As recently as three days ago in the Giro d’Italia, Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal) was publicly questioning whether he still had the strength to combine going for Grand Tour breakaways with teamwork duties for fastman Caleb Ewan. But in fact, the answer to the veteran Belgian’s doubts came far sooner than perhaps anyone, including himself, could have expected.
On stage 8’s hilly circuit in Naples, the 35-year-old outwitted and outpaced his rivals thanks to a mixture of planning, teamwork, pure strength and, possibly most importantly, finely-honed race craft. The net result was a victory which initially looked well nigh impossible, given the strength of the opposition in the 20-man day-long break that had gone clear, but which finally ended with De Gendt tearing hell for leather for the line in a small group sprint and taking his fifth Grand Tour stage win.
Rather than be intimidated by the presence of overwhelming favourite and stage 1 winner Mathieu Van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) in the opening break, instead, De Gendt cleverly exploited Van der Poel’s presence to forge his own smaller move off the front with three other riders, including teammate Harm Vanhoucke.
“Today with [Biniam] Girmay (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Materiaux) and Van der Poel in the break, we knew it would be hard,” De Gendt told reporters afterwards.
“But normally they [the other breakaways] always look at me and I have 20 guys sitting on my wheel, and now we had 20 guys looking at Van der Poel and sitting on his wheel, so we took advantage of that.”
De Gendt even made sure that his move came immediately after Van der Poel had tried a long-distance move with around 45 kilometres to go but had been reeled back in, launching his attack straight afterwards.
De Gendt’s time gap with the three other breakaway riders never rose above 30 seconds, and at one point in the closing kilometres seemed all but certain to crumble away as Van der Poel led a spirited counter-attack. But stay away it did and De Gendt could take a win against much higher odds than usual, as well as a long drought on good condition and victories.
“Since the Volta a Catalunya last year, I’ve barely had any good feelings and a lot of times I’ve been sick, not well prepared or out of form,” De Gendt said.
“It was really perfect with Harm, firstly I had to work for him and he was supposed to attack on the climbs, but each time he went away the Movistar guy was stronger. So after we had gone over the last climb, I said we should work for a sprint and I told Harm to go full gas in last two kilometres and I’d finish it off.
“I’ve not been good shape but now suddenly I felt a lot better so I put all my emotion in that last sprint. I couldn’t fail. It was not an option. So when I won, there was a lot of emotion.”
So exhausted at the finish and overcome with what he acheived, the usually-articulate De Gendt slumped for long minutes in the media press box rather than head straight back to the podium for celebrations, barely uttering a word. But when he finally spoke, it was to say that at 35 years old, he had felt increasingly unsure if he could get another win.
“I have still won races in previous years, but I feel it’s getting harder and harder to be even in a good break. This year this is probably my third time in a good break in any race so this is an emotional victory,” De Gendt, who last won a stage of the Giro back in 2012, told reporters.
Lotto Soudal aiming for wins
In the bigger scheme of things, Lotto Soudal’s battle to stay in the WorldTour after a below-expectations start to the season has been generating a lot of column inches in the media. But even if Ewan has yet to take a Giro stage, Philippe Gilbert has recently scored a major victory in the 4 Jours de Dunkerque, and now another team veteran, De Gendt, has added to that success in the Giro d’Italia.
Rather than look at WorldTour points, De Gendt said he hoped the stage 8 win would both serve as inspiration for his teammates to try for joint attacks like himself and Vanhoucke, and also act as a reminder that even if a series of placings generated more UCI, sponsors preferred outright victories.
“They are the most important thing,” De Gendt insisted. “Most sponsors look at that, they are happier with a stage win than third, fifth and sixth in one-day race somewhere in France. Another aim of the team is that we want to win in a nice way and not just with sprints, either, also by attacking.
“I hope the rest of team sees these wins and the guys who are in Tro Bro Leon this weekend, say 'work togther to win in the same way'.”
De Gendt was also questioned about his tough first part of the season and whether, as has been reported in Belgium, he had been particularly scared after Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain Victorious) had collapsed in the Volta a Catalunya.
In a somewhat roundabout way, De Gendt explained that after what had happened to Colbrelli, he had become more convinced of the need to respect doctors’ orders to stop racing rather than continue with sickness. Hence his own decision to step out of the Volta a Catalunya when he got sick, as a precaution.
As it happened De Gendt’s previous victory dated from the Volta a Catalunya in Montjuic last year, on a hilly circuit which, surely not coincidentally, bore marked similarities to Saturday’s Giro stage. Indeed, when interviewed by Cyclingnews a few days ago, De Gendt predicted the Naples stage, “will be hard to control because it's never a long climb, never steep, but it’s not easy to chase.”
Fast forward two months from his Catalunya abandon and on Saturday De Gendt was able to provide a reminder of why a stage with multiple laps of the same climb still has a place in a Grand Tour.
“I’ve never done a World Championships or a Europeans,” De Gendt said somewhat pointedly, “only the Belgian one. But this circuit definitely had a championships feeling.
“There were a lot of people on the course, and with four difficult laps and all these short climbs, it felt a bit like a Classic. Maybe it’s not for every stage but we should have these a few times in a Grand Tour. It’s nice for the public and the racing is attractive."
One clear advantage of such a circuit, De Gendt said, was that it heightened the uncertainty of the outcome, to the point where on Saturday the winner was “not the one everybody expected.”
And as the Belgian cheerfully tore up the stage 8 script and rewrote it in his own, near-inimitable, style, rather than a predictable outcome, instead the Naples public could witness a masterclass in breakaway racing - and one of the most enthralling stages to date in this year’s Giro, too.
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