It didn't turn out as expected. When the Giro d'Italia set out from Bologna three weeks ago, the list of potential winners was a long one, but few featured the name of Richard Carapaz. The Ecuadorian placed fourth a year ago, but he was not given top billing within his own Movistar team, far less in a Giro field that included Tom Dumoulin, Vincenzo Nibali, Primoz Roglic, Simon Yates and Miguel Angel Lopez.
Over the course of the Giro's three weeks, however, Carapaz quietly emerged as a contender, and then seized the opportunities that presented themselves in the Alps on the third weekend of the race. The 26-year-old was a surprise winner of the race, but there was nothing fortuitous about his victory.
It was not a vintage edition of the Giro but some familiar tenets remained. It was an elimination race, and while contenders fell by the wayside along the way, Carapaz was present and correct at each of the defining moments.
Dumoulin crashes out
No words needed. When Tom Dumoulin reached the finish in Frascati with blood flowing from his left knee, his Sunweb soigneur understood instinctively what needed to be done. He placed a hand beneath Dumoulin's saddle and gently guided him out of the finish area.
More than four minutes had passed since Richard Carapaz (Movistar) had crossed the line as winner of stage 4 of the Giro d'Italia, but there would be time enough for totting up the day's losses. Right now, the pressing concern was marshalling Dumoulin safely to his team bus.
The road continued to climb past the finish line and Dumoulin's distress was such that he was unable to turn the pedals over at all. Instead, his soigneur continued to nudge him wordlessly up through Piazza Roma and along the cobbled laneway that led to the crest of the hill. At the top, he carefully pushed Dumoulin off to roll down the other side.
On reaching the Sunweb bus, Dumoulin unclipped gingerly from his bike. Unable to bend his knee, he dragged his leg behind him as he made unsteady progress up the steps of the bus. Dumoulin would make a game, but unsuccessful, attempt to start the following day's stage, but, to all intents and purposes, his Giro ended here. Four days into the race, one of the Giro's outstanding favourites was already out of the running.
When the Giro route was unveiled in Milan last October, one had the impression that it was tailored precisely to Dumoulin's measurements. The race's three time trials, in Bologna, San Marino and Verona, all looked ideally suited to his talents. The relatively benign opening half of the race seemed to lend itself to a rider targeting a Giro-Tour double. The siren call proved irresistible. Originally slated to focus on the Tour, Dumoulin redrew his plans during the winter to return to the corsa rosa for a fourth successive year.
Dumoulin's premature abandon did more than simply remove one name from the long list of pre-race favourites. In the immediate term, it took away the one man expected to compete with – or perhaps even beat – the on-form Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) in the stage 9 time trial in San Marino.
As Mitchelton-Scott directeur sportif Matt White pointed out, meanwhile, Dumoulin's abandon and Egan Bernal's abrupt pre-race withdrawal meant that two teams expected to help control the peloton in the opening 10 days – Teram Sunweb and Team Ineos – were now riding the Giro on very different terms. "There are now two teams without big leaders, so those teams won't be there, either as allies or enemies," White said.
Dumoulin, for his part, was succinct when he bade the Giro farewell in a rain-soaked Terracina the following afternoon. "It's one GC contender less," he said with a rueful smile.
The Giro goes on, of course. Dumoulin's abandon and the seconds lost by men like Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) and Mikel Landa (Astana) dominated the headlines in Frascati. Carapaz's stage victory felt almost like a footnote to the day's drama, and it went almost unnoticed that the Ecuadorian had also clawed back most of the ground he had lost in a crash the previous day at Orbetello. One GC contender more, even if few realised it at the time.
San Marino time trial shuffles the deck
Primoz Roglic, it seemed, had forgotten how to lose. Already winner of the UAE Tour, Tirreno-Adriatico and Tour de Romandie this spring, the Slovenian continued his remarkable strike rate in the opening week of the Giro, landing an emphatic victory in the short opening time trial in Bologna and finishing the race's opening week with another resounding triumph in the stage 9 time trial to San Marino.
The race had yet to climb above 1,000 metres and two weeks still lay between Roglic and the finish in the Arena in Verona, but some observers already seemed ready to crown him as the 2019 Giro champion in waiting. It was premature in the extreme, but understandable to a degree. Roglic had dominated his GC rivals in every facet of the time trial but most notably on the final ascent from Faetano to the finish line.
After the finish, Vincenzo Nibali waited out a thunderstorm by chatting amiably with journalists in the mixed zone, visibly relieved at finishing so close to Roglic and at making such notable gains over some other rivals. It was a measure of Roglic's aura at this point in the race that Nibali evinced so much satisfaction at limiting his losses to 1:04, especially considering that he had lost 27 seconds of that tally on the climb to the line.
But then the San Marino time trial had dealt decisive blows to some of the other main contenders. Simon Yates lost 3:11 after struggling visibly on that last climb, while Mikel Landa and Miguel Angel Lopez also conceded more than three minutes. The Giro had yet to climb a mountain pass worthy of the name and their challenges were already compromised. They could afford no further setbacks.
The following morning, La Gazzetta dello Sport confidently trumpted the remainder of the Giro as being a two-way tussle between Roglic and Nibali, who was the only one of the top favourites whose deficit was still inside two minutes.
Neither for the first nor last time on this Giro, a fine display from Carapaz went almost unheralded, as he produced a measured performance on the sea-to-sky test from Riccione, placing 11th on the stage, 1:55 down on Roglic. It still left him some 3:15 off Roglic in the overall standings, but it put him decisively ahead of his teammate Landa on GC and bumped him up to equal billing in the Movistar hierarchy.
