Forget Christmas – Alex Dowsett must wish it were Stage 8 of the Giro every day.
Seven years after his first Grand Tour success came courtesy of a time trial in Stage 8 of the 2013 Giro, Dowsett won the corresponding stage of the 2020 race. But this time, for only the second occasion of his career, victory didn't come from a race against the clock.
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And to think that the day hardly got going under the best of auspices, Dowsett taking to Twitter to grumble about a minor caffeine-related mishap which he'd blown all out of proportion…
Those freshly brushed Essex enamels souring his morning coffee, Dowsett headed to the start zone of Saturday's stage where he delivered some pearls of wisdom to the race organisers: "It really could be a good day for the breakaway."
Less than an hour later, Dowsett was riding in that breakaway with team-mate and fellow time trial aficionado Matthias Brandle. The two Israel Start-Up Nation chrono specialists – whose idea for an hour's worth of fun usually consists of riding around in circles on a track – helped the six-man move open up a gap of 10 minutes along the flat coastal roads ahead of the major climb of the day, which ushered in some seriously rolling roads all the way to the finish.
Perhaps Dowsett had taken inspiration from the victory a few days earlier of Filippo Ganna, whose Ineos Grenadiers team-mate Salvatore Puccio once again featured in the break.
When Ganna was part of the eight-man move in Stage 4, most people presumed he was there to set things up for Puccio. Ganna, after all, is no climber. The Italian powerhouse had won the opening time trial and would surely fade on the day's major climb. His job was clearly to set things up for a first professional win for Puccio.
But after Puccio faded, Ganna caused an upset when he repeatedly battled back on the climb before time trialling himself over the summit and down the other side to victory – the first non-TT win of his burgeoning career.
The only team represented by two riders in Saturday's break, Israel Start-Up Nation looked to use their numerical advantage in the business end of Stage 8. What looked to hold them back was the fact that Dowsett and Brandle were essentially like-for-like entities: two previous Hour Record holders who strengths were not best suited to climbs, not least punchy ramps peaking at 17 per cent.
So Dowsett did what he needed to do: he seemingly sacrificed his chances by putting in a softening attack on an uphill rise 30km from the finish. The shake out didn't do much and the break arrived at the foot of the ramp in Vieste as one – only for Brandle, then Dowsett, to blow.
At this stage, it looked like the Israel Start-Up Nation duo had completely kiboshed their chances.
But they joined forces with the Italian rookie Simone Ravanelli and chased down the leading trio of Puccio, Matty Holmes and Joey Rosskopf on the finishing circuit. Knowing that he'd struggle to keep up with that trio on the return visit to the same climb, Dowsett again did what he had to do: he attacked straight after the six riders came back together.
The 32-year-old was now in time trial mode – just like Ganna four days earlier. But unlike Ganna, he still had to drag himself over that final climb. A 55-second lead going onto the double-digit test ensured the Dowsett held the aces. The gap came down, inevitably, but Dowsett knew that he could then ride to his strengths for the final 8km run back into Vieste.
Behind there was little cohesion as Brandle successfully managed to sandbag the pursuers. Both Holmes and Puccio did their best, but they also ended up looking at one another in despair. For they had blown it. They'd given Dowsett too much rope – and the Briton had tied it around their necks.
Israel Start-Up Nation had done what Ineos Grenadiers had done the other day, and this time poor Puccio was on the receiving end.
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You have to stretch back nine years for the last time Dowsett won a race which wasn't a time trial – back to 2011, his first professional win coming in Stage 5 of the Tour International du Poitou Charentes. As Dowsett dug deep to defy a chasing trio, it must have felt like a time trial, though. Dowsett once again playing to his strengths.
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With the riders behind playing cat and mouse, even a stray dog was not enough to put Dowsett off his stride on the home straight.
How ironic that the notoriously cat-loving 32-year-old took his emotional win thanks to a lead-out from a dog…
The tears streaming down Dowsett's face made an historic first Grand Tour stage win for Israel Start-Up Nation all the more poignant. With Dowsett yet to receive any contract offers for 2021, and his partner Chanel in the latter stages of the couple's first pregnancy, the victory couldn't have come at a better moment.
Speaking to Eurosport once the dust had settled on what was arguably the biggest win of his career, Dowsett opened up about the difficulties of this coronavirus-curtailed season and the personal pressures he faced.
It's such a tough year with all the uncertainty – trying to work out how I'm going to get to next year, still be racing and doing what I love, working out how I can put food on the table for the two of us – well, the three of us, as it will be next year.
Dowsett recalled a day in the Tour of Britain in 2014 when he rode with Brandle in the break, the Austrian taking the win and himself the yellow jersey. "Only good things happen when I'm in a break with Matthias."
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For his part, Brandle said he had no doubt Dowsett could finish things off after they used their numerical advantage to thwart the likes of Puccio and Holmes.
"I'm really happy for him," said Brandle. "In the first lap we were dropped but we worked together to come back. Then I attacked first, then him. It was good teamwork. He chose the perfect moment and had a nice gap for the climb. I knew he'd time trial his way to the finish. He's out of contact next year so hopefully that will help him."
You would like to think that a Giro stage win would put him in good stead for a new contract – whether with the team for whom he had just made history, or elsewhere.
Taking a leaf out of Filippo Ganna's book, a rare road stage win for Dowsett has shown the world that he's far more than the sum of his time trialling parts.
As for the coffee-toothpaste debacle – well, it's fair to say things worked out okay. Even he admits that now.
Tomorrow morning we'll find out from Dowsett what toothpaste and Champagne tastes like. It's probably far, far more pleasant.
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