How I (almost) won the Giro

David Vlieghe

I’ll admit I’ve always predicted race outcomes. I’m not a classics specialist, though—way too chaotic, too many different riders, too dependent on who crashes and who doesn’t. It’s also hard to predict who is on form after just a few laps in the desert in the Middle East. No, I prefer the Grand Tours. A start list that counts for the next three weeks. Finding the right balance between the elegant climbers, the muscular sprinters and the tireless attackers is much more my style.

Choosing the riders’ places on the team is based on a careful and well-thought-out, 100 percent scientifically proven selection method. First of all, I fill in an Excel sheet with all the teams and their leaders, both mountain goats and sprinters. Riders like Winner Anacona and Andrey Amador will never get a place on my team. Though they’re both among the top 25 best climbers in the peloton, they will never get the freedom to go hunting for victory and will deliver limited results. Only leaders will be selected.

What makes it easier to select the big fish is to start with those who are not. History often predicts the future. Bauke Mollema? Follow, follow and crack in the last week. Steven Kruijswijk? He has, except this year, never been good in the Volta a Catalunya. A 39th place in the general classification: that does not indicate a potential winner of the Giro. A 7th place creates distrust. Also a DNF in a three-day race before the Giro is not good. So cross him out. Tejay van Garderen? He’s probably the only one who still believes in the possibility of a good classification. So he gets a thick line through his name too.

Now that the long list has become a short list, all the factors are brought together. Starting with the route: know what’s coming! The maps and profiles on the Giro d’Italia website are studied carefully. Technical sprint finales, difficult last kilometers for the puncheurs and steep climbs for the Quintana types or less steep for the Dumoulin types, a finish after a technical descent (Nibali’s stage win in Bormio could have been predicted well before the Giro). Every corner, every hole in the road, the gradient of every climb – I take it all into account when selecting the right riders.

When it comes to the selection, there are two golden rules:

1)    Figures and results tell everything: Riders who had good form just before the start of the Giro will probably also be strong in the third week. Geraint Thomas and Thibaut Pinot dominated the Tour of the Alps. Welcome to the team! Omar Fraile toyed with his rivals in the Tour of Yorkshire and is a multiple-time winner of the mountains classification in the Vuelta. So I can’t leave him off my team either.

2)    Figures and results tell nothing: There will always be surprises in a Grand Tours, so many times it comes down to gambling and following a gut feeling. Phil Bauhaus and Simone Ponzi, for example, showed nothing during this season (not counting Nokere Koerse). But both have shown speed and are the best sprinters on their teams. I take the risk. Bauhaus ends up being a good deal, with two fifth places. Ponzi is a real flop who brings me just 4 points in the entire game. Whenever Ryan Gibbons collects a top-10 place in a sprint I start to cry. In this edition, he’s the dark horse. I have to make do with Ponzi. I lose sleep at night, wondering how I could have missed him. This betting life is hard.

Once the race starts it’s sweating, swearing, counting, suffering, hoping, despairing, abandoning, biting, overcoming fear, dealing with a high heart rate … and I’m only watching from the couch. In this stadium you can do nothing more than just hope that your boys will ride themselves into the ground for you. When I again have the honor of having the first rider to abandon (Rohan Dennis) in my team, it looks like this Giro will not be my race. The big crash at the foot of the Blockhaus with Geraint Thomas and Adam Yates confirms this feeling. Fernando Gaviria, Caleb Ewan and Thibaut Pinot collect points in the first week, but a place at the top of the game looks far away.

Until the great 11th stage, to Bagno di Romagna! A large group escapes early in the race. Three riders are on my team: Fraile, Rui Costa and Giovanni Visconti. They finish 1st, 2nd and 5th. After this wonderful coup I shoot up in the classification. The pink jersey is within reach! You win or lose a Grand Tour fantasy game in the transition stages. Everyone knows the good sprinters and climbers. My performance creates more stress and pressure. Every increase in tempo from Ilnur Zakarin or Domenico Pozzovivo (two riders who are not on my team) raises my blood pressure. Are they going to kill my team? In the end, they are not a real danger. The biggest danger comes from Spain. Mikel Landa is phenomenal in the last week and collects podium places. Luckily for me, he wins only one stage, or the damage would have been greater. I’m nervous until the riders finish in Asiago. But afterward I know the BEAT fantasy game is mine. Because everyone has Dumoulin and Jungels and few other specialists, the time trial will not have a big impact.

When I look at my score and ranking after the last stage, I have rarely been so happy and disappointed at the same time. On the one hand, a third place in the final classification is my best achievement ever in a cycling fantasy competition. On the other hand, I am just 2 points away from the overall final victory. If Ponzi had sprinted to 17th place instead of 19th in the first stage, I would now be the great champion.

That’s how I just missed out on winning the Giro. Predicting races is hard.