Blue sky thinking as Filippo Ganna cuts through the Giro gloom for Ineos Grenadiers
With teammates Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas without a win for well over two years, Filippo Ganna now has two in five days - and the same amount of jerseys to match - as the youngster's dream debut Giro d'Italia continued in entralling fashion in Stage 5. But how far can Ganna go?
It's now been a combined 1,667 days since Chris Froome or Geraint Thomas stood atop a podium for Ineos. Meanwhile, their young Italian teammate Filippo Ganna has won twice in the first five days of his maiden Giro d'Italia. Talk about a changing of the Grenadier guards…
When Ganna powered to a maiden World Championship time trial title in Imola less than a fortnight ago, it was the 24-year-old's sixth professional win. It followed his national time trial title six weeks earlier and his time trial triumph in Tirreno-Adriatico three weeks after that.
In fact, all six of Ganna's pro wins before his maiden Grand Tour were registered in his favoured discipline against the clock. It was for that reason that Ganna entered his debut Giro as the out-and-out favourite for victory in the opening time trial to Palermo.
Ganna duly delivered – and his seventh pro win saw him take the famous pink jersey on his first ever appearance in his national tour, a prize which could ease the pressure on team leader Thomas with Ganna expected to keep the maglia rosa warm for the Welshman until he took over the mantle on Mount Etna.
A stray bidon ensured that it didn't exactly work out like that, with Thomas hitting the deck and then being nursed to the finish by Ganna and other Ineos teammates as the Italian tyro relinquished the race lead while carrying out his duties as a domestique.
On a personal level, it didn't matter so much. Standing 1.93m tall and weighing a hefty 82 kilograms, Ganna was never going to stay with the whippet-like climbers on the volcanic slopes of Sicily now, was he?
Giro Stage 5 highlights as world-class Ganna delivers breakaway to remember
With two more time trials remaining in this year's Giro, Ganna's chances will come again on his favoured terrain. But the withdrawal of Thomas ahead of Tuesday's fourth stage changed the outlook of the race – both for him and his team. Ganna was no longer constrained shakled by a support role until it was time to don that rainbow jersey skinsuit; he was free to ride for himself.
"Yesterday I messaged with Geraint Thomas and he said, 'Pippo, you should go in the breakaway and try to win another stage,' so today I tried and I got this amazing victory for me and the team," Ganna explained, matter of factly, after he doubled up in unexpected but mesmerising fashion in Wednesday's long, rolling stage through the Calabrian hills.
Ganna was one of two Ineos riders to get into the day's break after a fast opening hour that saw the peloton devour 51.2km of lumpy terrain in southern Italy. The 24-year-old was present in the eight-man move with his compatriot Salvatore Puccio.
If Ganna is making his Grand Tour debut this October, Puccio is an old hand when it comes to three-week stage races. Six years Ganna's senior, the Sicilian has ridden six Giri and six Vueltas for Ineos and Sky through a career that has to date yielded zero wins.
Filippo Ganna of Italy and Team INEOS Grenadiers / Salvatore Puccio of Italy and Team INEOS Grenadiers / Breakaway / during the 103rd Giro d'Italia 2020, Stage 5 a 225km stage from Mileto to Camigliatello Silano
Image credit: Getty Images
Unlike Ganna, Puccio has no specialism to fall back on. A dependable team player, the 31-year-old can climb and put in a solid shift on the flat, but his closest flirtation with the top step of the podium came in stage 14 of the 2015 Vuelta when he came second, albeit 21 seconds down on compatriot Alessandro De Marchi.
Could this have finally been his chance? Puccio certainly looked to be one of the stronger riders of a break which also featured solid climbers in Valerio Conti and Hector Carretero. But with Ganna as foil, Puccio and Ineos held a slight advantage over their rivals.
“At the start of the day we thought that he [Ganna] could work for Salvatore and Salva would be our main man," Dario Cioni, the Ineos sporting director, later admitted. Even the person in charge of the Ineos Grenadiers official Twitter feed had no doubt as to who was the team's Plan A in the break...
But when Puccio felt the pinch on the double-digit ramp mid-way through the seemingly interminable final climb, Ganna managed to keep in touch despite three successive accelerations from Movistar's Carretero – another young rider usually employed in the service of others, on the hunt for a first pro win.
