Alessandro De Marchi and Simon Clarke finished 88th and 89th in stage six of the Giro d’Italia… and they won the hearts of fans with an escape that very nearly went the full distance.
Their bid for glory was snuffed out by the sprinters in the final 300 metres.
By Rob Arnold (Photos: Stefano Sirotti)
The attacks began early in the 162km sixth stage of the 106th Giro d’Italia that started and finished in Napoli. The ever-aggressive Alessandro De Marchi was one of the riders to roll the dice and try his luck in a breakaway. He jumped ahead with a group of others at the 12km mark.
Shortly afterwards, the Italian from Jayco-AlUla and his cohort were joined by Simon Clarke (Israel-Premier Tech) and a couple of other opportunists who formed The Escape Group for what was said to be a ‘sprint stage’.
By the 50km mark – after the break had absorbed the intermediate sprint points in Sant’Antonio Abate and climbing points at Valico di Chiunzi – the escapees had built an advantage of over four minutes. And, the peloton then decided, the pursuit would begin.
It would become a drag race that added drama to a day when the sun was shining again and short sleeve jerseys replaced the rain jackets that were prevalent in stage five.
After 95km, on the ascent of the cat-3 Picco Sant’Angelo climb, Clarke and De Marchi upped the pace and by the top they had formed a partnership that would last all the way back to the streets of Napoli. The duo was on a mission. They jettisoned the excess baggage and raced ahead with hopes of upsetting the sprinters.
To understand the heartbreak that was on display as Clarke and De Marchi eventually crossed the finish line arm in arm, it helps to watch the full stage. But the clip above, which shows the final kilometres, explains a lot.
The advantage the pair had built was slowly but surely whittled down… but with 5km to go they had 40 seconds and a whiff of a win.
As they pass under the Flamme Rouge, it seems certain that they’ve done enough to hold off the sprinters and their teams. Still, they have to collaborate all the way to the line if they are going to pull off this coup.
The two at the front of the stage were team-mates in 2022 and, according to their team colours, rivals in 2023… but they swapped equal turns, each urging the other on as they continued to hold off the chasing group.
With the finish line within sight it still seemed possible: a stage victory in a Grand Tour was theirs for the taking. One last surge ought to be enough… push on Simon and Alessandro! Empty the tank. Now is your chance to win the stage.
Rob Hatch calls the action and inside the final few hundred metres it seems like he’s going to explode.
“Three hundred and fifty metres now as they come from behind,” screams Hatch.
“Clarke on the left in the darker jersey. It’s the blue-and-white of De Marchi on the left as we look at it now – and the sprinters launch!
“Two hundred and fifty metres to go: it’s heartbreak. They’re going to be caught!
“There goes Fernando Gaviria! Gaviria at the front being chased down by Consonni…
“On the left hand side they’ll try and come around him. Then it’s Milan – one hundred metres to go. It’s a heart-attack sprint here in Napoli!
“Pedersen is there. Gaviria is caught. And finally it’s Mads Pedersen…!”
Hatch catches his breath and then begs the question, still screaming: “How on earth did they not make it!?”
Breakaways are part of cycling tradition. If you never try, you’ll never know. If you time things well, victory is there for the taking. If you commit and collaborate and coax the best out of each other, it can happen even when logic suggests it shouldn’t.
Bunch sprints are also a feature of the sport. There are entire teams built around creating a lead-out so effective that it can ruin dreams and spoil hours of toil.
That’s what happened in Napoli. Mads Pedersen finished off the fantastic work of his Trek-Segafredo team. He claimed victory in style. He duly celebrated like the champion he is. But he wasn’t the only winner in stage six.
The blokes who rolled over the line at the tail end of the group of 89 riders who finished with the same time were also winners in Napoli. Alessandro De Marchi and Simon Clarke put on a show. They took a gamble. They pushed all the way to the line. They didn’t play games with one another or shy away from a turn of pace. They tried… and they missed out.
Gazumped by the sprinters the breakaway companions consoled each other as they came to terms with how different things could have been if the stage was 161.7km instead of 162.
It took a few seconds for the bunch of 89 riders to roll over the line. Up ahead, Pedersen was already preparing for his podium appearance. He was thanking his team-mates and dealing with the TV cameras and scrum of photographers.
And then Hatch gets the energy to speak again. He didn’t quite explode… it took a while for him to find the words he was searching for. “Two hundred metres from the line, and the heroes were caught.”
It was a bunch sprint. But the escapees made it a stage to remember.
– By Rob Arnold