Bilbao says all out for Lopez in Giro d'Italia despite stage win
Spaniard was sixth overall in 2018 but this year is '100 per cent' for Miguel Angel Lopez
Any hopes that Spain might have had of a second overall challenger in this year's Giro d'Italia in the shape of stage 7 winner Pello Bilbao (Astana Pro Team) have been quickly dispelled by the man himself.
Bilbao has a sixth place overall in the 2018 Giro d'Italia on his palmares, and the time gained in his breakaway on Friday moved him up to 11th overall on this year's current ranking, just ahead of leading time trial favourite and overall contender Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma).
But even when flushed with his first ever Grand Tour stage win, taken against riders as experienced as Tony Gallopin (AG2R La Mondiale) and José Joaquín Rojas (Movistar), Bilbao brushed aside suggestions that he might become a co-leader in Astana alongside their pre-race contender, Miguel Angel López.
"I'm not thinking about GC, even if it was important for the team to have somebody up there in the break so as not to have to work behind, and play a more defensive role," Bilbao told reporters.
"We're racing 100 per cent for Miguel Ángel here, now. This stage win was unexpected, but now it's the moment to work for him and try to win the Giro with him."
Now 29, Bilbao has forged a reputation as a solid climber in his nine-year career, first with Basque squad Euskaltel-Euskadi, then with Pro Conti squad Caja Rural when Euskaltel folded, and most recently with Astana, a team he joined in 2017. Although this is his first Grand Tour stage win, he also has captured mountain victories in last year's Critérium du Dauphiné and the Tour of the Alps.
On the other hand, Bilbao has been uneven against the clock in the past. As far back in 2016 he was 10th on a hilly TT in the Tour of the Basque Country when he was with Caja Rural, but has finished well out of the running in the 2017 Giro's time trials when he was not fighting for the overall.
In 2018, though, he was sixth in the opening time trial of the Giro d'Italia in Jerusalem, and 21st against the clock in Rovereto. He seems to have had another big improvement this season, as he has secured some notable top ten placings, including seventh in the season opener time trials in Valencia and Andalucia and 11th in the Giro d'Italia and Basque Country opening time trials.
Should he and/or Astana change their minds and decide to elevate him to Plan B status behind López, there are grounds for optimism for thinking that Bilbao could rise to the occasion.
Bilbao certainly did that in the Giro's stage 7, when he said that getting in the break of the day had been anything but planned. "It was all improvised, [Dario] Cataldo was supposed to be in the break, but then my legs felt good and we had a great opportunity to win today," Bilbao argued.
"Having [teammate Andrey] Zeits with me in the break, too, was ideal to help keep the pace high and give us two options. He did a heck of a lot of hard work and I can only thank him for that.
"Then in the final kilometres, my team told me to go for it, and to win in L'Aquila is something very special."
As for bolting away in the final 1.5 kilometres in a finely calculated dash for the finish, Bilbao said: "it was a real mind game, a very intense finish, one where you had to use your head as much as your legs, you had to find that opportunity and play your cards right.
"After such a long day, things were very equal between all of us, and then I managed to surprise the other guys. They were urging me on from the car, telling me not to look back and I could just pull it off."
Bilbao had multiple dedications in his head for the victory when he crossed the line, both for Michele Scarponi, his former teammate who died in a training accident two years ago, an uncle who has had a recent operation, and his own son, too.
But whilst Bilbao's victory was also the 26th of the season for Astana in what is proving to be a prolifically successful year, he underlined once again that the most important objective in the Giro d'Italia was "to win it with Miguel Ángel López, rather than the stage itself.
"But I've been looking for this victory for myself for a long time, it was a gift, one that will mark a 'before' and 'after' in my career."
Thank you for reading 5 articles in the past 30 days*
Join now for unlimited access
Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
*Read any 5 articles for free in each 30-day period, this automatically resets
After your trial you will be billed £4.99 $7.99 €5.99 per month, cancel anytime. Or sign up for one year for just £49 $79 €59
Join now for unlimited access
Try your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
Get The Leadout Newsletter
The latest race content, interviews, features, reviews and expert buying guides, direct to your inbox!
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The Independent, The Guardian, ProCycling, The Express and Reuters.