This afternoon, the Giro d’Italia truly started.
The opening week of Italy’s Grand Tour was tense and uneventful, as every rider with general classification hopes stuck together and let the sprinters do their thing. All that conservative riding evaporated on the slopes of the Blockhaus (the truly un-Italian name is a holdover from the Austro-Hungarian empire), and fans were treated to a dogfight between all the contenders. That is, all the contenders except for those on Team Sky, since an errant motorcycle destroyed almost their entire team right before the climb started. Cycling can be unpredictable, thrilling, ugly, unfair, and exhilarating, but rarely does one race so thoroughly embody all the contradictory facets of this strange sport.
As the peloton was speeding towards the foot of the Blockhaus, a police motorcycle parked itself on the left side of the road. The caravan that fronts and follows the peloton has swollen over the past few years, and televising the race and keeping bikes in shape requires an increasing number of TV and service motorcycles. Unfortunately, crashes involving motorcycles have killed and seriously injured several riders in the recent past and they are only becoming more frequent. Keeping the caravan in order and ensuring that no riders get hit is an incredibly tricky job, especially so in Grand Tours when the road is more crowded than it is in any other sort of race. The offending motorbike this afternoon didn’t get far enough over on the shoulder, and a Sunweb rider slammed into it. The domino effect decimated Sky’s best three riders, and informally ended the GC hopes of leader Geraint Thomas.
Thomas lost five minutes in the crash, and sounded fairly level-headed about his shit luck:
“Obviously we were racing for the bottom of the climb, filling the whole road, and the next thing I know, just out of nowhere the guys in front of me went down and clipped the motorbike and that was it. I was down on the floor,” he said.
“I thought I had done something bad to my shoulder, but the race doctor popped it back in, and it was OK, but obviously I had to get another bike. It was just game over.”
Wilco Kelderman, a key support rider for Sunweb leader Tom Dumoulin, broke his finger and was forced to abandon. Thomas did not begrudge the peloton for racing on after the chaos, although Orica-Scott director Matt White (whose leader Adam Yates also lost a devastating chunk of time) went off on Movistar for pressing on despite the massive crash.
“It wasn’t one kilometre from the finish, it was 15 or 16 kilometres from the finish, they were chasing nobody, and everyone knew who was on the deck.
“So all they had to do was just wait a little bit to let the guys have a chance to get up. It’s a poor sportsmanship call.”
Team morale, he said, was “fine, but it’s bloody frustrating. Morale doesn’t change, we’ll just have to change different goals. It’s a big blow to our podium chances, but shit happens.”
There is no hard and fast rule about neutralizing a race when something of this magnitude happens, although stoppages are the exception. Cycling is a chaotic sport and, hard as it is to accept, you have to be lucky to survive thousands of kilometers of racing. Thomas was not lucky, and he will not win the race.
Shortly after the crash, the first true test of the Giro started. The Blockhaus is a grinder of a climb, at 13.5 kilometers long with an average pitch of 8.2 percent. It’s gradient oscillates back and forth between relatively innocuous segments at 4 or 5 percent and steep sections in excess of 12 percent. Thanks to heavy pressure from Movistar, a group of 30 or so riders was rapidly winnowed down to a small group of team leaders, and that’s where the fireworks started. Maglia Rosa holder Bob Jungels lost his spot up front early on, and Nairo Quintana’s team shredded several would-be contenders without much fuss, including Tejay Van Garderen, Steven Kruijswijk, and Ilnur Zakarin.
After Quintana’s teammates had cooked themselves and culled the lead group of its helpers, the tiny Colombian repeatedly landed blow after blow on the field. First, he ripped away from a small pack inside the final seven kilometers, and only Thibaut Pinot and Vincenzo Nibali could follow. Nibali leaned over the front of his handlebars as he rode, staying aerodynamic and preserving energy for the rest of the climb. It seemed he would try something, but he was holding on for dear life. Pinot occasionally popped off the front, but none of his attacks troubled his two more experienced breakmates. Quintana’s moves, however, continually inflicted deep suffering. As a trailing group led by Bauke Mollema and Dumoulin approached the leaders, Quintana blasted off the front with about five kilometers left and soloed into the finish. Pinot and Dumoulin rounded out the top three after gutting themselves to stay in contact. It was a harsh, beautiful finale and the best riders in the Giro were forced into the action against each other. It’s all you want to see in a Grand Tour stage.
Quintana now has the Maglia Rosa, but he’ll probably concede it to Dumoulin after Tuesday morning’s time trial. The Dutchman is perhaps the greatest living time trialist, and his third place today was a sign that his amazing 2016 Giro was a warning, not a fluke. Whether he can stick with Quintana on the high mountains will determine if he can make history. Nibali fading and losing a minute to Quintana was shocking, but he tends to improve as Grand Tours go on. There is intrigue all throughout the top ten overall placings, and it would be even better if Thomas, Mikel Landa, Kelderman, and Yates were not essentially taken out of the race by an idiotic motorcycle driver.
Thomas is an exceptionally brave rider, and even though he’s five minutes behind Quintana and will not catch the Colombian (nobody will beat him; he looks incredible), he will not stop scrapping for a top-ten finish. Sky and Orica-Scott are now free to take fliers and get aggressive, which will enliven the race. Today was brutal and enthralling, and it was just the start of what looks to be an incredible Giro.