After the aperitif that was the desert races the season got under way with moules and frites at the weekend with Het Nieuswblad on Saturday followed by Kuurne Brussel Kuurne 24 hours later. For all the hyperbole that’s generated ahead of a cobbled classics campaign by the other teams in the peloton about ‘this’ being ‘their’ year to shine, if there’s such thing as a ‘supergroup’ (to use a musical analogy) for these races it has to be (Etixx) Quick Step. From now until the end of April, this year won’t be any different to the last few with the expectation that Tom Boonen and co’ will deliver the results that the team demands and expects.
For Boonen there’s a sense of time running out on what has been an illustrious career even if he doesn’t add another Tour of Flanders or Paris Roubaix to his palmares. OHN remains an omission from his list of titles after he missed out to repeat winner from 2014 Ian Stannard on Saturday last. The widely held view in the immediate aftermath was one of disbelief that Etixx had allowed the Team Sky rider to snatch victory after they (Etixx) had gone into the final km’s in a group that had the kind of numerical advantage that should have nullified any threat posed by Stannard. Boonen backed by Stijn Vandenbergh and Niki Terpstra seemed nailed on for the win but he was unable to respond when needed, seemingly ‘cooked’ and leaving Terpstra to contest a sprint with Stannard who had shown that he has a clean pair of heels when needed last year to beat Greg Van Avermaet.
The Etixx OHN debacle was exaggerated further by the bizarre spectacle of Patrick Lefevere singling out Stannard for winning ‘dirty’ by not taking his turns on the front. It’s interesting watching Boonen in the classics now for as much as I want to see him take another monument it just doesn’t seem that likely. Certainly he’s had his share of misfortune with injuries and a number of issues off the bike but even when on form there seems to be that final few percent missing in his performance. I didn’t see much of OHN but on Sunday during Kuurne Brussel Kuurne Boonen seemed to expel a lot of energy on challenging other riders to work rather than focusing on his own race. With Mark Cavendish already pre-destined as the rider Lefevere needed to win KBK, Boonen would have been numero uno for OHN, as mentioned previously a race he’s yet to win. It seemed that the Etixx game plan for Boonen would play out similarly to the dominant team performance that saw Boonen and four teammates go clear when he won last years KBK. As with 2014 though, Stannard played the joker and it was the Sky man’s presence at the sharp end of the race at the crucial moment that upset a maiden OHN victory for Boonen. Etixx undone by an individual ‘pesky kid’ in the form of Stannard.
Lefevere’s OHN sized hangover only lasted a day as Etixx the team grabbed a repeat result in KBK, this time won by Cavendish. In practice this was as much of a close run thing as the previous days race as Boonen, leading out Cavendish, needed to display superb bike handling skills as Alexander Kristoff moved in front of him in the sprint. Etixx had come pretty close to cocking things up again when they allowed the peloton to catch a break that featured all of their key players with km’s to spare. As I mentioned here Cavendish needed to win this race and while Kristoff is no Kittel, he’s very much a rider in form and possibly the third fastest man in the world tour at present. Cavendish was up against Elia Viviani too, Sky’s new sprinter taking the final podium place. This was a good result for the Italian, his new team doing well to keep him in contention for the win.
Etixx ought to go away from the weekend not allowing victory in KBK to take the edge off what has been a pretty rotten weekend tactically for them. It’s possible that only a rider like Ian Stannard could have overturned the odds against him on Saturday, but the fact is that Etixx had winning positions earlier in both races that they failed to realise. They may be grateful for the salvation that Sunday’s victory provided in the shorter term, but they will need to do better if they want Boonen to deliver against Cancellara and Sagan next month.
Stannard was lost to injury soon after his breakthrough win last year so it’s going to be interesting to see how Sky play him for the rest of the spring races. As with 2014, it’s too early to say whether or not this win will provide a breakthrough for rider or team. As much as I enjoyed Stannard’s double I think it’s still difficult to see the team landing one of the monuments this spring.*
After the Stelvio ‘controversy’ the peloton awarded itself a fourth rest day on Wednesday’s stage to Vittorio Veneto. As riders placed their feet in bowls of hot water and nursed a Cup a soup overnight a collective hissy fit was aired officially (between the team’s organisation, the UCI and RCS) and unofficially on social media about the legitmacy of Nairo Quintana’s stage win and capture of the race lead from Rigoberto Uran. The likelihood of teams withdrawing enmasse was never that much of a possibility and by the end of the race any lingering indignation looked academic.
