Peter Sagan claimed his first career Giro d’Italia stage win in magnificent fashion but the entire race was left on a knife-edge after two teams withdrew following positive tests for coronavirus within their camp.
The virus cost the Giro a second contender for the pink jersey as Steven Kruijswijk was one of two riders to test positive during Monday’s rest day, leaving the race three days after Simon Yates, and prompting his Jumbo-Visma squad to make a late call to pull out entirely.
Yates’ Mitchelton-Scott team rode on after his exit on Saturday morning, but they too are now out after four staff members returned positive tests.
The news left major questions over whether the race will now make it through to Milan, where it is scheduled to finish on October 25, with Kruijswijk’s team Jos Van Emden having been critical of protocols before Tuesday’s announcements.
After that news, organisers would have been desperate for some drama on the 177km stage from Lanciano to Tortoreto and certainly got it as Sagan produced a vintage performance to solo to victory – ending a 460-day wait for a win dating back to stage five of last year’s Tour de France.
The former world champion spent the entire day in the breakaway, trying to wrestle the points leader’s jersey from the shoulders of Arnaud Demare, but the manner of his victory was something to behold as he raced clear of Ineos’ Ben Swift on a climb 12km from home and soloed to the win.
“I won with my style, putting on a show,” said the former world champion, and there could be no debate about that.
Behind, Joao Almeida led the main contenders home to retain his pink jersey and 30-second lead over Wilco Kelderman, but a second ill-timed puncture of the race cost Astana’s Jakob Fuglsang more than 90 seconds, dropping the Dane out of the top 10.
The day began with a joint announcement from Giro organisers and RCS Sport and world governing body the UCI confirming eight positive tests during Monday’s rest day.
Mitchelton-Scott promptly said they would leave the race given the scale of the problem within their camp.
“As a social responsibility to our riders and staff, the peloton and the race organisation we have made the clear decision to withdraw from the Giro d’Italia,” team manager Brent Copeland said in a statement.
Jumbo-Visma initially looked like continuing after news of Kruijswijk’s positive test, with the team bus pulling up in the paddock in Lanciano. But the riders did not get off, and their withdrawal was confirmed as the rest of the peloton were setting off.
Sporting director Addy Engels said the experience of Mitchelton-Scott in seeing one positive become five within the space of a few days helped determine the decision.
“In our opinion this is the most responsible decision with one positive case in the team, being Stevie,” he said.
“We’ve all been close to him and looking at what happened with Mitchelton with one case and now another four, we’ve decided to take the most responsible decision as we look to the health of our riders and staff.
Both Kruijswijk and Matthews were said to be asympotomatic and expressed surprise and disappointment to be leaving the race.
“I just feel fit,” Kruijswijk said on the team website. “I can’t believe I got it. It is a very big disappointment to get this news. It is a pity that I have to leave the Giro this way.”
The luckless 33-year-old Dutchman, who crashed while leading the 2016 edition during the final days, had targeted the Giro after a crash at the Criterium du Dauphine in August ruled him out of the Tour de France.
Jumbo-Visma’s exit came a day after Van Emden gave an interview to the Cycling Podcast in which he criticised a lack of social distancing in team hotels last week, raising questions over the race bubble.
Speaking before Jumbo-Visma’s withdrawal, Giro race director Mauro Vegni defended the race’s protocols and expressed confidence it will still reach Milan.
“I don’t think there’s a big risk,” he said. “For sure there are a number of cases. We have already done 1,500 tests for Covid-19 and the result is there is a team (Mitchelton-Scott) that is more concerned than others.
“For the others there is only really good news so I don’t think we have a big risk…
“Our protocols are the same as every big sporting event. Like in everyday life, the more you test, the more you find positive cases. Now the number of cases seems low to me and we’re confident.”