Attila Valter does a neat line in self-deprecation. Asked if leading the Giro d’Italia had changed his status among the grandees of the peloton, the Hungarian laughed. “I think, first of all, they know who I am now,” he said in Guardia Sanframondi on Saturday evening.
The uphill finale offered a chance, in theory at least, for Remco Evenepoel (Deceuninck-QuickStep) or Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) to divest Valter of the maglia rosa, but the Groupama-FDJ man dealt comfortably with the high pace in the closing kilometres, rolling safely across the line in a 25-man group that contained all of the overall contenders.
Indeed, the more pressing threat to Valter’s lead came early in the stage, when the peloton broke up in crosswinds shortly after leaving Foggia and the 22-year-old briefly found himself on the wrong side of the split.
“That was a mistake by me. I hope it wasn’t on the cameras but then I can’t do much that isn’t recorded at the moment,” Valter said in the press conference truck at the finish. “I just tried to save myself as much as possible and focus on riders around me like Romain Bardet and Vincenzo Nibali around me. I knew it was super far from the finish, so I wasn’t so stressed, but it was a mistake from myself.”
Such errors, Valter acknowledged, are the residual effect of his grounding as a mountain bike rider. It was only after his stage win at Tignes on the 2019 Tour de l’Avenir that he opted to devote himself fully to the road, and he is still mastering some of the rudiments of placing himself at the sharp end of the peloton.
“Coming to the road late didn’t help my positioning, but it’s something I’ve improved and this jersey helps a lot. There are races where I never even see what happens in the front, but here I’ve never been in front so much in my life,” said Valter, who confessed that he had been almost reticent to occupy real estate at the head of the peloton prior to this Giro.
“When it’s a race where I’m not well placed overall, I don’t like to bother the GC riders by staying in front in the downhill when I have nothing to do there. But this time I do, so I find it much easier.”
Sunday sees the Giro’s most demanding stage yet, with some 3,400 metres of climbing on the road from Castel di Sangro to the Apennine ski resort of Campo Felice. The final 40km are largely uphill, while the last 1,600 metres are on gravel, which might trigger some muscle memory from Valter’s mountain biking career.
“Sometimes I still go on mountain bike or gravel, so I feel quite confident about that – but there are quite a lot of kilometres before that too,” he said. “If I arrive there still in front, then I should be OK, but the problem is the part that comes before that gravel section. But the profile could be good for me, it’s a stage that generally I like a lot.”
When Evenepoel tracked Bernal in the final two kilometres at San Giacomo on Thursday, it looked as though the Belgian was about to take the lead in his first Grand Tour, but few had reckoned with the battling Valter, who limited his losses sufficiently to take the maglia rosa by 11 seconds.
Valter still carries that slender lead over Evenepoel into Sunday’s stage, while Bernal is just five seconds further back in third. The expectation may be that either Evenepoel or Bernal will take the jersey from him at Campo Felice, but Valter politely pressed back against that consensus. His courtesy towards the peloton’s marquee names does not extend to stepping aside and simply giving up on his adventure in pink.
“Of course it’s possible it finishes at any moment, but I’m trying not to focus on that, I’m just thinking about my own performance,” he said. “I think it’s a good opportunity for me to go for a high place in the general classification in this Giro, so I have to keep fighting even if I lose the jersey.
“For sure, Remco and Bernal will have a big fight in this Giro and 11 seconds is not too much to keep them behind me, but I also think it’s possible to keep the jersey. I have good legs and I feel the motivation to do it. I’ll just do my best and then life, and the race, will decide.”
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