After the frenetic action of the first week I had been well prepared to indulge the 2015 Giro a week in the doldrums, as the race switched to the eastern side of the country and began a five-day schlep northwards back towards the mountains. The stage profiles looked benign – especially when compared to the opening week – and I thought that the 3-week, 3-part narrative would put the major theme of General Classification on hold and explore some sub-plots for a few days. We Giro-watchers would be able to take a breather too and allow the race to meander a little in a our minds before regrouping for the final week.
Wrong! The second week of the Giro has been as riveting as the first; packed with action, intrigue and, in some ways, more hotly debated issues than the first. We’ve had yet more crashes (though thankfully the spectators seem to have kept out of the way this week), more upsets and, even on stages that were memorably described to me as being “flatter than a witches tit”, more ups and downs than many a Grand Tour could count in it’s full complement of 21 days.
Stage 10 delayed its true announcement the new phase of this year’s edition by dawning in sunshine. Gone were the picturesque coastlines of Week 1 and the fair weather followed shortly after. Week 2 was to be mainly flat, mainly grey and, for many, unrelentingly bleak. Firstly the peloton contrived to muck up catching the breakaway – something that should never happen on a flat stage with a tailwind – causing undue panic at the head of the bunch as the race reached the last few km. With the peloton strung out and chasing hard, Richie Porte’s luck ran out. He punctured with around 7km to go but crucially he stopped on the right side of the road and his team stopped on the left. With the team cars shooting past at 60kmph he was stranded; left high and dry at the most critical moment. In need of a wheel but with none to hand he rashly took the one offered to him by his good friend and countryman Simon Clarke of Orica-GreenEdge. Porte finished the stage 47 seconds down, which was bad enough in itself but, as one of the stronger time-triallers in the race, not insurmountable. The additional two-minute penalty handed down to him by the race jury shortly afterwards was the hammer-blow. Accepting assistance from another team is not permitted and Porte’s Giro dreams vanished in a recast moment, which until then had been portrayed as an act of praiseworthy camaraderie and friendship. Instantly the Giro had become a two horse race. Or rather a two stable race, as Tinkoff still had two riders in the top 5 whilst Astana occupied the other three.
“Wheelgate” – as it was inevitably (and rather wearily) dubbed, was still the burning issue on most lips the following day as the peloton braved worse weather conditions on the road from Forli to Imola, where they were to take in four circuits of the town and surroundings, including a section of the famous Formula One race track. The inclusion of a Cat 4 climb in the circuit removed the dwindling number of sprinters from contention and again the breakaway had its day. The breakaway from the breakaway that is. Ilnur Zakarin of Katusha rode away from his companions on the last ascent of the Tre Monti and surfed home solo, presumably wishing he could have changed to wet weather tyres like the F1 cars who more usually grace this famous stretch of tarmac. Porte endured another bad day. His appetite for the race obviously reduced, he gave another 2 minutes to Contador and Co. For the first time too, Fabio Aru, who had been imperious in the first week, also began to look uncomfortable, initially citing the poor weather as the cause of a more muted showing.
Stage 12 had Philippe Gilbert’s name written all over it from the start. A long, flat race, again to be run in somewhat nautical conditions, with three vicious lumps at the end looked for all the world like Amstel Gold had been parachuted into middle of the Giro. Simon Gerrans was also fancied for the win by his Orica-GreenEdge team and he was given the leader’s role in preference to an audibly miffed Michael Matthews. When Gerrans joined a raft of riders who each in turn came unstuck on the descents of those aforementioned vicious climbs, it was left to Gilbert to roll back the years and treat us to a winning smile after the usual teeth-gritted assault on the testing ramp into Vicenza. He later said he knew that it was his last opportunity for a win and you could see that he was treating it like a one-day race. More tellingly for the rest of the race Alberto Contador, now undeniably totally recovered from his Week 1 injuries, rolled across the line in second place, a mere three seconds back on the King of the Ardennes. Aru’s face as he crossed the line in a group 8 seconds back gave voiced to the feelings of many.
We know that pro cyclists are a superstitious bunch and that many pin on a #13 race number upside down in the hope of negating it’s power of “unluck” (as Fabian Cancellara likes to call it). Fabio Aru went one further than this on this incredibly flat Stage 13 and summoned some kind of black magic to put his main rival upside down instead. Upside down and just 300 metres outside the marker where time losses from such incidents are overruled. An innocuous touch of wheels sent much of the pack down on the road outside Lido de Jesolo and the overhead helicopter shot showed Contador swirling around on foot desperately scanning the wreckage for a usable bike. He found one soon enough but Aru had already escaped with the sprinters and it cost the Spaniard forty seconds and, for the first time in his pro-career, his leader’s jersey. Aru was ecstatic on the podium and it was suggested that the magic may continue as wearing the leader’s jersey could improve his effort in the Individual Time Trial the following day enormously. Inevitably Porte – ostensibly the best time triallist on show – suffered more ‘unluck’ than Contador as the only bike he could find after the same crash left him in the same need as Contatdor was one belonging to a team-mate a least a foot taller than him. He could not limit his losses as well as Contador and finished the day in 17th on GC. Simon Clarke – giver of the fateful wheel 3 days earlier – remarked forlornly that he had again seen Porte in need and again had wanted to give him his equipment. If only Richard III had had such generous rivals.
