Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb) began the final week of the Giro d’Italia knowing that he had three chances to recoup his 17-second deficit on João Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep). The first, at Madonna di Campiglio, passed him by on Wednesday afternoon, while immediately after the stage, he learned that the third – stage 20 – has been reduced thanks to the removal of the Agnello and Izoard from the route.
Thursday’s tappone over the Stelvio to Laghi di Cancano thus looks set to define Kelderman’s Giro challenge. If he doesn’t succeed in shaking off Almeida and claiming the maglia rosa there, the terrain simply might not be at his disposal at the weekend. The climb of Sestriere is shallower than those excised from the route, while Almeida can also count on the final, 15km time trial in Milan on Sunday. For Kelderman, in other words, it might be Stelvio or bust.
“For sure, tomorrow is important. Every day is important. We are not done yet,” Kelderman said after stage 17 at Madonna di Campiglio, though he admitted: “Especially tomorrow is a big day.”
Kelderman installed himself as the favourite for overall victory at Piancavallo on Sunday, when his Sunweb team – and, especially, Jai Hindley – scattered the GC contenders to the four winds on the final climb, slashing Almeida’s advantage to a handful of seconds.
At Madonna di Campiglio on Wednesday, however, the Kelderman-Hindley tandem weren’t able to rid themselves of Almeida, despite a concerted, two-part attack with a little under 6km to go. Hindley accelerated first, opening a small gap over the pink jersey group, before Kelderman bridged across. When he looked around, however, Almeida was on his wheel and the move petered out. The Dutchman finished the stage alongside Almeida and the other podium contenders, five minutes behind stage winner Ben O’Connor. Stalemate.
“We tried to force something to get a gap on Almeida, but the climb was not hard enough and Almeida was also strong, so it was hard to try something,” Kelderman said.
“On the one hand, I had secretly hoped for something more. On the other hand, the legs just felt good, so that was good too. I was hoping maybe I could have taken the pink jersey, but the climb just wasn't hard enough.”
Shortly after the Sunweb attack, Almeida could be seen gesturing and briefly speaking to Kelderman. The maglia rosa said afterwards that he had informed Kelderman that he had no teammates left to set the pace, save for Fausto Masnada. Kelderman, for his part, said that he couldn’t make out what Almeida had been trying to say.
“I don’t know what he said, actually. Maybe he said, ‘You can try but it won’t help.’ I can’t remember,” said Kelderman, who added that he had communicated wordlessly, too, with Hindley during their brief offensive. “[The idea was to go] full gas, see what is happening. There is not much talking in a climb when you go full gas.”
Hindley will begin Thursday’s stage still in third place overall, 2:58 down on Almeida. It remains to be seen how Sunweb will deploy the Australian on the Stelvio and at Laghi di Cancano, though his acceleration at Madonna di Campiglio might have been a foretaste of what the team has planned for the tappone.
“We went there just to test the other contenders, to see how they were. Everybody was there, sharp and in the wheels,” said Sunweb directeur sportif Luke Roberts. “It was difficult to make a difference. In the end, it was sort of checkmate among the GC competitors. Tomorrow is day where we can expect some bigger gaps.”
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