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At Old Trafford, Manchester United supporters aren’t shy about making their feelings known when they deem the current team isn’t living up to the adventurous ideals of the club’s history. The chant that tumbles down from the Stretford End is simple but to the point: “Attack! Attack! Attack!”
At times, the atmosphere at this Giro d’Italia feels like it could have been lifted directly from Sir Matt Busby Way during Louis van Gaal’s tenure. A sizeable portion of the commentariat, in the press room and beyond, certainly seems disgruntled at the caution displayed by the overall contenders through the opening two weeks of the race.
Like last year’s Giro, the slender margins atop the standings have generated plenty of suspense but relatively little excitement. In comparison with the years of plenty in the middle of the past decade, the spettacolo quotient on this Giro has been low thus far.
Bruno Armirail‘s unexpected stint in the maglia rosa came about precisely because of the ongoing inertia among the favourites. Geraint Thomas and Ineos Grenadiers were happy to shed themselves temporarily of the weight of the jersey on Saturday, and Primož Roglič is in no hurry to grab it for himself.
Domestique has his day as Armirail claims unexpected Giro d’Italia lead
Giro d’Italia: McNulty wins from the break on Lombardia-style stage 15
‘Sooner or later the Giro will explode’ – Geraint Thomas patient but ready for final showdown
Waiting for the moment – Primoz Roglic bides time at Giro d’Italia
Armirail defended his jersey on stage 15, despite the rugged terrain on the road to Bergamo on Sunday afternoon. The climbs of Valico Valcava, Selvino, Miragolo San Salvatore and Roncola Alta failed to inspire attacks among the GC contenders, who only briefly tested one another on the final, cobbled kick in Bergamo.
In his post-stage press conference, Armirail found himself being asked to explain the relative lack of aggression among the men who will ultimately take the jersey back off him next week. The Groupama-FDJ man politely pointed to the obvious.
“For sure, the public would like to see attacks, but when you’re on the bike, it’s different. The stakes are high at the Giro, so the leaders can’t just attack for the sake of it at any moment,” Armirail said. “Today if a leader attacked, where was he going to go? There was a long descent and flat section after the last big climb today.
“But they went for it on the last, small climb, and I was on the limit trying to follow them there. Now the hardest part starts on Tuesday. There’ll be a battle between the favourites then, and that will be a nice spectacle.”
‘You have to keep your feet on the ground’
While the GC contest has yet to ignite fully, Armirail’s own tale, that of a career domestique thrust blinkingly into the limelight, should intrigue anyone with a feel for the soul of the Giro. Entertainment at this race has always come in various forms. Armirail’s moment, which will likely end at Monte Bondone on Tuesday, deserves attention.
On Saturday evening in Cassano Magnago, Armirail confessed to complete unfamiliarity with the trappings of victory, from podium ceremonies to champagne corks to press conferences. It must have been rather surreal, then, for the 29-year-old to find a pink Lapierre waiting for him outside the Groupama-FDJ bus in Seregno on Sunday morning and to have his teammates policing the race on his behalf all day.
With a 1:40 buffer over Thomas in the overall standings, Armirail set out with reasonable expectations of retaining pink, and his chances rose still further when he was still comfortably alongside the favourites on the final classified climb of Roncola Alta. He only lost contact on the short, sharp kick to Bergamo Alta in the closing kilometres, but he limited his losses to half a minute. As the Giro breaks for its second rest day, Armirail leads Thomas by 1:08, with Roglič third at 1:10.
“On the last big climb with 37km to go, I was able to hold on very well,” Armirail said. “On the last climb, I was dropped a bit, but I gave everything. I knew if the favourites attacked on the climb, I wouldn’t be able to follow. But it was already in the last 4km, so I knew there was little chance I’d lose 1:40 in that distance.”
Armirail’s lone victory as a professional came in the time trial at the French National Campionships last year and the 29-year-old has always declared himself most comfortable in the role of an équipier working selflessly, and often anonymously, in the service of a leader. On Sunday, he found himself in the most unfamiliar position of being the centre of attention as the race passed through the towns and villages in the hinterland of Bergamo.
“It was something exceptional to wear the pink jersey in the middle of crowds like that,” Armirail said. “But you have to keep your feet on the ground. You can’t afford to lose too much energy to emotion. I wanted to enjoy the jersey, but I knew I had to try to ride like I didn’t have it.”
Even with the maglia rosa, and even amid the cheers and the tumult on that dizzying final climb through Bergamo, Armirail never lost sight of himself. Even before the pace and the gradient began to bite, he had sought out his team leader Thibaut Pinot.
“I told Thibaut that if I was dropped on the last climb, he shouldn’t wait for me,” said Armirail, race leader for another stage, but still a domestique to his fingertips.