It took him just five stages in his first Grand Tour to get a glimpse of victory. On Wednesday, Enzo Paleni fought for the win on stage 5 of the Giro, after a superb breakaway towards Lucca. After an attack seventy kilometres from the finish, the young rider from the Groupama-FDJ managed, thanks to a great ride up front, to foil the peloton’s plans together with his three break mates. He was however beaten tactically in the last kilometre, and therefore settled for fourth place, which meant his first top-5 in a Grand Tour. Above all, he showed promising things in anticipation of the coming weeks.

From Genoa to Lucca, stage 5 of the Giro d’Italia was to conclude a three-day sequence made for the sprinters. At least, this was the most likely outcome on paper, despite a nice climb after fifty kilometres and a rolling one twenty kilometres from the line. “The sprint is never 100% guaranteed,” explained Frédéric Guesdon, “but it is true that at the start, there was a 95% chance that it would finish with a bunch sprint.” In any case, Groupama-FDJ had decided to go on the attack, and Lewis Askey broke away with Mattia Bais (Polti-Kometa), Simon Geschke (Cofidis) and Manuele Tarozzi (VF Group -Bardiani CSF-Faizenè) from the first kilometres. The lead of the Briton and the rest of the breakaway, however, remained blocked at just 1’30, as the bunch set a high pace straight away. The four leaders therefore took it a bit easier, but the pack kept on going in the Passo del Bracco, after almost 50 kilometres. “It was a strong start to the race, because Alpecin-Deceuninck wanted to make it harder in order to drop the other sprinters,” explained Frédéric Guesdon. This attempt did not, however, really bear fruit since only Fabio Jakobsen was really left behind during the fifteen kilometers of climbing. At the summit, Lewis Askey and his companions only had a lead of fifteen seconds, and it all came back together in the downhill.

“We had confidence in Enzo”, Frédéric Guesdon

Back on the flat portion, a hundred kilometres from the finish, the peloton was back as one before a new race could start. After the intermediate sprint, a four-man attack then went with Benjamin Thomas (Cofidis), Michael Valgren (EF Education-EasyPost), Andrea Pietrobon (Polti-Kometa) and… Enzo Paleni! “When we got to the valley, no one was pulling anymore,” explained the young Frenchman. “With 2-3 guys, we organized to go after the sprint, around the feeding zone. We did go and said to ourselves: there are 70 kilometres left with the tailwind, we can do it!” “When we saw the composition of the group, we knew it was a strong one,” added Frédéric. “We had nothing to lose, we had to go for it, and force the others to ride while Laurence was sitting behind. It was almost the perfect plan. We had confidence in Enzo, because he had shown on day one that he was doing well. When he found himself in front, we told him: go for it.” The peloton, however, did not want to play with the quartet, which never benefited from a bigger gap than a minute and a half. But entering the last hour of racing, when the chase became more intense, the sprinters’ teams struggled to gain seconds on the break. Thanks to a great collaboration, the breakaway could tackle the Montemagno climb (3km at 4%), 23 kilometres from the finish, a minute ahead.

Heading to Lucca, their advantage was only slightly reduced under the minute. “We managed it well until the climb, then from there, it was flat out until the finish,” said Enzo. “At the top of the climb, I was on the limit, so the final was very hard, but when you play for the win, you manage to transcend yourself.” “We encouraged him, we told him that it was doable,” added Frédéric. “We could clearly see that they were having a hard time behind, and that it wasn’t going to come back.” With ten kilometres to go, the four men were still 45 seconds ahead, and their lead was almost unchanged five kilometers further. Two kilometres from the line, in the streets of Lucca, the peloton was still about half a minute behind. “We couldn’t look at each other, because if we did, it was all over,” added Enzo. “Even though I was on the limit, I continued to give everything.” The cooperation lasted until the flamme rouge, when the Italian Andrea Pietrobon tried to leave his rivals behind and fly to victory. “Everything happens in a split second,” Enzo said. “He hadn’t pulled for twenty kilometres, and he attacked in the final… I was in Valgren’s wheel, who didn’t respond. I was a bit stuck. There was a moment of hesitation, then I went for it, without pushing too hard so as not to be fooled. But when they opened the sprint, I had nothing left in my legs.”

“I’m both satisfied and disappointed”, Enzo Paleni

Thanks to the young Frenchman’s turn, Michael Valgren and Benjamin Thomas managed to catch the leading rider. The former Groupama-FDJ rider won, while Enzo Paleni had to settle for fourth place, eight seconds ahead of the pack of sprinters. “Tactically, he wasn’t the best of the four, but that’s easy to say afterwards,” explained Frédéric. “It’s his first Grand Tour, and with the peloton behind, he couldn’t gamble too much. If he hadn’t reacted, I think all three would have looked at each other and would have been caught by the peloton. Anyway, coming fourth with a youngster like Enzo in a stage made for sprinters is very good.” “I’m both satisfied and disappointed,” confessed the former rider of “La Conti”. “Fighting for victory in a Grand Tour doesn’t happen every day and it’s unfortunately a missed opportunity, but I’m still satisfied with what we managed to do. Foiling a sprint when it’s expected is quite nice. I gave everything, I can’t have regrets. I’ve also gained experience. I won’t be fooled twice. It will give me confidence and it’s motivating for the future. The Giro was a big goal for me. I was here to help Laurence but also to create opportunities for myself and fight for the win on some stages. I didn’t think it would happen so early, especially on a sprint stage, but it happened like that today. The victory is missing but it’s a good start.”

The Groupama-FDJ squad therefore scored its first noteworthy result since the start in Turin, and Laurence Pithie once again entered the top-20, in 16th position, despite having a knee discomfort. “It was a very good day for the team,” said the New Zealander. “We covered all the moves, which is what we wanted to do. It was a good thing to have someone in front, because I’m not the best sprinter at this race, so it’s better to have two cards to play. We were rewarded with Enzo’s fourth place, which is really cool for him. Hopefully we can continue to push and do well. My knee was a little better today, I’ve had a really good support from the team, and hopefully it can continue to improve each day.”

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