In predicting who might be quickest up the climb at the end of the stage 2 time trial at the Giro d’Italia, precious few would have pointed to Rick Zabel.
The German is hardly known for his climbing skills, and indeed will be focusing on his speciality as a lead-out man for Israel-Premier Tech sprinter Giacomo Nizzolo on Sunday’s flat stage 3.
But of all the 176 riders who took to the 9.2km time trial course on Saturday, Zabel recorded the fastest time for the 1.3km uphill segment at the end.
This was not a timing error, and on closer inspection turns out to be a clever tactic from Zabel and his team. As he rocked up to the start of Sunday’s stage decked out in the blue jersey of the mountains classification, it was clear a plan had been hatched and executed.
The time trial course had been split into two, with the flat opening 7.9km either side of the Danube preceding the final 1.3km climb, which hit double-digit gradients at the bottom before easing in the final kilometre. The intermediate timing splits would give an insight into pacing strategies but the latter segment would itself count towards the mountains classification - the fastest on the day earning three points.
Extraordinarily, that rider was Zabel, who clocked just over two minutes and 14 seconds for the effort – more than four seconds quicker than the stage winner, Simon Yates.
But where did such a climbing performance come from? The answer lies in Zabel’s time for the opening 7.9km section, where the flat terrain should have suited him better. He was the second slowest of the entire field there, more than 90 seconds down on Yates and only faster than Thomas Bayer, who crashed. Zabel was in fact pedalling as slowly as possible without putting himself outside the time limit, saving his resources before unleashing it in one explosive effort up the climb.
He wasn’t the only rider who had that idea. Pascal Eenkhoorn (Jumbo-Visma), another rider more known for his work on the flat, was second quickest up the climb, 77 hundredths of a second off Zabel’s time, having ridden a similarly slow opening section. Diego Rosa (Eolo-Kometa), sandwiched between Yates and Mathieu van der Poel in fourth place on the climb, is another rider who tried the same tactic.
There were three mountains classification points on offer for the fastest rider up the climb, which Zabel snapped up. They weren’t enough to put him into the outright lead of the classification but they did bring him level with stage 1 winner Van der Poel. Given the Dutchman is wearing the pink jersey of overall leader, that meant the blue jersey was on offer to be worn on loan by the second-placed rider in the mountains standings.
“Crazy plan,” wrote Israel-Premier Tech performance coach Greg Henderson in a tongue-in-cheek indication of the plan. “Who would have thought of that?”
However, this is something that has been done at the past. It’s even been done by Zabel himself, at this very race two years ago. That late-season 2020 edition of the Giro opened with a short time trial from Monreale to Palermo, which started out with a short, steep climb before a descent and a flatter section at the end.
Zabel was the fastest rider up that opening section - ahead of Peter Sagan and Davide Ballerini - before fading into anonymity and placing 121st. Still, he took to the start of the following stage in the blue jersey.
Two years on, he’s been at it again.
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Deputy Editor - Europe. Patrick is an NCTJ-trained journalist who has seven years’ experience covering professional cycling. He has a modern languages degree from Durham University and has been able to put it to some use in what is a multi-lingual sport, with a particular focus on French and Spanish-speaking riders. After joining Cyclingnews as a staff writer on the back of work experience, Patrick became Features Editor in 2018 and oversaw significant growth in the site’s long-form and in-depth output. Since 2021 he has been Deputy Editor - Europe, taking more responsibility for the site’s content as a whole, while still writing and - despite a pandemic-induced hiatus - travelling to races around the world. Away from cycling, Patrick spends most of his time playing or watching other forms of sport - football, tennis, trail running, darts, to name a few, but he draws the line at rugby.
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