Giro d’Italia – Rest Day Roundup #1

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.

garmin crash

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.

As expected Orica-Greenedge won the time trial, making the most of their experienced team of TT and track specialists, to take the first pink jersey. They gifted it to birthday-boy Svein Tuft – Lanterne Rouge at last year’s Tour – who wore it for one day before relinquishing it to teammate Michael Matthews who finished ahead of him in the Stage 2 sprint finish. Tuft, a man with huge arm muscles who spent months cycling the Canadian wilderness in his youth, towing his pet dog “Bear” in a ramshackle trailer, wore his pink with pride – though the foul weather on Stage 2 meant it was covered by the ubiquitous black rain jacket for much of the day. For once the usually irritating extra bits of leader’s colour bling were useful as his pink helmet helped identify him amongst the rain-lashed bunch. In contrast Matthews is known as “Bling” and one feels that he will show off the colours whatever the weather.
 
Coming back into Belfast after a picturesque wade around the Northern Ireland coastline Marcel Kittel stormed to his first victory of the Giro in relative ease, outpacing rivals like Bouhanni with apparent ease. Things would get harder for him in Stage 3. The stage had been animated by Belkin’s Maarten Tjallingii’s dominance of the small breakaway that earned him the King of the Mountains jersey and more than a few nods of appreciation for his persistence. He was the last man to be caught when the sprint trains finally got rid of their foul weather cladding and started to motor in earnest.
 
giro in ireland
 
The main GC contenders had had varying fortunes on Stage 1. Evans and Roche were well to the fore with their TTT standings, as was Dario Cataldo, whose rag-tag Sky team put in a monster second half to leave them in an unexpected 5th place. Quintana and Rodriguez in particular had poor days and head to Italy with 1 and 2 minute deficits respectively. Nothing of note would happen to any of them for the next 2 days. Powder was being kept metaphorically dry,  though both Quintana and Evans, were visible at the front of the bunch, staying out of trouble.
 
Stage 3 started in Armagh and crossed over into the Republic shortly after. More rough-hewn coastline edged with green, green fields provided a ruggedly beautiful backdrop for helicopter shots as the peloton snaked along it, pursued by yet more rain. Again Tallenghi made it into the breakaway and again he mopped up the King of the Mountains points but it was all brought back together as they approached Dublin and a technically difficult run-up to the sprint. Kittel, looking for a second win to celebrate his 26th birthday, appeared to have got it all wrong, exiting the final corner in around twelfth place with Ben Swift (Sky) and Elia Viviani (Cannondale) way up the road and already battling each other for the win. The Brit had the beating of the in-form Italian and was on the verge of sealing a great win for Sky when somehow the red-jerseyed Kittel came screaming up from behind to threaten. With 25 metres to go it still looked impossible for him but keep coming he did and he passed Swift on the line to take his second win in a row. If his Stage 2 victory had looked easy this seemed anything but the German collapsed from his bike in the post race melee and lay panting like a ragged dog for many a minute. He had given absolutely everything in a show of of speed and commitment that will send new shivers down the spines of every other sprinter in the pro ranks.
 
Marcel Kittel, left, surges past to win the third stage of the Giro d'Italia in Dublin's City Centre
 
And that should have been that. The craic was there to be had by at least those who weren’t scheduled to be on a flight to Italy at 8am the next morning, leaving everyone with a warm (but undeniably damp) fuzzy feeling about how sport can bring peoples together and be a unifying force in (still) divided communities. It’s a credit to both Irelands that they worked together to bring this race to their countries and it’s a credit to all of the people who turned out in such numbers to celebrate this joint event. So the news this morning of a car-bomb being found and made safe yesterday near the Stage finish in Dublin was both shocking and unwelcome. It needs to be mentioned because it is an important event in the context of bringing a big race to Ireland. Thankfully we can leave it at that and do not have to write more about it.
 
Looking ahead, with the short summit finishes in the Apennines next Saturday and Sunday we should have a little bit of a clearer idea about how the race will develop before it then launches into the Alps the following week. For now the riders will be hoping for a bit of sunshine and some dry days as they switch direction and head North for a change. Let’s hope the heat doesn’t stultify the crowds and that Italy can keep going what Ireland has started. Forza!
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

Giro d’Italia Preview – Whatever happened to all the heroes?

