Giro d’Italia 2020
From chaos came certainty in the form of Josef Cerny after the Giro d’Italia came grinding to a halt.
The CCC Team lone ranger emerged victorious from a 14-man breakaway to win Stage 19 of the Giro – but the day was overshadowed by an eleventh-hour protest that led to the longest stage of the race being comprehensively shortened.
As the rain poured down over the peloton as it edged out of the start town of Morbegno, the riders were soon packed into their team buses and driven along 125km of the intended 258km route to the town of Abbiategrasso, west of Milan.
After the race eventually got underway in what was now just a faint drizzle, a sizeable front group was allowed to break clear. And when the Bora-Hansgrohe team of Peter Sagan called off the chase with around 55km remaining, the gap quickly ballooned above the 10-minute mark.
Cerny, the 27-year-old time trial specialist from the Czech Republic, powered clear with just over 20km remaining to open up a gap of 40 seconds over a chasing quintet that included the Hour Record holder Victor Campenaerts (NTT Pro Cycling).
The Belgian powerhouse put in a last-ditch attack in the final kilometre but he was unable to reel in Cerny, who rode home to take an emotional first Grand Tour stage win on a day the Giro was embarrassed on the world stage.
When the peloton came home almost 12 minutes down, Britain’s Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers) tried his luck in forcing a split on the home straight. But his cheeky move was easily covered, and the 25-year-old from East London will enter the decisive final weekend of the race with a 15-second deficit on the pink jersey, the Dutchman Wilco Kelderman of Team Sunweb.
A stage which was meant to pit Arnaud Demare against Peter Sagan for the final instalment of their maglia ciclamino battle quickly turned into a farce after a rider protest prompted race organiser Mauro Vegni to fume that “someone will pay” for forcing the Giro’s longest stage to become its shortest.
Once the newlook 124km stage got going, Cerny zipped clear with Campenaerts and the Swiss breakaway specialist Simon Pellaud (Androni Giocatolli) in a bid to go off script in a stop-start stage that had already thrown up countless surprises.
The trio was soon joined by a chase group that featured Giovanni Carboni (Bardiani-CSF), Nathan Haas and Marco Mathis (both Cofidis), Iljo Keisse (Deceuninck Quick-Step), Simon Clarke and Lachlan Morton (both EF Pro Cycling), Alex Dowsett (Israel Start-Up Nation), Sander Armee (Lotto Soudal), Albert Torres (Movistar), Jacopo Mosca (Trek-Segafredo) and Etienne van Empel (Vini Zabu-KTM).
Behind, the Groupama-FDJ team of maglia ciclamino Demare were under no pressure to lead the chase given the Frenchman’s haul of four stage wins and his 37-point lead on Sagan in the points classification. And so it was left to the Slovakian’s Bora team to do all the work. All the more so after the breakaway mopped up all the points in the first intermediate sprint, meaning Sagan needed a second stage win – and a Demare disaster – to keep his faint ciclamino hopes alive.
The gap came down to just 30 seconds before slowly stretching back up as the seven Bora riders struggled to keep a lid on the situation. With the top 10 hopes of Patrick Konrad and Rafal Majka to consider, Bora called off the chase with the gap at 1’30” with 57km to go.
There followed a surreal lull as the pace in the peloton came to a trickle as numerous riders took their chance to answer a call of nature following a frantic opening hour of racing.
Further up the road, Campenaerts kicked off the attacks with 32km remaining, the Hour Record holder zipping clear with the German Mathis rather than sit back and wait for a sprint finish that would play into the hands of the other escapees.
When this duo was pegged back, the Australian Morton tried his luck before Campenaerts then forced a selection on the uphill rise towards the second intermediate sprint. After Pellaud took the spoils, Cerny rode clear with 22km remaining as Clarke, Campenaerts, Mosca, Armee and Keisse led the chase.
Cerny kept his advantage at around the 40-second mark on the approach to Asti, but looked to be struggling with around 5km to go when Keisse came to the front of the quintet behind.
But the 27-year-old somehow found the strength to keep the chasers at bay – and when Campenaerts made his move in the final kilometre, it was too little, too late. The Italian Mosca won the sprint for third place before the remainder of the initial 14-man move came home in dribs and drabs.
The seventh but biggest win of Cerny’s career will help the TT specialist find a new contract for 2021 amid the ongoing uncertainty of the future of his current CCC Team.
“I’m really happy that I was lucky in the breakaway,” he said. “Then we were working together in the breakaway and then in the final I had the better legs. I am really happy. I cannot describe it.”
Given the reasons behind the chaotic start to the day, it was perhaps symbolic that the heavens opened as the peloton made its way into the centre of Asti. A late flourish by Geoghegan Hart added a bit of fizz to proceedings but did little to disguise the general gloom hanging over the Giro ahead of what should nevertheless be an eventful final weekend.
Dutch race leader Kelderman holds a 12-second gap over his Sunweb teammate Jai Hindley of Australia, with the Ineos rider Geoghegan Hart a further three seconds in arrears and the Spaniard Pello Bilbao of Bahrain-McLaren not to be overlooked at 1’19”.
Tomorrow’s Stage 20 no longer features a foray into France via the Colle dell’Agnello but will test the pink jersey credentials of the main contenders with a triple ascent of Sestriere ahead of Sunday’s final 15km time trial into Milan. There’ll be no protest then from the man in the maglia rosa.