For those up there, at the top of the classification, the Giro d’Italia is a race whose stages are a game that deserves to be played in full, without ever losing focus. For everyone else, it is just a litany of one-day races, between great classics and compulsory participations. On some stages you can hunt for luck, on others you’d better fill up the tank by limiting the pedal strokes to the bare minimum and hope that it will suffice.
Today’s stage was like an edition of the World Championships. Rafal Majka had penciled it on the pages of his Garibaldi (ed. the race roadbook), and had taken notes, while rehearsing the “finale”. Those last three laps in a circuit had looked perfect to him and this morning his legs were strong.
His race has been flawless, if seen after the arrival. If the winner is always right, today he was right twice. Because, in addition to figuring out the stage, he had to take a big gamble: breaking away, together with nine other daredevils to chase the first three fugitives of the day when the kilometres to the finish could seem way too many. Had that possibility vanished, there would have been no appeal. One shot, one kill – you’d better shoot it right.
Even more insane was the bet of those first two fugitives, who then became three but just for a moment. Alessandro De Marchi and Andrea Vendrame broke away stealthily along the first very narrow ramps leading to Madonna del Domm, shortly after departing from Udine. In the first kilometres of the ascent they kept staring at each other when taking their turn to make the pace. They remained side by side for an extra second more to always read the same question in the eyes – won't it be too soon?
To remove any possible doubt, Krists Neilands caught them up halfway on the climb. He was hunting for points to store in the back pockets of his blue jersey. His breakaway mates granted him the first position at the top of the ascent comfortably, in exchange for a signature on the breakaway contract – now downhill without risking too much and then ahead with a steady pace, because at the finish line in San Daniele del Friuli the “effort-meter” will mark 228 kilometres. Good for the fugitives that other ten riders reached them at the sixtieth kilometre. Meanwhile, Neilands had voluntarily let himself fall behind in order to be caught up by the group. You’d better save your legs today.
Not even the time to crack a few jokes about Chris Froome, who had abandoned the Giro on the rest day to chase a condition yet be found, that the race suddenly becomes real when there were still quite a few kilometres to go. «Sorry Italy, I am not in a good shape yet, however, I'll be back soon, and we will have fun together» - the promise of the 2018 winner was appreciated by the public.Behind, in the group, there was nothing left but to chase the twelve men leading the race cruising with a regular pace, to the benefit of the TV cameras, piling up minutes – the maximum advantage was over ten minutes. It seems, however, that already on the first ascent Tim Wellens, the pink jersey, was seen climbing with too much effort. The self-confidence of the previous stages seemed to have been trapped in the souvenir photos of the toasts on the rest day. It was no longer the Wellens that, just a few days earlier, had amazed everyone and made Belgium scream with joy. That baby face in the body of a grown-up had suddenly become the expression of a spacey old man.
And this is how towards the ascent of Monteaperta, a short climb with the top at an elevation of 600 m and counting, and the race was split into two competitions apart - the "World Championships for Hunters" in the front and the stage race in the rear. The turning point, rather than uphill, was downhill after Villanova delle Grotte. Wellens is behind, helped by his team mates in the vain attempt to restart the flooded engine. His dreams of running up downhill, brake and set foot on the ground on the pile of bicycles of those who have entered a hairpin with too much enthusiasm and have fallen thus putting those who followed in trouble. Some riders took a detour onto a gravel road to avoid falling, others remained there, stuck, dented and peeled standing as a wall for those who was coming from behind.
In the meantime, Vincenzo Nibali was already at full steam after learning about Wellens' troubles and the slight margin he had gained on him uphill. Nibali seemed to be escorted by his former companions of the Bahrain Team, who were leading the group at a regular pace. In fact, they were working for Pello Bilbao, who, kilometre after kilometre, was having the pink jersey been sawn around his chest. Among those chasing the main group there was also the desperation of Tom Dumoulin, other surprise of a stage that he himself would have hoped to be different. For the Dutchman, winner of the 2017 Giro, in addition to the bad day – stomach problems, he confessed after the finish – also a mechanical issue at the beginning of the final circuit: a wheel change longer than expected made him definitively loose his grip on a race that had already escaped.
In the rush for the general classification, the group of the race leaders, with the exception of the two excellent absents, approached the fugitives and crossed the finish line 3 minutes and 18 seconds later than the winner and after catching up an exhausted De Marchi together with two other exhausted ones, Neilands and Vendrame. In the front, it was a fight with the knife in one’s teeth, with Monte Ragogna being an inexorable judge for all and then a springboard, at the last passage, for Rafal Majka. The last one to quit was the excellent Salvatore Puccio, an old-time wingman on an authorised leave. He had imagined the stage ending like the Tour of Flanders he won as an Under 23 and he was close. He had almost gotten used to the idea of winning on the previous passages: "It was a bit like when as a kid they would tell you to figure out the arrival at each passage under the finish banner. I had pondered about how to beat him in the sprint finish, but he outdistanced me earlier than that... ». He left the sentence unfinished before thanking and leaving the scene to the winner.
Majka is a grin of effort even on the top step of the podium. It turned into the most beautiful smile only in the last few meters before the finish line, when he realised that, only then, that whisper of advantage had become an insurmountable storm for his opponent.
This jersey will be signed by the stage winner and auctioned for charity at the end of the Senzagiro. Design curated by Fergus Niland, Creative Director of Santini Cycling Wear, based on a design by the illustrator Giulia Pastorino.