The 14th stage of the 100th Giro d’Italia was devoted to the memory of the two great tragic heroes of Italian cycling, with a stage start in Castellania, birth and burial place of the campionissimo Fausto Coppi, and the finish at the Oropa sanctuary, location for one of the final wins in the career of Marco Pantani, who died of a cocaine overdose on Valentine’s Day 2004.
Both were at the heart of stories that reflected the blurred morals of their respective times: Coppi and his mistress, Giulia Occhini, fell foul of Italy’s outdated adultery laws when their affair became public in 1953, while Pantani became simultaneously a celebrity and a pariah after he was thrown off the 1999 Giro for failing a test aimed at limiting the use of the blood booster erythropoietin.
There is little of Coppi or Pantani about the current Giro leader, Tom Dumoulin, whose victory at the sanctuary enabled him to extend his advantage on the Colombian climber Nairo Quintana to 2min 47sec. The Dutchman is not a figure with either man’s romantic appeal, showing little vulnerability and not a whiff of controversy. Even so, it was a win that set up what might prove to be a final week worthy of a race that constantly evokes Giro greats of the past.
The toughness of what lies ahead was reflected in the fact that two of the best sprinters in the race, André Greipel and Jakub Mareczko, pulled out on Saturday, for the simple reason that they have nothing left to target: there are no flat stages between Oropa and next Saturday’s finish in Asiago. The final day’s 29km run from Monza to Milan has not a single hill, but it is a time trial and that will weigh heavily on the minds of all of those involved in the battle for the overall title.
Dumoulin’s decisive victory in the time trial in Umbria should make for a classic duel in the final week between the time triallist – passista as the Italian jargon has it – against the pure climber, or scalatore, Quintana. Those two are the principal favourites, with two men waiting in the wings if either falters: the defending champion Vincenzo Nibali, who came good in a similarly tough final week last year, and the Frenchman Thibaut Pinot. Both men lost time to Dumoulin on Saturday but not enough to end their hopes.
Surprisingly, given that an Irishman, a Swede and a Canadian figure on the overall winners’ list, no Dutchman has ever taken the Giro. Dumoulin’s ambitionsof breaking that duck hinge on whether he can start next Sunday’s time trial either ahead of or close enough behind Quintana that he can hope to dislodge him. If he is within three minutes he will have a fighting chance, meaning that the Colombian has to pick up around six minutes on him in the next six days.
The finish at Oropa was atop the kind of ascent that suits a time trialist such as Dumoulin: very few steep slopes and a dragging run to the chequered flag where he could bring his strength fully to bear. It was also relatively brief and a single ascent where team support barely mattered. The multiple marathon climbs in the Alps – and particularly Tuesday’s double climb of the Passo del Stelvio – will look far more propitious to Quintana and his Movistar team.
Returning to Giro history, Coppi – who will forever be associated with the Stelvio pass as well – and Pantani had good reason to believe they were jinxed in their careers, which were blighted by a range of crashes and injuries. Such concepts might not fit into the Team Sky world view – marginal gains, logic not emotion, happy ants and so on – but the British team do seem remarkably unfortunate in their attempts to crack the conundrum that is the Giro.
There was a self-inflicted element to Bradley Wiggins’s debacle in 2013 and Richie Porte’s failure in 2015, but the crash that took out Geraint Thomas – who pulled out on Friday morning – and Mikel Landa at the Blockhaus stage finish a week ago was pure bad luck, caused by a poorly parked police motorcycle that led to a major pile-up in the front ranks of the peloton as it teed up for the first major mountaintop finish.
The episode has had a major impact on the British challenge in the race, ending Team Sky’s chances and reducing Adam Yates’s target from possible overall victory to a salvage operation.
It also severely affected Dumoulin’s hopes as one of his main mountain support men, Wilco Kelderman, was forced to withdraw with a broken finger. Early in Wednesday’s hilly stage across Tuscany, Dumoulin looked isolated when Quintana’s Movistar put the pressure on and it is likely that this was merely a foretaste of what is to come in the Alps.