It’s the morning before the climb to the Madonna di Campiglio and Steven de Jongh, Tinkoff-Saxo’s head sports director, could hardly be more relaxed.
Alberto Contador is back in pink after a dazzling performance in a time-trial billed as decisive even before the race had left San Lorenzo al Mare two weeks earlier. “It starts to be interesting now,” de Jongh says, contemplating a final week in which the Madonna di Campiglio beckons for a second time, and the Mortirolo.
Just how interesting, however, even he is unlikely to have foreseen. Within 48 hours, Sky leader Richie Porte, the rider who shared a billing as pre-race favourite with Contador, will have withdrawn from the race.
His departure is the culmination of a series of factors, not least the two-minute penalty incurred on stage ten for accepting a wheel from Orica-GreenEDGE rider Simon Clarke, and subsequent meltdown on the slopes of the Madonna di Campiglio, where he lost 27 minutes.
Many believe that Sky’s tactics have again made them the architects of their own downfall. For perhaps the first time, Dave Brailsford’s team did not deliver a daily display of relentless pacesetting, opting instead to sit back and allow Astana and Tinkoff-Saxo to do the work.
It’s tempting to believe that de Jongh will have watched events at his former team with a certain sense of schadenfreude. The Dutchman left Sky in 2012 as part of a clear out inspired by the British team’s zero tolerance policy towards doping. An open letter followed, in which he admitted to occasional use of EPO between 1998 and 2000.
“We don’t care about Sky and their tactics,” de Jongh says, in a matter of fact tone. “What I think they tried to do is expend no energy: Richie takes the jersey in the TT and then he only has to work for one week. But in the end, they had some bad luck and the tactic worked out differently.”
He found new employment at Tinkoff-Saxo, where he has been followed from Sky by Bobby Julich and Sean Yates. The Dutchman is in the ascendant. Following Bjarne Riis’ departure in March, and Oleg Tinkov’s subsequent shake up of the managerial structure, de Jongh has been promoted to lead sports director.
Last April, with victory at Tirreno-Adriatico in sight, a rejuvenated Contador told the media that de Jongh’s guidance had been instrumental in his return to top form. It is the rider’s mental strength that his directeur admires most of all.
“I think in his opponents’ heads it must be chaos after yesterday,” he says of Contador’s ride to second place in the stage 14 time-trial. “From the start, he was doing a very consistent pace. He was one of the fastest on the flat section when the wind was really helping.”
De Jongh’s predictions for stage 15 prove prescient. He highlights the technical descent of the Passo Daone as critical and earmarks expert descender Sergio Paulinho as Tinkoff-Saxo’s man for the occasion.
Sure enough, with a little over half of the stage remaining, the Portugese pursues and joins the breakaway to play a marking role, while his colleagues drive the peloton behind. De Jongh and his team have all bases covered – momentarily, at least.
The predicted crash on the Passo Daone momentarily unseats his plans – Tinkoff-Saxo’s Roman Kreuziger is involved, and other members of the team are caught behind it - and leaves Contador alone for the final climb to the summit of the Madonna di Campiglio. For once, however, the Spaniard has not been involved in the incident.
Twice this Giro, Contador has been caught in the crossfire, dislocating his shoulder in the final 500 metres of stage six when a spectator hung a camera over the barriers and into the speeding bunch, then being brought down just outside the 3km zone on stage 13, suffering an injury to his left leg.
Despite the incidents, de Jongh refuses to accept that Contador has been unlucky. “He’s still in the jersey,” he laughs. “Bad luck would have been if he couldn’t start the next day after he crashed and hurt his shoulder.”
De Jongh, one suspects, is someone who believes in the maxim of creating your own luck. His strategy for Tinkoff-Saxo has placed Contador in a dominant position and allowed them to control much of the racing. Astana’s relentless aggression, by contrast, has so far yielded only a distant second on GC for Fabio Aru and conciliatory stage wins for Paolo Tiralongo and Mikel Landa. The Kazakh team are winning battles while comprehensively losing the war.
No one in the Tinkoff-Saxo camp considers Contador’s mission accomplished with a week of the Giro remaining, however, least of all de Jongh. He predicts that Movistar will play an increasingly significant role as they seek to secure a podium finish for Andrey Amador.
When racing resumes after the second rest day, the riders will resume hostilities with a second ascent of the Madonna di Campiglio, before embarking on the Passo del Tonale and finally the feared Mortirolo. De Jongh is likely to have a strategy to cope. A Corsa Rosa that ends with three mountain stages will test even his tactical acumen, not to mention Contador’s legs, but things are set fair for the first of the Spaniard’s two goals for the season.
Sailing into such tranquil seas seemed a dim possibility earlier in the season, with Riis’ departure threatening turmoil, if not mutiny. De Jongh’s work, publicly credited by Contador a year ago, is clearly paying dividends.
Rouleur travelled with Saxo Bank's Ride Like A Pro programme. Click here for more information.