One day after teammate Remco Evenepoel pulled out of the race after his nasty crash over a guardrail, Remi Cavagna did his utmost to turn Deceuninck Quick-Step’s fortunes around in the longest stage of the Giro d’Italia.
On the eve of the first of two decisive days in the mountains, the battle to get into the day’s break was always going to be fierce – especially given the number of teams still looking for their first win on the race. Cavagna openly told Eurosport’s Bernie Eisel ahead of the start that he would fight to be a part of the break – and the Frenchman was in the mix on numerous occasions as attack after attack went clear, only to be thwarted by the rampaging pack.
Once Peter Sagan finally gave his blessing and a break went up the road that didn’t threaten his lead in the maglia ciclamino standings, Bora-Hansgrohe blocked the front of the peloton and – to be fair – resorted to some bully-boy tactics as both the Slovenian and his right-hand man, Daniel Oss, muscled in and almost physically impaired any last-ditch attempts by Bardiani-CSF to bridge over.
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The Ineos Grenadiers duo of Filippo Ganna and Salvatore Puccio then came to the front – and that was that; there’s no way anyone would defy that pair. The gap grew accordingly and it became clear very soon that one of the 23 men up the road would win.
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The break featured six former Giro stage winners in Andrea Vendrame, Gorka Izagirre, Dario Cataldo, Nikias Arndt, Max Richeze and Diego Ulissi, but it became as clear as grappa that the three danger men were Cavagna, the in-form Alberto Bettiol, and the Irishman Nicolas Roche (who was Sean Kelly’s pick for the day, off the back of compatriot Dan Martin’s win at Sega di Ala).
What Roche had going for him was two DSM teammates in Nico Denz and Nikias Arndt – and it was no surprise to see Denz go up the road after the first attacks came on the first of four climbs in the final 30km. Both Bettiol and Roche were then involved in a six-man move that formed on the descent before things came back together – minus a few straddlers – on the second, and only categorised, climb of Castana.
Cavagna made his move with just over 26km remaining – practically the same moment he put in his winning acceleration from the breakaway in Stage 19 of the 2019 Vuelta a Espana, the first and last time he scooped a win in a Grand Tour.
For all his growing renown, the 25-year-old only has six pro wins to his name, the latest two coming in the time trial discipline which has become something of a speciality for the rider whose huge engine earned him the nickname Le TGV de Clermont-Ferrand in his native France.
While Sunday’s final time trial will offer Cavagna a platform to ply his trade, Ganna’s dominance against the clock would seem to stand in the way of a win. With that in mind, not to mention the paucity of chances in the Alps, Cavagna had clearly planned his attack with almost military precision. And when he pinged clear of the break – leaving his only pursuer Gianni Vermeersch shaking his head in exasperation – it really did look like the winning move.
Of course, fans will also remember from Cavagna’s stage win in the Amgen Tour of California two years ago that descending – in particular cornering at high speed – is not his favourite pastime while being pursued by a rider of Bettiol’s calibre behind.
And if Bettiol misjudged one corner on the descent of the Castana climb, so too did Cavagna – on three occasions! Each time, he managed to stay up and retain his lead over the chasers, but it showed that the nerves and fatigue were setting in after almost five hours in the fierce heat of northern Italy.
As for Bettiol – he, too, had clearly marked Thursday’s stage in his diary. Having ridden so well in support of EF Education-Nippo teammate Hugh Carthy in the mountains since the start of the race, Bettiol was given a rare day to do things for himself now that the Briton has slumped to six minutes down in the general classification.
The 27-year-old knew that his next two days would be dedicated to nursing Carthy through the Alps, and Sunday’s TT – unlike for Cavagna – would offer no joy. So he buried himself on the penultimate climb and managed to reel in the Frenchman around one kilometre from the summit of the fourth and final ascent. Instead of sitting up and resting, he continued – knowing that this was his chance to put a nail in his rival’s coffin.
"I was really scared of Cavagna because he's such a strong guy and a really good time trialist,” Bettiol later said. “But on the really last climb when I saw him in front of me, even if I was really [done]. I tried to go deep, and I caught him and then immediately attacked to try to hit him mentally. The last opportunity was to try something on the climb and hope it did well."
It did more than well – as we all saw.
But the difference was very small. Cavagna – who was caught by Roche as well ahead of the summit – may have slumped to ninth place, at 24 seconds, but had he perhaps held on a little bit longer – attacking on the third, not the second climb – then it may have been him on the podium in Stradella and not Bettiol.
Rémi Cavagna (l.) und Alberto Bettiol
Image credit: Eurosport
“I had a plan – I wanted to take that last opportunity before the time trial,” a gutted Cavagna explained shortly after the stage. “I tried my best but maybe it was a little far out. When they took me back, I couldn’t dig in – and that was that.
“It’s a shame because mentally, I was feeling good. I didn’t know how much time I had and that was frustrating. It wasn’t easy against all those guys in the break today – there were too many good riders and good teams involved. A lot of teams had two or three riders, which made it easier for them. I was surprised I could go in the end when I did. But Sunday will be another opportunity.”
What was clear for anyone watching was that, for all his wobbles on that descent, Cavagna looked ridiculously strong with 15km remaining – to the point of never-been-caught strong. It took something really special for him to be caught – and, on balance, it was no surprise that it was Bettiol who delivered.
The 27-year-old former Tour of Flanders winner has been in the climbing form of his life in this Giro – and had he not been riding in the service of Carthy, he could have expected ample opportunities to pick up a maiden Grand Tour stage win. That he managed to do that in a stage sandwiched between mountain slogs where he will revert to domestique duties is a nod to his form, character and brilliance.
As for the TGV of Clermont-Ferrand, he’ll be hoping the Ganna Bullet Train has an off-day on Sunday so that he, like Bettiol, can taste success in Italy and deliver his own team a much-needed win.
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