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Here’s a trivia question: what was the last second-tier, non-WorldTour team to win a stage in the Giro d’Italia?
Easy, right? Tim Merlier of Alpecin-Fenix in the opening week of the 2021 Giro.
And before that? Not so easy.
Since the introduction of the ProTour in 2005, which later morphed into the WorldTour, victories by second-level teams in major elite men’s racing are the exception than the rule.
Also read: Tim Merlier delivers win in stage 2
Merlier’s victory this week is even more extraordinary when looking back over the past decade at the Giro. Only eight Giro stages were won by non-WorldTour teams since 2012.
“Winning is difficult for the smaller teams,” said Gianni Savio of Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec. “We have to overcome all these WorldTour teams and they all want to win a stage. They are stronger, especially on the economic side.
“The difference between the WorldTour and the next level is very big,” Savio said. “We don’t have any chip on our shoulders. We will give everything to achieve about goals. We cannot be unrealistic, but that does not mean we cannot dream.”
That paucity of success runs across all the major races.
No non-WorldTour rider has ever won a grand tour since the ProTour formed in 2005, and only two non-WorldTour riders — Gerard Ciolek in the 2013 Milano-Sanremo and Mathieu van der Poel in the 2020 Tour of Flanders — have won one of the five monuments.
A handful managed to punch onto grand tour podiums over the years, but the very top of elite men’s road racing is dominated by the WorldTour.
Of course, that shouldn’t come as a major surprise. WorldTour teams have more money, more resources, and more equipment to buy and train the best riders in the world.
Elite men’s professional racing is a clear story of the have’s and the have-not’s.
Top WorldTour stars, such as Peter Sagan or Chris Froome, earn more in one season than the entire operating budgets of smaller teams, such as Savio’s Italian-backed Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec.
💗 @giroditalia – STAGE 06 ✅
Ancora un giorno all’attacco al Giro: a mettersi in evidenza, in un’altra giornata di pioggia, è stato Simone Ravanelli, vincitore della primo traguardo volante di giornata e 2º al primo GPM della tappa.#AndroniGiocattoliSidermec
📸 @bettiniphoto pic.twitter.com/uFJgHC5kYn
— Drone Hopper Androni Giocattoli Team (@DHAndroniTeam) May 13, 2021
Ineos Grenadiers, with an operating budget of more than $45 million, is likely equal to the budgets of a good chunk of all the 19 second-tier teams in 2021.
With the exception of Alpecin-Fenix, which is funded with a budget equal to some lower-level WorldTour teams, most second-tier teams operate on a budget between $1.5 million up to $8 million.
Without any sort of spending limits or salary caps, the best-funded WorldTour teams can continue to pile on as they please.
Second-tier teams — formerly known as Professional Continental but now called ProTeam in the latest iteration — have to scrounge out their successes when and where they can.
A stage victory is an ultimate prize, but smaller teams, like Savio’s Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec, often hunt for other targets.
Last year, Savio’s team earned trips to the final podium after winning the “hot sprints” title as well as the honor of riding the most kilometers in breakaways.
Savio’s troops were at it again in Friday’s stage, with the team’s front-page motif jersey present yet again in the breakaway.
With the pink jersey still in play, it’s going to be difficult for a breakaway to stay clear this weekend.
Teams like Savio’s will still be tilting against the windmills. If you push long and hard enough, sometimes the reward comes.
So who was the other recent ProTeam stage-winner at the Giro?
Fausto Masnada in the 2019 Giro while riding for Savio. Now he’s part of the WorldTour, riding in this Giro as support for Remco Evenepoel.
The magic of the ‘maglia rosa’
Attila Valter is discovering the magic of the maglia rosa.
The Groupama-FDJ rider enjoyed his first day in pink, and was surprised when he realized people cheering for the jersey were cheering for him.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” he said. “It’s a feeling that cannot be described. There were thousands of people on the side of the road shouting maglia rosa, maglia rosa!” Every time, I needed to realize that it was me. It’s really a feeling I can’t explain. I have heard my name so many times.”
Valter became the first Hungarian to wear the pink jersey and the first to lead a grand tour. His achievement made headlines back home.
He will be under pressure to keep it this weekend. Evenepoel and Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) are both less than 20 seconds back. Saturday’s stage finishes with a punchy uphill finale that could prove troublesome, while Sunday’s transition stage could provoke ambushes.
“For a rider like me, it is obviously a great thing to be able to defend a jersey on a grand tour,” said the 22-year-old. “We were lucky today. It wasn’t a stage too hard to control. We were able to quietly enjoy this day in pink.”
▪️ Premières 24 heures en rose : "C'était incroyable"
▪️ Philippe Mauduit : "Les gars ont bien géré"
▪️ Antoine Duchesne : "On est d'attaque pour le week-end"
— Équipe Cycliste Groupama-FDJ (@GroupamaFDJ) May 14, 2021
Social media we like …
— Velon CC (@VelonCC) May 14, 2021
📽️ "My legs were absolutely burning", said the stage winner. You’d better believe him.
📽️ "Le mie gambe stavano prendendo fuoco" ha detto il vincitore. C'è da credergli.
— Giro d'Italia (@giroditalia) May 14, 2021
— Cycling out of context (@OutOfCycling) May 14, 2021