By Martin Cleary
Track-cycling-Olympian-turned-road-warrior Derek Gee is making a smashing debut in his introduction to the gruelling and unpredictable world of Grand Tour racing at the prestigious, multi-week Giro d’Italia.
But you can’t expect him to absorb everything all at once.
After pushing himself to the max and producing eye-popping results left, right and centre despite extreme weather, late course changes and many of the best pro riders in the Giro’s first two weeks, the Osgoode, ON., athlete enjoyed a well-deserved and scheduled rest day Monday.
As the Israel-Premier Tech team gathered for a light, non-competitive spin, Gee was approached by one of his teammates to explain how the day-off cycle works.
“So, today mate, is a rest day. So, we take it easy. And we don’t attack. Just spin the legs,” explained his well-versed peddling peer, who received only positive assurances from Gee, after every statement.
But seconds after the team started its casual ride, Gee suddenly veered to his left and attacked. After 17 days of intense racing up and down mountains in Italy and Switzerland, his body was accustomed to going fast and Gee took off, sprinting for an imaginary victory at an unseen finish line.
In his mind, he must have felt like he had won the Giro’s Day-Off stage in this light-hearted moment of staged fun, which was posted on the Israel-Premier Tech Twitter account.
Maybe this week, Gee, who raced to a fifth-place finish in the men’s track team pursuit at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, will experience the true feeling of winning his first race at the sport’s highest level.
His courage, determination, talent and teammates have taken him to the threshold of victory an amazing four times in the Giro as he has amassed three second-place results and one fourth, after the opening 17 stages.
In terms of top-10 results, Gee is tied for third place with four. Primoz Roglic of Jumbo-Visma, who is third in the General Classification, has six top-10 finishes, while the top two respective riders, Geraint Thomas of INEOS Grenadiers and Joao Almeida of UAE Team Emirates, have five each. No. 5 Eddie Dunbar of Jayco AlUla also has four top-10 placings.
Gee entered his first Grand Tour (the other two are the Tour de France and the Tour of Spain) as a domestique, serving as a workhorse and helping his teammates to race for glory. He was simply hoping to survive, not thrive, in the longest race of his varied cycling career.
But in Stage 8 (Terni to Fossombrone, 207 kilometres), Gee found himself in a three-rider sprint to the finish for second place. After the first seven stages, Gee was an expected also-ran in the GC overall standings in 68th place with no placement points, no King of the Mountain points and 28 minutes and eight seconds behind the leader.
The only Canadian in the Giro field, Gee’s heart-warming second-place result in such a big race for a rookie gave him some profile and credibility. Gee jumped to 52nd in the GC and earned 24 points for his runner-up result to place 11th in the Points category.
Two days later in Stage 10 (Scandiano to Viareggio, 196 kilometres), Gee lost a sprint to Magnus Cort of EF Education-EasyPost for the victory. It was painful to be that close and miss a victory. But he also was working his way up the statistical ladders – 36th in the GC, only 25:50 behind the leader, fourth in the Points column at 64 and now 13th in King of the Mountain competition at 10 points.
Gee finished 61 seconds behind the winner in Stage 13 (Le Chable to Crans-Montana, a weather-shortened 74.6 km) and stopped alone in fourth place. He maintained his 36th-place overall result, but lost time to the leader at 32:43. But his performance elevated him to third place in the Points class at 71 and he climbed to a personal-best fifth in King of the Mountain at 31 points.
In last Saturday’s Stage 14 (Sierre to Cassano Magnago, 194 kilometres), Gee was involved in a three-rider dash to the victory and again was forced to settle for second place. He was crushed emotionally after the race, having come so close again for his first major triumph.
But his strong efforts continued to earn him big dividends on the stats sheets with best-ever numbers – 21st in the GC, 13:07 minutes behind leader Bruno Armirail of Groupama-FDJ, second place in the Points category at 112 and seventh in King of the Mountain at 31. His result also helped Israel-Premier Tech move into second place in the team standings.
But the last three stages (Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday) have been much less heart pounding for Gee. Facing the final four days of racing, Gee has slipped to 30th in the GC and is 39:04 behind the leader, but remains in second in the Points race at 121 and ninth in King of the Mountain at 31 points. Israel-Premier Tech is 10th out of 21 among the teams.
Gee will not win the overall Giro GC title as he has too much time to make up. But it appears he will be a top finisher in the Points division and possibly score a top-10 grade in the King of the Mountain.