“Whatever happened to all the heroes? All the Shakespeareos?” –  The Stranglers: No More Heroes

With the Giro d’Italia starting in Belfast on Friday, and the inaugural Women’s Tour of Britain breaking new ground in England this week, there are probably more top-level cyclists currently on UK soil than for many, many a year. But whilst the Women’s Tour has attracted the crème de la crème of female riders, this edition of the Giro has been dogged by some big name stay-aways who are preferring to focus on the Tour de France later in the Summer.

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If this is your first time watching the Giro check out the Beginner’s Guide at the bottom of the page.

Defending champion Vincenzo Nibali’s decision to fight for Yellow rather than Pink has perhaps caused the biggest concern for the organisers and certainly for the homegrown fans. Italian cycling is suffering from a cyclical downturn and true contenders appear very thin on the ground despite their country-men making up more than a third of the 198 entrants. Previous winners Damiano Cunego, Michele Scarponi and Ivan Basso are riding (as is 2012 winner Ryder Hesjedal) but none have shown the form that would put them into consideration for the top prize. Elsewhere, Joaquin ‘Purito’ Rodriguez, a seemingly resurgent Cadel Evans and 2013 Tour de France runner up Nairo (Nero for this race, surely??) Quintana do bring undoubted quality but there remains a feeling that this is very much a sideshow filled with men who are either deemed too old for a Tour win, or still too young. Quintana, with an occasionally 50-year-old looking face on his 24 year old body, sits in both camps.

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Quintana: the favourite is an old head & young shoulders above the rest.

Injury and accident have also robbed the start list of a couple of key battles. Richie Porte’s early season illness has pushed his goals backwards, meaning we miss out on a potential repeat of a high-level Sky vs Movistar battle that illuminated last years Tour and which had been widely expected. After Wiggins’ disastrous appearance in Italy last year (and Sky’s courting of the American market in the overlapping Tour of California this year) it’s been left to local boy Dario Cataldo to carry the hopes of Sky for this Grand Tour instead. Chris Horner’s incident with a car during recent training has also removed his name from the start list and with it the intriguing prospect of him going head-to-head on the mountains with Quintana whose age is his own digits swapped around.

Visa issues have also blighted the build-up to Belfast’s Grande Partenza. A number of riders have apparently either been denied visas by the UK authorities or simply not received them (and their all important passports) back in time. Cue further last-minute roster re-shuffling. That aside, preparations for the big roll-out in Ireland seems to have captured the enthusiastic spirit that the country is famous for. The Emerald Isle has been turned totally pink – literally in some cases – with fuchsia sheep, rose horses, coral cranes and even the odd mauve mayor popping up the celebrate the coming of the Giro. 1987 winner Stephen Roche has been roped in as the de facto ambassador for the first three days and, with his son Nicholas leading the Tinkoff-Saxobank team and his nephew, Dan Martin of Garmin-Sharp in the hunt for stage wins, he will be hoping to continue celebrating long after the Giro caravan has moved on.

pink sheep

There will be lots of pink wool to be had in Ireland’s Autumn/Winter fashions.

And move on they must; for after starting from the Titanic museum near Belfast’s famous shipyards and winding their way through North and South en-route to Dublin, the whole entourage faces a long transfer to Southern Italy before beginning the stages ‘up the boot’ towards the Alps and the Dolomites. This year’s finish will be in Trieste on June 1st but there is a whole heap of climbing to be done before the riders reach the final port. And that brings us back to Quintana.

With a favourable course than includes monstrous ascents of the Gavia & Stelvio on Stage 16, a mountain time-trial up the Monte Grappa on Stage 19 and then a penultimate day which ends with the eye-watering ramps of the Zoncolan, the tiny Colombian climber looks set to thrive. Quintana has been given the lead role of a strong team under the pretext of Movistar preferring to develop him in the less pressured environment of the Giro. With the relatively depleted start list though, this plan could backfire as Quintana is now such a hot favourite (10-11 ON at the time of writing) that anything less than the win will be seen as a sure thing thrown away. With such high expectations, and without another potential leader within the team to deflect attention, all the pressure will actually be fully on him from the outset. One hopes that his attacking style is not overly curtailed by the burden of favouritism.

