 120 years of Grand Tour racing, we have never gone into a final stage as close. This is as exciting and unpredictable as it gets. Italy loves a good opera, a right bit of drama, and on stage 21 of the 103rd Giro d’Italia, Hindley and Geoghegan Hart are only separated by a fraction of a second.

‘After 85 hours, 22 minutes and 7 seconds, Jai rules, for now! 3,345km since Palermo in Sicily, they’ve ridden all the way up Italy, over its mighty mountain ranges, and confronted the autumn weather at extreme altitudes. Only hundredths of a second separate the maglia rosa from his closest challenger.’

Yet only a handful of kilometres in, it became clear that – barring any strange incident – there wouldn’t be much of a contest. Both riders’ styles looked different: a powerful bigger gear from the Londoner, whereas the man hoping to become the first-ever Australian winner of the final maglia rosa looked more hurried. The first time estimates gave us a 6-second swing in Geoghegan Hart’s favour. Soon it was up to double figures, and over a flat, short, 15.7km percorso the gap continued to grow, before eventually becoming insurmountable.

I’m not normally one to focus too much on nationality – it’s something that’s asked of us by bosses in high places, attracting attention from the casual viewer – but at this Giro it become an interesting topic. Three weeks before that day in Milan, the 103rd Giro had started with two British riders as favourites. Simon Yates and Geraint Thomas saw fortune desert them during the opening bloc of racing, but it was a third Briton – one nobody expected to challenge until the final few days – who triumphed. While Great Britain celebrated, an Australian athlete achieved his nation’s best-ever Giro d’Italia finish, as Italy – with no rider among the top five on GC for the first time ever – was left asking itself who could replace an ageing shark.

In an almost deserted Piazza Duomo in Milan, the pink ticker tape flew, the trove senza fine trophy was lifted after another three weeks watching the young ones, the wild ones and – with this being Italy – the beautiful ones.

‘They’ll be dancing in the streets of Hackney tonight. Restrictions permitting, of course.’

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