We look at the controversy and the incredible story of the 2018 Giro
From its Grande Partenza in Jerusalem to its winner Chris Froome, controversy followed the 2018 Giro d’Italia from start to finish. Procycling was there to witness one of the race’s most remarkable editions
The 2018 Giro d’Italia ended as it had begun, in a haze of contradiction. Almost 10 minutes after Sam Bennett sprinted to victory on the final stage, overall winner Chris Froome finally ambled onto the finishing straight on Via dei Fori Imperiali, pedalling unhurriedly beside his Team Sky team-mates as though already on a lap of honour. As shadows lengthened over Rome, the first had become the last.
With the overall standings long since neutralised due to concerns over the safety of the circuit in the historic centre of the Eternal City, the maglia rosa’s race had effectively ended a couple of hours previously. Froome rode the final miles of his Giro with no thought to the clock, drifting towards the rear of the splintered peloton to chat amiably with secondplaced Tom Dumoulin, both men happy to lay down arms while those with designs on stage victory pressed on ahead and raced. At the finish, Froome paused to embrace his companions, while Sky manager Dave Brailsford sat stony-faced in the passenger seat of the car that followed them over the line. Of Sky’s grand tour victories, this had been the most dramatic, yet also the most joyless. Froome’s most flamboyant win was his most contentious, a triumph for the ages that might not endure.
A SUBDUED START
In a ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria in Jerusalem, Mauro Vegni, pausing at the end of each sentence to allows his words to be interpreted into English, was adamant. The Giro director’s pre-race press conference was being dominated by the thorny issue of Froome’s presence following his positive test for salbutamol at the 2017 Vuelta a España. With the case still to be resolved, there seemed a real risk of a repeat of the 2011 Giro, when Alberto Contador was stripped of his victory after he was later sanctioned for his 2010 clenbuterol positive.
Not so, insisted Vegni, who claimed that UCI president David Lappartient had assured him that Froome’s Giro result would stand no matter what the outcome of the salbutamol case. “We’re confident that the result in Rome is the result that will stand for this Giro,” Vegni told a bemused sala stampa. As Vegni must have been aware, assurances on the sanctions meted out by the ostensibly independent anti-doping tribunal are not in the gift of the UCI president. The UCI issued a statement clarifying as much that evening. Not a pedal had turned, and the Giro was already mired in contradiction and confusion.
The Froome question lingered over the Grande Partenza and ultimately served as a distraction from the debate over whether Israel was a suitable venue for the event at all. The riders themselves seemed well-briefed on how to avoid the topic of ‘sports-washing’ altogether. Asked by a local reporter to describe his feelings at racing close to the holy sites of Jerusalem, for instance, Thibaut Pinot didn’t flinch: “I have nothing to say about them.”
Sylvan Adams, backer of the Israel Cycling Academy team and president of the local organising committee, repeatedly stressed how the Grande Partenza was designed to showcase the ‘normal Israel’. Perhaps with that in mind, the security
around the race seemed deliberately light in touch – save for the consistent military presence on the lonesome road south through the Negev Desert on stage 3 – and it was clear that a particular effort had been made to streamline the race caravan’s passage through the security area at Ben Gurion Airport.
Even so, the Israeli start could hardly be described as normal. The 176 participants were prohibited from riding within Jerusalem itself in the days before the start, and were instead instructed to stick rigorously to three recommended training routes far outside the city. When the Giro got underway, it was before relatively modest crowds, and in a city largely indifferent to its presence, at least in comparison to the boisterous welcomes laid out for the corsa rosa in the Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Ireland and Denmark in recent years.
The racing itself was largely nondescript, save for a tailwind-assisted finale in Eilat so fraught that Dumoulin was moved to describe it as the most stressful sprint stage he had ever ridden. For some 20 minutes after the finish, the Dutchman could be seen soft-pedalling through the backstreets of the Red Sea resort, as though still trying to wrap his head around what he had seen.
As the Giro readied itself for the long transfer to Sicily, Vegni dutifully hailed the success of the venture. “This is a bet we’ve won,” he said that night in Eilat. A little over a week later, during demonstrations against the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem, Israeli troops killed at least 55 Palestinian protestors on the Gaza border. By then, the Giro’s rolling citadel was 4,000 kilometres away. Out of sight, out of mind.
A TALE OF TWO BRITS
On reaching the top of Gran Sasso d’Italia, the ordeal still wasn’t over. After changing near the finish of stage 9, Froome had to inch his bike through merry throngs of tifosi as he made his way towards the cable car that was ferrying riders to their team buses, which were parked in Assergi at the base of the climb. ‘Guarda, c’é Froome,’ cried one of their number.
