I don’t know what the equivalent phrase of incredulous wonder would be in Italian but I feel compelled to start this write-up with something in the veins of “Christ on a bike! That was bloody brilliant!”. The first week of the 2015 Giro has been like no other in memory and the rulebook for how Grand Tours progress has not just been chucked out of the window but apparently tied to a rock and sunk to the bottom of the Ligurian Sea.
Even before the first day Team Time Trial in Sanremo, the 98th edition of the Giro threatened to be different. A front-loaded parcours (as shown in this clever comparison image by Massif Central), with some significantly hilly stages and even a summit finish in the first week, has given the race a more symmetrical profile that was specifically intended to upset the balance of the typical Grand Tour where sprinters and rouleurs have their day before the GC big guns get into the swing of things towards the end of week 2.
In fact, the only thing that has ‘gone true to form’ in this most unusual of opening weeks is Orica-Greenedge’s dominance of the TTT and then their impressive hanging on to a leader’s jersey for the next few days. The 17.6km TTT route offered some potential for shocks by being run on an incredibly narrow bike lane along the Ligurian coast but all the teams negotiated its twists and turns safely. As expected, the Australians topped the standings at the end of the day. Simon Gerrans, a man with fond memories of finishing in Sanremo having won La Primavera here in 2012, crossed first and donned the first maglia rosa of 2015.
Stage 2 showcased more of the beautiful coastline of north-western Italy as the route began a nine-day journey south that would eventually culminate with this first rest day. Opening weeks of Grand Tours are often characterised by crashes as the larger-than-usual pelotons are filled with riders who are simultaneously more aggressive and more nervous. So it was no surprise then when the main bunch strew itself across the road as it approached the last few kilometres of the day into Genoa. No surprise that is until footage subsequently showed a bike-riding member of the public emerge from behind some foliage at speed, hop down the kerb and join the race with predictably disastrous results. Team Sky’s Italian sprinter Elia Viviani took the reduced bunch sprint, closely followed by a pair of state lottery-sponsored riders in Moreno Hofland (Lotto-Jumbo) and Andre Greipel (Lotto-Soudal). Orica’s Michael Matthews was in close enough attendance to acquire the overall leader’s jersey from team-mate Gerrans, as the Australian squad began a smile-inducing game of ‘pass the maglia‘.
Matthews was more dominant on Stage 3, winning into Sestri Levante after the first of the much-vaunted hilly stages of the opening week but the story of the day was made on the descent of the Category 2 Barbagelata when Domenico Pozzovivo (AG2R) lost his front wheel on an innocuous looking corner and crashed hard onto his face. It was a sickening moment that had everyone fearing the very worst so by far the best the best news of the day was a communique from the team press officer later saying that the rider was ‘awake and lucid, with no life-threatening injuries.’
The saw-tooth profile of Stage 4, from Chiavara to Sestri Levante, finally signalled the release of a General Classification pressure cooker that had already been visibly increasing day by day. Astana, Tinkoff-Saxo and Team Sky blew the race apart on the ramps of the undulating route, declaring hostilities on each other at the earliest possible opportunity. Multiple pace-lines of sky-blue, fluoro-yellow and black spearheaded the race in trident formation, each shedding team-mates as they were used up and spat out until only the leaders remained. Of course this is nothing new in Grand Tours.. but its never seen on Stage 4 of a three week race. And it didn’t stop there. With the pattern now set, we were treated to this daily ding-dong for pretty much the next 5 days.
Rigoberto Uran of Ettix-Quickstep was the first to lose out. Unable, or unprepared, to hold the wheels of Aru, Contador and Porte so early he slipped back immediately and we got the sense we were looking at the podium already. Contador’s 6 second advantage over Aru in the TTT on opening day put him in prime position to take the race lead as the three ripped into the lead of the day’s breakaway but the narrow margin held on by two riders gave Davide Formolo of Cannondale-Garmin the stage and Simon Clarke of OGE the maglia rosa. But even so, strange things were afoot in Team Tinkoff. With owner Oleg rumoured to be acting as Director Sportif – and being called that by some commentators – the bizarre tactics of the squad on the day had many experienced Grand Tour watchers baffled. The whole team were put on the front of the peloton and effectively chased down their own team-mate Roman Kreuziger who had infiltrated the break and who could have put serious time into the other contenders. As it was Kreuziger finished the day on the same time as on GC as Contador who had dragged Aru and Porte back into contention as well.
Stage 5 heralded the first summit finish of the race and, if the gloves came off the previous day, Contador, Aru and Porte now started trading hammer-blows as they each sought to break the other two even before the race passed Rome. Unlike the rest of the week when Astana lit the daily touch-paper, Contador was the animator – accelerating away with 4.5km to goin that familiar dancing style. Porte and Aru matched the Spaniard’s pace but few others could. Aru’s lieutenant Mikel Landa was one, showing that Astana have an incredible strength in depth at this Giro. With the team’s reprieve by the Licensing Commission for doping offences still fresh in the memory, it’s fair to say that eyebrows were already being raised. Questions were also being asked about the wider scenario – surely they can’t keep this up for 3 weeks, can they?. Jan Polanc of local team Lampre-Merida won the stage – giving rise to more Italian delight at a Giro that looked to be signalling a resurrection of home influence – but it was Contador who donned the pink jersey on the podium at the end of the day.
THE story of Stage 6 was the fact that Contador did not don the jersey the following day. Yes, he was there on the proverbial top step, having done enough to maintain his lead in a bunch sprint stage won by Andre Greipel. But an injury sustained in another bizarre, spectator-caused crash in the final hundred metres meant that he could not move his left arm at all. This time a zoom lens-wielding fan leaned too far over the crash barriers and brought down Daniele Colli, who suffered an awful compound fracture of the arm. Contador managed to grimace through the podium ceremony, declining to open the traditional prosecco and waving the unworn maglia rosa in his right hand before quickly disappearing off to hospital where a shoulder dislocation was confirmed. Would he start the next day? Could he start the next day? And if he could, would his already fiercely contesting rivals give him any quarter?