From VCSE’s vantage point on the sofa it seems that any suggestion that the race ‘coulda, woulda, shoulda’ be neutralised disappeared when Sky’s Dario Cataldo said ‘no thanks!’ to the offer of an extra layer of clothing and his musette and went charging off on the descent. Yes, riders did stop at the top of the Stelvio, but at random. VCSE didn’t see a single example of an entire group of riders coming to a halt. The apparent ‘smoking gun’ evidence against the Quintana group, that included other GC contenders like Ryder Hesjedal, was the photo of the Columbian descending behind a moto with the pillion holding a red flag. It wasn’t altogether clear what the flag signified but it certainly wasn’t to indicate that the race had been neutralised. Whether it was safe (or not) to continue to race the descent off the Stelvio seems a moot point. Were there any crashes? In the (undoubted) confusion that followed the sum up seems to be those that chose to race, did and anyone else suffered the consequences of that.
The lack of interest shown by the new Maglia Rosa and his GC rivals the following day bore testimony at the difficulty of the previous day however. No one watching, let alone taking part, could deny it hadn’t been a tough stage with the addition of the climb to Val Martello added a 14% insult to the Stelvio / Gavia injury. The peloton crossed the line more than 15 minutes down on eventual stage winner Stefano Pirazzi. Last years KOM winner had been out of contention for that prize since the carnage of the Cassino stage but he salvaged some pride for himself and further built on Bardiani’s success at this years race.
A break of sorts was allowed the win the following day as well as the Giro returned to the mountains for its penultimate summit finish. This years KOM and (yet another) Columbian, Trek’s Julian Arredondo took the stage from compatriot Fabio Duarte reinforcing the thought that the race was rapidly becoming some kind of South American benefit. Quintana arrived with Uran, but it was Cadel Evans who was the biggest loser of the day falling off the podium and almost out of the top ten.
This years edition of the Giro was well and truly back loaded with climbs and if the Stelvio / Gavia double wasn’t enough there was still the Zoncolan to look forward to and possibly shake the GC up further. Ahead of that an uphill TT, 27km in length of which more than two-thirds averaged nearly 8% maxing out at 14%. No TT bikes here then and the climbers and GC boys to the fore. Breakaway fixtures Cataldo and Lotto’s Tim Wellens performed well for their top ten placings but the podium spots went to the GC contenders. Very nearly the ride of the stage went to Fabio Aru, just missing out on the win, but claiming a podium place from Pierre Rolland. The home crowd showed partisan support to a home rider who was now in with the best chance of a repeat Italian victory, but Quintana was the expressionless asassin of local hopes as he put 17 seconds into Aru at the line.
And so to the ‘final’ GC stage; Zoncolan. Actually, the profile shared a reasonable amount with Tuesdays three peak extravaganza adding a cat 1 and 2 climb into the mix ahead of the summit finish. A decent sized break had got away here as well and the finale provided a race within a race as we waited to see who would take the stage and could anyone threaten Quintana’s lead. The latter really wasn’t ever in doubt. While Quintana rode much of the climb unsupported, Uran hasn’t really looked capable of attacking anyone over the three weeks and certainly not since he took the Maglia Rosa. It was an OPQS rider who did the damage to split the final group to pieces, but that was Wout Poels.
Up the road stage 11 breakaway winner was involved in a dual with emerging Bardiani (yes, them again) rider Francesco Bongiorno. In truth, Rogers looked the stronger of the two even if Bongiorno hadn’t lost out when an attempt to ‘help’ him hadn’t backfired and pushed him into Rogers wheel and out of his pedal. If Rogers first win had been unexpected then a second on this stage and this climb was perhaps even more so. Rogers had more help on this one, crucially Tinkoff Saxo had two experienced men in the break, but even so the win wasn’t universally accalaimed.