Instead of clearing a path, they pressed closer to him. As if Froome hadn’t already realised during the opening days in Israel and Italy’s deep south, the Giro is not the Tour de France.
A crash while reconnoitring the Jerusalem time trial had hampered Froome through the opening week, and a second spill on the road to Montevergine di Mercogliano the previous afternoon had hardly improved morale. Three kilometres from the summit of Gran Sasso d’Italia, he was dropped from the pink jersey group, and every passing metre of the snowbanked approach to the finish seemed
When the Giro got underway, it was before relatively modest crowds, and in a city largely indifferent to its presence
In the medieval heart of Osimo, Dumoulin could hide no longer. He grimly stalked Yates all the way to the inish line
only to lay bare an inalienable truth: he did not have the condition to win the Giro.
In the finishing straight, Froome’s cadence slowed almost to a standstill and he was unable even to match the reduced pace of his team-mate, Wout Poels. He crossed the finish line over a minute down, his deficit now two and a half minutes. Two weeks from Rome, the situation was already beginning to look irretrievable. “It was brutal,” Froome said softly after emerging from the cable car at the bottom. “If you have a bad day, that’s what happens at the Giro.”
Froome’s leaden pedalling that afternoon contrasted with the effervescence of his fellow countryman, Simon Yates, who tightened his grip on the maglia rosa by sprinting to a stage victory at the summit. It was simply a confirmation of what had transpired on Mount Etna three days earlier, when Yates surged clear of the favourites to bridge across to his Mitchelon-Scott teammate Esteban Chaves in the final kilometre.
Yates granted the stage victory to Chaves on that occasion, while he coolly pulled on the first of 13 pink jerseys. For two weeks, the Briton would make the hurt business of the Giro seem remarkably easy, and he dealt with his daily press conferences in a similarly uncomplicated fashion.
“Simon, what is your ambition on this Giro?” a local reporter asked. “To win, of course,” Yates said. “The overall?” he was asked. “Yes, of course,” Yates shrugged. Why else would he be here?
Yates’ nonchalance on and off the bike defined the race for the bones of two weeks. His pedalling betrayed no weakness, his expression displayed no suffering. He seemed to have the means to drop his rivals every time the road climbed. Nothing appeared to be a distraction to the 26-year-old, not even his 2019 contract negotiations.
In a Giro of extremes – long transfers, high speeds, changeable weather, tough finishes –Yates seemed singularly inured to hardship. He held firm when Chaves inexplicably lost 25 minutes on stage 10 after being dropped on the climb of Fonte della Creta. Chaves, a regular in the gruppetto thereafter, made little contribution to Yates’ defence of pink, but Mitchelton-Scott’s climbing strength was such that the Colombian was scarcely missed by them.
Jack Haig’s prodigious displays of pacemaking caught the eye, most strikingly on the approach the hilltop town of Osimo on stage 11, where he shut down the late break and laid the foundations for Yates’ stagewinning acceleration on the wickedly steep ascent of Via Olimpia. In keeping with the tenor of his Giro, Froome shipped yet more time, but by now his floundering felt a mere footnote to what seemed to be the principal narrative of the race, the impending duel between Yates and Tom Dumoulin.
Since winning the opening time trial in Jerusalem and then quickly ridding himself of pink, Dumoulin had been content to wait in the wings, but in the medieval heart of Osimo, he could hide no longer. He grimly stalked Yates all the way to the finish line, conceding just two seconds to a man who acknowledged that he needed to gain “minutes” ahead of the stage 16 time trial if he was to win the Giro.
With that rendezvous serving as a backdrop, the Friulan double-header on the third weekend was all about momentum, literal and figurative. On the vertiginous Zoncolan, the task was brutally simple – to maintain forward progress – but while Yates remained in the ascendancy there, Dumoulin found the going rather harder, ceding 31 seconds to the maglia rosa. Froome’s victory atop the Zoncolan was his first semblance of form in the entire Giro, but rather than picking up a head of steam, it appeared as though he had blown a gasket on its 22 per cent slopes. On the road to Sappada a day later, he conceded more time and dropped to seventh overall.
Yates, by contrast, maintained his impetus, almost casually jumping clear on the ascent of Costalissoio and soloing 18 kilometres to his third stage victory of the race. Dumoulin, meanwhile, lost even more of his momentum on the run-in, and some of his cool, too, as he decried the lack of continuity in the chasing group. The
Sunweb leader was stinging in his critique of Domenico Pozzovivo, Richard Carapaz and Miguel Ángel López’s efforts at the finish, but as he sat with a foot resting on his handlebars after completing his warm down, the Dutchman smiled resignedly when reminded that his deficit to the maglia rosa now stood at 2:11. “Simon Yates is just too strong for me at the moment,” Dumoulin said, without rancour but as a simple statement of fact.