A shake-up in all the standings was inevitable after the 59.4km hilly time trial from Treviso to Valdobbidene on Stage 14 but as with so much in this race few predicted just how. The favoured time-triallist Porte – who had rocketed up the Col D’Eze to win Paris-Nice back in March – not only failed to make in-roads into Contador but lost bucket-loads of time to him. It was feared that, much like Tom Boonen and Andre Greipel who had withdrawn from the race before the ITT, he would follow soon afterwards. Uran suffered similarly, finishing 2’30” down on Contador, but managing to rise in the GC by dint of those around him faring even worse. The weather played a hard card for those starting last and the eventual winning time was set by Vasil Kiryienka of Team Sky much earlier in the day. Which made Contador’s ride – starting second from last – all the more remarkable. He came third overall, just 14 seconds down on the Belarussian super-domestique. Aru’s pink aero-suit (thankfully not capped off with a pink aero helmet) failed to produce any discernible improvement on his TT’ing ability and he handed the leader’s jersey back to Contador just in time for owner Oleg Tinkoff to fly in and get on all the TV channels, raving about how invincible Alberto is. Aru held onto second place but the gaps had stretched out and, despite clearly having the strongest team at the race, Astana’s challenge now began to look as insurmountable as the highest peaks of the Italian Alps which lay before them.
If anything was to be done about Alberto, you felt that it would have to be done soon and, for an Italian like Aru at least, making a show atop the Madonna di Campiglio climb on Stage 15 would seem to be just the place. Porte did start the stage but in service to his new team leader Leopold König, who was still in 10th place as the peloton left Marostica for a date with destiny. By the end of the day however König was just another of the many, many casualties of the pace that Astana laid down in the foothills of the climb where Marco Pantani last won a Giro stage and where, following his ejection from the 1999 race the following day for a high haematocrit level, he also began the spectacular fall from grace that ended with his death from an overdose in 2004. This is hallowed ground for the Italian cycling tifosi and a win here for Aru might just have sparked that magic that the jersey failed to give the day before. His team’s intentions were clear enough: batter everyone else into submission as they had done in the first week and then see who or what was left. Aru’s teammates simply shredded the peloton on the lower slopes leaving Contador alone and apparently vulnerable. The climb was taken at a blistering pace that Pantani himself would have appreciated but nothing could dislodge the maglia rosa who even threatened briefly to jump away near the end and steal a much-wanted stage win for himself. It was left to Aru’s last lieutenant, Mikel Landa, to counter and grab another of the stage wins for Astana as Aru could not respond in the final metres, never mind mount an attack himself. Ominously Contador had bagged a couple of seconds at the intermediate sprint and gained yet more at the close of the second week.
The rest day itself brought some predictable news at last. Richie Porte confirmed his withdrawal from the race citing a knee injury sustained in the bike change crash as the major factor. He had rolled in 27 minutes down on Contador at Madonna di Campiglio, his early season form a long distant memory. He will regroup and now look to support Chris Froome in the Tour de France
It would be presumptuous to say this Giro is over. We still have a week to go. A week of mountain stages and summit finishes before the traditional ceremonial stage at the end of the race. We have the Mortirolo and the Colle della Finestre to come. Anything could yet happen.. But it would also be churlish to say anything other than this race is Alberto Contador’s to lose. He has endured (and overcome) more than his share of adversity in the last two weeks. He has matched (and often bettered) every move made against him. He has ridden with guts and panache. If the race had ended today we could already say that we have been treated to an exceptional Giro and that we have a worthy winner. Contador could just sit in for a week and have Astana batter their dwindling ships against the rock that he has shown himself to be, and no-one should be able to downplay his victory if he did. And yet I still expect something more from him. I still think that there is an epic stage win in there somewhere for Alberto. He has said that this will be his last Giro – the only Grand Tour where he has never won a stage – and I think he has the pride and the power to want to change that. Pistols on the podium is one thing but El Pistolero will want to shoot down his dwindling band of critics too by getting out his guns crossing a finish line. I said that as a rider he has panache. I think that he will want to go out in style..
STANDINGS & JERSEYS
GC – Alberto Contador (TINKOFF-SAXO) 60:01:34; Fabio Aru (ASTANA) +2:35; Andrey Amador (MOVISTAR) +4:19; Mikel Landa (ASTANA) +4:46; Leopold König (TEAM SKY) +6:36.
Points – Elia Viviani. (TEAM SKY) – 119; Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek Factory Racing) – 119 (tied);
Mountains – Beñat Intxausti (MOVISTAR) 85; Mikel Landa (ASTANA) 54
Youth – Fabio Aru (ASTANA) 60:04:09; Davide Formolo (CANNONDALE-GARMIN) +14:31
Featured B&W Image from the incomparable Jered Gruber
Other images via Steephill & Twitter.