Almost unnoticed, Pello Bilbao of Astana took 6th place at the Giro d’Italia. Euan peels back the invisibility cloak and asks… how the hell did he do that?
In cycling, “to do a Zubeldia” has come to mean getting a top ten place at a Grand Tour without attracting any attention. It’s named in honour of Haimar Zubeldia, the Spanish rider managed six Grand Tour top tens in his career but never troubled the front pages of Cycling Weekly.
The Giro wasn’t short of star names: Tom Dumoulin and Chris Froome were making waves at the front of the race; Alex Dowsett, and Chad Haga were getting the attention on social media.
Señor Bilbao might as well not have been there – except that he very much was and, over the course of the three weeks, only five riders went faster than he did. That is worthy of some attention but even if you watched every stage and read every report, you’d still struggle to know how he came to mix it with the elite. So, how the hell did Pello Bilbao get a top ten result at the Giro?Embed from Getty Images
Why was he there in the first place?
Bilbao’s last four Grand Tour finishing positions have been 97-78-66-23. He’s been improving race by race so his top ten at the Giro didn’t come from nowhere and his form this year has been impressive.
He made his mark on day one
The Basque rider was sixth fastest on the stage one time trial, his best-ever ranking against the clock and set the scene for what was to come. Meanwhile, his Astana team leader would crash before the race had even begun – Miguel Angel Lopez lost nearly a minute on that TT, which would turn out to be significant for our man Bilbao.
Being Plan BEmbed from Getty Images
Maybe Astana went into the race with Pello Bilbao as their plan B. Or maybe Lopez’s stage one pre-crash earned Bilbao some protection. Whatever the reason, Bilbao wasn’t asked to sacrifice himself day after day for his leader. He was allowed some freedom.
On stage 5, on the way to Santa Ninfa, Lopez had the slowest crash of all time. It was Luis Leon Sanchez who was given the task of helping him to catch up. Bilbao was free to finish up front with the contenders that day. As the race progressed, Bilbao was riding his own race rather than doing the team’s donkey work.
It’s fair to say Bilbao didn’t have a single bad day during the Giro. Once that first time trial had put him into the top ten he never dropped out of it. He said after the race his result was down to him being “a survivor” who has “the ability to measure efforts well”.
He didn’t crash and burn as so many others did at the Giro, that’s for sure. Giro fact: Bilbao finished the Giro over an hour ahead of Simon Yates.
Fighting his own battlesEmbed from Getty Images
During the Giro, we got very familiar with Lopez and Richard Carapaz (Movistar) having their own private ding-dong. They tussled over the young rider’s white jersey while ignoring anything else happening in the race.
Away from the cameras, Bilbao was doing something similar. He regularly came in at the same time, or just ahead of, those around him on GC, such as George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Patrick Konrad (Bora). He knew if he went around trying to beat the top guys he risked losing it all. Instead, he was content to keep pace with those who were his biggest threat.
That’s how he got the result … but how did it go unnoticed?
Well, he didn’t do anything flashy. Bilbao was never contesting the stage wins and he always finished in that group behind the big favourites. You know, the one that gets very little attention.
Part of that was due to his strategy of measuring efforts. But he also seems to have a down-to-earth personality and lack of ego. He’s certainly not one for blowing his own trumpet.
“What has surprised me most at this Giro has been my result [laughs] … I have not considered becoming the team leader. It will depend on what the team needs. I would not like to leave cycling without trying the Tour de France but we’ll see what the team thinks about who should be racing where.”
So consistent and strong performances, a bit of luck, well-measured efforts and a lack of ego – that’s how the hell Pello Bilbao finished the Giro in the top ten without anyone even noticing.
Header image: ©GETTY/Velo/Justin Setterfield