Brains vs brawn: how to break away with Thomas De Gendt

There were a handful of different tactics fighting for dominance on stage 8 of the Giro d'Italia, but only one would win.

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If you’re ever looking for Thomas De Gendt, you’ll find him in one of three places: the breakaway, chasing it down on the front of the peloton, or sitting on the tail of the race pondering future possibilities. On stage 8 of the 2022 Giro d’Italia, he chose option one, the breakaway, and for only the second time at the Italian Grand Tour, he took the win.

Just short of ten years ago, a 25-year-old De Gendt broke away to take his first Giro d’Italia stage victory at the summit of the Passo dello Stelvio. His performance in the following day’s stage 21 time trial saw him land on the overall podium alongside winner Ryder Hesjedal and runner-up Joaquim Rodríguez.

It was quite the finale to the 2012 Giro d’Italia. Canadian Ryder Hesjedal snatched the pink jersey from Joaquim Rodríguez on the final day with his superior time trial, and De Gendt’s similar exploits earned him his first and only Grand Tour GC podium.

The 2012 Giro d’Italia was only the second Grand Tour of his fledgling career, but rather than attempt to turn that third place overall into a career chasing jerseys, De Gendt became a rider known for his perfectly crafted stage wins, often solo.

When he’s not winning stages, De Gendt uses his immense race craft to help out his teammates, but on days like Saturday’s Naples stage, we’re reminded what makes him the rider he is, and what makes a breakaway stick.

De Gendt and Van der Poel at the front of the day’s 21-strong breakaway.

Step 1: Lotto Soudal is there with numbers

Stage 8 was always going to be a tricky one to predict, and harder to race. 

Even though it was just 153 km long, and therefore short for a Spring Classic, it would have fit neatly as a one-day event much earlier in the calendar (World Champs organisers, take note). This meant that it would be hard to control, and unlike in the Classics, the teams that would otherwise have kept the race under wraps have other things to think about in the coming days.

With that in mind, there was a good chance a large breakaway would go clear to fight over the finish line, and that’s exactly what happened.

“Anyone coming with?”

After a frantic start, and a brief and alarming solo attack from Mathieu van der Poel, he and his fellow breakaway riders settled into the hilly laps in and around Naples. 21 riders had made the move, including several of the usual suspects from the Italian ProTeams and Van der Poel’s stage one rival Biniam Girmay.

Of the few teams that had multiple riders in the move, Lotto Soudal was best represented with Sylvain Moniquet and Harm Vanhoucke joining elder statesman Thomas De Gendt.

Lotto Soudal on the move.

Step 2: stay cool when the attacks begin

Van der Poel went on the attack with about 46 km to go, choosing one of the steeper ramps on the lumpy course. From the still huge group, a small number reacted to nearly every move, including Girmay, Mauro Schmid (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl), Wout Poels (Bahrain-Victorious) and Guillaume Martin (Cofidis).

“From the start, it’s never easy when the group is this big,” Mauro Schmid said after the stage. “Almost everyone cooperated well, except guys who had someone good in the standings. They try to disturb you a bit. However, it was clear pretty quickly that we would make it to the finish.”

With a few focussing only on one another – Van der Poel and Girmay, we’re looking at you – De Gendt and his fellow Lotto Soudal riders just made sure to stay close, measuring their efforts and taking advantage of the terrain to get them where they needed to be.

Mauro Schmid – winner of the Strade Bianche stage in 2021, also from a breakaway – was active in the late attacks.

“I followed Mathieu up the steep climb, but the other guys came back,” Schmid continued. “They then attacked on the flat and we looked at each other for a little too long.”

Step 3: choose the right move

With the group only just back together and the favourites hesitating, De Gendt and Vanhoucke slipped away in pursuit of Davide Gabburo (Bardiani CSF Faizanè), Jorge Arcas (Movistar) and Simone Ravanelli (Drone Hopper-Androni Giocattoli).

Harm Vanhoucke leads the four-man group that would contest the win on stage 8.

All the strongest riders behind them took too long to get their breath back and would then not work together. With De Gendt drilling the pace in the first group – too hard for Ravanelli who dropped back after 5 km – the one thing they needed in the chase was cohesion, and it was the one thing they didn’t have. 

Granted, Van der Poel’s umpteenth acceleration that split the group did create a little more structure, dropping any remaining passengers. However, they’d left it pretty late and they’d jettisoned a few strong riders – including two from AG2R-Citroën – that they could have done with.

Van der Poel’s chase group contained five riders, all of whom saw themselves winning the stage, but up front there was one Italian who would be delighted with a podium finish, a hard-working Spaniard who has spent his career helping others win, and two Lotto Soudal riders, one of them the inimitable Thomas De Gendt, who, until 3 km from the finish, was riding for his teammate.

“I was working for Harm [Vanhoucke] so he could attack on the climb, but he said he didn’t have the best legs anymore,” De Gendt said after the stage. “So in the last three kilometres I told him to lead the way because I was sure I would win the sprint. He did it perfectly. He was in the lead until three hundred meters before the end, so I have to say a big thank you to Harm. We did a good job as a team today.”

Long live the king!

The chase got ever more desperate in the last 10 km, Van der Poel throwing absolutely everything at possible victory, with Girmay glued to his wheel. The pair struck out from Schmid, Poels and Martin in the last 5 km and entered the final kilometre just 10 seconds after the leaders, but once they rounded the last bend, they stopped working and looked at each other. It was over.

Sometimes (quite often) brawn wins, but on stage 8, it was the strongest and smartest rider who took victory.

De Gendt’s teammates watch him celebrate a 17th career victory.

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