Wednesday 19 June 2019

Conor Dunne's Giro D'Italia diary: 'As Eddie Dunbar went clear, the other Irishman went quietly out the back door'

Wednesday May 22: Stage 12: Cuneo to Pinerolo (156km)

Conor Dunne in breakaway action on stage 12 of the Giro d'Italia.
Conor Dunne in breakaway action on stage 12 of the Giro d'Italia.

Conor Dunne

We had a bit of a longer transfer this morning so I made myself a coffee on the bus and for some reason found myself really enjoying listening to Westlife on my headphones on the drive to the start.

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It probably affects people in different ways, but when you get deep into a Grand Tour you get different cravings and today was a Westlife day.

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The last few days have been pretty easy really for a Grand Tour so I felt surprisingly chirpy this afternoon, despite the fact that we were heading into the mountains for the first time.

Most people thought it was going to be hell on wheels today and a massive battle to get in the breakaway but it worked out slightly differently for me.

Today, our team plan was to try and get Ruben Plaza, Krists Neilands or Kristian Sbaragli into the break, as they are good climbers and we thought the escape group might have a good chance of staying clear to the finish.

As the guys attacked and counter-attacked up ahead, I was a bit further down the peloton but I eventually got to the front after about 20km, followed one move and ended up in the break without really meaning to be.

Of course, Murphy's Law dictated that I'd get in the breakaway on a day when there were three tough climbs, including a first category mountain, to get over.

It was really easy the way we went clear though. I did a turn on the front, got back on the wheels to rest for a minute and we were joined by a much bigger group.

By that point, Corkman Eddie Dunbar was already up the road with Thomas de Gendt and the two groups merged to leave 25 riders out front, including the only two Irishmen in the race.

Since this Giro started, every time I pass Eddie in the bunch I shout 'Eddie Boy!' at him in a Cork accent, so I'd say I was cracking him for the first few minutes today.

Most of the time when you get big numbers in a breakaway there isn't a lot of cohesion; guys skip turns and the break disintegrates. Today everyone just rolled through and it was nice to be up there.

After about 30km we went though a town called Saluzzo. At the end of last year, with my team folded and my prospects of continuing as a professional looking increasingly grim, myself and a friend in the same boat, Larry Warbasse, went through Saluzzo on a cycling adventure we dubbed the 'No Go Tour', just riding our bikes for days on end without a plan and staying along the route.

Here I was six months later, riding through the same town in the breakaway at the Giro d'Italia.

It was amazing to hear so many Irish fans on the road today shouting at us and the Aussies and Kiwis gave us great support too.

I had my Directeur Sportif Nikki Sorenson in the team car behind me today and he kept me informed of everything, from what was coming up on the route to reminders to eat and drink and the time gaps.

We got 15 minutes advantage at one point and even though it wasn't a stage that suited me today, I tried to ride as if I was going for the stage win, do everything properly, because it's all practice for that day when you are able to go for the victory.

We did a really narrow cobbled climb twice today, for the first time after 60km and then later on with about 5km to go. It was a bit like the infamous Koppenberg in Belgium, so I was glad I changed my gears last night to be able to ride up it in a 36 tooth front ring and a 30 sprocket on the back.

With the first category Montoso climb looming after 117km, American Sean Bennet and Marco Haller took a flyer about 20km before it, which was an effort on their behalf to try and give themselves some breathing space and maybe get over the mountain before we caught them.

There were some good climbers in our group, so at first I was a bit jealous of their head start but when Christian Knees, riding for Eddie, and Roger Kluge, riding for De Gendt, brought them back at the bottom of the climb, I was glad I hadn’t gone with them.

I knew it would be tough to get over the first category ascent with the break. I can kind of hang in on slopes of around 5pc but the higher the gradient, the tougher it gets for me.

I was feeling alright as de Gendt led us onto the incline with 39km to go but when I saw Italian climber Damiano Caruso move to the front, I thought 'Oh, here we go!'

Caruso's injection of pace split everything up and he dragged a six-man group clear. As Eddie went clear in the new escape group, the other Irishman went quietly out the back door.

I was hoping I could hang onto a group of some description and that we could could get back on the descent. But that didn't happen. Some of the hairpins were really steep and I found myself grinding my 36x30 at 450 watts just to get up it. I tried to stick around the bigger guys, Kluge and Knees, but that didn't happen either.

Apart from the front group - which was now being attacked by Eddie, the rest of us were doing our own thing on the climb.

Although we were losing time rapidly to Eddie's group, we had such a big gap that we were still miles ahead of the peloton, so I just set a tempo that had the next few mountain stages in mind.

With about 10km to go, I got stuck on my own in no-man's land on the big straight road to the finish.

With the peloton behind having split into two big groups under a late chase, climbers Miguel Angel Lopez and Mikel Landa caught me on the line so there's a photo somewhere out there of me finishing in a three-man group with two of the world's best climbers on a mountain stage.

That'll be one to show my son Jesse in a few years.

"Did I ever tell you about the day I finished with the best climbers in the world on a mountain stage of the Giro son?"

When I crossed the line and heard Eddie got third afterwards, I was delighted for him. Third on a stage of his first ever Grand Tour - which is a big step up from any other race in the world, is pretty impressive and he can definitely take confidence from that. He's only a couple of minutes off the lead in the best young rider's competition too and while there are definitely hard days to come, I think Eddie can do very well.

It was nice to be out front today, nice to be able to show off the Irish champion's jersey. I know there are some very hard days left on this Giro. I know I will have some tough battles with the time cut ahead and basically from now to the finish on Sunday week will be a big mental battle, so to be up the road today was great for the morale. It's all about staying positive and keeping the head up. That makes the world of difference.

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