I’m not a Giro snob. The Tour de France was my Grand Tour entry drug of choice and it still hold pole position in my heart however bloated it becomes. Yes, the Giro is arguably tougher/more interesting/prettier (delete as appropriate) but it has never quite captured me in the way the French race does. Maybe if I’d decided to move to Italy I’d feel differently – by all accounts the atmosphere is less stressed, more welcoming and there is greater access to the riders. You don’t see the winner of the Tour being carried shoulder high by adoring fans down the Champs Elysées.
So here we are just after the first proper rest day in the race. The riders have just over a week’s racing under their wheels and the race is beginning to mould itself around the contenders for overall glory. I know I bang on about the ‘season long narrative’ that is often touted as the cure for all cycling’s financial ills, but if you’ve been watching this year’s Giro then you’ll have noticed that several stories unfold as the parcours subtly shifts the emphasis away from the fast men towards the punchy little chancers until finally the spotlight lands on the contenders for overall glory.
Cycling is its own multiverse. Take the fate of Tom Dumoulin. The Giant rider stormed to the Pink Jersey in front of adoring home fans in the Netherlands. ‘Tom the Beautiful’ held the lead in last year’s Vuelta until the penultimate day when he cracked in the mountains. He not only survived the first big test of this year’s Giro – stage 6, as sinuous as a sidewinder – but stamped his authority all over it. The first alternate universe began to unfold: the one where Dumoulin would hold the race lead all the way to the time trial, smash it and then maybe, just maybe, take the Maglia Rosa all the way to Turin. Instead he blew up on the strade bianche losing the jersey to Quickstep’s Gianluca Brambilla then had a mare of a time trial that closed the wormhole for good.
Dumoulin’s fight for Pink is now over – the Dutchman says he will deliberately lose time to give him the freedom to go for stage wins. Brambilla – whose solo to victory on the rolling white roads was one of the highlights of the first week’s racing – hung on to the jersey by one slender second after the Chianti Classico time trial, 40 kms through vines and downpours that was the first real shakeup for the pretenders to Pink. Brambi kissed his jersey on the podium and rode out of his skinsuit to hold it into the rest day. With several decent results in his home Tour, including a 4th place finish in the King of the Mountains competition, he’ll fight to hold it until deeper into the race.
Bob Jungels could soon be swapping the White jersey of young rider for the Pink – nothing like keeping it in the team. Already a White jersey winner at Tirreno-Adriatico, the extravagantly talented twenty three year old Luxembourger – who suffered a freak washing up accident at the end of last season and was off the bike for two months after severing a tendon in his hand – isn’t targeting the overall win but when a wormhole opens… Isn’t it ironic (doncha think?) that Quickstep may be about to have a far better season in the Grand Tours than in the Classics – let’s face it, they couldn’t do worse having failed miserably over their favoured cobbles.
You want alternative realities, multiple universes? Try this for size: Primož Roglič (Lotto NL-Jumbo), who won the Chianti Classico time trial benefitting from the early decent weather, was a fraction of a second behind Dumoulin in Apeldoorn. What if Roglič had been defending the jersey this week? The Slovenian, making his Grand Tour debut, is an ex-ski jumper. A junior world champion no less. Since switching from skis to wheels in 2013 he’s already recorded a string of handy wins in non-World Tour races.
If cycling is chess on wheels – I know it’s a cliché but bear with me – then the pawns are already clearing the board for their kings and queens. Marcel ‘the Magnificent’ Kittel – the bequiffed German sprinter who is indisputably the fastest rider in the world – took a brace of stage wins and the Pink and Red Points jersey before bowing out of the race with bigger Tour de France fish to fry. Andre ‘the Gorilla’ Greipel took a couple of stage wins of his own that sandwiched a Tim Wellens’ uphill triumph on stage 6 for a hat trick of wins by the Lotto-Soudal team. Wellens in particular inspired a bout of sofa jumping in this house and was great recompense for a spate of attacking rides in the Ardennes Classics. Sky’s sprinter Elia Viviani missed the time cut on the hard, fast roads of stage 8 and is out of the race. The way is open for the general classification contenders to enter the spotlight.
So where do they stand? First Sky’s Mikal Landa. After a blip earlier in the week when he lost a handful of seconds to his GC rivals, Landa rode a brilliant time trial to more than limit his losses to the likes of Nibali and Valverde. It was typical of Sky’s forensic approach – a pre-race training ride and video homework meant the Spaniard was already familiar with every metre of the course. With the big mountains on the horizon and week 3 in particular playing to his climbing strengths, Landa is sitting pretty.
