The hills were 30 kilometres away from the Giro d'Italia stage 8 start town of Foggia on Saturday, but over the plains it was still easy to pick out the climbs on the Gargano peninsula, the place where Alex Dowsett (Israel Start-Up Nation) took a landmark breakaway stage victory last October.
Dowsett’s triumph on the south-easterly peninsula proved pivotal in his highly stressful but eventually successful quest for a renewed contract with Israel Start-Up Nation.
But while the Briton will understandably retain the Gargano win in his mental rear-view mirror, he has returned to the Giro this year, he tells Cyclingnews, in a much better place than when he was fighting for a 2021 berth on the team.
"Things are tense and stressful at the race this year, but it’s an enjoyable kind of stress," Dowsett reflected at the start of stage 8, the same Giro stage, coincidentally, that he won in 2020.
"There’s not a huge amount of pressure but Dan [Martin] is excited with how well he’s going, which inspires us all. We’ve got Nicki [Sorensen] and Coco [Claudio Cozzi] as directors, the same as last year, so there’s some continuity there, too, which is good.
"And the team keeps upping its game behind the scenes. We’ve got a kitchen truck this year on the race, we get the same mattresses and pillows each night taken from one hotel to the next. That’s modern-day cycling for you; we’re all good riders at this kind of level, but this is an arms race," he continued.
"So I’m pretty chilled and pretty happy. I’m a bit lighter than last year, too, I’d like to think a bit stronger and the bike’s a bit faster so that’s all good."
With team leader Martin currently ninth overall and delivering an impressively strong ride on the San Giacamo summit finish on Thursday, as well as Alessandro De Marchi already leading the race for two days, morale is understandably high in the Israel Start-Up Nation team. And for now at least, the Giro support riders for the Irishman are keeping matters under control, no matter the terrain.
"Dan’s our priority, and has been from the start, so the main aim is to keep him out of trouble. But with the horsepower and lead-out experience that Mathias [Brandle] and I have, we can handle the stressful finishes," Dowsett said, mentioning the teammate who was with him in the break on the day he won last year.
"Yesterday [stage 7], for example, De Marchi had a last-minute puncture and Paddy [Patrick Bevin] had to sit up. But me and Mathias got Dan into position all the same. Then on the real hard GC days where Brandle and I can’t make it, we have Paddy and Alessandro De Marchi for him, and Guy Niv can climb too. But that’s where we’ll miss Krists Neilands, who we lost on the prologue day."
Neilands had crashed after the finish en route to the hotel, fracturing his collarbone.
Dowsett said that Martin’s ability to look after himself, thanks to the Irishman’s previous GC battle experience in previous teams, makes helping him a relatively low-maintenance experience.
"Something I didn’t realise that throughout Dan’s career is that this is one of the first Grand Tours, and I guess the last one would be the Vuelta last year, where he’s had a whole team dedicated to him.
"He’s had to fly solo for a lot of his career, which makes working for him very easy, because he’s pretty self-sufficient."
Either way, Israel Start-Up Nation’s collective approach in the Giro is not a rigidly structured one like other teams where "everybody has to get to the front, be at the front and all together all the time", as Dowsett puts it.
"It’s more of an organic thing, we’re all trying to keep Dan up there. It’s almost impossible to stay on a wheel for a stressful finale in the bunch, but as long as someone’s moving forward to keep Dan in position, it doesn’t matter who it is. That’s why so far we’re doing a good job, covering quite a few different bases."
The one element in the Israel Start-Up Nation programme for the Giro that has been somewhat isolated is sprinter Davide Cimolai, who was runner-up on stages 3 and 7.
"We just leave him to it and he’s been fine with that," Dowsett said.
"We haven’t got Rik [Zabel, part of the sprint team] here. So without Rik doing the last kilometre, it’s a waste of time for me and Brandle to do our bit from three kilometres to one kilometre to go."
As for his personal goals, Dowsett is not, he says, even beginning to think about the final time trial in Milan, pointing out that there is both still a long way to go and, apart from anything else, a newly-ordered skinsuit has been "stuck in a Spanish customs office for the last month".
Hiccups with the Spanish customs notwithstanding, the team are "working hard on improving equipment at a fast rate of knots, which is exciting," Dowsett added.
But in any case, with a GC contender in the thick of the action and some tough mountain stages on the programme, personal triumphs are on hold for now. And even if his victory in the Gargano last year won’t be forgotten, there’s certainly more than enough to keep Dowsett focused on the here and now in the 2021 Giro.
Thank you for signing up to Cycling News. You will receive a verification email shortly.
There was a problem. Please refresh the page and try again.