Giro d'Italia Stage 9: What We Learned on the Brutal Ascent of Blockhaus
Breaking down the first major GC mountain set piece of this year's Giro and what we know, and don't know, heading into the race's second phase
Jai Hindley conquered the beautiful, if not incredibly brutal, Blockhaus climb and grabbed a statement stage win in front of Romain Bardet and Richard Carapaz. While Carapaz’s Ineos team attempted to deliver their now trademark early knockout blow by launching Carapaz from nearly 5-kilometers from the finish line, the 2019 Giro champion failed to shake the other top favorites and as a result, an elite-six rider group rolled to the finish line for a slow-motion reduced sprint.
After the dust had settled, Simon Yates, who came unglued early on the climb and lost over 11-minutes by the finish line, was the only true casualty taken by the brutal ascent. Even the current race leader, Juan Pedro López, who was expected to collapse like a soufflé on the long, steep slopes, finished close enough to the lead group that he was able to hold onto the Maglia Rosa heading into the race’s second rest day.
As the Giro gets ready to enter its second phase, the biggest takeaway from the first nine-stage block was just how closely the top of the GC is still packed together, and how little we know about which rider will ultimately emerge as the overall winner when the clock stops in Verona on the final stage.
Stage Top 3:
Jai Hindley +0
Romain Bardet +0
Richard Carapaz +0
GC Top 3:
Juan Pedro López +0
João Almeida +12
Romain Bardet +14
Select Stage GC Results (including time bonuses):
Jai Hindley +0
Romain Bardet +4
Richard Carapaz +5
Mikel Landa +10
João Almeida +10
Domenico Pozzovivo +13
Emanuel Buchmann +26
Vincenzi Nibali +44
Alejandro Valverde +56
Thymen Arensman +1’08
Filtered Current GC Standings:
João Almeida +0
Romain Bardet +2
Richard Carapaz +3
Jai Hindley +8
Guillaume Martin +16
Mikel Landa +17
Domenico Pozzovivo +42
Emanuel Buchmann +57
Pello Bilbao +1’10
Alejandro Valverde +1’11
Thymen Arensman +1’15
Vincenzo Nibali +2’52
Final Climb Notebook:
25km: Ineos has six riders on the front, and have their usual formation of Carapaz riding second to last.
16km: Interestingly, as we enter the true start of the final climb, UAE has come forward to take over the pace-making from Ineos. This is either a sign that they are extremely confident in Almeida’s form and don’t feel the pace is high enough, or they are trying to make a statement and let Ineos know they aren’t yet the leaders of this race.
11.9km: Simon Yates is dropped and UAE keeps the pace high.
8.2km: Richie Porte is setting an extremely high pace for Carapaz that drops Yates for good after he dangled right behind for a few kms. Race leader Juan Pedro López touches the wheel in front of him while standing and goes off the road. It doesn’t disturb Carapaz, Bardet, and Landa since they are all at the front, but Almeida is sitting incredibly far back (he isn’t even in the frame of the clip below) and has to go around the stopped López to chase back on.
6.2km: Almeida gets back on to the group, but 2kms later he is sitting last wheel, in the dreaded ‘about to get dropped’ zone.
4.6km: Carapaz leaves the comfort of Porte’s wheel to attack a long way from the finish. He immediately gets a gap from the field and is only followed by Bardet and Landa. Almeida, who is still at the back, isn’t able to respond, but as we saw later on the climb, it doesn’t matter.
2.8km: Once the trio gets clear, Landa is eager to get to the front and drive the pace. But, as is the custom, the three riders all start worrying about each other and struggle to keep the pace high. Meanwhile, Almeida has gotten to the front in the group behind and started hammering at a steady pace that slowly reels the leaders in.
1.8km: The leaders accelerate every time Landa gets close, but his steady riding means he doesn’t have to actually close the gap. Every time he reels in the leaders, they attack, but Almeida doesn’t respond knowing that he can just ride at his own pace and can save significant energy by doing so.
1.1km: For example, even after Bardet, Landa, and Carapaz get clear heading into the final km, they all start to look at each other and Almeida is able to reel them in with his steady pace.
500m: The six rider group re-forms due to Almeida’s pacesetting and Jai Hindley wastes no time getting to the front.
200m: Hindley leverages his position at the front to get down the short descent and up onto the uphill section with a slight gap to Carapaz, Landa, Bardet, and Almeida.
Finish: This gap means he has a head-start in the sprint to the line which gives him just enough breathing room to hold off a surging Bardet and Carapaz.
1) Jai Hindley & Bora officially enter the GC conservation
Hindley, who smartly followed Almeida up the final climb before putting himself in the perfect position to win the stage, gets his first WorldTour win since the 2020 Giro d’Italia (where he finished 2nd overall) and looks like he is back to his best after a tough 2021 season.
He played the final sprint perfectly by leading into the downhill and being confident that he could win from such a long way out. While it looked impossible, on a slow uphill sprint like this one, it is better to have less distance to cover by being at the front than attempting to come out of another rider’s draft. For example, he led for the final 600 meters (1 minute 25-seconds) of the race, which would normally be folly, but due to the unusual nature of the finish, set him up perfectly for the win.
While I was impressed with his ride today and see him as an outside shot for the podium, I don’t currently see a path to victory due to his poor time trialing (which cost him the win here in 2020).
But, with Hindley in 5th in the GC and his teammate Emanuel Buchmann in 9th, Bora becomes the only team with two riders inside the top nine places and should be able to leverage this to their advantage in the final week.
2) Romain Bardet suddenly looks back to his mid-2010s best
The former Tour de France runner-up (2016) looks better than we’ve seen him in years and rode with stunning confidence on the Blockhaus climb. In his second season at DSM, he looks like a different rider than he was in his final years at AG2R.
