Stefano PIrazzi gave Bardiani-CSF their third win at this year’s Giro d’Italia with an opportunistic attack as the final five members of the day’s 26-man break approached the 1km flag. But why was it obvious before the start that we would see a breakaway winner?
1. The week from hell
The previous day’s stage tackled the Gavia, Stelvio and Val Martello – this year’s only three climbs above 2,000 metres – in appalling weather. The next three days feature two summit finishes sandwiching a mountain time trial.
Understandably, the GC riders were in rest and recuperation mode. Why waste energy on a day where there was no opportunity to gain time? For the GC teams, this was always earmarked as an ‘easy’ day.
2. Perfect parcours
At first glance, the day’s parcours looks like it favoured the sprinters. On closer examination, it’s perfect for a successful break. It’s long (208km), and with enough lumps and bumps to make a concerted chase awkward.
That final cat 4 ‘bump’ 20km from the finish, the Ca’ del Poggio, would have further put off several sprinters – 1.2km long, averaging 12%, and 18% at its steepest point. Even if the sprinters’ teams had controlled the break, there was every chance of an attack going clear here, while the energy was drained from the sprinters’ legs.
We’re far more likely to see a breakaway win of this nature, where the peloton allows a large break to stay ten-plus minutes clear, in the final week of a grand tour.
In the opening week, when the sprint teams are fresh and before the GC has started to shake out, nobody wants a break to succeed. It’s in everyone’s interest for the bunch to finish together and for the sprinters to duke it out. In the final week, the peloton doesn’t have the desire or the energy to expend on a day like this. and is happy to grant ‘gifts’ to those riders who have the energy and determination to ride hard in search of glory.
4. Depleted sprint teams
In week one, everyone’s raring to go with their full complement of nine riders. By week three, that’s patently not the case. We’ve already lost Marcel Kittel and Michael Matthews, winners of three stages between them.
Even if Matthews was still in the race, Orica-GreenEDGE only have three men remaining. Garmin-Sharp’s Tyler Farrar also has only three teammates left. Giant-Shimano (sprinter: Luka Mezgec) and Sky (Ben Swift) are two men short, while FDJ (Nacer Bouhanni) and Cannondale (Elia Viviani) are a man down. Of the main sprinters, only Trek’s Giacomo Nizzolo still has a full team.
Depleted teams means there are fewer riders available to contribute to chasing the break, and fewer still for the final lead-out. Sprinting is much harder in week three than week one!
5. Red jersey situation
Tactically, it wasn’t just the GC teams who were happy to see a large break. FDJ, the team of points jersey leader Bouhanni, were too. Having a break mop up the big points effectively neutralised the sprint competition for the day and meant that Bouhanni could conserve his energy for the mountains.
When you’re ahead, the best way to win is not to have to race at all. Barring mishap, with only the final stage sprint remaining, the stage result all but guaranteed Bouhanni the points jersey.
6. Time gaps
By the final week of a grand tour, there are so many riders adrift of the upper reaches of the GC that it is tactically safe to allow a break to gain a large chunk of time on the peloton.
The highest-ranked rider in yesterday’s break was Lampre’s Damiano Cunego, a whopping 48:50 in arrears. As soon as the composition of the break was confirmed, the peloton was able to put their feet up and engage cruise control, knowing that nobody in the top 20 was under any threat.
7. Big break
On most flattish days, the peloton allows only a handful of riders to go clear, rarely more than ten. Yesterday, 26 men were allowed to go clear, representing almost every team.
When you have a break that big, it will always succeed for three reasons. Firstly, because the peloton actually wants it to succeed, so the big names can have a worry-free day.
Secondly, to catch a breakaway the peloton typically needs to commit as many men to the chase as there are in the breakaway – it’s a simple numbers game. With a 26-man break, that means at least seven or eight teams need to contribute three or four men each to the chase. That level of organisation and commitment will never happen.
Finally, linked to the above, the consequence of having a big break is that most teams are represented. When you have a man in the front group, you don’t have to chase.
If you don’t have a man in the front group, you don’t have enough other interested parties to support you in a chase. Which is why the peloton rarely allows large groups to break away in the first place.
Taking into account the first six factors, it’s obvious why conditions yesterday were perfect for a breakaway win – and this was confirmed the moment the large break was permitted to escape.
Indeed, because this pattern is a familiar one in any grand tour, any breakaway artist worth his salt would have marked this stage down as one to target the moment the race route was published. You can be sure that Stefano Pirazzi did. And that’s why it’s no coincidence that he was in position to claim a famous victory.