Social media came beside Gee as he posted his second and third second-place finishes and encouraged him to keep working hard and a win will be on the horizon.
Israel-Premier Tech posts a story after every stage of the Giro and here are Gee’s thoughts about his racing in each of his four key stages:
Stage 8 (Terni to Fossombrone, 207 kilometres)
Gee, who entered the Giro with only 35 days of racing at the WorldTour level, was shocked at the end of the stage and his second-place result had a golden sense to it.
“It feels like a win. I’m over the moon. Coming into this Giro, I thought I had no chance, I was just trying to survive and get experience. So, this is amazing. It’s really confidence inspiring to have the team believe in me and put me in a calendar like this. I’m really happy that I can validate that,” Gee said.
“It hurt so bad and I thought maybe we would be caught, but at the same time, I wanted to stay away. The four of us went away really early at the top of that first climb and we were just dangling there forever, but I heard on the radio that the guys were doing a really good job of covering moves so I thought we would have a good chance of staying away. When the other guys came across, I just started counting guys that were big names and I was thinking if this goes to the line, I’m going to have a tough time cracking the top-10.”
“I was really hoping for a podium so when (Warren) Barguil (of Arkea Samsic) came back, it was not guaranteed anymore so it was a little stressful. I think my pride as the heaviest guy in that group was on the line and when I opened up my sprint, I just hoped I could hold them off.”
Stage 10 (Scandiano to Viareggio, 196 kilometres)
Heavy rain and cold temperatures added to the challenge of a long-distance bike race, but Gee attacked from the start and was part of a breakaway group with five minutes on the peloton. The group held off the peloton and Gee made his final sprint over the final kilometre, but was caught by Magnus Cort.
“I think it’s going to take a while for it to sink in what I did out there today, but I’m really happy with my race”, Gee said with a smile of both happiness and exhaustion after the stage.
“It was touch and go for a while out there, not knowing if we would make it or not. For a long time, I didn’t think we had a shot. I actually can’t believe we made it at the end.”
“To be honest, this one hurts a little more (than the last second place) as I could really see the victory right there. I knew that Cort was faster than me and that I shouldn’t go up against him head-to-head. I tried a late attack, but ultimately, I ended in a sprint against him anyway. The Giro is still long, but I will try not to think about that right now as my legs really hurt after today!”
Stage 13 ( Le Chable to Crans-Montana, weather-shortened 74.6 kilometres, scheduled for 207 kilometres)
A pair of second-place results and a fourth-place finish in Stage 13’s high mountains put Gee deeper into the elite category and he’s “proving to be the big revelation of this year’s Giro d’Italia,” said the team’s press release.
“Looking at myself and then the other guys, some of the best climbers in the world, I was thinking that I didn’t belong here. But my legs felt really good so I just carried on and I’m really happy with the result,” Gee said, after realizing what he had just achieved in the stage.
“Matthew (teammate Riccitello) was super active, but he kept getting chased back, so I really wanted to get up there and help him get a gap. My legs were good so I kept going and I ended up the road with a bunch of skinny boys,” Gee laughed as he points out his own weight of 75kg, not exactly that of a climber.
“Even when we got into the valley and had a good gap, I still didn’t really believe I could fight for the win. I was sure I would just blow up and come to a standstill on that last climb because it was so hard, but my sports director, Oscar (Guerrero Celaya), paced me through it really, really well.”
“I can’t believe what I’ve done here. Coming into this Giro, I definitely wouldn’t have expected this, but I’m really happy with where my legs are. The whole team is flying and I just can’t wait for the next couple of days!”
Stage 14 (Sierre to Cassano Magnago, 194 kilometres)
A third second-place result was emotional and hurtful for Gee.
“This is the closest one yet. I did everything I could today. I’m sure when I look back, I will be happy, but for now, this one really, really hurts”, Gee said, after losing the victory by the length of half a wheel.
“We knew it was going to be a day for the break. I had a big day yesterday, but the legs were good again today so I gave it another crack with Stevie (Williams) and Simon (Clarke),” Gee explained.
“We ended up on the backfoot, but Stevie came to the rescue and we managed to close the gap enough for me to jump across. Simon knows these roads really well and he told me exactly where to go and what to do, what the roads were like and all that. His experience was invaluable today.
“I’m disappointed that, after all the work the team did for me, I couldn’t take the win today. The stage was 200 kilometres long, but if it could have been just a few metres longer, that would have been nice!” Gee added with an exhausted smile.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.
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