While I think he could very well end up on the podium (he rode to an almost unnoticed 7th place here in 2021), like Hindley, I wonder where he will make up enough time to hold off the others in the stage 20 TT, especially since his struggles against the clock are the main reason he has never won a grand tour in his career.
3) Richard Carapaz & Ineos took control of the stage but are left with little to show for it
They have assumed de facto leadership of this race since stage 1, and while they looked strong as a team today, they clearly wanted to make their trademark summit finish knockout blow today and used significant resources, including Richie Porte, to set up Carapaz’s attack.
But, if we look at returns, they actually got very little out of this effort, and oddly, had Pavel Sivakov soak up the three bonus seconds on offer at the final intermediate sprint instead of Carapaz. This won’t decide the race, but we’ve seen accumulated time bonus seconds win grand tours in recent years, and the fact that Ineos isn’t thinking about margins this thin makes me wonder if they are overconfident in their ability to open major time gaps on climbs.
While Carapaz looked solid on the climb, his inability to drop the others makes me wonder where he will make up the time he needs to win this race and if they will regret sacrificing Richie Porte’s overall position since it eliminates the possibility to deploy a ‘pinch’ strategy on their GC rivals later in the race.
4) Mikel Landa is in great shape, and almost more importantly, looking extremely confident
When he crashed hard on an earlier descent and was forced to change a bike and his shoes at the beginning of the penultimate climb, I thought this was the beginning of a classic Landa meltdown.
But once Carapaz attacked on Blockhaus and Landa easily responded and then immediately started pressing the pace, it was clear he wasn’t rattled, and was in fact, incredibly fit, and most importantly, feeling confident. If he keeps riding like this, a podium finish is likely and even the overall win isn’t off the table.
However, as Simon Yates’ troubles today showed us, there are very few instances of riders hitting the deck and going on to win the overall GC since even the smallest crashes can stay with a rider for days and put them off their best.
5) João Almeida is the day’s big winner
Remember, with a 17km-long TT still to race, the onus is on the others to put time into him and Almeida just got through the first week, where he lost the 2021 Giro, ahead of every other serious GC contender.
Many observers might assume his TT climbing style is betting for shallow climbs, but his high, steady power combined with his relatively light frame makes him better on long, steep climbs like we had today. If he tried to ride his own pace on a less-steep climb, he would have had trouble making it back on due to the higher speed and advantage of drafting in the front group.
And with the Giro offering few, if any, non-steep climbs, Almeida will have plenty of opportunities to execute his steady climbing style, and will be difficult for the leaders to shake unless he suffers from a truly bad day.
6) Simon Yates is Blockhaus’ biggest victim & his consistency issues continue
Yates was dropped almost at the beginning of the final climb after struggling with a knee injury after crashing early on stage 4. While the knee likely caused him problems today, his struggles today mirror the inconsistencies he has struggled from throughout his career (most recently at the Vuelta Asturias right before the Giro), and I still wonder if his cracking so early on the climb wasn’t at least somewhat a confidence issue since he has looked solid on difficult courses since the crash (for example, he finished with the lead GC group on stage 4).
7) The elder Italians had a surprisingly good day
Vincenzo Nibali had a really surprising and impressive ride on a top-tier climb against the best GC riders in the race. He is roughly 3-minutes back in the GC, but many GC riders have regretted letting The Shark lurk within striking distance heading into the back half of the Giro. And interestingly, his large deficit puts him in a dangerous position since he isn’t close enough to be marked out of breakaways but is still close enough to be in the hunt for the race lead if a mountain stage break is successful.
Domenico Pozzovivo was a late pick-up for Intermarche that now looks like a genius move. Shockingly, at 39-years-old, he was the host country's top finisher on the day and somewhat unbelievably the likely best hope for a high GC placing.
8) Get used to seeing Juan Pedro López in pink
The 24-year-old Spanish rider holds the Maglia Rosa and will likely stay in it until next Sunday’s stage 15.
While his climbing performance today shocked me, it shows why his Trek team worked so hard to hold the gap to the breakaways on stage 7. Due to this work, they bought themselves an extra week in the race lead.
9) Guillaume Martin is firmly back in the GC fight
Martin snuck into the breakaway on stage 8 and took back three minutes from the GC leaders, and while I thought he would pay for that effort today and surrender his hard-fought gains, he only came in a minute behind the leaders.
This means he gained a net of two minutes on the GC leaders over the weekend and is now positioned in a prime spot as the race enters its second phase.
10) The major favorites are all roughly equal & this Giro will be decided by thin margins
What stuck out to me the most on the final climb was how much the favorites struggled to put any time or distance into each other on such a difficult climb. Blockhaus has featured in the Giro four times since the year 2006, but this is the first instance where the winner was on the same time as another rider.
The lead group today came in 1’37 slower than stage winner Nairo Quintana in 2017, and with a tough, but not unmatchable (at least for the best), estimated output of 5.92w/kg for the 40-minute effort. This tells me that the top riders here are roughly at the same level on the climbs and in turn, that small margins will decide the overall classification.
To illustrate this, heading into the first (real) rest day, we have 8 pre-race contenders within a single minute of each other, and only one (Simon Yates) serious pre-race contender completely out of the GC race.
While the Giro has a reputation as a wide-open race where minutes are taken in high mountain stages, the last two editions have been extremely tight races where seconds, not minutes, are pulled out on the hardest stages. After what we saw today, I expect this trend to continue through 2022 and the smart riders and teams will start optimizing their strategy to collect as many bonus seconds as possible.