The GC contenders behind pink jersey-wearer Tadej Pogačar during stage 8 of the 2024 Giro d'Italia.

The race (for second) is still on

First mortal Dani Martínez is looking good going into the first rest day, but he's got some serious and motivated competition.

The GC group follows race leader Tadej Pogačar up the final climb on stage 8 of the 2024 Giro d’Italia. Photo: © Cor Vos

Kit Nicholson
by Kit Nicholson 13.05.2024 Photography by
Cor Vos
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Despite Tadej Pogačar’s generous statement that “nothing is over yet” after Friday’s rip-roaring ITT victory, it’s hard not to consider the Giro, well, over. Now obviously anything could happen – just ask Remco Evenepoel – but after just nine days of racing, it feels very much like we’re at the end of a Grand Tour, not at the end of the opening act. And there’s one man, to quote Eurosport presenter Orla Chennaoui, “head and shoulders, and bum, ahead of the rest of them.”

While You-Know-Who holds a buffer of 2:40 over second place, the remainder of the top 10 are contained within almost the same window, Dani Martínez 2:34 ahead of seventh-place Lorenzo Fortunato, and 3:13 over 10th Jan Hirt; and the top three in the Mere Mortal standings – Dani Martínez, Geraint Thomas, and Ben O’Connor – are separated by just 59 seconds.

In fact, Pogačar’s advantage after nine days is the greatest since 2002, and these are rather different circumstances. Back then Telekom rider Jens Heppner led by 3:33 after a day in the breakaway, taking over the lead from 2000 Giro winner Stefano Garzelli, though there’s a lot more to that particular story …

With two weeks to go it’s not necessarily all to play for, but with Thomas and Pogačar the only riders in the top 10 to have stood on a Grand Tour podium before, let alone won the Tour de France, second place is a huge deal at this Giro, and it will be fought over to the bitter end.

Martínez was best of the rest for the second time at this Giro atop Prati di Tivo on stage 8.

Nine down, 12 to go

It’s that old adage: there’s a long way to go yet.

As proven in the first ITT of the race, nobody’s going to beat Pogačar in a drag race or standing-start hill climb unless he has a jour sans, and despite some early scepticism and questions over his team’s workload, they’re still standing tall and the other contenders are going to have to use their imagination if they’re to move up. The Jumbo-Visma ambush on the Galibier/Col du Granon stage of the 2022 Tour comes to mind … It’s that or embrace group 2 syndrome for the next two weeks and look away from the pink jersey, but we’re not going to encourage that.

“For sure now everybody will try to attack from a distance, go into breaks, look for opportunities,” Pogačar said after the stage 7 time trial in which he further extended his lead. “It will be really tough to control the race for the next two weeks, but what can I say? We have a super strong team, everybody is in good shape, so let’s see what happens tomorrow.”

Attacking from distance is no easy feat. It’s going to take some gall, some calculation, a good dose of luck, and/or some immense power from one or many of Pogačar’s rivals.

After finishing sixth at the Giro last year, Thymen Arensman’s 2024 attempt did not get off to a great start, but he’s raced himself into some better form and promises to only get better as the race wears on.

At this point, there are a couple of contenders who have at least a little backup; that is, the scope for a multi-pronged approach to putting the pressure on Pogačar and the rest. That said the only team with two riders in the top 10 is Ineos Grenadiers after Thymen Arensman bounced back from a difficult opening weekend to land ninth going into the first rest day. And despite those surprising time losses early on, the 24-year-old already senses he’s being marked.

“I only lifted my ass and half of the bunch was screaming my name that I was going,” Arensman told GCN after back-to-back top-10s on stages 7 and 8. “It’s good to know. I will take it as a compliment, I guess.”

Elsewhere, it looked like Bora-Hansgrohe might have a brilliant young lieutenant in Florian Lipowitz alongside leader Martínez, whose provisional fifth place shows he’s on some of the best form of his career so far, but the young German was forced out of the race before stage 5 due to sickness, waving goodbye to a solid start to his debut Grand Tour, which included being the only support rider to stick with the contenders and limit his leader’s losses on stage 2’s first summit finish. If nothing else, Martínez himself feels good, and he’s not putting limits on his goals.

“Of course, it is a really long Giro,” Martínez said after finishing second to Pogačar on the stage 8 summit finish, his second such result of the race so far. “There are also hard stages coming and let’s see … why not think also of the pink jersey?”

With Pogačar already home and dry, Martínez led the GC group over the line on stage 2’s summit finish at Oropa, with teammate Lipowitz finishing fifth after leading out his team captain.

All that’s required – as if it’s easy – is for the stronger teams like Ineos, perhaps Decathlon-AG2R La Mondiale – whose Ben O’Connor has been one of the more active contenders and sits fourth overall third in the Mere Mortal standings – to shrug off past Grand Tour habits and thumb through a more recent edition of the pro cycling playbook, or for lone souls with little to lose to go on a snatch-and-grab solo effort a little like Chris Froome in 2018.

Playing leapfrog

Further yet down the standings are another collection of aforementioned lone souls and outsiders who might be looking for a conventional, but no less difficult, way of leapfrogging back into the top 10. Juan Pedro López, for instance, currently sits 17th after reported sickness has put him on the back foot thus far. His 9:41 deficit is just about in the window of opportunity to pull a Guillaume Martin or Ben O’Connor by sneaking into a breakaway.

A good day in the breakaway could also put Aurélien Paret-Peintre – or indeed Valentin – into a useful position for O’Connor, who’s already got Alex Baudin in a decent support position just outside the top 10. The same might be said for Giovanni Aleotti in support of Martínez, his almost 14-minute disadvantage having the potential to work in their favour going into the mountains proper; a breakaway stepping stone for the Colombian?

Others who have repeatedly stated their intentions to go after stage wins could also find themselves in a good position should they meet their objectives. Say Romain Bardet wins a stage from a breakaway, he only has to have two and a half minutes to propel himself back into the top 10.

After losing time earlier in the Giro, Bardet had hopes for breakaway success on stage 8, but UAE Team Emirates had other ideas.

It’s close, and the list of possible protagonists is long with several more opportunities to come, including some seriously tough stages in the high mountains where Pogačar’s team are going to be stretched to breaking point, and where the other GC teams should jolly well leave them to do all the work.

“The maglia rosa is there and it is not written, it is not engraved yet that Tadej is going to bring it to Rome,” said Bernie Eisel, Bora-Hansgrohe sports director and former pro. “I think to be successful you have to get up every morning and believe you can take it off him, and I think that’s what we are doing.”

It can be hard to get excited about a race for second, but it ain’t over ’til it’s over, and if it is over, there should be some bloody good racing not too far behind the man head to toe in pink.

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