It’s been a recuperative few days here at Casa PdC since the Giro came and went, mercifully dissolving into a thousand exciting storylines. We split plenty of metaphorical ink on what happened, but I didn’t want to go away completely without seeing to what extent we can take what just happened and look ahead.
One part of the story has been covered: Tom Dumoulin, champion of the 2017 Giro d’Italia, appears to be headed in the general direction of greatness, though until his arrival is official it hasn’t happened yet. Like luggage, sometimes these legacies go missing in transit. But more often they don’t, something comes of them, so stay tuned. Let’s check in on the other top protagonists.
The Tale of Don Nairo
Nairo Quintana came in as the sharp people’s favorite for victory, a rider with a top-shelf grand tour record including victories in the Giro and the Vuelta, and if not quite near misses at the Tour, at least he’s the only active rider who can say he made Chris Froome sweat.
In fact, he did that and more at the Vuelta a España just eight short months ago, but if you have trouble estimating the importance of Vuelta victories, you’re not alone. It was just prior to that at the Tour de France where Froome had his way with the still young-ish (then 26) Colombian, dropping him on uphills and downhills en route to a convincing third Tour title. Each of those titles came at Quintana’s expense, and so that’s the standard by which Quintana is measured. He’s won a Giro, and a Vuelta, and he’s expected to either stop Froome’s historic run or come close.
So to see Quintana fall victim to Dumoulin in this Giro raises important questions about whether he’s still who we thought he was. The last Tour and now the recent Giro were both defeats that damaged his reputation as the world’s best grand tour climber, where instead of soaring to the summits leaving everyone at a loss, it was either no soaring, or occasionally it was even someone else turning the tables on Quintana. That’s two big data points, in close proximity, separated out by one Vuelta (*****!!!) and a bunch of races that the grand tour guys don’t peak for.
To Nairo’s defenders, this is a troubling trend. Only he and his closest advisors know if some strand of his incredible climbing power has snapped or been whittled away somehow. Maybe his training has slipped, for any of a thousand reasons, including just being far away from Europe with a young family to care for. That doesn’t mean he can’t be the Condor again, but it does show that his status as a top climber can’t be taken for granted. That’s one view anyway.
Another view would be to take him at his word that he suffered from allergies during the Tour last year and a cold during this most recent Giro. Such limitations on his respiratory functions would presumably be enough to cut into his natural advantages on the climbs, where your job is to process oxygen efficiently in 45-minute blocks. Sure, these sound like excuses, and the above narrative is why you might not want to accept them, but it’s his body, and if he did have some illness holding him back, well... that is absolutely 100% cycling.
For Nairo fans (like me), there is some comfort in this. Between the two races where Quintana faltered is that Vuelta where Quintana generally made gains against Froome on the climbs en route to the win, which is all you can ask for, right? This looks like the rider who threw away three minutes at the start of the 2015 Tour and never got it all the way back, but was steadily gaining and had the Tour kept going a little longer or a little higher up the mountainsides. (Ifs and buts, I know).
Also, how “bad” is 2017 Quintana, even if you aren’t sure about the cold excuse? He won solo on the Blockhaus, which is a reasonably hard ascent though there we saw Dumoulin limiting his losses impressively. Before that he had scored wins overall in Tirreno-Adriatico, Valencia, and a stage of Asturias. In Tirreno he put paid to the whole cast of characters from the subsequent Giro on the lone climbers’ stage to Monte Terminillo: Dumoulin, Pinot, Mollema, Yates, Thomas, Landa, Dennis... It seemed like a foreshadowing, and everyone said how helpless they were to respond to Quintana’s blistering attacks that day. So while it didn’t work out in the end, the performance suggests that Quintana’s condition was at spectacular levels, until it no longer was.
Anyway, the point is that Quintana’s advantages in the climbs probably haven’t disappeared. Froome is on the record saying that he doesn’t regard Quintana as his main adversary in the Tour, and that’s fine, the conventional wisdom suggests that having a Giro in his legs will be tough on Quintana. But the bigger problem will continue to be the time trials, where Quintana ranges from competent to terrible, where brilliant cronomen like Froome and Dumoulin will always be able to haul back chunks of time. That problem isn’t fixable; it’s survivable when the circumstances favor it and a time bomb to his hopes when they don’t.
The Tale of Vinny
I felt compelled to write a column on Nibali during the Giro, when it seemed like he was beguiling the peloton on his way to another challenge for victory, despite almost never looking like he had any answers on the hardest stages. He continued to race and race, all the way to Milan, and his third on the Giro ahead of Pinot is a pretty good result. To be in the condition he was and end up a mere 40 seconds behind the winner, not to mention just nine seconds adrift of the favorite Quintana, is much better than I had ever expected.
Nonetheless, his performance did more to confirm the sense that his career is in slow decline than combat it. Yes, he found enough ways to be effective, reaching into his bag of tricks wherever possible, but his core skills continue to erode, meaning his climbing in particular. Nibali lost the Giro on the Blockhaus, which as I said above was a hard MTF climb but nothing off the charts. He gave away a minute to Quintana, but more tellingly he conceded 36 seconds plus bonuses to Pinot and Dumoulin — adding up to exactly his margin of defeat in the end. Nibali’s two best days of the Giro were the time trial, where he came in at a respectable 2.07 down, and the stage victory where he outfoxed Landa for the win after the pair were allowed some room to descend the Stelvio. All good stuff. But I said it before, and I’ll say it again: he’s not the strongest rider. He wasn’t at last year’s Giro, he wasn’t at this year’s, and he won’t be at next year’s. Were he to squeak out one last major triumph, I would not be shocked, but against a quality field he’s just hanging on now.
The Tale of T-Bo
France’s Giro hope will probably be around a while. Thibaut Pinot likes two things, climbing and cool weather, and the Giro d’Italia, as Grand Tour #2, is the biggest stage on which Pinot can demonstrate those twin tastes. Pinot’s fourth overall comes with the solace of knowing it was the closest the Giro has seen, only 1.17 back of the overall win and 46 ticks out of second place, representing the time he lost on the Queen Stage to Bormio when he was “up all night coughing”. On the flipside, he was barely better than Quintana in the time trials. But when not riding his aero bike or coughing up a lung, Pinot was joyful, aggressive, and strong.
The same age as Nairo, Pinot has a grand tour victory in his future, if he concentrates on the Giro. The organizers are bound to serve up a climbers’ course, or at least Pinot can count on chances to win in Italy when there are no dominant cronomen around to battle with. Though in truth, Pinot has shown some life in the discipline, something more than we can say about Quintana, and makes you wonder if Pinot’s lungs were under the weather in stage 10 too? Can’t say. But Pinot himself was upbeat about his race, seeing it as a comeback from a couple years in the Tour de France wilderness. His confidence seemed to grow as the final week wore on, only ebbing in the last stage when he had nothing left to give.
Expectations, at long last, have reversed themselves for Pinot and are now somewhat favorable for him. By racing the Giro, he can remain in a race he can win, one which would be a huge palmares given the lack of French wins at any grand tour. His aversion to hot weather makes him a halting presence at the Tour for the foreseeable future, but bigger success at the Giro would make for a firm foundation to return to the Tour, at least as a minor role player in pursuit of stages or polka dots. I can see him on a Tour podium again someday if luck is on his side. This Giro seemed to reinvigorate him and confirm that this is a rider with a lot of talents, who is still just hitting his prime years.