The Apennine section of Emilia-Romagna is marked by areas of erosion where rain and wind have slowly left their mark on the scenery. The rock is sedimentary and unstable; the rain seeps in, collects underground and eventually shapes the landscape, and you can’t stop it. Rain, as geologists and cyclists know, gets in everywhere eventually.
Rain was the main shaping force on the peloton and the race during stage 4 of the 2021 Giro d’Italia, which finished in Sestola in the heart of the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines and was won by UAE Team Emirates rider Joe Dombrowski. It came down straight, steady and quiet, washing the colour out of the peloton and of its ambition. Rain jackets kept backs dry at least until the racing had started, but it inevitably got in – maybe an initial trickle down the neck, or just a spreading dampness up sleeves or from wet shorts, and eventually, there was nothing dry, anywhere. Some rare people relish these conditions; most are honest enough to communicate their dislike of being cold and wet through the medium of hunched shoulders, grim faces and no shits given about what is happening elsewhere in the race. And when 25 riders escaped and went minutes up the road, the bunch pretty much let it go. When they gained several minutes, pundits looked over the list of names, wondering which were suddenly GC dark horses.
You don’t get this very often at all at the Tour de France, but the Giro is more prone to large breaks that can shape the general classification for days and weeks. An even wetter, more miserable day in 2010, in L’Aquila, saw 40 riders put 12 minutes into the bunch, enough time for one of those escapees, David Arroyo, to finish second overall and come within a stage or two of winning. In 2019, in less inclement conditions, a dozen riders put seven minutes into the bunch and gave Valerio Conti a week in the race lead.
For over three hours, it looked as if the Sestola break might have a permanent effect on the 2021 Giro. There were 17 teams represented among the 25 riders, which, all other things being equal, would leave only six with a reason to chase. The most dangerous on paper were Dombrowski, 12th in the 2019 Giro, and Intermarché’s Rein Taaramäe, 11th in the Tour many years ago, though the Estonian has struggled with glandular fever and erratic form in recent seasons. Neither are Giro winners; then again, give them eight minutes and who knows how long they could hold on? But most importantly, the bunch just didn’t look interested – for large portions of the stage they could barely see the road up ahead through the mizzle kicked up by the race vehicles, let alone a break that was six kilometres further up the road.
For a long time, only Astana and Ineos Grenadiers committed to at least preventing the escape’s lead from going above 10 minutes. It was an unequal battle – even given the immense class of the British team’s rider Filippo Ganna, whose final day in the pink jersey would be spent riding tempo on the front of the bunch, there were more committed souls in the leading 25 to prevent the gap coming down. But while 25 against one is an unfair battle, even if that one is the best rouleur in the world, the erosive effects of the cold, fatigue, and divergent goals eventually left their mark on the lead group. As the climbing began, in the second half of the stage, the group split, with Taaramäe and BikeExchange’s Christopher Juul-Jensen going forwards, and a significant number of the others going backwards. Meanwhile Deceuninck-Quick Step started helping Ineos on the front of the bunch, and then Bahrain Victorious lent a helping hand. Seven and a half minutes with 20 kilometres to go became five minutes with 10 to go, four minutes with five to go and eventually just a couple of minutes.
Taaramäe and Juul-Jensen were replaced by Dombrowski and Israel Start-Up Nation’s Alessandro Demarchi, who eventually shared the stage win and pink jersey between them. And on the final climb to Sestola, Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers), Mikel Landa (Bahrain Victorious), Hugh Carthy (EF Education-Nippo), Aleksandr Vlasov (Astana-Premier Tech) and Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo) put 10 seconds into the next group of favourites.
In the end, the GC had a small shake-up. De Marchi will lead through tomorrow at least and possibly no further. The real favourites start at seventh with Vlasov, who is at 1:24, but apart from Deceuninck’s João Almeida, last year’s fourth placer who lost minutes today, everybody else – Remco Evenepoel (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Carthy, Bernal, Landa, Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange), Romain Bardet (Team DSM), Dan Martin (Israel Start-Up Nation), Pavel Sivakov (Ineos Grenadiers), Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo) and Jai Hindley (Team DSM) – are within a minute of the Russian.
Stage 4 is too early for race-winning moves, especially when the weather is so characteristically typical for the Giro’s opening week. Better to allow the slow and pernicious effects of fatigue to work slowly into the gaps between the best riders. As any geologist will tell you, erosion shapes the landscape slowly, but inexorably.
Edward Pickering is Procycling magazine's staff editor.
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