Pierre Rolland knew he had won stage 17 of the Giro d’Italia when he hit the flamme rouge with 27 seconds over his chasers.
The Frenchman had time to savor the victory in Canazei. He flashed a huge smile, pointed to the sponsors on the front of his jersey and threw his hands in the air as he crossed the finish line.
He embraced Cannondale-Drapac soigneur Ricardo Pereira first and then communications director Matthew Beaudin. He hoisted his Cannondale Evo SuperSix high over his head. And then Rolland buried his face in his hands and he cried.
“I don’t have the word in English,” said Rolland. “It’s soulagement [relief]. I worked so hard for this, and I haven’t had the compensation for my work. I have tried to win so many times, and today I finally did. This is the reward for me and all my Cannondale-Drapac teammates.”
Rolland was part of an early breakaway of three riders that slipped away at the start of the 219-kilometer stage. The 30-year-old rode with Matej Mohoric (UAE Team Emirates) and Pavel Brutt (Gazprom) over the first two categorized climbs before opting to drop back to a 40-rider chase group that included Mike Woods.
“Sometimes after a hard stage, I go from the start,” said Rolland. “I didn’t think there would be just three of us. I took the first climb easy, the second climb easy, and then I waited for the big group.
“Those big groups are never easy to manage,” Rolland added. “They’re like a big lottery.”
Rolland won this particular lottery with panache. Having marked several attacks in the finale, he launched one of his own with seven kilometers still to race. The gap opened with relative ease, and it was immediately clear Rolland had the legs to last the distance. In his wake, Quick-Step Floors and Dimension Data were late to organize the chase, and their efforts were stymied by Woods, who saw fit to play the role of the disrupter as the finish line loomed.
“Mike was a very effective and selfless teammate today,” said Slipstream Sports CEO Jonathan Vaughters. “Without his intelligence and sacrifice, there would be no win.”
HOW IT HAPPENED
With two categorized climbs in the opening 60 kilometers on the heels of a huge general classification day on Tuesday, Giro d’Italia 17 offered the escape artists an enticing opportunity. Yet the anticipated hard-fought battle to be in the move of the day never materialized. Rolland, Mohoric and Brutt were allowed to roll off the front from the start.
“The chase group set itself up in a really weird way, too,” noted Woods. “It was a headwind going up a climb, and I think guys were a bit tired from yesterday. Some guys let go of the wheels, and all of a sudden we were just in a group.
“I had Alex Howes yelling at me in the radio: ‘Keep motivated. It’s a good group. This one is going to go.’ ”
By the mid-point of the stage, Rolland had dropped back to the chase group with Woods to save his energy for the second half of the stage.
Brutt cracked dramatically, leaving Mohoric alone out front. The young Slovenian was swept up by the chasers with 55 kilometers still to race.
The group had 11 minutes on the peloton heading into the final hour of racing.
“We didn’t have to talk too much because we both knew what we had to do,” said Woods. “Pierre is a good leader, and he gave me a bit of advice as to who we should follow. We had [sport director] Charley [Wegelius] in the car, saying we need to cover UAE, we need to cover Movistar. That’s what we did. We covered the key figures and the key moves in the race. We both had great legs.”
In Rolland and Woods, Cannondale-Drapac had two distinct options. Rolland relishes any opportunity to go on the offensive, and Woods has proven capable in the hardest uphill sprints.
“I had a huge boost of adrenaline coming into the final,” said Woods. “I’m always excited to be at the front of a race at a race of this significance. It was hard, but I didn’t even feel my legs. The finish suited us. With so many guys tired from yesterday, today, I was able to cover moves confidently, and that got me increasingly excited.”
As the chase group fractured and regrouped, Rolland and Woods always managed to put themselves on the right side of any split.
“In a race like this, at the end, everyone is dead,” noted Rolland. “Every rider is tired. It’s an unbelievable fight. I followed some moves, and then in one moment, I thought: ‘Okay, it’s now.’ And I went. I attacked. I got 10 meters. 20 meters. 30 meters. I thought: ‘push! push! push!’ There’s nothing more to it than that.
“I had 10 seconds, 15 seconds, 20 seconds. 25 seconds. I understood Charley on the radio, and I was really connecting with him. We have a good connection from last year and Tour and our experiences there. That helped me today.”
Rolland has won two Tour de France stages. His victory in Canazei is his first Grand Tour win in five years, and his first win for Cannondale-Drapac.
Rolland had a deeply disappointing inaugural season with the American-registered squad. He put all his efforts into leading the team at the Tour de France only to crash heavily twice. The first crash eliminated his general classification hopes; the second crash his stage-hunting ambitions.
“During the winter, I went to Colorado to speak with Jonathan Vaughters, who is the manager of my team and also my coach now,” said Rolland. “We considered my career. We realized that I’m not built for racing the general classification. It’s against my nature. I’m more of an attacker – so we decided I would go for stage wins at the Giro and the Tour.”
Back home in Colorado, Vaughters watched Rolland attack his way to victory.
“It was a great and very athlete win for Pierre,” said Vaughters. “He has such huge talent, and I’m just glad the world finally got to see it in full display today.
“He has been an open-minded and hard working student,” Vaughters added. “What we’ve done is vastly different than how he’s trained and eaten in the past. I’m thankful he’s continued to have faith in the training, even when things were a bit rough. Today it paid off, and I think this is only the beginning of the dividends.”
The Giro d’Italia continues tomorrow with a short but sharp stage. The peloton will cover five categorized climbs over 137 kilometers between Moena and St. Urlich.
“I’m feeling good,” said Woods. “I think I’m improving every day. Pierre is flying. Davide [Formolo] is riding so well on the general classification. It’s gotten everyone motivated. We still have a lot left. We’re not done yet.”
Note: Feature image by Russ Ellis (@CyclingImages)