There are always races within a race, and stage 5 of the Giro d’Italia was no exception. Filippo Ganna won the main event, soloing through the mist to Camigliatello Silano, but his victory owed much to the duel between Lotto Soudal breakaway specialist Thomas De Gendt and Movistar neo-pro Einer Rubio on the interminable final climb of the Valico di Montescuro.
If entering the morning breakaway is a gamble, then De Gendt is the guy who gets turfed out of a casino on suspicion of counting cards. When his speculative attack with Peter Sagan was promptly snuffed out, he weighed up the odds and tapped out of trying to infiltrate the early break. Instead, he preferred to stake his day on attempting to bridge across on the final climb.
De Gendt succeeded in the first part of his bet, attacking from the gruppo and catching the remnants of the break with 19km remaining, albeit with Rubio glued tightly to his wheel.
When they were in pursuit, the Colombian could justifiably plead that he had Movistar teammate Hector Carretero up the road, but De Gendt admitted to annoyance that no greater collaboration was forthcoming once they reached the front of the race.
“He didn’t say anything, he just didn’t make an effort, he didn’t want to pull once. When we were chasing, he had a teammate up front so I could understand that. But once we came across to his teammate, he still didn’t want to do any of the work,” De Gendt told reporters after the finish. “Then he started attacking, so I made it my goal not to let him win.”
The 33-year-old De Gendt, with his four Grand Tour stage wins, his Giro podium finish and his treasury of experience, is not the kind of enemy a neo-professional can really afford to make, even one as gifted as Rubio, who placed second overall at last year’s under-23 Giro.
With five kilometres of the climb remaining, Ganna was the only member the day’s early move who had managed to stay with De Gendt and Rubio, who were now beginning to show their respective hands. They traded accelerations but their tight marking allowed Ganna to stay in contact on each occasion.
When the Italian went all in shortly afterwards, De Gendt and Rubio opted to call one another’s bluff. Neither man gave chase and Ganna – the weakest climber of the trio on paper – suddenly had the freedom of the mountainside. He disappeared into the mist atop the Montescuro, which lived up to its name on a gloomy day that hinted at the conditions still ahead in this novel Autumn Giro.
“I think I had the legs to beat Ganna, but I had somebody on my wheel who didn’t want to do any of the work to close the gap,” De Gendt said.
“Ganna was dropped two times when Rubio attacked and I attacked, but he [Rubio] still didn’t want to work. And then when Ganna did a move, I just felt it was not my time to close the attack. I was just waiting for Rubio and he just did not do anything. For me, it’s ok if Ganna wins – just Rubio couldn’t win today.”
Ganna quickly stretched out his lead – “With Ganna’s weight on this climb, it’s impressive, but the last 3 or 4km were not that steep anymore,” said De Gendt – while his erstwhile companions continued to eye one another, eventually being caught and passed by the maglia rosa group on the approach to the summit.
It was put to De Gendt that Rubio had been reluctant to collaborate on the climb because he feared the veteran might then distance him on the rain-slicked descent to the finish. De Gendt, who eventually rolled in 44th at 5:51 on the stage, shook his head gently at the hypothesis.
“I’m not good downhill: if he had made it to the top with just the two of us, then he would have dropped me on the downhill without doing any work and that wouldn’t be fair,” De Gendt said. “I preferred Ganna to win rather than Rubio, that’s just how cycling works.”