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Giro d’Italia analysis: Downhill TT gives Nibali and Kruijswijk extra mountain to climb

Vincenzo Nibali of Trek-Segafredo in stage 1 time trial at 2020 Giro d'Italia
Vincenzo Nibalio of Trek-Segafredo lost over a minute to GC rival Geraint Thomas in opening time trial (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

On Saturday morning, the scirocco wind was making its unruly presence felt in the heart of Palermo, rattling shutters on the Via Maqueda, sweeping newspapers across Piazza Politeama, whipping up tablecloths outside the cafés around the Teatro Massimo.

The wind was even more persistent on the exposed drop from the Cathedral of Monreale into the city itself, posing all manner of decisions on strategy and equipment for the 176 participants in the opening time trial stage of the 2020 Giro d’Italia. By day’s end, the choices made – particularly regarding start times – were borne out by the results sheet.

It doesn’t really take a “weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” but Bob Dylan neglected to add that it does help to find a weatherman who knows when it’s blowing at its strongest. The GC men who raced with a largely favourable wind in the middle of the order – Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers) and Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) – fared considerably better than those who had the breeze work against them at the end, like Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo), Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma), Jakob Fuglsang (Astana Pro Team) and Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe).

Team Sky willingly talked themselves up as the smartest guys in the room when they entered professional cycling in 2010 and there was no lack of schadenfreude when Bradley Wiggins rode the prologue of the Tour de France in a deluge having been sent down the start ramp early expressly to avoid the rain.

A decade on, Ineos’ ability to decipher isobars seems to be much improved. Both Thomas and stage winner Filippo Ganna set off before 3 p.m. local time, and while the gusting wind was hardly negligible at that point in the afternoon, its direction had apparently changed by the time Nibali, Kruijswijk, et al tackled the course over an hour later.

Ganna was a dominant stage winner – in truth, his strength was such that he might have won even if he had raced with an open parachute strapped to his back. Thomas finished fourth on the stage, 23 seconds back, and gained time on all of his established general classification rivals. Fellow mid-afternoon starter Simon Yates (17th at 49 seconds back) limited his losses to Thomas well, but the Welshman has amassed striking-early advantages over all of the other pre-race favourites.

Nibali (69th at 1:29) has lost 1:03 to Thomas, while Kruijswijk (96th at 1:44) is already 1:21 behind the Ineos rider, with Fuglsang (100th at 1:47) a further 3 seconds back. Majka lost 1:37 to Thomas. 

There are, of course, 20 stages still to go and 20 days in which the gentle flapping of butterfly wings can rapidly spiral into hurricanes, but the gaps are still notable. A minute, or more, is not easily recouped in modern cycling, at least before the accumulated fatigue begins to take its toll in the third week.

“The forecast was that the wind was a little bit less in the afternoon, but in the end, it didn’t turn out that way,” Kruijswijk said afterwards. “I noticed that I wasn’t getting the speed in the ride that I had in the recon. That’s not a good feeling, but it is what it is. 

“You saw also that the riders who started around the same time as me, they also lost quite a lot of time. Thomas took an advantage straight from the start.”

Saturday’s time trial was Kruijswijk’s first race since he fractured his scapula at the Dauphiné, but he said that the injury didn’t nag at him as much as the early ground he had conceded. “The only thing bothering me now is 1:30 or whatever it is on Thomas,” he said. “We have to wait and see where we can make it up. But luckily, we still have time.”

Nibali’s disappointment was obvious when he crossed the finish line, though he struck a more upbeat note in a statement released by his Trek-Segafredo team an hour or so later, declaring himself “satisfied” with a performance that he adjudged to be “in line with the expectations we have.”

Considering how well Nibali fared in the three time trials in last year’s Giro – and, given the presence of another 50km of time trialling later in this year’s race – his deficit here will surely be cause for concern. Like Kruijswijk, he felt that the wind accounted for a sizeable part of his losses.

“Generally speaking, the only note to highlight on this stage is the wind factor that, numbers in hand, affected the final results quite a bit,” Nibali said. “Having said this, chapeau to Thomas for his performance, and now let’s look to the next stages.”

As well as losing ground to Thomas, Fuglsang now also finds himself almost half a minute behind his stablemate Aleksandr Vlasov (54th at 1:20 on the stage). The Astana pair presented a united front before the race, but falling behind an ambitious teammate early on can leave a man feeling hemmed in, as Mikel Landa could attest after last year. Fuglsang will also have to do without the support of Miguel Ángel López, who was forced to abandon after a heavy crash in the time trial.

The road ahead

Despite the hefty gaps, it is usually unwise to extrapolate too much from the opening time trial of a Grand Tour, even one as long as this, and in a race with two more stages against the watch to come. The largely downhill nature of the route made this a different kind of test to the rolling 35km time trial to Valdobbiadene on stage 14 or the short, flat run to Milan on the final day.

Even so, the performances of Thomas and Yates appear to bear out their displays at Tirreno-Adriatico last month. The high mountains will present another kind of challenge, of course, but the British pair look ready, and they are backed by two of the strongest teams in the Giro.

“It’s a funny one because when a time trial is as short and fast as that, you think there won’t be gaps, but when you’ve got to put out a lot of power, I think there can be quite big gaps,” Thomas said. “I don’t think you can read too much into it but we’ll see. There’s a lot of hard days to come already.”

Another striking performance was delivered by João Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep), the neo-professional whose light has been hidden under the bushel of Remco Evenepoel’s ebullience for much of the season. The Portuguese rider placed second here, one second up on Thomas. In Evenepoel’s absence, the 22-year-old will have the chance to explore his own abilities as a GC rider in Italy. The recent portents are promising: he was third at the Vuelta a Burgos, second at the Giro dell’Emila and third at the Settimana Coppi e Bartali.

“Remco is stronger than me and I would have supported him. It’s a bit more open without him,” said Almeida, who is within striking distance of the maglia rosa in Sunday’s uphill finale in Agrigento. “Who knows? Everything is a possibility.”

It’s a thought to sustain those who lost out on Saturday, too, even if the downhill time trial in Palermo has left Nibali, Kruijswijk et al with an extra mountain to climb on this Giro. The redrawn route of the rescheduled race requires contenders to hit the ground running. They will hope for better when they tackle Etna on Monday.