The 104th edition of La Corsa Rosa is only three days old but we’ll be hard pressed to find a better image than that of Taco van der Hoorn looking over his shoulder on the home straight in Canale and realising he’d pulled off the impossible.
His hand over his mouth in disbelief, the 27-year-old Dutchman rolled his eyes before bringing his other hand to his helmet and then raising both to the heavens as the chasers closed in. But it was too late for the likes of Peter Sagan, Elia Viviani, Fernando Gaviria and Davide Cimolai – they were just scrapping for maglia ciclamino points in the wake of a lone ranger who probably produced as many watts in his bellowing celebratory roar as he did freewheeling the last metres to the line.
In an interview containing more F-bombs than dinner with Gordon Ramsey, Van der Hoorn explained how he thought his chances of glory were dead in the water when the breakaway’s advantage came down to just one minute with 25km remaining.
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Even Sean Kelly – not renowned for his hyperbole – put his head on the block and said there was no chance the move would make it when Sagan’s Bora-Hansgrohe team were really turning the screw and tailing off most of the big-name sprinters, including Sunday’s stage 2 winner Tim Merlier.
But therein lay the problem: Bora-Hansgrohe were the only team doing the work – and with every Merlier or Nizzolo or Ewan or Groenewegen dropped on the climbs of the Langhe hills, that was one fewer team to contribute to the chase when push came to shove.
The final nail in the coffin came on the second intermediate ‘sprint’ to Guarene with 15km remaining when the road ramped up to a leg-sapping 15 per cent. If Sagan, with Gaviria sticking to his back wheel, had already looked on the rivet on the previous climb of Manera, the elastic snapped on this slap in the face from the organisers.
As Bora eased up, a void set in, allowing Giulio Ciccone and Tony Gallopin to counter. All the indecision injected a bit of fresh hope for the last remaining men out ahead. Swiss breakaway specialist Simon Pellaud (Androni Giacattoli-Sidermec) buried himself alongside Van der Hoorn – and having seen their lead come down to just 35 seconds, the gap soon rose above the minute mark again.
After holding onto Pellaud’s wheel on the final uphill test, Van der Hoorn did either a brave or foolhardy thing in riding clear of his more experienced partner with under 9km to go. At the time it looked like the action of a naïve Grand Tour debutant – especially as the two had combined so well together. But in hindsight it could well have been what won it for the rangy Dutchman.
Pellaud was clearly tiring while, behind, there was still disarray in the chase. The reduced pack first had to reel in Ciccone and Gallopin before they contemplated catching the others – and they had clearly underestimated the Dutch lone leader’s engine.
A former prospect at the Roompot pro-continental team, Van der Hoorn suffered a nasty crash in November 2017 and was concussed so badly he was told by doctors he may never cycle again. Six months later, he was back on a town bike then, in August 2018, his rehabilitation was complete with a stage win in the Binckbank Tour.
Van der Hoorn did not get much of a chance to shine during two years at Jumbo-Visma and joined Intermarche-Wanty-Gobert Materieux this winter in a bid to kick-start his career. By delivering the biggest win of his career – and a Grand Tour first for his new team – it’s fair to say he has now done that. And some.
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Speaking after his miraculous win – before his use of certain Anglo-Saxon phrases caused the broadcasters to pull the plug – Van der Hoorn explained that he simply wanted to get into the break on the off-chance that he could succeed. The old in-it-to-win-it nugget.
“I can't believe it,” he said, still trying to get his breath back. “I just wanted to go in the break and be aggressive all of the Giro. It was really difficult to get to the front and to get to the finish line with the group. But I just thought that even one or zero-point-five per cent is enough of a chance, so I just took it.”
Whether Van der Hoorn would have won had Bora-Hansgrohe not been the only team riding behind is another question. Probably not. But one of the reasons why Bora were the only team riding was because of the very damage that they were causing.
That said, Gaviria’s UAE Team Emirates, Viviani’s Cofidis, and the Israel Start-Up Nation team of Cimolai and Paddy Bevin – riders who eventually made the top seven – all could have come to the front earlier to contribute. Had they done so, they could well have signalled the death-knell for the last men standing from the break.
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This should take nothing away from Van der Hoorn and was immaterial to the ballsy and brilliant way he rode those final kilometres. His victory is no less deserving because of the almighty bungle produced by some of the chasing riders and teams who really should have known better.
The win was a popular one: not only was Van der Hoorn quickly surrounded by his teammates, but his fellow breakaway riders gave him a pat on the back while former Jumbo-Visma teammate Koen Bouwman offered his congratulations. After all, everyone likes an underdog just as much as everyone likes a comeback kid. And here we had both.
Van der Hoorn’s victory also sets the tone for the rest of the Giro: it will give riders – from fellow debutants to grizzled veterans – as well as the wildcard teams the belief that they can pull off something special and achieve the unlikely; it was a win for breakaways and plucky solo artists over collective brute force and the greedy hegemony of sprinters.
In the words of Van der Hoorn himself: “I looked behind me and thought, 'F*** it, I'm going to make it!'"
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