Race not done ahead of a mouth-watering mountain finale to the Giro d'Italia

With the queen stage and some new summit finishes to come, there's some absolutely spectacular racing to come at the 2021 Giro d'Italia writes Jamie Finch-Penninger.

Giro S15

Riders during Stage 15 of the 2021 Giro d'Italia. Source: Velo

Egan Bernal (INEOS Grenadiers) is in the leader's jersey for now and is fully deserving of that status. His form on the climbs has been dominant, and he hasn't looked in any real difficultly so far during the other challenges, indeed he was the main aggressor over the gravel on Stages 9 and 11.

The Colombian thrives at altitude, it was the foundation of his 2019 Tour de France win, the high mountains are very much his element, so there's no reason to expect he will lose his one minute and 33 second lead over nearest competitor Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange)... or is there?

Recent history at the Giro has seen dramatic collapses, comebacks and drama in the final week of competition, from positions more assured than Bernal's. 


Steven Kruijswijk was in one of these unassailable positions in the 2016 Giro d'Italia. He was the dominant GC rider on the Stage 15 mountain time trial, finishing the stage with a lead of 2'12 to Esteban Chaves and 2'51 to Vincenzo Nibali, his two closest rivals on the general classification. He then increased his lead the next day on the summit finish, with Chaves and Nibali fading dramatically, Chaves to a deficit of 3'00 and Nibali 4'43.

At that point, cycling publications were on the verge of declaring the race win for the Dutch climber, Cyclingnews ran with 'Valverde ousprints Kruijswijk, who cements overall lead' while we at SBS Cycling Central had him 'tightening his hold on pink'.

The cement was barely drying on that headline as one of the great days of drama of the Giro played out the next day, with the mid-stage summit of the Colle dell'Agnello to prove decisive. Nibali was on a mission, attacking over the top of the climb and then setting off in earnest on the descent. Kruijswijk, on his limit over the climb, misjudged the corner and crashed spectacularly into the banked up snow beside the road.

A battered and bruised Kruijswijk had to change his bike and try to recover to the front of the race, but he visibly struggled up the final climb and slipped to third overall. He finished 4'54 down on stage winner Nibali and 4'01 behind Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge), who pulled on the maglia rosa.

"I've lost the Giro. I've f*cked up everything," Kruijswijk said after the stage. "It was a stupid mistake on the descent. I just screwed up. I lost the Giro d'Italia here."

That wasn't the end of the comebacks, as a smiling but nervous Chaves pulled on the maglia rosa, only to have it taken off him the next day by a rampant Nibali, who overcame the 44-second deficit to Chaves and then just had the final processional stage in Turin to negotiate to secure his second Giro win.

Stage 15 of the 2018 Giro saw Simon Yates up by 2'11 on 2017 Giro winner Tom Dumoulin, while Tour de France star Chris Froome was at 4'52 in arrears but showing an uptick in form with his Zoncolan victory. Yates had been dominating the summit finishes beforehand though and appeared enroute to a comfortable victory in Rome.

Dumoulin drew closer in the Stage 16 time trial, shaving the lead to just 52 seconds, but with three climbing days to come it was expected that Yates, who'd already won three stages in the race would increase his lead rather than see it diminish.  

However, a vulnerable Yates lost 30 seconds on the Stage 18 summit finish to his major rivals, but that was just the preamble to the drama that would follow on Stage 19. Like Nibali in 2016, Froome was on a mission from the midpoint of the stage, hitting the peloton some 90 kilometres from the finish with a stunning attack on the Colle della Finistere, taking feeds from soigneurs specially positioned ready for his long-range move. Yates quickly showed that he didn't have any sort of legs to follow, and the other contenders scrambled to organise their own chase of the four-time Tour de France winner. 

Froome crested the gravel climb and then went into time trial mode, with Dumoulin having to shoulder most of the workload behind in the chase. Froome completed one of the most famous comebacks in history by winning the stage by three minutes, leapfrogging Dumoulin, with Yates exploding and finishing over 38 minutes behind. A Froome victory had seemed all but impossible, but came to be with a seemingly implausible attack.

2020 was another year for ridiculous changes in the lead at the Giro. Coming out of the Stage 14 time trial, Joao Almeida led the race, with experts speculating over just how long the youngster could hold on against his more experienced competitors. Wilco Kelderman lurked just 52 seconds off the lead, and nobody was writing off Nibali at two minutes and 30 seconds behind. However, you had to take a long trip down the leaderboard to find the two riders that would eventually come into the final stage time trial locked on time. 

Jai Hindley was sitting 10th, 3'33 behind, with Tao Geoghegan Hart 11th at 3'44, about to complete their joint improbable rise up the standings. They emerged as the strongest pair of climbers alongside a race-splitting super domestique performance from Rohan Dennis for Geoghegan Hart, with the three riders going clear mid-stage on the Stelvio, dropping Kelderman, Almeida, and the rest of the peloton. Hindley won that stage, then they did the same thing the next mountain stage, with Geoghegan Hart taking the win atop the Sestriere. 

The British rider quashed Australian dreams in the final time trial, but it was yet another example of the great comeback power of the final week of a Grand Tour.

The stages coming up in the 2021 Giro d'Italia could each offer the sort of narratives that we've seen over the years. The queen stage over the Passo Pordoi and the Passo Giau tonight looks like a similar high-altitude opportunity to the Stelvio stage last year, with a rest day afterwards to recover from any long-range gambles.

Stage 17 offers the Sega di Ala finish, the first time the climb has been used at the Giro and it looks like a proper hard climb, with variable gradients. 11.2 kilometres long at an average gradient of 9.8 per cent, including some incredibly steep pitches, it's not a climb where you'd want to be anything but 100 per cent fit.

Stage 19 and 20 offer tough summit finishes up the Alpe di Mera and Alpe Motta, which has its hardest gradients in the final kilometres before the summit. 

While it might seem like Bernal is on his way to a big win at the Giro d'Italia, margins in the past show that even much bigger leads can fall by the wayside with one or two moments of faltering or poor luck.

The Giro d'Italia continues with Stage 16, the queen stage of the 2021 edition of the Giro d'Italia that will see the riders crest three summits over the 2,000 metre above sea level mark. With rain predicted and some tricky descents as well as the tough climbs on the agenda, it will be a big challenge for those looking to win the stage and the overall race. Watch all the action from 1840 AEST on SBS OnDemand, with the SBS VICELAND coverage starting at 2120. 

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7 min read
Published 24 May 2021 at 1:20pm
By Jamie Finch-Penninger