THE COMEBACK KID
However it comes to be recorded in the annals, the 2018 Giro will be remembered for stage 19 over the Colle delle Finestre to Bardonecchia. “Stranger things have happened,” Froome said on the final rest day in Trento, when asked if he could still win the pink jersey. But surely not even he could have imagined it would play out quite like this.
Certainly, the Rovereto time trial seemed only to confirm the impression that Yates was, by some distance, the best rider in the race, as the Briton successfully maintained his maglia rosa with a buffer of 56 seconds over Dumoulin. Even when Yates exhibited his first signs of fatigue on the haul to Prato Nevoso two days later, the man primed to benefit was the consistent Dumoulin, not the hitherto uneven Froome. And then came the Finestre, where the logic of this Giro seemed to collapse upon itself. Almost everything we thought we knew was false.
For two and a half weeks, Yates had verged on the invulnerable, but in a couple of kilometres at the base of the Finestre, his race unravelled. Distanced even before the front group reached the dirt road midway up the climb, Yates was already definitively out of the podium shake-up by the summit. He would reach the finish more than 38 minutes down, the once radiant pink jersey dulled by the dust of the Finestre, his face grey with fatigue. In defeat, Yates was as matter-of-fact as he had been in victory. No excuses offered, no sympathy sought. “I’m just really exhausted,” he said. “That’s how it is.” Most seemed to ride themselves to a standstill on the Giro’s tappone, save for Froome, who found his wings just as the wax on those of Yates was melting. On the upper reaches of the Finestre, with 80 kilometres remaining, a seated Froome launched a stinging acceleration, his legs now spinning with startling ease, as though they had been fettered by unseen bonds to that point. He rode on alone; the race stumbling on in his wake. Dumoulin
attempted to match Froome’s pace but he would not see the Sky rider again until the finish atop the Jafferau almost three hours later.
On the Finestre and Sestriere, and in the valley that led to the final climb, Froome held off a pursuit led by Dumoulin and Pinot to win the stage by three minutes and move into the pink jersey. He had started the day 3:22 down in fourth overall, and he had looked a beaten man on multiple occasions in the previous two weeks, but then this was a Giro that seemed to contradict itself at every turn.
The race speaker described Froome’s raid as being “from another era,” though reaction to it was anchored firmly in the present. Amid comparisons with Floyd Landis in 2006 and Marco Pantani in 1998, the feat was met with as much unease as acclaim. “I can understand the parallels or comparisons being drawn by some,” Froome said the following day, before carefully claiming that the bulk of his buffer had been created by the risks he took on descents.
On the final mountain stage to Cervinia, an ill Thibaut Pinot dropped off the podium after he was cast adrift on the Colle di Saint-Pantaléon. Wrung out from his efforts over the three weeks, the Frenchman reached the finish 45 minutes down, unable even to speak to his teammates, far less address those reporters awaiting his arrival. He draped himself over his handlebars, his expression hollow. Pinot’s race finished a day short of Rome, in a hospital bed in Aosta, where he was treated for pneumonia. The second-fastest Giro in history exacted a heavy toll.
A THEATRICAL ENDING
By wearing pink into Rome, Froome became only the seventh rider to win all three grand tours, and just the third to hold the three titles at once, but his place in history is a precarious one. Depending on how the salbutamol case plays out, he risks losing both Vuelta and Giro crowns. The muddled picture was no clearer even as the dust settled. “The toxic cloud that lingered over the start is even darker and more dense,” complained Tuttobici’s Cristiano Gatti of.
Whether by accident or design, RCS Sport’s podium ceremony in Rome served only to highlight the uncertainty over Froome’s achievement by involving Alberto Contador, the last rider to be stripped of Giro victory. With the Colosseum as the historic backdrop, the Spaniard seized his old rival Froome’s hand in congratulations, while Vegni smiled broadly. For better or for worse, his Giro was newsworthy. It had been, as Froome never tired of pointing out, a “brutal race”, and he was effectively the last man standing.
Were we not entertained? Perhaps, but at what cost? From the outset, it was never entirely clear what we were watching
The peloton snakes a long and lonely path through the Negev Desert on stage 3
Yates makes his mark with the !irst of three stage wins, on Gran Sasso d’Italia
Froome takes a look at an incoming Yates, as he just holds him o" f to win on the Zoncolan
In the "irst two weeks Yates attacked Dumoulin repeatedly to gain an advantage
Yates’ Giro hopes spectacularly combusted on the slopes of the Finestre Muddy snow lines the steep slopes of the Finestre as Froome rides his way to pink