Five minutes behind and below, while Rogers was helped from his bike by team owner Tinkoff, Quintana was making serene progress up the Zoncolan in attendance with a trio of QPQS outriders. If there wasn’t going to be a fight between the two Columbian’s there wasn’t much of a battle between those riders contending for the final podium place. Aru had already done the damage to Rolland and stealing a few more seconds on the line was just proving a point. You almost hoped for a Hinault, Lemond style Alpe du Huez celebration by Quintana and Uran as the line approached but despite being awarded the same time the wasn’t any overt sign of cameraderie. In the final analysis it was the Zoncolan itself that provided the drama on the day with unruly fans and the riders fighting the climb more than each other.
The final day’s parade into Trieste was always likely to finish in a sprint, although quite a few riders had a stab at winning from a break. At one stage three time stage winner Nacer Bouhanni looked like he would be out of contention, but his stalwart lead out man Sebastien Chavanel managed to pull him back to the front only for Giant’s Luka Mezgec to show once again that the team have depth behind Degenkolb and Kittel.
Giro d’Italia 2014 wrap up
So what does this years Giro tell us about the state of play in 2014 and looking ahead to the rest of this season and the next? Nairo Quintana justified his favourite status and everyone (in particular his rivals) admits he would have won the race without needing any advantage that might have been stolen on the Stelvio stage.
It’s a leap further to suggest, as Movistar have done, that Quintana was right to target the Giro over the Tour following his second place in France last year. Of course, having made the point that Quintana was an unknown quantity going into the Giro and thus wasn’t an automatic favourtite as a result the same could be said of Chris Froome going into this years Tour. If Quintana has been so strong at the end of May it does make you wonder how good he could have been at the start of July. Movistar look like the team best placed to control a race from the front too. Without taking anything away from Quintana’s win it does feel a little like the easier option has been taken in not pitting the Columbian against Froome this year. Of course, the Tour lacks the really steep (in sections) parcours of the Giro but it’s a shame that we will have to most likely wait until 2015 to see a Froome, Quintana match up.
The VCSE view on Rigoberto Uran ahead of the Giro was (to paraphrase Eminem) that the real Uran needed to stand up. Uran had looked second best against established OPQS rider Michael Kwiatowski so far this year and other than the stage win where he took the Maglia Rosa didn’t look as if team leadership sat well on his shoulders. Of course, there’s no shame in finishing on the podium at a grand tour but it does look as if Uran lacks the final few percent that separate the contenders from the champions. The OPQS team selection plays a part too though, lacking enough strong climbers to go with Poels and Pauwels to match up against Movistar and the distractions of the team management making too much of the Stelvio incident.
Perhaps a bigger disappointment, at least for the home fans, was Domenico Pozzovivo. The AG2R rider carried form into the race and at the end of the first week looked like the form rider. He flattered to deceive however and while a top ten was the VCSE prediction ahead of the race, Pozzovivo didn’t fulfil his own prophesy that he would “..attack”. Cadel Evans faded sharply in the final week, his strategy of sticking with the leader during each stage back firing completely on the Stelvio stage as he got caught with Uran as Quintana rode away. Once Quintana had taken the jersey Evans looked less and less likely to not lose time. This is likely to be his last time as a challenger for GC in a grand tour.
Fabio Aru had been touted as a climbing talent ahead of the Giro, but Astana had him in a supporting role to Michele Scarponi who had joined the team to become the number two GC rider behind Vincenzo Nibali. Third place, some strong climbing performances and his win on stage 15 puts Aru into ‘great white hope’ category for Italian GC hopes in the next five years and for now the heir apparent to Nibali. It will be interesting to see now if Astana give Scarponi another shot at a grand tour in this years Vuelta or will Aru be elevated to team leader without having the role handed to him by events. Of course, Aru isn’t the only young Italian rider who has grand tour credentials in the peloton, but he has looked the most convincing this week and everyone will always take notice of an apparent ‘surprise’ emergence, just as they did with a certain Columbian last year.
Nacer Bouhanni’s win of the points jersey is an interesting one. This blog lauded Mark Cavendish’s victory last year as a triumph in a contest that doesn’t tend to favour sprinters. Does Bouhanni’s win put him on a par with Cavendish or was the competition less this year? Certainly, as mentioned in the Giro preview the first rank of sprinters were largely missing (Kittel went home after the Irish stages). If nothing else Bouhanni, out of contract this year, has put himself in the shop window and if he can take Chavanel with him could bring some much needed sprint credentials to somewhere like Sky next year.
