If the Italians can’t have an overall winner in pink in Trieste this time next week, then it’s a safe bet that that the stage win they would most crave for a countryman would be this one. The Plan di Montecampione holds a special place in Italian cycling folklore, more so perhaps than the more famous climbs of the Passo del Stelvio, Gavia or Zoncolan, all of which feature later in this years edition. The tree-lined climb up to the Montecampione is where Pantani sealed his ’98 Giro and is a key part of the homage to him that this edition of the race has sought to become.
Having travelled to Italy myself on this day I missed all of the build-up that the 217km stage might have offered before the crucial last 15km. By the time I reached my holiday villa in Sicily and found Rai 3’s coverage, Lotto’s Adam Hansen and Garmin’s Andre Cardoso were already leading on the lower slopes of the Montecampione. The Maglia Rosa group were 21″ behind with Blue jersey (I still can’t used to this) KOM leader Arredondo bridging up to the front pair.
There was still a lot of action ahead though, as my 3 pages of notes for the next 10miles can attest. Arredondo – so strong at the beginnings of climbs – caught them quickly enough and took Cardozo on with him to test the resolve of Uran and the others. All the GC contenders were still in the thinning chase group who doggedly stuck together almost to the catch, which took place at 9km. Sky, freed from the shackles of overall contention, chanced their arm again: this time it was Ireland’s Philip Deignan who slipped away in a familiar, high cadence style that won him 26″ by the 6km remaining mark.
Behind Deignan, the twenty strong group holding all the main players, started to probe and press the pace. Arredondo soon paid for his earlier efforts whilst Ryder Hesjedal and Ivan Basso also cannot hold the pace which Mick Rogers begins to lay down for his team mate Rafal Majka. Suddenly the group is 14 strong and Deignan’s hard-fought lead begins to tumble fast.
Pierre Rolland makes a slight feint at 5km, a move which which animates Uran, who goes on to make the break that the Frenchman could not quite make stick. Evans, Majka and a much stronger looking Nairo Quintana follow the pink jersey, who eases off once the damage has been done and lets Evans sweat on the front for a while again. The former winners’ pace isn’t enough for Rolland though as he goes again at 4km, taking Colombian Duarte with him as he swiftly catches Deignan.
Astana’s Italian rider Fabian Aru, who has clearly been biding his time in the Uran group, makes his move at 3km prompting a change of pace which, initially, Uran seems most able to match. Quintana waits a little longer, regaining with contact with Uran just as he and Aru catch Rolland and Deignan but whilst they then pause in the regroupement Aru strikes alone for the win.
Quintana, looking well recovered from the injury and cold which affected his first couple of weeks in the race, finally attacks with 1.7km remaining as he looks to start to regain his time losses. Rolland goes with him. Evans has momentarily disappeared from sight and when a moto camera drops back to find him, he is suffering mightily, working like a dog on the front of a group of the young pretenders Keldermann, Majka as well as Pozzovivo, fighting to save his Giro.
Ahead Quintana half springs at 900m trying to catch Aru but he is still lacking the explosive force we saw in 2013 and though he drops his French companion Rolland, he cannot catch the flying Italian. Aru takes an emotional home win and is already fielding questions from the media about Pantani by the time Quintana crosses 22″ later. After Rolland and Duarte cross, Uran comes in ceding just 20″ to Quintana. Evans loses another 32″ to Uran and immediately seeks comfort in his security neck towel/blanket.
At the end of the day Uran had consolidated his lead overall, regaining the minute lead over Evans that he had after the time trial. Aru lay in fourth place 2’24” adrift but Quintana had risen again, up to fifth and now just 2’40 back on his countryman Uran. With the hardest climbing yet come he once again looked like the contender that we all expected before the race.
So, four days in and the Giro entourage finally hit Italian soil this morning. A massive transfer of cargo planes and charter flights took place last night and today to transfer the 196 continuing riders, probably twice as many support staff and countless more media personnel to the decidedly drier climes of sunny Puglia. Something like 500 bikes and a couple of thousand wheels were shipped by cargo plane overnight with the riders following early this morning. Whilst most of the bigger teams had their second buses already stationed in Bari to meet the riders this morning, a couple of the smaller teams were facing the prospect of the 2660 kilometre drive from Dublin to get some support staff back into the race late on Tuesday.
So, was all this travel and logistical heartache required for the Giro’s Gaelic adventure worth it? . If, for a moment, we ignore the weather that did blight the Grande Partenza to a certain degree, the answer would appear to be “Si” (or in Gaelic “Tha“). That is to say it was worth it.
The whole of Ireland – both Northern Ireland and the Republic – put on a fine show with memorable set-pieces (Titanic and Stormont) and a level of passionate spectator support that generally only seen on the high mountain passes of Grand Tours. Crowds, particularly on the Team Time Trial route in Belfast, were 3-4 deep at minimum and were boisterous in a way more expected of people who have spent 2 days hanging out on Dutch Corner at Alpe d’Huez. The rain certainly hadn’t dampened any spirits in Belfast – though I suspect that some spirits may have been downed in the dampness to help keep warm – and the sight of riders having to wave crowds back in a TTT is not something I’ve witnessed before. The downpour which affected the middle starters may have lacked lightning but the atmosphere was already electrified.
The entire island seemed to have embraced the unifying colour of pink for the duration, applying it to every conceivable edifice and activity along the route. The sight of ten or more pink-clad jockeys rousing their steeds into a horse-race with the peloton along the beach at Carnlough on Stage 2 will live long in the memory, as will the image of a pink morph-suited waterskier from the same day and the full-size, apparently random, pink pylon from Stage 3.
Sadly blue was also the colour for the home crowd looking for Irish success as they had very little specific to celebrate from the three day visit. Nicholas Roche did well enough but Dan Martin’s disaster in the rain-slicked streets near Stormont broke not only his collarbone but also many of the hearts of the South. Deserted by the luck which, as an adopted Irishman, he should be able to call upon, for the second race in a row his seemingly cursed front wheel slipped out from under him at a critical moment. Though he was at least able to remount and finish at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, this time he could not repeat the feat after crashing hard and taking down three other team mates with him. It was horrible to watch though early indications suggest that the break was clean and he could be back for the Tour.
It’s been a hard week to follow the start of the cycling season from the UK. Races in Australia and Argentina are not so easy to watch live; it either involves getting up at 4.30am and disturbing the rest of your non-cycling life with sleep deprivation to watch the Tour Down Under; or risking your eyesight squinting at a fuzzy web-cam whilst trying to follow fast-speaking Spanish commentary at the Tour de San Luis. But the very fact that there are these options speaks volumes about the proliferation of coverage. We’ve become so used to coverage of almost everything that this, in fact, makes for a pleasant (and nostalgic) change. Not so long ago watching short highlights programmes used to be the only option for even the biggest races and anything else would not even get that. Now live TV of entire stages of the bigger races plus legal (and illegal) streams and Youtube channels bring us even the most minor events in some form. Saturation levels are fast approaching
So it’s been refreshing this week to catch up the Tour Down Under in written and highlights form. I haven’t quite kicked the need for ‘live’ updates so have settled into a pattern of reading back my Twitter timeline after waking up to get the chronology of the race as it unfolds. By following a few teams and a few journalists you get the story of the whole race – early breaks and all – which highlight shows often skim over. Then, pre-armed with a bit of race knowledge, watching even a brief highlights package becomes more rewarding in the sense that you learn to watch the moves develop rather than witness the result and then try and work out how it came to be.