The longest week in cycling is finally drawing to a close, and it has been far more eventful than we would have liked here in the Sunweb camp. The nine stages of 'week one' have been a true rollercoaster.
Everything started well. Tom Dumoulin was off the mark on the opening time trial, but with a Grand Tour so back-loaded with brutal stages, it was widely agreed that coming in a bit fresh was the wise choice. At the very least we knew he would be in the mix with the GC favorites when the hard days arrived. The only question was whether Primoz Roglic could hang on to such superb form for three more weeks, and only time would provide that answer.
Our young team is on good form and was full of motivation in the first few road stages. We navigated them well and kept Tom out of trouble amid the chaotic sprint stages with the rain adding even more stress.
The first 228 kilometers of stage 4 went exactly to plan. It was a tough day, but we still had the whole team there and were fighting to deliver Tom into the uphill drag in a good spot. Then came a frightful reminder that months of preparation can be left on the pavement along with a fair bit of skin and blood with a simple mistake by a single person. With just six kilometers remaining, Tom was involved in the huge pile-up. Our team had gotten split up after a series of corners but were fighting to get back together when it happened. I was on the left side of the road and did what I always do when bikes and bodies start flying: throw my weight back, slam on the brakes, steer towards open space, bounce off whoever I need to, and hope I don’t get hit from behind. I almost managed it, but just before I came to a stop I was sent tumbling upside-down into the drainage ditch next to the road.
My first reaction was that the impact really hadn’t been so bad. The ditch was overgrown, and the drop of a few feet had been cushioned by the branches and roots. I was completely turtled with my feet above my head and my bike sitting atop my tangle of limbs. "Tom crashed! Tom crashed!" came through my radio, but I was in no position to do anything about it. Just as I began to wonder if anyone knew I was down there, a Bora rider’s head appeared over the edge and I pushed my bike upward toward him. Next to appear was Koen Bouwman’s hand, which graciously pulled me to my feet again.
After arriving at the bus, I learned the extent of the damage to Tom’s knee and GC standings. To my eyes, the blood made the cuts to his knee appear worse than they were, but the way he struggled to bend his knee was alarming. After confirming there was nothing broken or torn, he resolved to get through the night as well as possible and give the next stage a try. The GC was gone, but perhaps he could salvage something from all the work he’d put into the arriving in Italy in top shape. We had a team meeting that night to motivate us all to shift our mentality to stage-hunting. They were unfortunate circumstances that provided it, but the opportunity to go for our own results would not be passed up.
Stage 5 was grim the whole way around, with Tom’s knee forcing him to abandon before kilometer zero as the rest of the peloton pedaled into the bone-chilling monsoon. The GC time was thankfully neutralized as we entered the local lap. Decisions like that don’t change the result of the stage, but they do keep us all safer at the end of the day.
With another day came another opportunity, this time seized by Sam Oomen in the day’s successful breakaway, which launched him into the top-10 on GC. Rob Power was injured in the pile-up early in the stage, though, and after fighting for an hour had to abandon the race.
Things finally started to turn around for us on stage 8, Chris Hamilton’s birthday. We enjoyed much nicer weather than forecast, Louis Vervaeke showed that we are here to race, and Chris’ birthday cake at dinner was a real treat.
While all this was happening, I was biding my time. Ever since we made the shift to stage-hunting, I went into conservation mode. I helped my teammates where I could each day and then pulled the pin when things got too hard. I regularly get to chase my own results in time trials, but it is always in addition my job as domestique for a GC leader. Never have I been able to intentionally save myself for a time trial like this, and I was eager for the opportunity.
It was ambitious to look at a time trial with such a profile and say, as a bigger rider, “I’m going for it,” I’ll admit. But the course was well-balanced, and I was hopeful. I did everything right leading up to the race, giving myself no excuses, and left it all on the road. I seized the flat section of the course as my opportunity to gain time and then did the best climb I could, and in the end I finished the day with my best-ever result in a Grand Tour time trial. [Chad was sixth on the stage - ed]
And now it’s the rest day, a chance to break from the routine and re-fill our glycogen stores. The sun is shining and I’m flipping through the race book to see which stages I would like to target next (in addition to the final time trial, of course). The longest week is done—just two short weeks to go—but the Giro has only just begun.