GIRO DRAMA AMONG THE LAVA
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On a cursory reading of the results for stage 4 of the 100th Giro d’Italia, you wouldn’t think that much happened on the race’s first mountaintop stage finish. After all, a rider from the daylong breakaway, Jan Polanc of UAE-Team Emirates, won Tuesday’s stage, while the next 21 finishers were within 10 seconds of each other—not quite the predicted “eruption” on Mount Etna, an active volcano. But while stage winner Polanc and new race leader Bob Jungels of Quick-Step Floors have achieved these feats at previous editions of the Giro, there was drama aplenty behind the headlines. One of home favorite Vincenzo Nibali’s top teammates was thrown out of the race for slinging a Team Sky rider into the spectators; stage runner-up Ilnur Zakarin lost a strong teammate with a broken collarbone; a pre-race favorite Rohan Dennis of BMC racing had to quit from injuries sustained in a crash on Sunday; one of French favorite Thibaut Pinot’s key FDJ teammates stopped because of fatigue; and a string of crashes punctuated the 181-kilometer stage across the island of Sicily.
Words: John Wilcockson | Images: Yuzuru Sunada
The day started off on a somber note, with a minute of silence in memory of Belgian cyclist Wouter Weylandt who died on this date after a crash on a descent in the 2011 Giro. As the peloton set off along the northern coast of Sicily, news came through that across the Mediterranean, near Nice, France, Team Sky’s three-time Tour de France champion Chris Froome was the victim of a hit-and-run driver while on a training ride. Froome tweeted: “Just got rammed on purpose by an impatient driver who followed me onto the pavement! Thankfully I’m okay. Bike totaled. Driver kept going!”
Then, less than 80 kilometers into the stage, Dennis was dropped and soon climbed into the BMC team car. Team doctor Giovanni Ruffini said: “After the crash on Sunday, Rohan had a strong headache but yesterday it seemed that everything was mostly resolved. Last night, he began to experience further headaches and started to feel nauseous. Unfortunately, this morning the feelings hadn’t subsided….”
“My head had been hurting and I was hoping that some exercise would change that feeling,” Dennis told his team website, “but I started to feel worse. I got dropped on the long climb when the peloton was riding easy. It was the nausea and a lethargic, no-energy feeling. I’m disappointed, of course. I think I feel worse for the people who have helped me prepare.”
It looked as though another man would have to abandon after crashing heavily on the descent of the long climb where Dennis was dropped. That was Alberto Losada of Katusha-Alpecin, who was carried to the ambulance, but team osteopath Hansi Friedl popped the damaged shoulder back into place so he could get back on his bike. Despite continued pain, Losada bravely rode the final 68 kilometers alone, to finish 38 minutes down, just within the time cut. He is expected to be on the start line for stage 5 on Wednesday.
The nervousness among the riders on this first mountain stage so early in the Giro was emphasized when Bahrain-Merida’s Spanish climber Javier Moreno had a set-to with Sky’s Italian climber Diego Rosa as the peloton raced through one of the fan-packed towns before reaching the Etna climb. Television images showed the 32-year-old Moreno shouting at the Italian before he grabbed Rosa by the back of his jersey and threw him into the roadside crowd. Sunweb’s U.S. racer Chad Haga tweeted: “I had an excellent view of the tantrum and punches, then had to dodge Rosa as he crashed into spectators. This garbage needs to be punished!” Indeed, the race jury reacted by expelling Moreno from the race due to “acts of violence” that earned him a $200 fine and left Nibali with one less teammate for the remainder of the Giro.
The day’s drama continued just as the peloton headed toward the final climb. A badly marshaled intersection saw some riders keep right and others swerve to the left, causing several riders to tumble. Russian favorite Zakarin came down but soon restarted but his colleague Pavel Kochetkov suffered a broken collarbone and is out of the race. Also injured, but with just painful-looking road rash on his back and right side, was Frenchman Jérémy Roy—whose FDJ teammate Alexandre Geniez had already abandoned. Geniez, who placed top 10 in the 2015 Giro, said he had felt fatigue every day and was not recuperating at all.
On the first slopes of the 18-kilometer Etna climb, Dutch favorite Steven Kruijswijk of LottoNL-Jumbo crashed, but just had “some cuts and bruises,” while Sky’s Basque climber Mikel Landa flatted and needed his teammates’ support to chase back to the diminishing peloton. Luckily for those who had troubles—including BMC’s Tejay van Garderen, who needed help after being forced to stop and put a foot down—the wind that had been favorable most of the day was now a headwind as the race changed direction to scale the active volcano.
That headwind nullified virtually all the attacks, including one by Nibali, so the strongest two-dozen riders were still together as they reached the upper reaches of the climb. The only man to succeed in eluding the pack was a feisty Zakarin, who needed to make up some of the time he lost Saturday when he flatted in the finale of stage 2. After taking second place, 10 seconds ahead of the chase pack brought home by Sky’s Geraint Thomas from Pinot, Zakarin said: “It was a good day for me. It was really hard on the final climb to Mount Etna, because we had a strong headwind. In the end I tried to go away to get back some seconds.”
But Zakarin crossed the line 19 second behind stage winner Polanc—the Slovenian who also won the Giro’s first summit stage finish in 2015. In his press conference, Polanc, 25, said: “I was thinking of this stage when we were here for a training camp with the team, so I went away knowing that if we were to be caught, I’d be up there for my captain. We were only four riders in the breakaway. Two of them were already at the limit, so at the bottom of the climb, it was not difficult to drop them off. It was more difficult to maintain the difference with the bunch. I had to push as much as I could in the last few hundred meters. I knew the top favorites were chasing hard. It was more difficult to win here today than on the Abetone two years ago because this climb is steeper and there was much more wind.”
This dramatic day’s other big winner was Luxembourg national champion Jungels—who’d gained 10 seconds on the other race favorites on Sunday, when his Quick-Step team made their spectacular crosswind breakaway in the closing kilometers of stage 3. That time difference allowed him to take over the maglia rosa from his Colombian teammate Fernando Gaviria. At the Etna summit, Jungels finished near the front of the group that contained all the other pre-race favorites, including Nibali and Movistar’s Nairo Quintana.
At his press conference, Jungels, who wore the pink jersey for three stages last year, said: “Two days ago our move in the crosswinds was an intention but not a plan. This morning also, I knew there was a possibility to gain the maglia rosa. I had to stay in the wheels because there was a lot of headwind. An 18-kilometer climb is always a bit of a gamble. I struggled a lot to get in the first part of the group, but I managed to stay calm and follow my goal. I didn’t have too many things in mind until I heard [my sport director] Davide Bramati screaming in the radio: ‘Go for pink!’ I’m super happy…but also realistic. At the Blockhaus [next Sunday], Nairo [Quintana] and the other skinnier guys than me might have an advantage.”
Jungels, 24, takes six- and 10-second leads respectively over British pair Thomas of Sky and Adam Yates of Orica-Scott into Wednesday’s 159-kilometer stage 5 from Pedara to Messina, the last of two stages in Sicily.