If the thousand-yard stares on the faces ghosting their way up Viale Crispi in the heart of L'Aquila already told much of the story, then the reading on the screen near the finish line confirmed it. Stage 7 of the Giro d’Italia, which brought the gruppo into the rugged hills of the Apennines, was run off at an average speed of 45.040kph. It was, by any metric, a brutally tough day of racing.
Pello Bilbao (Astana Pro Team) emerged victorious in the capital of the Abruzzo region, clipping clear of the break as they began the final rise towards the line, but this was a day of races within races. While the escapees squabbled over the stage honours, Valerio Conti's UAE Team Emirates squad chased grimly to retain his maglia rosa. Earlier, teams with an eye to final overall victory battled to shut down moves by their rivals. Throughout, riders battled simply to survive, to fight another day.
The Giro’s last visit to L'Aquila in 2010 coincided with one of the most unexpectedly tumultuous days in the race's recent history, when a break of almost 40 riders gained more than 12 minutes on the gruppo and threw the general classification picture into disarray.
That day, it seems, was on preying on many minds when the peloton left Vasto on Friday. Some 49 kilometres were covered in a searing first hour of racing as attack after attack was ignited and then snuffed out, like a malfunctioning lighter. A group of 19 opened a gap at one point, but they were soon pegged back. After two hours of racing, the average speed still stood at 48kph.
"It was really tough, it was really full on," Pavel Sivakov (Team Ineos) said afterwards. "Nobody wanted to let anyone go, I think everyone remembers a few years ago when Arroyo nearly won the Giro d'Italia. It was a really hard stage. At one moment it was a really small group of the favourites, so it was really full on all day."
De Plus and Gaviria abandon
Laurens De Plus (Jumbo-Visma) had been suffering with a throat infection for much of the first week of the Giro, even if Friday morning’s Gazzetta dello Sport wondered if his daily time losses had in fact been a deliberate tactic to spare his legs for the mountain stages, where he was due to be among Primož Roglič’s key lieutenants.
The answer arrived a little over 85km into the stage, when De Plus – suffering at the rear of the field since the beginning – wheeled to a stop on the roadside and brought his Giro to an end.
"This is a huge disappointment," De Plus said. "I worked hard towards this race all year and sacrificed everything for it, but my body did not allow me to continue. This hurts a lot. I have really suffered the last few days. I had hoped that I could survive until the rest day, but unfortunately it isn’t meant to be."
Vincenzo Nibali's Bahrain-Merida team were forcing the pace at the head of the peloton just as De Plus was flitting off the back, though the Sicilian explained afterwards that their effort was not aimed at eliminating Roglič's wingman from the race. Their thoughts were directed up the road, he insisted, where Simon Yates' teammate Mikel Nieve had drifted into a threatening move.
The intensity of Friday's stage also proved too much for Sacha Modolo (EF Education First) and stage 3 winner Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates), who put his foot to the ground in the opening hour, citing a knee injury. "I tried to hang on, but I could barely push the pedals," he said.
Gaviria became the second UAE Team Emirates rider to leave the Giro after his compatriot Juan Sebastian Molano was sent home ahead of stage 4 after returning "seemingly unusual physiological results" in the team’s internal monitoring programme. It meant that maglia rosa Valerio Conti had just five teammates left to help him control a most unruly race and try to retain the jersey.
Conti's task grew more complicated when José Joaquín Rojas (Movistar), just 2:12 down before the start, entered the break of the day, which went clear at the midway point. Diego Ulissi performed the bulk of the pace-making for UAE but once the break’s lead went above the two-minute mark, it took the unexpected intervention of Bardiani-CSF and Trek-Segafredo to ensure Conti held onto his jersey. While he paid tribute to his teammates’ work, Conti knew he had relied on the kindness of strangers in the finale.
"I think Bardiani were chasing for Carboni. He was second overall and in the white jersey, those are important prizes. As for Trek, Ciccone told me that they wanted to set him up for the stage win," Conti said afterwards. "It was just as well..."
General classification détente
In keeping with the tenor of the Giro thus far, the principal podium contenders eyed one another warily on the punchy run-in to L'Aquila but ultimately no jabs were thrown as Nibali, Roglič, Yates and Miguel Ángel López (Astana) all finished together in the reduced peloton, 1:07 down on Bilbao.
For the second day in succession, however, the favourites allowed an outside a surprising degree of leeway. After Sam Oomen (Sunweb) brought himself back into the overall reckoning at San Giovanni Rotondo, Davide Formolo (Bora-Hansgrohe) followed suit here, picking up a minute to draw level with Roglič on GC. In the overall standings, Roglič and Formolo lie 5:24 behind Conti, but 35 seconds up on Yates, 39 ahead of Nibali and 44 up on López.
Further back, the peloton finally shattered into several groups on the category 2 ascent of Le Svolte di Popoli, with the last riders coming home almost half an hour down on Bilbao. Conor Dunne (Israel Cycling Academy) spoke for many when he described it as the "hardest day of the Giro so far" even if Formolo warned that this had been "just an antipasto."
Another hefty course awaits the gruppo on stage 8 ahead of Sunday’s time trial in San Marino, as they face the Giro’s longest day, a 239km haul up the Adriatic coast to Pesaro. "Tomorrow will be like today," Conti predicted. "It will be long battle and maybe with a more tired peloton."