One of his biggest rival will be the Shark, Vincenzo Nibali – one of a handful of riders who has won all three Grand Tours. There’s still a question mark over Nibali’s Tour de France victory – would he have been so dominant had Froome and Contador stayed upright and finished the race? His Nibs has been frisky since the race returned to Italy, though he admitted he made a complete pig’s ear of his stage 6 attack. He’s ridden solidly since, driving the move that dislodged Dumoulin from the Pink jersey. Taking no chances on the rain slicked roads of Chianti he put in a good enough ride to keep him 5th overall, 53” off the race lead and ahead of Landa and Valverde.
Ah, Valverde. The Movistar rider is the man the twitterati love to hate for his supposedly unrepentant attitude towards thorny issues like, um, doping. The Spaniard, who instigated that stage 8 move that saw Dumoulin’s challenge collapse, time trialled well enough to keep himself in the hunt only 2” behind Nibali. Whether Valv/Piti can stay in the hunt when the road reaches skywards remains to be seen.
In this hugely open Giro there are darker horses, though Katusha’s Ilnur Zakarin – who had handily surmounted all the challenges of the first week and was emerging as the rider to watch – had an absolutely abysmal time trial, crashing twice and invoking memories of Michael Ramsussen in the 2005 Tour. Zakarin haemorrhaged time and may find the 1’ 38” lost to Nibali an insurmountable obstacle to his podium hopes. But with strong performances so far this year in Paris-Nice and Tour of Romandie, he may surprise us all yet. He’ll be a teammate down though – Katusha have pulled out their sprinter Alexey Tsatevich who blatantly drafted another rider during the stage 9 time trial claiming that a 100CHF fine and a 6’ penalty are not punishment enough. They say his behaviour brings the sport into disrepute – I’d argue Zakarin’s doping positive did more to harm the sport’s image.
And then there’s Steven Kruijswijk, the Dutchman flying the flag for the LottoNL-Jumbo team. Lurking happily in the top ten, Kruijswijk is the kind of consistent rider that I admire but find hard to like – dogged yet unspectacular, a Dutch Ryder Hersjedal. But that kind of persistence wins races if and when others fall by the roadside.
I’ve enjoyed this first week of the Giro. The Maglia Rosa has changed hands, and nationalities, several times. The crowds have been huge, and hugely enthusiastic, though the children of the mother of the imbecile were unfortunately much in evidence on stage 8. It’s safe to say there’s a lot of Giro love around. But these first nine stages have been the phoney war, the opening gambit, one possible universe. Now the second phase of the race begins as the road continues Northwards to Italy’s stocking top, where it begins the inexorable climb upwards. Stage 10, and arduous 219km trek through the Appenines to Sestola will challenge legs fresh from the rest day, pouring on the pressure through the second half of the stage. Four days later and the race enters unknown territory with a weekend in the Dolomites – six categorised climbs, with two in the finale, will be only a taster of the terrors ahead in the final week. And as if that weren’t enough, stage 15 is a short sharp shock of an uphill time trial that may just open another wormhole, another ‘what if’ in this year’s Corsa Rosa.
THE VIEW FROM MICHELE
I’ve exchanged emails with Michele Aquarone, ex-race director for the Giro, for a while now. Who better to ask about their impressions of the first week of this year’s Giro?
What do you think about Tom Dumoulin’s performance?
I did not expect Dumoulin dressing in the pink jersey in Apeldoorn and I did not expect him losing it in Arezzo, but we just must pay tribute to Brambilla who made a fantastic race. I am happy to have seen Giant, Etixx and Lotto protagonists. Benelux fans love the Giro and their home-teams did a great Giro so far to delight their fans.
We’ve finished the first week’s racing – how do you think the GC is shaping up?
For the final victory everything’s still open. It ‘a very balanced course, but as usual the Giro is very hard and, excuse the banality, the third week will be decisive. Much will depend on weather and luck. The Giro goes continuously from the very hot to the freezing cold riders’ bodies are constantly very stressed.
Nibali is certainly the man to beat. He already proved to adapt well to climate changes and to be able to withstand the most extreme conditions. Valverde is the great opponent, but the Giro is “an ugly beast” and I’m curious to see if he can overcome all the obstacles that the Giro will ask him to deal with.
As you know I have always been impartial and still am today, even if I follow the Giro just as a fan. I would be happy to get to the end with 4 5 athletes still in contention for the win.
How about Landa? He limited his losses brilliantly in the Chianti Classico time trial. Is this Sky’s best chance to win a Grand Tour that doesn’t take place in France?
As for the Sky Team, I know how much there is professionalism in their work. They take care of all the details and there’s great planning in everything they do. But as I said before the Giro is an unpredictable adventure and pitfalls are continuous. I wasn’t sure of a Sky Team’s win even if Mr. Froome was riding. Landa is very consistent and he’s in excellent shape but I would be very surprised to see him in Turin wearing pink.
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Images via the Giro d’Italia website: http://www.giroditalia.it/eng/