“Age and treachery” said il Campianissimo Fausto Coppi “will overcome youth and skill.” Or, as P.J. O’Rourke put it “age and guile beat youth, innocence and a bad haircut.” Not in this Giro they don’t – because this week has been all about the young guns sticking it to the established stars of the peloton.
The average age of this week’s stage winners is 26 – and that figure would be even lower were it not for old timers like Greipel (33) and Nieve (31) winning in the middle of the week. First up was Guilio Ciccone of the Pro-Conti Bardiani-CSF team winning the stage to Sestola in his first ever Grand Tour. At twenty-one. And with a surname that started a mini meme #LikeAVirgin #HisMadgeness.
Diego Ulissi continued on the road to redemption – the 26 year old Lampre rider won a second stage, just as he did in 2014 before failing a test for Salbutamol. It’s one of doping’s tricky little grey areas – Ulissi had a therapeutic use exemption for asthma meds but the concentration of Salbutamol in his urine was higher than it ought to be. Diego took a nine month enforced holiday and is now back to his winning ways.
But then the Giro hit the Dolomites and it was all change at the top of the leaderboard. Bob Jungels, currently the best young rider in the race, held onto his White Jersey but lost the fight for Pink – instead Andrey Amador was resplendent in the Maglia Rosa as the race hit the Queen stage. The Movistar rider was the first Costa Rican to lead a Grand Tour but the party was a short lived one – Amador suffered the kind of crisis that is always painful to watch as the jersey slipped slowly but surely from his shoulders, his legs churning an enormous gear, the will willing but the flesh weak.
Instead as the road rose and fell and rose and fell relentlessly it was Vincenzo Nibali, the Shark, who scented blood and attacked the group of favourites on the final difficulty of the day, the Valparola. The Astana rider destroyed the challenge of Movistar’s leader, Alejandro Valverde, but he forgot to look over his shoulder at all those new bloods on his wheel. Steven Kruijswijk, the 28 year old Dutchman riding in the garish yellow of the LottoNL-Jumbo, caught His Nibs with insouciant ease. Hot on his wheels came Esteban Chaves, the minuscule Colombian climber, who promptly traded attacks with the much rangier Kruijswijk that dumped Nibali like so much spoiled chum. Not even a trademark charge – and Nibali’s descending really is one of the great sights of professional cycling – could stop him crossing the line over 30” behind his rivals.
It was great to see Chaves riding himself back into GC contention after a shocking time trial at the end of week one. An ex-winner of the Tour de l’Avenir – the traditional proving ground of champions – Chaves had a brilliant ride in last year’s Vuelta, holding all four jerseys at various points during the race. Orica-Greenedge has always seemed a strange fit for the pocket dynamo to me but it seems to suit him and his stage win and those all-important bonus seconds saw him ride his way back onto the podium. But the Pink Jersey went to Kruijswijk – the man they nicknamed the ‘Coathanger’ – and it stayed there after a superb performance in the uphill time trial that closed the week. Nibali lost further ground – a mechanical didn’t help but Nibali was already trailing and his frustration as he lashed out at a spectator was plain to see. Only one word could sum up his feelings by the end of the Giro’s second week: “demoralizzato“
Just a word for the winner of the time trial. On the roads where Denis Menchov ensured his Giro victory, his compatriot 24 year old Alexander Foliforov romped to victory, knocking out a time that raised more than a few cynical eyebrows. As the ever reliable Inner Ring points out, the young Russian is a strong climber with a consistent string of results in tough races. For wild cards Gazprom-Rusvelo it rescued something from a poor race so far for them. Besides the look on Foliforov’s face as the Pink Jersey crossed the line and his long wait on the winner’s throne was over was worth it.
Finally, let’s not forget the oldest and most treacherous of them all – Valverde bounced back with a more than decent time trial to leave himself just over 40” off the podium. His mountain seems slightly less onerous to climb than Nibali’s and surely that GC proximity will see off any rumoured collaboration between Astana and Movistar. This race now seems to be Kruijswijk’s to lose.
So who – if anyone – can wrench the Pink from Kruijswijk’s grasp? Nibali would surely prefer to crash and burn than settle for the third step of the podium. He has the team but he may not have the road – there’s snow on the Colle d’Agnello, one of next week’s showpieces, and snow on the way. RCS have a plan B that would take the race over the Montegenevre and into Sestriere, but the way the Dutchman is riding Nibali will need a ride like Fausto Coppi’s extraordinary 1949 exploit when he beat Gino Bartali by over 11’ in order to win this race. I’m willing Chaves to go all in and take the ‘no guts no glory’ approach but his team might just be happy to have a podium spot in a Grand Tour. It could and should be a fascinating contrast between a man who was born to fly in the high, thin air and the tall, angular Kruijswijk who is more of a follower of wheels and has ridden a perfect, if perfectly unexceptional, race. Of course his 2’+ cushion means he has no need to attack but I’m strictly old school and I do like to see a Grand Tour winner with a little panache. I’m hoping the Dutchman will prove me wrong, but he’ll be a deserving champion in the way that any Grand Tour winner is – you are the one who rode the road ahead of you better than your rivals.
