Gianni Moscon's run of form since returning from suspension made him a resounding favourite for the Tour of Guangxi and the Team Sky rider lived up to his billing, soloing to victory on the uphill finish at Nongla on stage 4.
Moscon was ejected from the Tour de France after television footage showed him aiming a punch at Elie Gesbert (Fortuneo-Oscaro) in the opening kilometres of stage 15. The Italian rider was later suspended for five weeks by the UCI but he returned in empathic fashion when he won the Coppa Agostoni and Giro della Toscana last month, before going on to place fifth at the World Championships in Innsbruck.
"Winning is always beautiful. It’s a nice way to finish the season, I didn’t come to China for nothing," Moscon said after also pulling on the red jersey of race leader and setting up overall victory in the final WorldTour races of the season.
Team Sky were among the most active teams in controlling the peloton on the fast approach to the short final climb, as low cloud swept in over the karst outcrops that dot the hinterland of Mashan County. The rapid pace continued on the lower slopes of the ascent but Moscon had the strength to punch his way clear and distance his rivals on the final steep ramps of the ascent. He finished five seconds clear of Felix Großschartner (Bora-Hansgrohe) and eight ahead of Sergei Chernetckii (Astana).
"We were full gas when I saw that the other riders were very tired, I said, ‘Now is the moment,’" Moscon explained. "I didn’t think a lot about this, it was just a feeling. And I attacked. Straightaway I took some gap and I pushed until the end."
A year ago, Tim Wellens’ victory at Nongla was a down payment on final overall victory, and with two relatively straightforward stages to come, Moscon looks set to finish his season with the first WorldTour stage race win of his career. He carries a lead of nine seconds over Großschartner into the final two days.
"Last year, the race went like this, but every year has its own story," Moscon warned. "Tomorrow is a long stage with some climbs, and I will expect for sure a big battle. But I have a strong team with me. My condition is good. My legs are good, I’m pretty confident."
Suspension and reaction
Although Moscon’s 2018 season looks set to end on a high, it will go in the annals as a year beset by problems, including one entirely of his own making. Injury affected the early part of Moscon’s year and he was a subdued presence at the Spring Classics. But a strong showing at the Critérium du Dauphiné – including a stint in the yellow jersey – secured his spot on Team Sky’s Tour de France squad.
Moscon’s Tour debut would end in ignominy, however, when the commissaires ejected him from the race following his very public indiscretion early on stage 15. It was the latest addition to a litany of offences that included his suspension for racially abusing Kevin Reza at the 2017 Tour de Romandie and his disqualification from that year’s World Championships in Bergen for taking a tow from Italian team manager Davide Cassani.
Moscon also risked disciplinary action for his alleged part in Sebastien Reichenbach’s heavy crash at the 2017 Tre Valli Varesine, though the UCI dropped its proceedings against him in June of this year citing a lack of video evidence.
"Of course, it has been a difficult season from a few different points of view. I started with a knee injury this season, then a broken scaphoid. Everything else, you already know," said Moscon, who demurred when asked to speak in greater detail about his disqualification from the Tour and its aftermath.
"I don’t want to speak anymore about this. We already spoke a lot – maybe too much – everyone has his own opinion about this story. Everyone saw the video of what happened. I don’t need to explain anything."
On the evening of Moscon’s ejection from the Tour, Team Sky published a video in which the rider donned a metaphorical sackcloth and ashes and accepted the error of his actions. In the period leading up to his return to competition last month, however, Moscon appeared to walk back that apology in an interview with La Gazzetta dello Sport.
At Nongla on Friday, Moscon was asked which statement represented his true feelings on his clash with Gesbert in July. "I don’t know," he said. "What do you think? Did I make a mistake or not?"
Judging by the tone, Moscon believes himself to be a man more sinned against than sinning.