The stage, on Lake Lavarone, next to a gas station, is won by Santiago Buitrago, a Bogotan who was 11 years old, and was already running with a bib number, when Nairo won the Tour del Porvenir. At 22 he cries like a man when he comes second last Sunday at Cogne; he cries when he wins and hugs Rayan Ajaji, his press officer, at the finish line. He doesn’t cry when he falls, a poorly taken curve descending the Giovo, next to the village of the Moser and Simoni, winners of Giros, blasphemes and shouts, rage and pain, and shakes his arm. He mounts again. Testosterone, the blow, fulfills the function of it. The adrenaline. He pedals harder. He wins with ripped pants. He runs in the Bahrain. He runs in Bahrain for Landa, who hugs him at the finish line like a happy little brother on the day of his first communion. Landa advances. He is already third. 1m 5s, ahead, Carapaz. 49s behind, bye bye Almeida. “A hard day. We control the last upload. Very strong Hindley, Carapaz, but I’m happy to leave Almeida”, he says. “And super happy for Buitrago.”
“The three of us, Hindley, Landa, myself, are very evenly matched. This will be played out in the smallest details. The bonuses. Team movements”, announces Carapaz, leader of the Giro by three seconds.
The Giro is played photo finish. Climbers sprint. The sprinters climb, Carapaz speeding up the last 200 meters on a streamer of silk thrown randomly on the slope after a minimal descent. Landa loses his wheel. Carapaz, more plethoric than any day, is six seconds ahead of Landa, and finally, on fourth, he shows the rear wheel to Hindley. Hand in hand with his partner Poels, who opens gaps for him, Landa accelerates, hands lowered, three kilometers from the top of the Menador, and when he turns his head, Almeida is no longer there. The other two do not want to believe it. They collaborate. They accelerate one after the other. They’re breaking an enchantment. But Almeida sees them. He is 100 meters behind. The Menador, the last port to the Lavarone plateau, is a road carved into the rock by the Austrian army at the beginning of the 20th century, narrow tunnels, open to bites. High pressures engulf the platoon. The shower paves the way, wets the roads, threatens. None get wet. Almeida reaches into his back pocket as he reaches the plateau that overlooks a valley of fir trees and lush green meadows that are cross-country ski trails in winter, and clear lakes below. Warm water fjords, boats with dragon heads on the prow. Wild regattas. Almeida’s fingers feel in the pocket. He seeks the soft, slippery feel of a gel. He can’t find it. The stage has eight kilometers left. A few false plain, a piccolo descent, 700 meters of final slope. Almeida, empty, gives in. The false flat hurts more than the harder slopes. He does not find a development that makes him advance. He is alone. Forever.
Mathieu van der Poel, bare hands, breaks the stage by climbing the Tonale, a pass that opens the door to the giants, Gavia, Stelvio, of which this Giro passes. Kilometer 1. Guide to the escape of 25 through the golden apple plantations, the melinda (invented word: honey, apple in Italian, and linda, Spanish for beautiful) that are flooding world markets. Still ahead among the vineyards, the Tyrolean grape from Trento that the bishops and cardinals of the council liked so much. 15 kilometers from the end, the Menador starts in the lead. Grandson of Poulidor. Rose in Budapest. Yellow in Brittany. King of Flanders. An uomo alone at the command. Another Dutchman follows babyface, Gijs Leemreize, one month younger than Buitrago. Worthy heirs of Wagtmans, the cyclist with the white hair who, when asked by Merckx, accelerated down the descents and the Spanish climbers trembled with fear, the two children abandon all the escapees going down the Vitriolo, the first pass, not as sulphurous as its name . Gentle slopes, wide curves, clouds clinging to the hillside, white, soft as Platero’s body. The two happily launch. Van der Poel, the beauty of insanity, will not stop until he bursts. In the Valico, the day before, he crosses the top, with a wheelies to one hand He does not understand the sacrifice of the cyclist if he does not fully express himself in all the races, all the kilometers. Every day of the entire Giro he has entered the important breakaways. He will hold up to three kilometers from the plateau. Every day further. They pass him his blond compatriot, and to this Buitrago, excited, floating, dreaming his dream. Contador, like any other fan, approaches Van der Poel at the finish line. He pats her on the back. He proclaims him “capo”.
“Another day chasing,” says Almeida, a Portuguese from Caldas da Rainha. Spa town. Relax. Almeida is more and more Agostinho. Hard, hard, hard. “Mentally he is tough, but this is not over. The podium is possible, but not easy”. On Saturday, the Marmolada. Photo finish. Van der Poel. Landa.