Finally, there’s been a spate of high profile abandons – ex-winner Ryder Hesjedal, French sprinter Andre Demare who has never seemed comfortable here and the most surprising of them all, Sky’s Mikel Landa. After the time trial of his life and with his favoured terrain on the horizon, the Spaniard climbed off on stage 10 complaining of illness. Having apparently bluffed his way so brilliantly through the time trial it was a sad, strange end to his challenge. It seems the dreaded ‘toilet two-step’ – thank you the late lamented David Duffield – has thinned the GC contenders more effectively than the most demanding parcours.
THE VIEW FROM MICHELE
I was interested in the abandon of another sprinter in the Red Jersey and the rumblings of discontent that, with Nibali misfiring and Landa out, the success of the younger riders was somehow producing a ‘second class Giro’, so I asked Michele his opinion. Who better to answer than the former race director of the Giro.
Greipel and Kittel have both now left the race while wearing the Red Jersey. Does this devalue the Points competition or is this just the reality of modern racing?
If you were winning a race that you care a lot, would you leave the race with the jersey on? Certainly not. But Greipel decided to withdraw to rest and try to win other races along the season.
If the strongest sprinters leave means that the Giro and the Red Jersey shirt have not a great value for them. What is value? Value is something that changes your career. A victory that brings you to the top of the sport. For Greipel and his team the Red Jersey has not that value.
The problem is not Greipel, but the Giro that must continue to grow. If I still were the Giro Director I would applaud Kittel and Greipel for their wins and I would roll up my sleeves to raise the prestige of the Giro and the red jersey. There are very many ideas and things that can be done. Complaining is useless.
There’s been some talk that the relative weakness of the GC field and the emergence of younger riders to Fight for Pink is somehow not as compelling as seeing the bigger names battling it out – what’s your take?
The answer is not different from the first. If big teams and established big names do not consider the Giro as a priority it’s not a problem of teams and riders, but it’s a problem of the Giro. Giro must go on growing in its international prestige and then big names will ride.
That’s said. I just like to speak of those who ride. 22 teams and 198 riders started the Giro and just one among them will win. Nationality, age and palmares are not a problem of mine at all. Who wins is a true champion and his team deserve all the honors.
The Italians are having a pretty good race with Brambilla taking a Stage and Pink, and Ulissi continuing His rehabilitation with 2 stages. Do you think Ciccone has what it takes to be a future contender?
About Ciccone, I don’t know him personally and probably I’m not the right person to speak about the future of this young rider. He did prove to be talented. If you’re not talented you don’t ride the Giro and you don’t win a tough stage in Sestola in your first year as a pro when you’re just 21. I’m happy for Roberto Reverberi, he has passion and he’s doing so much for the Italian cycling. He deserves this satisfaction.
What are your thoughts on the Landa withdrawal and criticisms that Sky haven’t sent a decent team? There’s some talk That Rosa will leave Astana for Sky – could he win the Giro with the British team?
The Sky’s strategy is clear. They invest all their resources and energy to win the Tour de France. It’s the same problem of questions 1. Greipel and 2. Established big names. The pro-cycling season is not well balanced.
The Giro should go on working on the international prestige and UCI should push to rebalance the calendar.
As a fan I want a season with all top riders in all best races. I know that it sounds like an old refrain but if I still was in pro-cycling that would be my first target.
What do you think Nibali needs to do to win this Giro – or is it now a fight between riders like Kruswicjk and Chavez? Or do you think the Alps will decide who wears Pink in Turin?
I don’t have a crystal ball and I’m ready to be proved wrong!
It’s still missing a week, the top week. In the third week Nibali will play “all-in” and I would be surprise if he will not win the Giro 99. I say that today in his most unlucky day. I do not know what will be the decisive stage, I don’t know whether it will be the 19th or 20th or if they will be both two decisive, but the Giro will be definitely decided on the West Alps.
What do you think of this year’s Giro parcours?
It’s a tough and demanding parcours as usual. Everyday’s different and full of surprises. It’s tough but well balanced. Everyday I watch the Grubers pictures and I go crazy watching those stunning places.
The Giro is always beautiful.
I do not like TTs on weekends but it’s just my personal opinion. It’s a great race.
I’m just sorry that big names are missing. But it is certainly not a parcours issue. If one day we could see all top riders in the Giro we all fans would enjoy so much and we would all be happier. That was my big target until 2013 (and still it is).