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Men's Cycling Team Ineos set infernal pace but Lopez retains leader's pink jumper

IF LAST Tuesday’s stage four, a race up Mount Etna, the first of this year’s Giro d’Italia’s mountain stages, proved to be something of a phoney war, with none of the favourites willing to put their nose in the wind so early in the race, Sunday’s stage nine in the Apennines, the tour’s second mountain stage ending at the Blockhaus peak, told us a lot more about the form of the top contenders in the general category and the way the race’s final two weeks is likely to pan out.

The Giro, one of the “big three” tours in men’s cycling alongside the Tour de France and the Vuelta a Espana, is always a race to savour, being first in the sequence and so the least predictable; some riders are jockeying for places in their team for the more prestigious Tour de France, some are looking to exploit early-season form, others thrive in the special conditions that the Giro offers.

One such is Australian Jai Hindley, second overall in 2020’s Covid-delayed race, who took Sunday’s stage in a close finish, pipping France’s Romain Bardet and the race favourite, Ecuadorian Richard Carapaz, on the line after a brutal day of climbing that sorted the sheep from the goats.

A nine-man breakaway led the stage for most of the day but, with Carapaz’s Ineos team setting an infernal pace, those riders were caught and the peloton started the final climb up the Blockhaus together.

Simon Yates was one of the favourites dropped early on the final climb —  the British rider eventually crossed the line 11 minutes behind Hindley with his right knee heavily strapped. 

That injury, sustained on the fourth stage climb up Etna, had proved too much for him, and another Giro will end in frustration for the Lancastrian, who wore the leader’s maglia rosa (pink jumper) for a fortnight in 2018 before an astonishing 80km attack from Chris Froome left a shattered Yates — and the rest of the field — in his wake. 

Yates came into this year’s edition in flying form and could, should, have been a serious threat to Carapaz. The Bury rider’s last word on Sunday was that he was going to wait till after yesterday’s rest day before he made a decision on continuing the race, but a place on the podium is now beyond him.

But Yates was far from the only big name rider to falter — and at least he could point to injury in mitigation. Bauke Mollema, WIlco Kelderman and Wout Poels probably lost too much time on this stage alone to be considered threats any longer. Tom Dumoulin (14 minutes down on yesterday’s winner) and his Jumbo Visma team had already conceded that they are going for stage wins rather than jerseys after a disastrous first week.

In the general classification, just 17 riders are within five minutes of the unexpected maglia rosa wearer, Spain’s Juan Pedro Lopez, who absolutely turned himself inside out on the Blockhaus to defend his lead. Of those 17, only Carapaz has a team powerful enough to make their leader’s load less burdensome: when it gets to the nitty gritty on the mountain stages, the rest are likely to be on their own. 

With another such stage still almost a week away, perhaps Lopez can cling to his jumper for a while longer, and nobody would begrudge the likeable Spaniard that — though Lopez did have a brief episode of histrionics, involving throwing a water bottle, on Sunday: an indication of the pressure that accompanies the pink jumper.  

And the rest of the strong contenders have a little time to ponder how to derail the Ineos train. Hindley and Bardet showed they were a match for Carapaz on the Blockhaus, Joao Almeida, Guillaume Martin and Mikel Landa weren’t far behind. The expected steamroller Carapaz victory is far from certain.

After yesterday’s rest day, the race returns for today’s stage 10, a 196km ride from Pescara to Jesi that clings to the flat Adriatic coastal roads of the Abruzzo and Marche regions before turning inland at Civitanova Marche for a few tough climbs before a possible sprint finish, though the select band at the finish is likely to be small. 



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