It was either wet or wetter for riders in stage nine of the Giro d’Italia, a 35km time trial which saw Remco Evenepoel win again and reclaim the maglia rosa. The top four in Cesena were separated by just four seconds with Geraint Thomas missing out on the win by just 0.09 of a second.
Only hours after his stage win, however, Evenepoel’s team confirmed his retirement from the race because of a positive test for COVID. For now, Thomas is the provisional leader of GC but we wait to see if he wears the pink jersey in stage 10 after the rest day on Monday.
By Rob Arnold. (Photos: Stefano Sirotti)
In the post-stage press conference on the second Sunday of the 2023 Giro d’Italia there was one line uttered by the winner that provided a hint of what might come. “My nose is a little bit blocked,” said Remco Evenepoel. It was more than a little sniffle and, after taking a COVID test on Sunday evening it was confirmed that the new leader of the Giro d’Italia is out of the race.
Only a few hours after the stage, Soudal-Quickstep confirmed the withdrawal of Evenepoel in a statement following the positive test for COVID.
“The Belgian was forced to say goodbye to the first Grand Tour of the season after a routine test taken ahead of the first rest day came back positive.”
That news casts a whole new light on the race Evenepoel was leading once again after winning the stage nine time trial by a fraction of a second over Geraint Thomas.
Exactly what the world champion’s team has planned once he recuperates from COVID remains to be seen but the first quest for the season is now over because of illness, even if he was still able to win his second stage of the race shortly before the positive test forced his withdrawal.
— RIDE Media (@ridemediaHQ) May 14, 2023
Close result in stage nine TT
The weather made conditions difficult for the riders in stage nine of the 106th Giro d’Italia. Rain, rain and more rain fell in Cesena on the day Andreas Leknessund (Team DSM) handed the maglia rosa back to the world champion after five days in the lead of GC.
Remco Evenepoel who dominated the opening stage to become the first leader of the Giro last Saturday faded towards the end of stage nine but did just enough to beat stop Geraint Thomas from becoming the oldest winner of a time trial in the long history of the race.
Just 0.09 of a second separated the two who now top the GC with the Soudal-Quickstep rider back in the pink jersey with an advantage of 45 seconds over yesterday’s runner-up from Ineos Grenadiers.
Another pre-race favourite, Primoz Roglic, finished strong to claim sixth place in the TT and move up to third place in the overall standings (at 0:47) while the 2020 Giro champion, Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers) – who finished third in the time trial – jumped up to fourth (at 0:50).
After 1,402.6km of racing in the Giro of 2023, there were four former Grand Tour champions at the top of the GC standings and while Evenepoel was the only one of this quartet to have won a stage this year – with his two TT victories – he was mindful of his rivals and the risk of getting sick, especially when the weather continues to impact the race.
“I was a bit too excited and too motivated,” said the 23-year-old Belgian who clocked an average speed of 50.725km/h to take the win by the barest of margins.
“I wanted to go as fast as possible to the first time check to put pressure on the others but it wasn’t the smartest strategy and that made it difficult to win… My second part was the worst.”
The first nine riders all averaged over 50km/h despite the slippery conditions. It was also a much tighter contest than stage one when Evenepoel beat TT guru Filippo Ganna by 22 seconds and the gaps to the rest of the peloton were much greater.
Ganna is now gone. The Italian from Ineos Grenadiers never got to test his legs in the second time trial after testing positive to COVID before stage eight and being forced to abandon his third Giro.
His absence will impact the team that was Evenepoel’s main challenger after the opening stanza of the Giro. When Ganna made his Giro in 2020, he won four stages: all three time trials – which included the first and last stages – as well as the 225km fifth stage. That was the year when the race was pushed back to October and his team-mate, Tao Geoghegan Hart, claimed the overall victory after stealing the maglia rosa from Jai Hindley in the final stage.
In 2021, his second Giro appearance, Ganna won the first and last stages, both of which were time trials but he never got the chance to make amends for his loss to Evenepoel at the start of this year’s race. COVID continues to impact Giro and Ganna’s positive test reminded us that illness can strike at any time, especially when the conditions are like they were in Cesena on Sunday.
There are other factors at play too, with injuries from the numerous falls in the opening week impacting the riders, including the double stage winner who is again the GC leader.
“I have liquid coming out of the wounds from my crash some days ago,” said Evenepoel after stage nine, adding: “And my nose is a little bit blocked.”
That statement heralded an ominous warning and, hours after the stage, it was confirmed that the Belgian’s challenge for the Giro win has come to an end after he too failed a COVID test and was forced to abandon.
“As I’m quite light and skinny, the rainy conditions were not on my favour. I prefer warm and sunny. I have to be careful to not become sick.”
Evenepoel: “A little bit blocked…”
The statement during the post-stage interview offered a hint that something might be awry with Remco Evenepoel’s campaign at the Giro d’Italia. He may have won the second time trial of the race, but it was by the barest of margins and only a few hours after stepping off the podium in Cesena, the Soudal-Quickstep team issued a statement confirming his withdrawal from the race.
“The Belgian was forced to say goodbye to the first Grand Tour of the season after a routine test taken ahead of the first rest day came back positive to COVID-19,” is how the statement begins.
Evenepoel then offered an apologetic comment about his unfortunate withdrawal.
“I am really sorry to be leaving the race,” says Evenepoel in the team statement.
“As part of the team’s protocol, I took a routine test, which unfortunately was positive.
“My experience here has been really special and I was looking forward to competing over the next two weeks. I can’t thank enough the staff and the riders who sacrificed so much in preparation for the Giro. I will be cheering them on over the next two weeks.”
The rest of the Soudal-Quickstep team also underwent COVID tests but all came back negative. Evenepoel will now return to Belgium by car and contemplate his next move for the 2023 season only hours after reclaiming the Giro’s leader’s jersey.
Considering the circumstances, it’s unlikely that the maglia rosa will be worn when racing resumes for stage 10 on Tuesday. For the moment, the best rider on GC still in the race is the 2018 Tour de France champion, Geraint Thomas… but we wait to see if the Welshman will wear the pink jersey for the first time.
The rest day press conferences just got a little more interesting. So too has the urgency to stay healthy at a time when the impact of COVID continues to spoil events like the Giro d’Italia.
– By Rob Arnold