Geraint Thomas’s Giro d’Italia challenge crumbled as he wilted on the steep slopes of Monte Lussari in north-east Italy, allowing his closest challenger, Primoz Roglic, to move into the race leader’s maglia rosa by 14 seconds.
In a nail-biting climax to the three-week race, the 18.6km individual time trial finally revealed just how strong Roglic, of the Jumbo-Visma team, truly is. He survived a disastrous moment midway through the stage when he slipped his chain on the steepest gradients.
Despite that, he recovered his composure and carried on to win the stage by 40 seconds from Thomas, of Ineos Grenadiers. Roglic leads the 2018 Tour de France champion with only Sunday’s processional stage in Rome remaining.
Roglic, three-times winner of the Vuelta a España, has made a habit of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, most famously in the 2020 Tour de France, and seemed as stunned as anyone by his success.
“It’s incredible,” he said. “My chain dropped, but I put it back. I could have lost everything. It’s not over until it’s over, but it looks good.”
Although Thomas started the time trial well, he never really hit his stride on the cruel and rough climb to the stage finish.
“I could feel my legs going a kilometre and a half from the top of the climb,” he said. “I don’t want to sound like I’m making excuses but I just didn’t feel like I had that real ‘grunt’.”
As permitted in such stages, both riders opted to change from time trial bikes to road bikes at the foot of the Giro’s final summit. Thomas also opted to change his aerodynamic helmet for a standard racing helmet.
After that pause, however, he never got going again and his overnight advantage of 26sec was steadily eroded, even after Roglic had been forced to stop and fix his chain.
“Primoz deserves that,” Thomas said. “He had a mechanical as well, and he still put 40 seconds into me, so chapeau to him.
“If I’d been told this [result] back in February, I’d have probably bitten your hand off, but it’s pretty gutting at the minute. I think once this sinks in, I can definitely be proud.”
Ultimately, Thomas did not get the reward for his consistency and was unable to raise his game when he most needed to, yet his record shows that in the past five Grand Tours he has completed, he has finished on the podium four times.
Both riders has started the stage with a great deal at stake. Thomas, now 37, knew this could potentially be his last chance to win the Giro, a race in which he has often been beset by bad luck.
The 33-year-old Slovenian, meanwhile, determined to avoid the tragicomic performance that cost him the 2020 Tour de France on a similar mountain stage to La Planche des Belles Filles, also had demons to wrestle with.
As the climb wore on the pendulum swung inexorably towards Roglic. It was estimated he lost 16sec because of his mechanical issues, but he did not panic and resumed the same fierce rhythm as he reached the top of the climb.
Thomas battled hard but looked increasingly heavy-legged and seemed unable to lift his climbing tempo. In some ways, there was a sense of deja vu.
In the 2022 Giro, then team leader Richard Carapaz was in the race lead for Ineos Grenadiers throughout the final week, but he also lost the pink jersey in the final mountain stage.
Ineos Grenadiers are said to be continuing to court the coveted 23-year-old World Road Race champion, Remco Evenepoel, who was leading the Giro until he tested positive for Covid-19.
Evenepoel’s Soudal Quickstep team manager, Patrick Lefevere, has said that Ineos “should stop flirting” with his rider. “It’s clear for me, it’s a media show,” he said.