Contador made the start for Stage 7 which, luckily for him was a relatively flat affair but which also was, unluckily, the longest Giro stage in recent memory. Three hours into a seven and a half hour stage covering a monstrous 264km he couldn’t find anywhere to put his hands that was remotely comfortable and he cut a sorry, lop-sided figure on the bike. Many a lesser rider would have folded – especially with a short, stinging uphill finish beckoning – but Contador is a fighter and he finished in the main group only 3 seconds from the large break who contested the stage win; won by yet another Italian Diego Ullisi (LAM). Significantly he made it into the jersey this time as well.
After such a week of highs and lows it was hard to imagine what the weekend – usually the time for showpiece stages and race-defining moments – would offer. Thankfully the simple cry of “More of the same” was all that was needed and all that was given. Stage 8, finishing on the Cat 1 Campitello Matese, had a wonderful sub-plot filled with derring-do and subterfuge but once again the main theme of the heavyweights brawling their way across stunning landscape was still very much to the fore. A brave escape from the breakaway by IAMCycling’s Sebastien Riechenbach looked destined for the glory that had evaded his teammate Sylvain Chavenel, who had attempted a similar move on Stage 6, but the Swiss rider was mugged by a sandbagging Beñat Intxausti. Despite repeated exhortations that he didn’t have the energy to take his turn at the front of their two-man group, the Movistar man suddenly took flight in the last couple of kilometres to break the will and heart of the younger, less experienced Riechenbach. Riechenbach ultimately finished 3rd – bitterly cursing Inxuasti in his post race interviews – behind a rampaging Landa, who broke free from the triumvirate of Contador, Aru and Porte in search of the stage win himself. Ultimately he came up short but again the strength of the Astana squad – now visibly hunting stage wins AND mounting a hugely credible GC challenge – was apparent. The fact that Contador has snaffled a couple of extra bonus seconds and again was able to match each Aru attack was of consolation to both Tinkoff team and the legion of neutral fans who just wanted this epic spectacle to continue for as long as possible.
And continue it did. On Sunday Astana simply tried the same tactics of riding en masse at the head of the maglia rosa group (with matching trains from Tinkoff and Sky alongside) whilst up ahead another of their number risked all to get the stage win. This time it was the veteran Paolo Tiralongo who chased, caught and then dropped Tom Jelte Slagter of Cannondale-Garmin on his way to the finish at San Giorgio del Sannio . His win was the fifth by either an Italian or a rider from an Italian team. And again it was a 1-2-3 of Aru, Contador and Porte coming home just after after the remnants of the break, having attacked each other all the way to the line. With Contador visibly more mobile than on previous days (and with the rest day ahead) the sense that the opportunity to take advantage of his crash had passed was palpable. None the less, there was no cessation in the warfare and Aru attacked time and again but was only rewarded with single second on the line.
Not that you get the sense that the young Sardinian is worried. He alone was never alone throughout the first week and is himself returning to strength each day after a recent bout of dysentery that is said to have cost him 5kg in weight. He and Contador chatted conspiratorially during the finale of Stage 9 – though one senses that this was more to ensure that they worked together to further drop Rigoberto Uran than to work over Porte, who stuck grimly to his task of following, unable to make the same sort of probing attacks he had done earlier in the week. As the riders enjoy their very well-earned rest day teh bottom line is that Astana have three riders in the top five on GC and have the same air of massed invulnerability that Sky had in 2012 and 2013. They are in the driving seat and they are driving it hard.
Contador will also be immensely happy with his week. He has come through scathed but intact and, notwithstanding anymore bizarre team orders from “DS” Oleg, looks set to retain the jersey through the flat stages of next week until the next big GC test at the long, punishing ITT next Saturday. Then we should see a resumption of the GC battle, the likes of which we haven’t had for many years. They all know the score now – all the strengths have been shown. I described them as heavyweights earlier and it has the feel of a heavyweight boxing match. There has been no caginess, no skirting around the issue, no waiting for an opening. The bigs guys have all come out swinging and it will simply be a case of who can stay standing the longest.
The attrition rate across the wider peloton will also be key in assessing the overall toughness of this years edition. Lacking some of those mega-steep ramps that we have seen in recent times, the front-loaded parcours nonetheless suggests that the dropout rate will be high as the race progresses and the early efforts take their toll. Certainly the fervour with which Asatana and Tinkoff are attacking the race supports this. A quick look at the stats for the first week reveal ‘only’ 10 DNF’s compared to 16 last year. So not that tough? In 2014 the weather was atrocious during the first week and caused many significant accidents and abandonments. The proof of this years pudding will be the final tally of DNF’s..
STANDINGS & JERSEYS
GC – Alberto Contador (TINKOFF-SAXO) 38:31:35; Fabio Aru (ASTANA) +0:0:3; Richie Porte (TEAM SKY) +0:0:22; Mikel Landa (ASTANA) +0:0:46; Dario Cataldo (ASTANA) +0:1:16.
Points – Elia Viviani. (TEAM SKY) – 78; Greipel (LOTTO-SOUDAL) – 75;
Mountains – Simon Geschke (GIANT ALPECIN) – 50; Beñat Intxausti (MOVISTAR) 39.
Youth – Fabio Aru (ASTANA) 38:31:38; Davide Formolo (CANNONDALE GARMIN) +0:2:58
Profile Comparison Image by MassifCentral
Other Giro2015 Image from the incomparable Jered Gruber’s Twitter Timeline