Another year, another maglia rosa, and a slightly different approach to the Giro d'Italia. 12 months ago, when Bob Jungels (Quick-Step Floors) moved into the race lead at the midway point, he was wholly unsure of his prospects of lasting the course deep into the third week.
A great many doubts will have been allayed by his eventual sixth place finish in Turin last year, and Jungels entered this Giro d'Italia with fixed general classification ambitions from the very outset. With two time trials on the menu, at Montefalco and Milan, the Luxembourger can aspire to better his finish of a year ago, though he sounded a note of caution after divesting his teammate Fernando Gaviria of pink at Mount Etna on stage 4.
"The colour of my jersey changed but my opinion of my Giro d'Italia has not," Jungels said. "My main goal is to make a good place on general classification. This is a great milestone for my career, but I'm very realistic because there are very hard stages are still to come. The finish on the Blockhaus may favour Nairo [Quintana] or other guys who are skinnier than me, but with two time trials, I will try to pull back as much time as possible."
Jungels showcased his prodigious abilities as a rouleur on stage 3 to Cagliari, helping to force the echelon in the finale that eventually set up stage victory for Gaviria. The Colombian was always going to be an ephemeral maglia rosa, and he duly sat up and waved smilingly to the cameras almost as soon as the gruppo left Nicolosi and began the haul up Etna on Tuesday.
From there, it was up to Jungels to hang tough in the group of favourites all the way to the finish, and the Luxembourger never appeared in visible distress on a day where a headwind limited the ferocity of the attacking at the head of the race. Jungels crossed the line in seventh place on the stage, in the 20-man group that came in 29 seconds down on stage winner Jan Polanc (UAE-Emirates). That was enough to put him in the pink jersey, 6 seconds clear of Geraint Thomas (Sky) and 10 ahead of Adam Yates (Orica-Scott).
"To be honest when you get to a climb of 18 kilometres, it's a gamble in your head," Jungels said. "You know you'll struggle a lot because everybody going full gas. It was 25 degrees at the bottom but up here it's only 12 degrees, so it was a big fight but you just have to stay calm. I managed to do that and follow the other guys."
Polanc began the climb with more than four minutes in hand on the group of favourites and held much of his buffer until the upper ramps of Etna. It was only in the finale that Jungels realised the maglia rosa was within his grasp. "I didn't have it too much in mind until I heard Brama [directeur sportif Davide Bramati – ed.] screaming in the radio to go for pink," he said. "I realised then that it was possible and I thought 'that's it.'"
Day by day
Quick-Step's concerted offensive on the approach to Cagliari was the undoubted highlight of the Giro's stint in Sardinia, but Jungels insisted the attack was a simple case of opportunism rather than a premeditated attempt to snatch time away from the climbers.
"Until now, I've been taking it day by day," Jungels said. "The action two days ago was not really planned. This morning, I knew there was a possibility I could take pink, but there were a lot of strong climbers too. I knew I needed to stay on the wheels in the headwind."
Unlike in 2016, when Jungels began the year with a fine stage win at the Tour of Oman and a third place finish at Tirreno-Adriatico, he had a rather quieter spring this time out, but he showed flashes of form ahead of the Giro by placing eighth overall at the Tour de Romandie. Although a WorldTour rider since 2013, Jungels is still young enough to qualify for the young rider classification.
"I've been training a lot, and I'm progressing with my age," said Jungels. "I was also new to the team last year, but now I'm a more fixed person. The team is built around me for this Giro and they helped keep me safe. Overall, I think I'm progressing on the tactical side, but I haven't done anything special. My preparation has been the same as last year."