The arrival from behind of chasers Thomas De Gendt and Einer Rubio seemed to swing the pendulum away from Ineos. Lotto Soudal's breakaway specialist is an old hand when it comes to these kinds of long, hilly stages while the Colombian Rubio's arrival meant that Movistar now held two card with him and Carretero.
After all, Ganna was just a time triallist performing out of his skin. He'd surely crack when the leaner, lighter, defter uphill tempo-tappers turned the screw.
But as Carretero faded and the two new arrivals bickered, Ganna put the bit between his teeth, slipped into the big ring, went down on the drops, and did what he does best: time trialling clear of his rivals. With 16km to go, Ganna soon opened up a huge gap in the dank gloom enveloping the top of the eerie Valico di Montescuro climb.
Filippo Ganna emerged through the gloom of Stage 5 of the Giro d'Italia for Ineos Grenadiers
Image credit: Getty Images
Ganna's advantage was up to one minute as he crested the misty summit with the likes of Vincenzo Nibali, Jakob Fuglsang and other downhill specialists coming to the fore behind. And even though he didn't know how big the gaps were, Ganna kept his cool in demanding conditions to put the gloss on what Eurosport's Rob Hatch described as "one of the breakaway performances of the century".
Watching at home with a broken pelvis, Thomas would have surely felt a surge of emotion for his teammate as Ganna kissed his jersey, pointed to the logo of his sponsors, and punched the air as he rode up the ramped finish to cross the line in Camigliatello Silano.
"Filippo Ganna, who idolised Tom Boonen, Bradley Wiggins and Fabian Cancellara, has ridden like all three of them today," Hatch crooned. "He's been strong to get away, he's climbed like a goat in the mountains, and he's going to ride a time trial alone to the finish."
And having made a name for himself for only ever winning time trials, Ganna finally had a different notch to his bed post.
A second stage win in five days was a classy return from a rider who proved on Wednesday to be so much more than the sum of his time trial specialism parts. As Hatch emphasised in his appraisal of the Giro's new owner of the blue king of the mountains jersey:
For the first time in his career, he's the winner of a proper road race. Much more than a time triallist, is there any limit to what Filippo Ganna can achieve?
It's a pertinent question. After all, Bradley Wiggins wasn't seen as much more than a time triallist when he became Sky's leader without ever having won a road stage in a Grand Tour, let alone one in the medium mountains.
If Wiggins – who was a similar build to what Ganna is now – was able to slim down and transform himself into a GC contender and Tour de France winner, then perhaps it's a path Ganna could follow one day. You can bet your bottom dollar that this emphatic solo victory will be giving Sir David Brailsford some food for thought – and a welcome distraction from the events of a certain Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service hearing in Manchester…
Wiggins himself certainly thinks that Ganna is capable of emulating him one day, comparing his natural successor to the great Miguel Indurain on The Breakaway and voicing his opinion that "there's nothing he can't do".
Not that Ganna will be thinking of such transformations right now. He'll be on cloud nine after adding a third jersey – the maglia azzurra – to his rainbow and pink haul with a third victory in 12 days. Given the nature of the win, the latest achievement was all the more impressive than his world title or Giro curtain raiser.
Not only has Ganna become the first Italian rider since Nibali in 2013 to win a time trial and a road stage in the same Giro, the debutant has given Ineos Grenadiers a timely morale boost following Thomas' cruel withdrawal one day earlier. The delight in the team was obvious as Tao Geoghegan Hart and others swamped Ganna with hugs and congratulations at the finish.
Breakaway performance of the century? Ineos star Ganna celebrates remarkable stage win
Who knows what the team could go on to achieve in this Giro. The pink jersey is probably a bridge too far following Thomas' injury, but Britain's Geoghegan Hart is due a big win, while those two time trials will play into Ganna's hands again.
After his showing in the hills of southern Italy, perhaps we'll see a bit of Ganna in the Alps and Dolomites too. Except don't expect his prospective breakaway companions to underestimate him again after Wednesday's showing. The full extent of Ganna's armoury has now been revealed – and it's quite extensive.