The Inner Ring | Giro Stage 9 Preview

    It’s back to Napoli for the third time in three years and an urban finish.

    Pink Panther Purrs: it took a lot of trying but finally a big breakaway with away with some GC outsiders like Romain Bardet. No threat to Pogačar but still able to do a “snakes and ladders” Giro, losing time one day only to gain it the next.

    Pogačar said post-stage that he asked his team mates if they were up for riding for the stage and they replied yes. It wasn’t a revelation given UAE rode hard during the stage and kept the breakaway at two minutes before catching them the foot of the climb to Prati di Tivo, even if Valentin Paret-Peintre stayed away for half the climb.

    Pogačar’s win felt inevitable yet he didn’t land a knock-out blow. Worse for his rivals as he was toying with them. The pink panther cosplay as a cat playing with a mouse. Sated already by a comfortable lead, he didn’t need to devour his rivals. They were bracing for the attack but that never came. So Antonio Tiberi started the fireworks in the final two kilometres but each time he or Arensman jumped, Pogačar clawed them back. As the group marked each other, Rafał Majka rode back to them and was able to give a lead out to his boss. Finally in the space of 200m Pogačar had time to finish, pocketed the ten second bonus and a third stage win. On paper the margin of victory might look small but this was his most certain result so far.

    The Route: over a week in and the first ride beyond 200km. There’s little to note about the course for the most part. The bump on the course after 60km isn’t even a mountain pass. It’s mainly flat roads and long straight sections, there are hills and mountain parks to the sides but they’re avoided today, a surprisingly modest stage for a Sunday.

    Just as the race is going to Napoli for the third year in a row, the course returns to Monte Procida on the Flegrea peninsula again too. If you remember the racing from 2022, Procida was the gentle climb. There are two more bumps on the course but the difficulty isn’t the climbing and more the bends which can line out the bunch, which makes positioning even more precious.

    The Finish: flat and by the sea front, the same course as 2022 with a U-turn at the flamme rouge before the finish by the sea.

    The Contenders: a likely sprint, who to pick? Jonathan Milan (Lidl-Trek) and Tim Merlier (Soudal-Quickstep) have a stage each and can easily repeat. Kaden Groves (Alpecin-Deceuninck) and Olav Kooij (Visma-LAB) look the most likely challengers.

    Milan, Groves
    Merlier, Kooij
    Ewan, Bauhaus

    Weather: sunshine and 23°C

    TV: KM0 is at 12.15pm CEST and the finish is forecast for 5.15pm CEST. Tune in for the sprint finish in town.

    Postcard from Napoli
    With about 2.5km to go the race passes close to the Piazza Eritrea. Piazza is doing some heavy lifting here, don’t picture a large square with a fountain in the middle and cafes in the arcades, think instead of a seedy parking lot between two buildings. Apparently it once had a fountain but this was a functional trough to water horses hauling goods to the port. Either way it’s a hook to bring up the subject of Eritrea and bike races, even if Biniam Girmay has gone home when he might have hoped to win today.

    As competing European powers rushed to take colonies in Africa during the 19th century, Italy occupied Eritrea and the borders established then have roughly stayed the same since. The colonial history is told better by experts rather than a sports blogger but one tangential result was the cultural significance of bike racing brought by the Italians. This helps explain why there are four Eritreans in the World Tour, more than any other African country.

    You might see many Eritrean flags at bike races and when Girmay won Gent-Wevelgem he was treated to a hero’s welcome in Asmara, the capital. So far so good, but the country is sometimes referred to as the “North Korea of Africa”. It’s a clumsy comparison but evokes the authoritarian government, the lack of human rights and almost zero media freedom in a country where internet use is low and the few media outlets available are all run by the Ministry of Information.

    So when Girmay is feted it can be a popular delight… but also propaganda for the regime. Likewise with the flags at races in Europe, there might be some proud members of the diaspora but there can also be regime supporters from the local embassy or consulate sent out to fly the flag.

    Further to this is the “diaspora tax”, an semi-unofficial levy where those living abroad can pay 2% of their income to the local Eritrean embassy, even if they already pay tax in their country of residence. Those who have fled for good can refuse but people with family in the country, or those wanting to maintain access to the country and consular services including having a passport for travel have to pay. This might includes the pro cyclists, given they need passports. It is a significant source of revenue for the government.

    So while the emergence of African cyclists brings much to celebrate and enjoy, when it comes to Eritrea things are more complicated.

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