Perhaps the happiest team in terms of results would be Bardiani with three stage victories in this years Giro. Bardiani took a stage last year, but the team that featured most at the front of the race was Vini Fantini only for them to fall foul of positive drug tests. There’s been no such suspicion about the Bardiani team this year and with the emergence of riders like Aru it’s to be hoped that scandal doesn’t engulf what could be the start of a brighter era for Italian cycling that isn’t tainted by doping.
This years Giro will be remembered as a Columbian renaissance . Amongst the crashes and manufactured controversy Quintana’s win and strong showing from Columbian riders from teams throughout the peloton (as well as the ‘national’ team) it feels as if naturally talented riders are once again coming to the fore. The most numerous nation represented in the top 30 on GC outside of the hosts, Columbian riders took the KOM (Arredondo) as well as four stage wins (Quintana two, Uran and Arredondo one each). Quintana has made the leap in little over a year from a climber to grand tour winner and is the strongest evidence yet of a cleaner doping free peloton.
Before we look at the racing consider the unhappy anniversary that was ‘celebrated’ during the second week of this years Giro; Marco Pantani died ten years ago. If the circumstances surrounding Pantani’s death in a Rimini hotel room weren’t uncomfortable enough to remember the sense of awkwardness has been increased as todays riders and commentators have tried to walk the line between recognising his talent while acknowledging his doping.
Marco Pantani’s legacy seems to exist in an in between state, like some kind of lycra clad fallen angel. On the one hand a climber (albeit EPO fuelled) of verve and passion who, at least at the time, was the antithesis of Lance Armstrong. On the other a tragic case who struggled to cope with the literal and figurative come down of his ban (for a high hematocrit rating) during the ’99 Giro. It might seem ghoulish to wonder how Pantani would be regarded now if he had lived, but it’s reasonable to assume he wouldn’t be venerated quite as much as he is by certain sections of cycling fans and the media. You only have to look back at last years Giro and the subsequent ban of Danilo Di Luca to see that there are no pedestals for the majority of grand tour winners who are Italian and have a chequered history of PED use.
Pantani’s death however tragic and some would argue avoidable has also provided his reputation with the kind of metaphorical cleansing that a Di Luca or Ballan would (if you will allow it) die for. Pantani remains a hero for many, particularly in his native land. Even if the organisers hadn’t pitched this years edition as a Pantani celebration the graffiti that adorns the climbs of the Giro would still have appeared. Not everyone has appreciated the retrospective however. Knowing Pantani’s past, it’s difficult to look at the footage that has been served up as an example of the rider at his best without asking “Could he have done the same thing clean?”. Certainly there are sections of fans out there that feel that Pantani isnt a rider that should be celebrated. Thus after criticism came their way after one Pantani ‘epic’ was shown, commentators had to admit that the celebration was at the very least dividing opinion.
In many ways Marco Pantani reminds VCSE of a (Paul) Gascoigne or (George) Best type figure. Undoubtably talented but how much more or less was achieved due to his substance abuse can never be known. He probably deserves his elevated status as cycling icon as much as he should be condemned as another rider who doped to win. In a Giro where it’s looking increasingly likely that a rider from the new generation will win, might the organisers reflect on the irony of 2014 being the year of Pantani.
This years race entered week two with Cadel Evans in the Maglia Rosa, closely followed by Rigoberto Uran and Rafal Majka around a minute or so further back. Stage 10 following the rest day didn’t offer much of interest for the GC but did see another win for Nacer Bouhanni who continued as the chief beneficiary of Marcel Kittel’s early exit. It was business as usual for the GC on stage 11 too, but in this Pantani year an interesting ‘doping’ (or not) vignette played out when Tinkoff Saxo’s Mick Rogers attacked off the final climb and managed to stay away for the stage win. Rogers has just returned to racing after being cleared of taking a banned substance following a positive test in last years Tour of Bejing. The story behind why Rogers left Sky at the end of 2012 for the then Saxo Bank squad is one we will leave for another day, but it was clear to see that the win meant a lot to the Australian and demonstrates that for many riders who were active in the 2000’s the act of winning has changed.
