The fine art of ceding a leader’s jersey

It wasn't to just any rider that Primoz Roglic surrendered his pink jersey on stage 6 of the Giro

Photo: Getty Images

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SAN GIOVANNI ROTONDO, Italy (VN) — So much for Primoz Roglic’s “wire-to-wire” run in the pink jersey at the 2019 Giro d’Italia.

A well-motored breakaway pulled clear in Thursday’s second-longest stage and never looked back. After a half-hearted chase by Jumbo-Visma and the other GC favorites, the elastic finally snapped for the Giro’s first successful breakaway. Roglic gave up his six-day hold on the maglia rosa without much of a fight.

The Slovenian rider, who brushed off a hard crash in an early stage pileup, didn’t seem too worried.

“I think that the break was too strong and we will spend too much energy to bring it back and we let it go,” Roglic said. “And it’s also OK, because it’s a really long race and also having the jersey cost quite something.”

After holding the pink jersey since winning Saturday’s opening time trial, expectation was building that Jumbo-Visma would let the break go under the right circumstance.

“Today and tomorrow are the days for breakaways,” said Ag2r-La Mondiale’s Larry Warbasse at the start. “These are the kinds of stages where the breaks will go.”

Thursday’s long and lumpy profile presented a perfect scenario for Jumbo-Visma to execute what’s the fine art of letting a leader’s jersey ride away during a grand tour.

The first key is finding the right profile of rider to grab the jersey. New leader Valerio Conti (UAE-Emirates), who started the day 27th at 1:59 back, fit that to a T.

Prime candidate

The Italian is just the type of rider for a GC favorite like Roglic to surrender the pink jersey to without losing sleep over at night. The 26-year-old has never finished in the top-20 in seven previous grand tour starts. His best was last year’s Giro, when he was 24th at 1 hour, 23 minutes behind eventual winner Chris Froome.

“You can always say too much or too less [time], or whatever, but this is still really a long race,” Roglic said. “What’s important is to have the jersey in Verona.”

The second key is the right team. UAE-Emirates is strong enough and deep enough to defend pink and control the race, taking pressure of the other GC squads.

Now that UAE-Emirates, which lost GC captain Fabio Aru to health issues even before the Giro started, is firmly in pink, the team will ride to protect the jersey as long as Conti can hold on. If he survives Friday’s stage to L’Aquila, perhaps all the way into Sunday’s time trial at San Marino and beyond.

The other piece of the pink jersey give-away is not letting the race ride out of control. The nightmare scenario for any GC team is to let a rouge breakaway take huge gains without an effective chase.

Even though Conti and the others in the break took back seven minutes, the other GC teams were in complete control of the stage. The main bunch tapped away enough to trim the gap to under five minutes with about 50km to go. When it was obvious that the break was going to stay away, the peloton eased up, but never enough to give the escapees too much rope.

“We didn’t want to gamble and let it go to 10 minutes. We wanted to keep it within reach,” said Jumbo-Visma sport director Addy Engels. “In the end, we had a stable situation with a strong break that was hard to chase, so we decided to let it go and keep it around five minutes.”

There were a few other riders in the breakaway, however, that presented far more danger, such as Andrey Amador (Movistar) or Sam Oomen (Sunweb). Both have finished in the top-10 in recent editions of the Giro, and both have the legs and teams to go the distance in a grand tour.

Both, however, had lost so much time earlier in the race that even with the seven minutes they recovered in the break, neither should pose a serious threat. Amador is still within two minutes of Roglic, and Oomen less than one minute.

A tactic that bites back

Of course, there is always the worry that letting any rider take too much time — Conti now leads Roglic by 5:24 — that the surprise leader could haunt the favorites for the remainder of the race.

That’s certainly happened in the past, with such escapees as Claudio Chiappucci in the 1990 Tour de France or David Arroyo in the 2010 Giro. The Spaniard later held on to finish second overall to Ivan Basso.

Having a surprise leader’s jersey gives riders second wind. In the 2009 Tour, Italian rider Rinaldo Nocentini took the yellow jersey in Andorra, held it for six days, and finished 12th in Paris in what was his best grand tour result of his career.

That’s likely what Conti is looking at now.

“I will give everything to keep the pink jersey,” Conti said. “I know it will be almost impossible to try to win the Giro, but to even keep it for a few days would be a dream come true.”

That’s music to the ears of Roglic and the other GC favorites.

They now have a rider and team who are motivated to ride to defend the leader’s jersey and keep the race under control, but one who likely has no chance to become a headache in the third week.

The favorites have also found an additional ally to keep the Giro peloton under control and prevent a rouge breakaway from spoiling the script over the next few days.

“Everything is good how it is,” Roglic said. “I am looking forward to the next days.”

Gianni Bugno’s mark as the Giro’s last start-to-finish winner in pink in 1990 is safe for at least another year.

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