Geraint Thomas sitting pretty in most savage Giro d’Italia for years
Two weeks down, one to go. Whoever wins this year’s Giro d’Italia will have to do it the hard way in what has turned into one of the most attritional grand tours in recent memory.
“It has been by far the worst grand tour I've ever done weather-wise,” Geraint Thomas, who went into Monday’s rest day second on general classification behind the unheralded Frenchman Bruno Armirail (Groupama-FDJ), told Telegraph Sport. “Physically they are all demanding, but the weather has been a major difference.”
Indeed, at times it has felt as if the winner of the first grand tour of the season would be the last man standing. With six days of racing remaining following Sunday’s stage from Seregno to Bergamo – won by Brandon McNulty (UAE Team Emirates) – the 44 abandonments of the 176 starters makes this the most attritional Giro since 2011, when 48 riders dropped out. Just one grand tour in the past decade – last year’s Vuelta a España (48) – has seen more riders quit. With three mountain stages and a tricky uphill time trial to follow, the list of abandoned riders in Italy will almost certainly grow.
Remco Evenepeol, the world champion and pre-race favourite, withdrew having contracted Covid, while third-placed Tao Geoghegan Hart, the 2020 champion and team-mate of Thomas, was forced to abandon following a crash on a slippery descent during stage 11. Riders have suffered a multitude of illnesses and injuries since setting off from the province of Chieti a little over two weeks ago: fevers, diarrhoea, gastroenteritis ended the hopes of some, Covid did for 16 riders’ dreams while others less fortunate were taken away by ambulance having broken bones in crashes.
“There’s a lot of guys going home with sickness and things,” Thomas, the Ineos Grenadiers leader, said. “Everybody has been tense when it comes to being on the front for the descents, especially when they are wet because there’s been a few crashes and stuff.”
Despite the carnage though, a phlegmatic Thomas, speaking outside his team bus, shrugged: “It’s just the way it is.”
A veteran of 18 grand tour starts who has endured his fair share of misfortune, including crashing out of his last two appearances at the Giro, Thomas believes that while the Tour de France can be “controlled”, its Italian cousin can feel a little more “random”.
Whether the Giro d’Italia is the toughest grand tour to complete remains open to debate, but it is, according to Ben Swift: “Definitely one of the hardest.”
The Yorkshireman, who is riding in support of his old friend Thomas, said the combination of unpredictable weather, poor road surfaces and tough climbs has provided unique challenges. “I was looking at last year’s [conditions] and it was like 30C average, this year it is 10C average with rain most days. You are never really sure what you are going to get.
“There’s such a variety of different climbs, from when you hit the Dolomites, the Alps or climbs in the south of Italy where the road surfaces are poor,” Swift added. “The Tour is the most stressful, the Vuelta’s got some one-off steep climbs, but the overall fatigue and climbing is definitely hard in the Giro.”
Swift, meanwhile, offered an insight into the tough nature of the sport while reflecting on having to continue while Geoghegan Hart lay motionless in the road having fractured his pelvis.
“I felt really bad,” Swift said. “I saw Tao [lying] there. Once I realised he wasn’t getting up … you just have to leave him. It’s horrible to leave a friend in pain, but you know, the race goes on. The race waits for nobody. We still had Geraint in pink, so once it was clear it was not possible [for Geoghegan Hart to continue] that’s it, you move on. It’s hard, but it’s professional sport.”
‘Geraint is gaining the form at the right time’
It is these challenges, Ineos Grenadiers deputy team principal Rod Ellingworth said, that makes the Giro the “most challenging” to win.
“Every day there is something,” Ellingworth told Telegraph Sport. “The weather, the Covid issue coming back, Tao’s accident and then the changes [to the shortened stage 13]. You have to be ready for the changes in the Giro.
“I think it is one of the toughest to put together for the performance team. The Tour has a certain rhythm, where the Giro doesn’t have a rhythm. It is definitely the hardest to win tactically. You never know what’s going to happen and you have to expect that at the Giro. If you are not prepared for it, you will get caught out so you have to be ready.
“You can’t always leave it until the last moment, because if they cancelled a stage because of the snow or cut it short of two big climbs the whole race looks quite different. You have got to be constantly on your toes.”
Despite the challenges, Ellingworth said Thomas remained confident he could challenge for the maglia rosa, the leader’s pink jersey he gave away to Armirail, who leads the Welshman by 1min 8sec, on Saturday.
“He’s had his problems this year – nothing major – but he’s been a dream. He was confident all the way he could make it. We knew Geraint would come in a little undercooked, but he is gaining the form at the right time. He’s so consistent, and consistency in this race is massive.”
Ahead of the final week, Ellingworth has earmarked stage 19 to Tre Cime di Lavaredo that features almost 5,550 metres in vertical elevation as “an absolute brute”, while adding the penultimate-day hilly time trial to Monte Lussari could be key to who takes home the jersey.
“You will see an aggressive race in this final week, a lot of people have been waiting for this final week,” Ellingworth said. “I don’t think the Giro has started yet.”
Telegraph Sport travelled to Verbier and the Giro d’Italia with SunGod, partnered with Ineos Grenadiers