Carapaz takes advantage of Roglic–Nibali duel
When Vincenzo Nibali lambasted Primoz Roglic for riding defensively on the first mountain stage to Ceresole Reale, sarcastically asked if the Slovenian wanted to follow all the way to his home in Lugano to see his trophy cabinet, it was a real sign of the Italian's insecurity about own fitness and prophetically indicated the eventual outcome of this year's Giro d'Italia.
"If he continues to ride like that he won't win this Giro. I won't win it too but neither will he," Nibali said.
The Sicilian myopically preferred to focus on Roglic – his bête noire of the Corsa Rosa, and the two were so presumptuous to think they were the only contenders for final victory this year that they committed the biggest mistake in Grand Tour racing: they let rivals gain precious seconds. There should never be any gifts in Grand Tours.
Carapaz didn't think twice when he saw Nibali and Roglic watching each other, as if in a sprint race on the track. He surged away on the final part of the 20km climb in the Alps to gain 1:19 on Nibali and Roglic.
Incredibly, the next day to Courmayeur, Nibali and Roglic repeated the same mistake, with Roglic purposely easing up to allow Carapaz to gain 1:54 and so pull on the pink jersey. He thought it was strategically clever to let Movistar defend the maglia rosa, only for his own race to fall apart in the final cataclysmic 20km on the road to Como.
Movistar had the team to defend the maglia rosa all the way to Verona, with Carapaz proving he is a Grand Tour talent. He finished the 2019 Giro d'Italia 1:05 ahead of Nibali and 2:30 better than Roglic, leaving the regrets to his bigger-name Grand Tour rivals.
Roglic loses more than time in Como
Carapaz may have been in the pink jersey, but the Nibali-Roglic duel continued to be the focus of attention as the Giro reached the end of its second week with a miniature Tour of Lombardy on the shores of Lake Como. As well as dominating the two time trials to that point, Roglic had also seemed immovable in the mountains – except, of course, when deliberately slowing to keep himself out of the pink jersey. With the final Verona time trial yet to come, he was still favoured by many to claim the Giro.
Roglic's sheen of invincibility began to wear off, however, in the breathless run-in to Como on stage 15, when he was forced to stop with a mechanical problem ahead of the Civiglio. Ordinarily, this would simply have required a quick bike change but Roglic's Jumbo-Visma team car was nowhere to be seen. It later emerged that his directeurs sportifs had paused for a natural break with only 20km remaining, a most astonishing blunder – a mistake matched only, perhaps, by Jumbo-Visma's willingness to grant Carapaz so much leeway the previous afternoon.
Roglic commandeered teammate Antwan Tolhoek's bike for the final part of the stage and though he managed to latch back on, he was distanced when Nibali accelerated on the Civiglio. Worse was to come on the descent as Roglic, riding an unfamiliar machine, rode into a crash barrier.
By day's end, Roglic had conceded 40 seconds to Nibali and Carapaz. Small change in the grand scheme of things, perhaps, but a sign that his Giro challenge was rapidly losing momentum. The rib injury Roglic sustained in the crash hardly helped his cause, and the downward trend continued on the Mortirolo two days later. Roglic lost a further 1:22 there, and now the duel was between Carapaz and Nibali.
Landa stays loyal to the Carapaz cause
Mikel Landa sat soft-pedalling on a turbo trainer near the biathlon centre in Anterselva immediately after stage 17, where his almost nonchalant acceleration on the short climb to the finish had splintered the pink jersey group. The Basque came home 12 seconds ahead of his teammate Carapaz, who in turn clipped away in the final kilometre or so to pick up seven seconds on Nibali and Roglic.
A small knot of journalists tightened around Landa as he warmed down. Why, he was asked, had he attacked? Was it to try to get on the podium alongside Carapaz or to try to win the Giro for himself? "For everything," came the enigmatic response. It was an answer that bore faint echoes of Marlon Brando in The Wild One: "What are you rebelling against, Mikel?" "Whaddaya got?"
Yet while the narrative of Landa as outlaw is a compelling one, it doesn't stand to up to close scrutiny. He may have yearned for freedom at Astana and Team Sky, but at each team, at least when it really counted on the 2015 Giro and 2017 Tour, Landa acceded to team orders. It's a curious kind of rebel that always ends up obeying the rules.
In the final week of the Giro, as it quickly became apparent that the unflappable Carapaz had Nibali's measure in the high mountains, attention gradually turned towards the (potential) enemy within, and the pink jersey found himself fielding repeated questions about whether he had faith in Landa's loyalty to the cause.
At those daily press conferences, Carapaz calmly defused any suggestion that his coexistence with Landa might develop into a latter-day version of Roche versus Visentini. By then, Landa had already been doing his bit out on the road. When Nibali punched clear on the Mortirolo on stage 16, it was Landa who carefully paced Carapaz back up to him. At San Martino di Castrozza on stage 19, Landa stayed by his leader's side even when Miguel Angel Lopez attacked in the finale.
On the Manghen on the penultimate stage, it was Landa who helped pace Carapaz clear of Nibali and Roglic. Carapaz returned the favour on the final climb to Monte Avena by helping Landa lift himself onto the podium, for a day at least, though he would ultimately miss out on third place by eight seconds.
Monday's Il Corriere della Sera paid a rather backhanded compliment to Landa, noting how "the worst captain once again transformed himself into the best gregario." But then again, he had no choice. Carapaz, with his strength and his composure, had proved himself as the leader.