GIRO D'ITALIA 2014

If Quintana can’t land the Giro in a suitably swashbucklingly way I suspect that most neutrals will be hoping that the ever-popular Purito finally lands a Grand Tour. Whatever happens, we don’t want a defensive phoney war through the mountains with one explosive attack on the last 100m of the Zoncolan any more than we did the dull time-trialled victories of Indurain. More than any other Grand Tour, the Giro sets itself up to be about spectacle. Let’s hope it delivers. Forza!

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Beginner’s Guide to the Giro

21 stages, 3 rest days (Mondays), 3,449.9 kilometres.

Key stages: 16 (Tuesday 27th), 19 (Friday 30th), 20 (Saturday 31st)

TdF/Giro Differences: Yellow is Pink, Green is Red, Polka Dots are solid blue, White is still white.

Grand Depart = Grande Partenza, Domestique = GregarioMaillot Jaune = Maglia Rosa

Froome is Porte, Kennaugh, Cataldo. Cav is Swift. Kittel is still Kittel.

In The Court of the King – An Evening with Sean Kelly

For a man who made a career of letting his legs rather than his mouth do the talking, An Evening with Sean Kelly at Cadence Performance in Crystal Palace this week could easily have been a painful experience for both speaker and audience. Kelly makes no secret of the fact that he is not a natural raconteur but he was most certainly a natural competitor and, just like in his racing, his force of character and professionalism ultimately outweighed any potential shortcomings in what was a very enjoyable and illuminating evening.

Kelly’s autobiography, “Hunger” (£18.99 Peloton Publishing) – short-listed for a number of sports writing awards – is an equal surprise coming from the quiet man of Carrick-On-Suir. Ghost-written by Lionel Birnie, the story of ‘King’ Kelly’s racing career was wrestled from the five times world No. 1 over a two year period, race by race, piece by piece, word by word. A long, hard road with many difficult, bumpy sections along the route. Fittingly for the two-time winner it was a veritable Paris-Roubaix of a task.

Birnie was alongside Kelly at Crystal Palace, adding context and anecdote to the Irishman’s recollections. Both were ably hosted by Daniel Friebe – author of ‘Merckx’,  ‘Mountain High’ and ‘Mountain Higher’ – who played the role of MC and posed the first 40 minutes of questions. Initially Kelly applied himself slowly to the task, as though lowering himself onto the infamous boil which cost him the 1987 Vuelta; testing the novel pain of speaking in front of 150 people instead of from the hidden confines of the Eurosport commentary box. Or maybe he was just subconsciously following the advice of the old patron Hinault, who often decreed that the first third of a stage would be carried out at a pace of his liking. Everyone held their breath and wondered how it would go.

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Birnie explains how he wrestled the story from Sean whilst he and Friebe look on. 

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Foreign Starts – Grand Tours on Tour

With both the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia set to start outside of their own borders next year it seems like a good time to have a look at this increasingly regular phenomenon. In 2014 the Giro will spend three days in Ireland during May, visiting both Belfast and Dublin, before Le Tour comes to Yorkshire, Cambridge and London in July. Whilst the Vuelta tends to be much more of an insular affair – having only started outside of Spain twice in it’s 60 year history –  a fifth of all the Giro starts since it’s first foray to San Marino in 1965 have been foreign affairs.
The Tour is an even more international event with over 20 foreign starts dating back as early as 1954 in Amsterdam. This began a sequence of around three Tours each decade commencing in foreign parts up until the Millennium. After that they increased again and Tour De France race director Christian Prudhomme clearly stated his aims in 2007 when he said that 3 out of every 5 Tours should begin abroad. Talk during the Armstrong era of a start on American soil may have failed to materialise because of the very real logistical issues of transferring the entire race and it’s vast entourage across 5 time zones of Atlantic Ocean but the appetite to take the Tour ‘on tour’ is self evident.

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