Greatest Giro ever? Five takeaways from Italy

Andrew Hood looks back at three weeks of racing through Italy and comes up with his five main takeaways from the race.

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MILANO, Italy (VN) — Was the 2017 Giro d’Italia one of the best grand tours in decades? One could certainly make the case.

Sunday’s nail-biter finale certainly backs that argument, with many recalling the classic duel between Greg LeMond and Laurent Fignon at the 1989 Tour de France. Four riders started the final time trial less than one minute from each other, with Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) earning the first Dutch grand tour win since 1980.

The 100th edition of the Giro saw its best field ever, with nearly a dozen aspirants lining up in Sardinia in what now feels like a very long time ago. Crashes and illnesses hampered or eliminated GC hopes for Geraint Thomas and Mikel Landa (Sky), Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb), Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo), and Adam Yates (Orica-Scott), but the battle went down to the wire.

“This was superb racing during this Giro,” said Trek-Segafredo sport director Kim Andersen. “You saw all the top riders going against each other, mano-a-mano. It wasn’t controlled by the big teams. There wasn’t one top rider. Everyone was really fighting right to the end. That is great racing.”

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While it’s true the decisive mountain stages came down to the best riders slinging it out, the longer distances often seemed to keep the lid on the action until the day’s final climb. And when the attacks did come, the race quickly reverted into a battle of attrition.

The Giro continues to believe that long, hard stages are necessary to fit the bill of what’s expected in a grand tour. The string of 200km+ mountain stages saw riders literally crawling into Milan. The race’s most exciting mountain stages — Blockhaus at 152km and Ortisei at 137km — were shorter days. The Vuelta a España and even the Tour have adopted shorter mountain stages to provoke more explosive racing, and the Giro could do itself a favor by doing the same.

Below are five takeaways from the Giro.

1. Dumoulin arrives

With his 31-second victory over Movistar’s Nairo Quintana, Dumoulin became the first Dutch winner of a grand tour since Joop Zoetemelk in 1980. Holland’s long trip in cycling purgatory is finally over.

At 26, Dumoulin is poised to become a major force in grand tours. A confirmed world-class time trialist, Dumoulin didn’t lose his power against the clock as he worked hard after the 2016 Olympics to target this Giro. He shed three kilos from his Rio de Janeiro weight and confirmed his climbing chops during three weeks in Italy, all without sacrificing his touch in the time trials.

That combination of climbing matched with TT prowess is what makes riders like Chris Froome so formidable in the Tour de France. Dumoulin won’t race the Tour this year, likely returning to the Vuelta a España instead (with a possible matchup against Froome) before targeting the Tour. When? The team says it depends on what kind of course the Tour delivers for 2018, but it’s also likely the Tour will want to see a Froome-Dumoulin matchup and it may serve up a course packed with time trials.

The future seems bright for Dumoulin, who also revealed he’s not afraid to speak his mind and who has the mental fortitude not to crack when the unexpected happens. Without his unplanned bathroom stop, the Giro would have been in the bag a lot earlier — and this Giro very likely would have been a snoozer. If Dumoulin stays healthy and his team buys a few key riders to help him for the Tour, he could emerge as the next great grand tour rider.

“This is an important victory for me,” he said. “I wasn’t sure if I could do it, and many thought I would crack like I did in the Vuelta [2015]. I prepared specifically for this Giro, and really targeted a grand tour for the first time. Now I want to try to win the Tour. I have to keep working, but I hope I can do it someday.”

2. Quintana just falls short

Marco Pantani’s double record is safe, at least for another year. Quintana did just about everything right in this Giro but he ran into a superior time trialist, finishing second in his quest to match Pantani’s Giro-Tour double.

If this Giro sounds eerily similar to what Quintana has faced in the Tour against Froome, you’re right. Dumoulin took so much time on Quintana in the first time trial that the Dutchman was riding in defensive mode until his unplanned pit stop at the foot of the Stelvio. That tightened things up quite a bit, but Dumoulin masterfully handled Quintana’s challenges.

It was hard to read Quintana’s immediate reaction in the wake of losing pink on Sunday. He admitted that he felt a tinge of fever on the key stage to Piancavallo, where Movistar did finally crack Dumoulin, but said he didn’t have his usual after-burners to deliver the knockout blow. He seemed satisfied enough with his overall result, pointing out that with 70km of time trialing, the course was far from ideal.

