A breakaway goes clear at the start of the day, nothing happens for a few hours, and then those riders are brought back in time for a big sprint finish between the fast men — stage 17 of the 2023 Giro d'Italia stuck closely to the formula of a typical flat stage in a Grand Tour. Until the thrilling bunch sprint finale, where Alberto Dainese (Team DSM) became the sixth different sprinter to win from a bunch sprint, coming from far back to pip Michael Matthews (Jayco-Alula) at the line and hold off an even later charge from Jonathan Milan (Bahrain-Victorious), there was little action to comment on the road.
But this stage was far from predestined to be quite so formulaic. The parcours may have been flat — downhill, in fact, for most of the day, on what might have been the easiest stage of the whole Giro — but, this deep into a Grand Tour, rarely does the bunch manage to keep a break this well controlled.
The difference between a flat stage in the final week and in the first week is how much weaker the sprinters’ teams are. By now most teams are depleted in number due to crashes, illness and all the other many ailments that send riders home early, meaning they have less resources to chase down the break — even more so this year, considering the carnage Covid has caused. Add to that the fact that many of the teams that were helping chase the break on flat stages during the first week no longer have an incentive as their sprinter has since abandoned (in this year’s case, Trek-Segafredo and Alpecin-Deceuninck, for whom Mads Pedersen and Kaden Groves have respectively exited the race) and it’s clear how the advantage has swung much more in favour of the breakaway at this point in the race.
The peloton pass through Valstagna during stage 17 (Image: Zac Williams/SWpix)
In fact, today was the first time that the final flat stage of a Giro d’Italia (excluding the final day ceremonial stage) has ended in a bunch sprint since 2018. Last year, Dries De Bondt was the victor from a successful four-man break; in 2021 Alberto Bettiol went clear from a large breakaway, albeit with the help of a few late small climbs; Josef Černý was the solo victor in similar circumstances the year before; and Damiano Cima dramatically held off the charging peloton in the final metres to win in 2019.
With this in mind, you might have expected a real fight at the start of today’s stage to get into the breakaway given the opportunity for a stage win, especially as this is almost certain to be the last chance for anyone who isn’t a pure sprinter or a pure climber to win a stage as the race heads into the Dolomites tomorrow (the final-day circuit stage almost invariably ends in a sprint). But there was a strangely inert start to the stage when the flag dropped in Pergine Valsugana.
Thomas Champion (Cofidis), Senne Leysen (Alpecin-Deceuninck), Diego Pablo Sevilla (EOLO-Kometa) and Charlie Quarterman (Corratec-Selle Italia) immediately attacked, and got a gap. A couple of Green Project-Bardiani CSF-Faizanè tried, and failed, to join them. Things did threaten to liven up when stage three winner Michael Matthews tried to get up the road, but when Jonathan Milan marked him out in defence of his points classification lead, the race settled down again, and that was it — the break of the day had formed.
Such a small group, and one lacking the kind of powerful rouleur who had the engine to hold off the bunch, were always up against it, and they were kept on a tight leash all day. Leysen lasted longer than the other three, but with 5km to go he too was caught, paving the way for the sprint finish in what turned out to be about as smooth a day as the sprinters could have possibly have hoped for.
Senne Leysen was the last man standing from the breakaway (Image: RCS Sport)
So why was there so little interest to get into the breakaway? One explanation is that most teams are already happy with how their Giro has gone, and therefore there aren’t as many desperately resorting to breakaways in a last-ditch attempt to salvage from the race as there usually are in this late phase of a Grand Tour.
Stage wins have been generously shared out between the teams this year, with exactly half of the 22 teams competing claiming at least one (twelve, now that Dainese has landed DSM’s first). Of the eleven that hadn't, two have had unexpected but satisfying spells in the pink jersey to please their sponsors (DSM with Andreas Leknessund and Groupama-FDJ with Bruno Armirail) and another two are still pushing for overall victory (Ineos Grenadiers with Geraint Thomas and Jumbo-Visma with Primož Roglič).
Two of the other winless did make the day’s break — Cofidis through Thomas Champion, and Corratec-Selle Italia through Charlie Quarterman. And other teams had a sprinter to bank on rather than gamble on the breakaway, namely Intermarché-Circus-Wanty and their impressive young talent Arne Marit, and of course, Astana Qazaqstan with Mark Cavendish.
That leaves just Arkéa Samsic and Israel - Premier Tech as teams that the finger could perhaps be pointed towards for not being active enough when the break was formed at the start of the day, while Green Project-Bardiani CSF-Faizanè did indeed make some big efforts with Henok Mulubrhan then Davide Gabburo at least trying to join the leaders.
Now, it’s down to the climbers to redeem the races of these teams. With just four stages left they’re running out of time, but a spectacular victory amid the grandeur of the Dolomites is up for grabs for those with the will and the legs.
Cover image: RCS Sport