All of which took us to the individual TT and a change in the lead. Colombian riders have been known to surprise in TT’s and this year it was Uran’s turn to show he had the speed. Evans had a test to forget losing the over a minute on the stage and the GC lead to Uran. Diego Ulissi missed out on a third stage win so far in this years Giro after occupying the hot seat for much of the stage. Nairo Quintana, last years Columbian TT surprise package was further down the order and trying to shift a cold before the peloton reaching the mountains at the weekend.
After two stage wins for wild cards Bardiani, including a repeat stage win for Enrico Battaglin the peloton moved on to the Pantani stage to Montecampione. Winner here was Astana’s new team leader Fabio Aru, just going to show that being tipped for a low profile performance by this blog is the perfect ingredient for serving up a stage win. The curse of VCSE similarly struck Domenico Pozzovivo who dropped to 6th on GC after struggling on this stage and the one before. The home fans, eager to pin their hopes on someone, thus transferred the allegiance from Pozzovivo to Aru after the star performer of the previous weekend saw his form dip. Uran remained in the Maglia Rosa, but his grip seemed as unconvincing as Evans’ had done before him.
And so to today’s (Tuesday) stage. Featuring the Gavia and Stelvio passes that had proved so snow bound the previous year that the race enjoyed another (unscheduled) rest day, this year the peloton would be forced to negotiate not only these two, but a finishing climb to Val Martello, a 14% series of S bends.
The weather almost conspired to neuter the stage. The descent off the Gavia had proved difficult although (for such a injury strewn race) crash free. Snow falling at the top of the Stelvio led to confusion over a neutralised descent. What appeared to happen is that some riders wanted to race despite the conditions and did so. Notable among the hardest of the hard men (everyone was today) was Sky’s Dario Cataldo, first over the top and eschewing dry clothes and food to race away to the valley floor 25km below.
Behind Cataldo a split had developed between the Maglia Rosa group that included Evans and Pozzovivo and an elite selection that included Quintana, Pierre Rolland and Ryder Hesjedal. Quintana was always going to be the strongest climber out of this group and as Uran fell further behind and out of the race lead it was Rolland who cracked first. Hesjedal who had abandoned his decidedly retro eyewear somewhere in a Stelvio snow drift had seemed to be suffering back on the pass yet somehow managed to stay on Quintana’s wheel until almost the bitter end. For all of that, his reward was only to get back into the top 10, Rolland did better to jump from 8th to 4th at Aru’s expense.
So the lead has passed from one Columbian to another. VCSE suggested that Uran needed to prove his worth as a GC contender to his Omega Pharma team at this Giro and to an extent he has. Taking the jersey on the TT shows another side to his climbing and with another (uphill) TT to follow Uran may have another card to play. If he’s to have any chance of wresting the Maglia Rosa from Quintana however, his team need to do a much better job of protecting him. Uran is currently using too many matches trying to match the pace and tactics of his rivals who often have a rider to spare.
Evans somehow remains third and may yet stay there if he can continue to hold a wheel. This is pretty much the tactic he employed at last years race, but the suspicion has to be that he will be less succesful doing this with Quintana than he was with Uran. Uran, until today, managed to ride into the lead and keep it by riding conservatively and not losing much time. He has enough of a lead over Evans in third that suggests that a repeat of last years second place is possible if not the outright win. Quintana, over his cold, looks like the man to beat.
Third place is harder to call. There’s less than a minute between Evans in 3rd and Hesjedal in 9th. It’s easy to see Rolland, Majka or Aru having a good day or two and taking the final podium place, but for all that he has disappointed in week two Pozzovivo is well placed to strike at 3.49 in 7th place.
Tomorrow’s stage should be a bit of a rest day for the GC, but it’s followed by two mountain stages bookending the uphill ITT stage 19. We will see the final GC shake out on Saturday on Monte Zoncolan and if first and second places looked nailed on, the minor places are still wide open. But this is the Giro and the weather and the race may still have some surprises in store. The key stage may yet prove to be the TT on Friday.