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Part 1: Breaking Away

Paul Maunder Tekst Paul Maunder Gepubliceerd 10 May 2018

In its 101 editions the Giro d’Italia has entertained, enthralled and excited. It has become synonymous with explosive racing through spectacular landscapes. And it has created many stories, encompassing every human emotion we can imagine. As the 2018 race spins its way towards Rome, Soigneur brings you seven stories from the race’s beautiful history.

A race as hard as the Giro d’Italia will break you, or make you. For Thomas De Gendt the 20th stage of the 2012 Giro d’Italia was a watermark in his career. It not only made him a good degree more famous, it cemented his style as a rider.
Before that year’s race De Gendt, a 25 year old from Sint-Niklaas in East Flanders, already had two stage wins in Paris-Nice, a stage of the Tour de Suisse and several other victories on his palmares. He was aggressive; in Britain his attacking style brought him to the attention of fans when he won both the Mountains and Sprints classifications at the 2009 Tour of Britain. Yet the clue to his Giro exploits, which took many by surprise, lay in the previous year’s Tour de France.

De Gendt proved he could climb and time-trial with the best in the world

Riding with a collarbone fracture, De Gendt finished 6th on the final stage to L’Alpe d’Huez, in a group with Cadel Evans and the Schleck brothers. The next day he rode a strong time-trial in Grenoble, finishing in 4th place. This breakthrough ride, in which De Gendt proved he could climb and time-trial with the best in the world, passed almost unnoticed beneath the drama of Voeckler, Contador, Evans, Schleck et al.
Perhaps he learnt a lesson from that. After all, what’s better – to battle for consistent top ten places, and risk anonymity, or choose your moment and take an epic stage win?

In the Giro he opted for the latter strategy. Stage 20 from Val Di Sole to the Passo Stelvio was the queen stage, 218km with five mountain passes including the diabolical Mortirolo. The early break formed on the Passo del Tonale but by the Mortirolo the break had splintered and Oliver Zaugg was clear alone. Behind him De Gendt attacked the group of favourites and became part of a six-man group chasing down Zaugg. They got their man with 30km to go, and as they hit the lower slopes of the Stelvio, De Gendt attacked. Damiano Cunego and Mikel Nieve followed, but De Gendt attacked again and this time no one could follow.

Undoubtedly many directeur sportifs looked at De Gendt and saw a G.C. rider with huge potential.

While the group of favourites neutralised each other, De Gendt pounded the pedals, his Vacansoleil-DCM jersey open, a picture of work and focus. The gap to Joaquim Rodriguez’s maglia rosa grew until De Gendt began to threaten Ryder Hesjedal’s second place on G.C. And though the Belgian tired towards the end, and his margin was reduced to three minutes, he moved himself up into 4th place overall. The next day – you guessed it – he stormed through the final stage time trial in Milan, to claim a podium spot.

But no one really remembers that. What they remember is the sight of a lone rider, brave, confident, attacking one of the Giro’s toughest climbs with panache. Undoubtedly many directeur sportifs looked at De Gendt and saw a G.C. rider with huge potential. But that was not to be his destiny. For Thomas De Gendt is a breakaway rider, an attacker who can choose his moment, go up the road and not be seen again until the press interviews. A rare and precious niche indeed.

This year alone he has taken two impressive solo victories, in stages of the Tour de Romandie and Volta a Catalunya. He is not riding the Giro, so there is room for someone else to make a name for themself. Many riders are capable of getting into breakaways, but to do a ‘De Gendt’ you have to make it go all the way.

Giro d’Italia 2012 – Thomas De Gendt – Passo dell Stelvio – Image: Cor Vos