Thomas De Gendt saves Lotto Soudal’s Giro d'Italia after team replicates Jumbo-Visma in Naples on Stage 8
Never mind it being a decade since Thomas De Gendt’s first Grand Tour stage win, it was just one day since we saw a rider celebrate fourth place with as much gusto as Harm Vanhoucke. Belgian veteran De Gendt’s victory from a four-man move in Naples – mirroring Jumbo-Visma’s coup a day earlier – saw Lotto Soudal get the stage win that has eluded them so far through sprinter Caleb Ewan.
Stage 8 highlights: De Gendt tees up his own victory as Van der Poel denied
It was a case of very recent history repeating itself on the sunny Campania coast on Saturday with Lotto Soudal pulling off a near identical coup as Jumbo-Visma just 24 hours earlier. Seldom do you see riders finishing fourth from a four-man move cross the line with such beaming smiles on their faces – but this has now happened twice on successive days on the Giro.
“I was working for Harm so he could attack on the final climb,” De Gendt explained after the 17th win of his career. “But he said he didn’t have good legs anymore so I told him to ride full on the last three kilometres because I was sure I would win the sprint. He did it perfectly until a few hundred metres to go so I have to thank Harm a lot that he could pull this result off for me. We did a good job as a team today.”
'Good' was an understatement. Lotto Soudal were flippin' brilliant. With sprinter Caleb Ewan struggling to get a result in Italy, the Belgian team was in dire need of a confidence boost in the Giro – just as Jumbo-Visma needed to bounce back after their GC hopes Dumoulin and Tobias Foss conceded valuable time on the first summit finish of the race at Mount Etna.
Ewan had crashed on the home straight on the opening stage and then been badly positioned for the sprint two days later. When the Aussie pocket-rocket finally found himself within striking distance of the finish line, he was denied at the death by the superior bike lunge of Frenchman Arnaud Demare and a photo finish.
With Sylvain Moniquet joining De Gendt and Vanhoucke to make it a trio of Lotto Soudal riders in the 20-man break that animated Stage 8 on Saturday, it’s fair to say that the team were not banking on the lumpy circuit race around Naples being brought back for a bunch sprint. But what use is making up 15 per cent of the breakaway if you let the big-hitters ride away with it?
That was the key conundrum facing Lotto Soudal as they had to come up with the tactics to defy, on what had the feel of a one-day circuit race in the mould of a mini world championships, strong classics specialists like Mathieu van der Poel and Biniam Girmay.
Van der Poel attacks alone… with 146km remaining!
First up, the trio had to be able to respond to the expected accelerations from the favourites. The key move came with 46km remaining on the third of four ascents of Monte di Procida on the penultimate lap when Van der Poel struck out to cause a major shake-out.
“Mathieu attacked on the steep part on the second to last lap. He went really hard and we got dropped – all three teammates,” De Gendt recalled. “We made it back and we made an attack because we knew that everyone would look to Van der Poel and Girmay to close the gap.”
That they did. But the Dutchman – whose initial attack with 146km remaining just minutes into the stage provided the springboard for the day’s break to form – looked increasingly on his limit. And given the finishing speed of both him and Girmay, the other chasers were reluctant to drag them to the line.
If distancing him in the first place took a lot of effort, De Gendt and Vanhoucke – who made up 50 per cent of the leading quartet – now had to hold Van der Poel off. And had the stage been a kilometre longer, perhaps they would have failed – for the Stage 1 winner and Girmay, the man he beat to the race’s inaugural maglia rosa, came within a whisker of getting back on.
‘He had kind of given up’ – De Gendt rolls back years with breakaway victory
But given Van der Poel's pedigree, Girmay was appeared loath to helping his counterpart out in the final effort to reel in the leaders, seemingly content to secure fifth place rather than tee up the Alpecin-Fenix for a second win at his own expense.
Now the odds were stacked in Lotto’s favour – not least given the simple stat that showed that, like Vanhoucke, the other two riders in the move had never won a professional bike race before. A stage winner on all three Grand Tours, De Gendt knew exactly what he needed to do on the home straight.
“He was cool, calm and collected as you can imagine – he just said, ‘I’m the fastest here’, so I had to believe in him and gave him the confidence,” said an emotional Chloe Pridham at the finish.
The sporting director added: "Didn’t the boys ride well. We knew we had to play the numbers game and with Thomas De Gendt and his experience – he kept the young boys calm – and we did it. Just what the team needed. Now we can continue with great momentum – but this is one for Lotto Soudal."
After Ewan was denied by a photo finish three days earlier, De Gendt’s win on a day when everyone felt Van der Poel or Girmay had it in the bag, will be a huge confidence boost for the team. It also amounted to another 100 UCI points in the bag for a team staring down the barrel of relegation from the WorldTour – something which cannot be overestimated.
For if the team finds itself relegated then they will need rely on wildcard invitations if they want to ride the big races such as the Giro d’Italia. At the very least, you’d now like to think that De Gendt’s win in Naples – 10 years after his iconic win atop the Stelvio – will sway any decision should the points provided by Ewan over the course of the remainder of the season not be enough to keep Lotto Soudal up with the big boys.
But, for now, the focus is on that man De Gendt. Only 10 riders in history have left it 10 years before notching a second stage win in the same Grand Tour, and for that he deserves high praise.
The 35-year-old has been enjoying a little sideline in this year’s Giro in the form of a GC battle against his namesake rider, Aime De Gendt of Intermarche-Wanty-Gobert. After Lotto’s De Gendt had to drop back to help out Ewan when the sprinter was dropped on the climb in the stage to Messina last week, his counterpart opened up a big lead in their head-to-head.
But after two tough days in the saddle, Aime now trails Stage 8 winner Thomas by over 45 minutes in the standings on the eve of what may be the queen stage of the race – the gruelling summit showdown to Blockhaus, the toughest climb in the Apennines. If the Tour de Gendt – or the De Gen-eral classification – was put to bed today, then the Giro d’Italia will start properly on Sunday.
'Thomas the Tank Engine!' - De Gendt lauded after Stage 8 win
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