The big question now is whether Quintana will be able to bounce back for the Tour. There’s no doubt that Quintana has one of the best recoveries in the peloton, and the team is convinced that despite fighting through a hard Giro, Quintana will be able to challenge for the yellow jersey this summer. There is huge pressure to deliver in July. Another podium in Paris might be satisfactory, but if he does reach second again behind Froome, many will question if the Giro-Tour attempt was even worth it.

“One cannot be disappointed with a podium,” he said. “Tom was very strong, and we are still on the podium, and that is still important. We did a great time trial today, and some even said yesterday that we could lose the podium. I was thinking about winning, and to finish second, well, that’s not bad.”

3. Nibali wasn’t at same level

Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) started this Giro with the No. 1 bib and ended third on the overall podium. What happened? Simply put, Nibali wasn’t consistent enough to seriously challenge for the overall title.

One of the most tactical and dangerous attackers, Nibali came away with a dramatic stage win last Tuesday in the double-climb over the Stelvio. In the final string of mountain stages, however, he didn’t have the spark in the mountains to challenge Quintana in the mountains or the power to overcome Dumoulin in the time trials.

What’s next? Nibali might race the Tour de France this summer, but if he goes he would serve as a stage-hunter. It’s been three years since he won the Tour, and with the arrival of such rivals as Quintana, Dumoulin, and Froome, Nibali might keep his GC hopes centered on the Giro for the next few years. On a course with fewer time trials and more explosive stages, you can never count out “the Shark.”

“The level of this Giro was very high, and the race was very demanding,” he said. “I came into the final time trial still with options to win, but I didn’t have sufficient strength in the legs. There were a few days that I suffered, but I gave the absolute maximum and I am satisfied to be on this final beautiful podium. I lost too much time on Blockhaus and Oropa to win this Giro. Tom deserved to win.”

4. Pinot needs to hit the wind tunnel

Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) came into the Giro as one of the favorites, but he saw his podium chances sink in the time trials. Among the strongest in the final week of climbing, Pinot nabbed a well-deserved stage win Saturday He lost any hope of victory after falling flat against the clock.

In the longer time trial at Montefalco, he gave up 2:42 to Dumoulin, permanently tanking his hopes for the pink jersey. But more importantly, he lost time to his immediate podium rivals to put himself on his back foot. On Sunday, he ceded 1:42 to the winner and let a chance to reach the podium slip through his hands, finishing fourth — 37 seconds short of the podium.

Pinot has done well against the clock before, but he explained that because he trained so hard for the mountains, he lost power in the time trials. Finding that balance between climbing and time trials is a challenge for any GC rider. Already a world-class climber, Pinot will need to improve his time trialing if he hopes to win a grand tour. Pinot isn’t expected to start the Tour de France, and will likely race the Vuelta later this summer. With another climb-heavy course that includes fewer TT miles, he could be a favorite for the win.

“The legs didn’t respond when they needed to today,” he said. “The simple truth is that [the podium riders] were stronger than me. Sport is like that. I am happy with this Giro, winning a stage and fighting with the favorites until the very end.”

5. Gaviria arrives

After making headlines in the first half of the Giro, Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors) survived the mountains to arrive in Milan. The 22-year-old Colombian won four stages in his first grand tour to put himself one ahead of Peter Sagan’s grand tour debut. By arriving in Milan, he also won the points jersey.

Many see Gaviria as the next dominant sprinter in the peloton. He has the complete skillset, with positioning, ambition, and mental firmness to go with his explosive finish-line speed. He won’t race the Tour de France this year as Quick-Step doesn’t want to burn out its latest jewel. The Tour will have to wait until at least 2018, but Gaviria will likely race the Vuelta a España and build up for some of the mid-season and fall classics.

Although a few of the top sprinters were missing from the Giro, Gaviria showed he can win in all types of conditions. A star is born.

“This was an important step for me and my development,” he said. “They always say you are stronger after a grand tour. I was able to win four stages, and that is good for the future. Maybe next year I will be at the Tour. I wish there was one more sprint stage in this Giro!”

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