Analysis: The three dark horses emerging from the Giro d’Italia’s GC eruption on Etna

Domenico Pozzovivo, Rafal Majka and Wilco Kelderman have been gifted the opportunity to step into the limelight after the GC shakeup Monday. Here's what you need to know about three of the sport's eternal nearly-men.

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The GC landscape truly erupted on the third stage of the Giro d’Italia on Monday, and while favorites faltered in the race’s third stage, three dark horses emerged from the shadows.

The bleak lava fields of Mount Etna melted the hopes of Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers) and Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), who both lost handfuls of time and staggered out of the pink jersey battle. And while their absence robs the GC brawl of two of its biggest stars, it opens up the classification to three of the sport’s eternal nearly men: Domenico Pozzovivo, Rafal Majka, and Wilco Kelderman.

All three were far from front-of-mind coming into this year’s Giro, but a solid performance on Etna and the explosion of the others leaves them with the opportunity to step out of the shadows and into the pink jersey limelight.

Here’s what you need to know about the Giro’s newly-crowned contenders:

Domenico Pozzovivo (NTT Pro Cycling)

Pozzovivo can climb with the best and has nothing to lose. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Who/What: A veteran with nothing to lose — YOLO Pozzo.
Age: 37
Giro record: 14th start – yes, 14th!
Best finish: 5th in 2014 and 2018
Also: Has only raced the Tour and Vuelta three times each – this guy is Giro through and through.

If ever a rider deserved a top result purely because of his backstory, it’s pint-size Pozzo. The tiny Italian was mown down by a car while training last August, leaving him with a fractured leg, arm and punctured lung. Then aged 36, it would have been easy to call it quits on his 15-year pro career. Nonetheless, he vowed to battle back, and sure enough, he came back to action in 2020 and rode the Tour last month, only to be one of the scores of riders to crash on the sketchy opening stage, picking up injuries that would end his race 10 stages later.

Having hastily reorganized his schedule to ride the Giro, Pozzovivo is continuing to battle on in spite of all his past bad luck. Pozzo rode strong on Etna to leave him now sitting seventh overall at 59 seconds back, just four seconds behind Vincenzo Nibali, who he tirelessly supported through 2018 and 2019 at Bahrain-Merida.

Pozzovivo is going to have to go on the front foot through the mountains with his climbing teammates Louis Meintjes and Ben O’Connor to have a chance at the final podium in Milan, as he’s guaranteed to lose time against the clock to almost all of the other GC guys.

Given that NTT Pro Cycling wasn’t even planning on mounting a GC challenge at the Giro and with Pozzovivo on contract through 2021, the Italian veteran has nothing to lose if he decides to gamble in the mountains and will be glad to just be racing his bike at the home race he loves so much. 

“I am happy to be in the fight for GC now,” he said Monday. And that says it all.

It seems like Pozzovivo will take anything he can get right now, and with six Giro top-1os under his belt, he’s got the know-how to be right up there in the final week provided he limits his losses in the long time trial of stage 14.

Rafał Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe)

If this celebration of Majka’s birthday last month doesn’t make you want to back him, then nothing will. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Who/What: A climbing ace with a contract to race for
Age: 31
Giro record: Fifth start
Best finish: 5th in 2016
Also: Twice winner of the King of the Mountains jersey at the Tour de France

Currently 11th overall at 1:26, this could be the Pole’s big chance to assert his authority as a grand tour racer and secure his future.

Having placed sixth at both the Giro and Vuelta a España last year and with four more grand tour top-1os on his palmarès, the talented climber has always been there or thereabouts, but never quite in the top-tier of the action in three-week races.

Recently overshadowed by Bora-Hansgrohe’s home-grown hope Emanuel Buchmann for GC leadership on a team that is also accommodating the needs of Peter Sagan, Majka is out of contract at the end of the year and looking unlikely to be renewed with fellow GC guy Kelderman joining the German unit. A top Giro result would provide a timely boost to Majka’s future options and market worth.

Bora-Hansgrohe have gone into the Giro with an open hand, playing Sagan in the sprints and balancing their GC options between Majka and Austrian climber Patrick Konrad. It’s going well so far for their two classification riders, with Konrad and Majka currently 11th and 12th. If the pair can both keep in contention through to the final week, they could provide a useful tactical option in the mountains.

Majka has the wind at his sails after fourth place overall at the Tour of Poland in August and third at Tirreno Adriatico last month, and he feels that he’s got more to give.

“This is the first mountain stage of the Giro and test of my legs. The team did a very good job today,” Majka said Monday. It’s my first race after the Etna training camp, my shape is getting better and I hope I’ll have good legs in the next days.”

The main place Majka is going to have to hope for good legs is in the two remaining time trials, massing to 50km against the clock. He has a habit of shedding time in individual tests, and with TT motors like Kruijswijk still in contention, he and Konrad may need to go on the offense in the high ground.

Wilco Kelderman (Team Sunweb)

Kelderman has the balanced skillset and ability to endure that could take him into pink in Milan. Photo: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

Who/What: Mr. Consistent with solid team support
Age: 29
Giro record: Fourth start
Best finish: 7th in 2014
Also: 4th at the 2017 Vuelta

The Dutch nearly-man sparkled on the highway grind to Etna, putting in some aggressive moves and being rewarded with fourth place on the stage and leaving him fourth overall, 42 seconds back.

Kelderman played second-fiddle to superstar teammate Tom Dumoulin during the past three years at Sunweb, and 2020 is his time to step up before heading over to Bora-Hansgrohe to ride with Buchmann.

With promising climbing teammates Sam Oomen and Martijn Tusveld acting as right-hand men in the mountains and a time trial-heavy course suiting Wilco’s solid motor when racing against the clock, the losses of time trial specialist Thomas and climbing ace Yates plays perfectly into the hands of Wilco’s all-round talent.

Kelderman is packing form after fourth place at Tirreno and has a habit of getting better as a three-week race goes on. He knows he’s going to need that ability to endure with the brutal third week looming front of mind.

“I felt good throughout the stage,” Kelderman said Monday. “Coming towards the finish we saw there was not really one team that was able to control the group on the climb, so it was good to jump and attack and see what happened … It’s just the beginning of the race and the last week is really hard, so there is still a lot of racing to go but it’s a good start.”

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