Wilco Kelderman climbed off his bike and pulled down the zip on a pink jersey that was no longer his. He leant with one hand on his saddle and the other on his stem for a moment, and then walked gingerly over to offer his congratulations to Sunweb teammate Jai Hindley, who was propped against the barriers, still waiting to learn if he was the new maglia rosa of the Giro d’Italia.
While Hindley continued his vigil with a Sunweb soigneur and press officer near the finish, Kelderman climbed back aboard his bike and rode for around 100 metres before turning back again. In his confusion and his disappointment, he didn’t seem to know where to go, but he was acutely aware that his presence would not be required at the podium.
He returned to Hindley, by now confirmed as the new overall leader. After congratulating his teammate once again, Hindley accepted a jacket from his soigneur and then zipped it up over his maglia rosa, before pedalling down the course in the vague direction of his team bus.
“In the end it was a bit disappointing that I couldn’t finish it off, but in the end I can also be proud of the podium spot and hopefully Jai can finish it off tomorrow and we have then a really nice team result,” Kelderman said later.
Kelderman had begun the penultimate stage of the Giro with a lead of 12 seconds over Hindley and 15 over Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers), and despite his travails on the Stelvio on Thursday, he had been bullish about his prospects of defending his lead on the more amenable slopes towards Sestriere. The sizable influx of Dutch journalists in the Giro press room in the final week seemed a confirmation of his status as favourite.
The Dutchman’s task looked to have been facilitated by the removal of the Agnello and the Izoard from the route after France closed its borders to the Giro due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the triple ascent of Sestriere proved a workable substitute for Ineos, whose avowed target for the day was to distance Kelderman ahead of the final time trial in Milan.
As on the Stelvio, Rohan Dennis took up the reins on the penultimate climb and his startling surge four kilometres from the summit shook everyone loose, bar Geoghegan Hart and Hindley. Kelderman still had 30km to go and a descent in which to try to recoup his losses, but he also knew that he would have to scale the same climb again and face the same onslaught. He was already racing in a jersey that was no longer his.
“It was like we expected,” Kelderman said at the Sunweb team bus an hour or so after the stage. “We had the plan up front to react. Jai was good enough to follow but I wasn’t. That was actually the same as the Stelvio stage. The best two climbers were in front.”
Geoghegan Hart would outsprint Hindley for stage victory at the finish, and the same two riders will contest overall victory in Milan on Sunday afternoon. Hindley will begin the stage in the maglia rosa but both men are locked on the same time. The 15.7km test will decide the entire Giro
Kelderman and his chasing group, meanwhile, were a minute down on the leaders at the base of the final haul up Sestriere, and the gap ballooned to 1:50 with 6km still to race. A spirited pursuit from Deceuninck-QuickStep suddenly made a dent in that deficit and it briefly looked as though Kelderman might make an improbable comeback. When João Almeida accelerated with purpose from the group shortly afterwards, however, Kelderman couldn’t follow.
“I certainly didn’t give up, but at some point, you know that you have to switch gears and go for a podium,” he said. “There is also no point in deflating yourself in the valley against Dennis and then finishing fifth in the Giro. This was simply the highest possible result.”
Kelderman reached the summit eighth on the stage, 1:35 down and in the overall standings he lies third, 1:32 off Hindley and Geoghegan Hart.
“I’ll go full gas in the TT, but I think they won’t go so badly that I can gain 1:30,” he said.
Tactics to stay in pink
After taking the maglia rosa at Laghi di Cancano on Thursday, Kelderman – who will join Bora-Hansgrohe in 2021 – had expressed regret that Sunweb hadn’t asked Hindley to wait with him rather than track Geoghegan Hart. On Saturday, he still felt that way, even if he acknowledged that he could understand his team’s reasoning.
“I don't know if that would have made the difference in the end. Maybe we both wouldn't have fought for the win,” he said. “I think we did it in a good way. Jai can win the Giro and that is also very cool for the team.”
Sunweb Directeur Sportif Luke Roberts defended Sunweb’s strategy, although Geoghegan Hart will be favoured to beat Hindley in Milan on Sunday on the basis of their past performances against the watch.
“We had an advantage before the two big mountain days, but the way Ineos were riding, we had to keep Jai up there to stay in contention,” said Roberts, who admitted to surprise that Kelderman had been distanced by Ineos’ forcing so soon.
“Yeah, I was a bit surprised that it was so early. I was expecting it to open up on the second climb, but it completely exploded. Wilco still did a good ride, he was with the other GC contenders. Jai was the only one that could follow Tao and Rohan, so we had to keep him in the wheel and keep him in contention.”
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