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Zoncolan marks new phase of Giro d’Italia for quiet challenger Vlasov

Giro d'Italia 2021 - 104th Edition - 12th stage Siena - Bagno di Romagna 212 km - 20/05/2021 - Aleksandr Vlasov (RUS - Astana - Premier Tech) - photo Dario Belingheri/BettiniPhoto©2021
Aleksandr Vlasov of Astana-Premier Tech is second overall after stage 13 of the 2021 Giro d'Italia (Image credit: Bettini Photo)

Aleksandr Vlasov is a man of few words. That much was already apparent from his smiling but succinct responses in the mixed zone on this Giro d’Italia, and it was confirmed by his Astana-Premier Tech directeur sportif Giuseppe Martinelli earlier this week.

“If I go in his room and ask him something, he’ll speak. But if I didn’t say anything, we could sit there in silence for a quarter of an hour staring at one another,” Martinelli told La Gazzetta dello Sport.

Alex Ferguson used to say something similar about Denis Irwin during his time at Manchester United, and as with Martinelli on Vlasov, it was a compliment rather than a complaint. As far as his directeur sportif is concerned, Vlasov’s actions are loquacious enough. Everything else is just noise.

There is no language barrier. Vlasov speaks Italian perfectly after spending five years living in the country as an under-23 rider, and he has looked just as well versed in the rudiments of racing on Italian roads through the first two weeks of this Giro, where he lies second overall, 45 seconds off the maglia rosa of Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) after expressing himself clearly at each of the race’s major appointments thus far.

A strong showing in the opening time trial in Turin was followed by consistency at Sestola and San Giacomo, and aggression at both Campo Felice and Montalcino. Vlasov couldn’t reach the same pitch as Bernal’s full-throated accelerations on those latter two stages, but he withstood them better than most. 

For 10 days, the Giro had been billed by many as a duel between Bernal and Remco Evenepoel (Deceuninck-QuickStep). Now, as the race approaches the high mountains, Vlasov is the only rider within a minute of Bernal in the overall standings. He downplayed the idea that he was the Colombian’s principal challenger, given that riders like Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange), fourth at 1:22, remain close at hand.

“Bernal is going very well. But now we’re coming into the big mountain stages and we’ll see more then,” said Vlasov, who has a habit of politely laughing off any question that might even vaguely hype up his chances. “Now I’m just trying to stay calm, because I certainly think the third week will be decisive.”

Vlasov laughed, too, when asked if he had erred in trying to anticipate Bernal’s attack on the Passo del Lume Spento on stage 11, just as he had done on the gravel atop Campo Felice three days earlier.

“I don’t know, maybe I would have been better off staying on the wheels but I thought I’d try,” he said. “Maybe it was a bit of a mistake, but I tried and I’m not disappointed.”

Monte Zoncolan

Vlasov’s Grand Tour debut at last October’s Giro lasted just a day and a half, when he was forced to withdraw with stomach problems on the road to Agrigento, but the condensed nature of the 2020 calendar gave him the chance to have another tilt at a three-week race at that month’s Vuelta a España. An 11th place in Madrid bore out the impressions of his amateur career and remarkable debut campaign at Astana, which suggested an aptitude for long stage races.

Last autumn, Vlasov was due to be part of a leadership triumvirate on the Giro alongside Jakob Fuglsang and Miguel Ángel López. This time out, he set out from Turin as the undisputed leader at Astana-Premier Tech, with men like Luis León Sánchez and Gorka Izagirre deployed to work exclusively on his behalf.

“They’re very important in the team,” Vlasov said of the Spanish pairing. “They have experience and they give me advice on when I can be calm or when I need to push on a bit in the bunch. They always advise me to keep me in a good position.”

Off the bike, Vlasov’s advisor is, as of this season, Giuseppe Acquadro, who is also Bernal’s agent. Acquadro’s presence in Vlasov’s entourage has done nothing to dispel rumours of a transfer to Ineos Grenadiers at season’s end, though it goes without saying that Astana are pressing to retain his services. 

“When the Giro is finished, we’ll think about decisions for the future,” Vlasov told Cyclingnews on the eve of the race.

As far as Vlasov is concerned, after all, the Giro is only beginning. His strength against the watch means that he might hope to overhaul his current deficit on Bernal in the concluding time trial in Milan, but he knows, too, that the third week of this race is an entity unto itself. 

Since the Giro left Turin, the 25-year-old has echoed the words of Martinelli, insisting that the race would begin in earnest on the third weekend. Saturday’s imposing finish atop the Zoncolan marks the highest point of the Giro to date and the final three kilometres are the most difficult stretch of road of the entire three weeks.

“We’ll break our legs on the climbs and then we’ll see,” Vlasov said of the third week. “On Saturday on the Zoncolan, we’ll already start to see how we are in the high mountains.”

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