La Vuelta 2014 – The Rest Day Round-up. #2

Apologies for lack of pictures this week but I’m writing this on the road (rail actually). Will add some later.

For a week which included what is being widely touted at the “Most Boring Grand Tour Stage in the History of the World. Ever”, we’ve actually been treated to a hugely enjoyable set of races in the last seven days. We’ve had high’s, lows, slows and blows as the race has taken a more solid formation ahead of the final week.

First up was the ‘up and down’ Individual Time Trial that saw race leader Nairo Quintana crash in spectacular fashion. After cresting the mid-point climb he began adjusting his rather unique, shin height overshoes as he picked up speed on the downhill. Whether it was taking his eyes off the road for a moment is uncertain but he took the wrong line into a corner and a worse one out of it and met the roadside barrier with sickening force. The cameras initially picked him lying flat on his back and the thought was his race was over. He managed to get up and finish some three minutes down and, though I had said that the Vuelta would not end in smiles for one of Quintana and Valverde, this was not what I had envisaged. Worse was to come though for the Giro champion the following day when he would be involved in an early mid-peloton tumble and suffer a similar fate to Froome and Contador did in the Tour. He climbed into an ambulance and was spirited away for an operation on a broken shoulder.

The expected TT charge by Chris Froome failed to materialise, lending more weight to the theory that he is not riding at 100%, with the Team Sky leader coming home way down in 11th place, beaten by people including his team mate Vasily Kiryienka. Tony Martin (OPQS) won of course but a great ride by Alberto Contador put him into the race lead and a surprising second overall for Rigoberto Uran (OPQS) suggested that he would be a force to be reckoned with as the race headed towards the mountains of the North.

The Stage 11 summit finish was won by Italian youngster Fabian Aru (AST) but the real talking point was what had gone on behind the main bunch of GC contenders rather than off the front. TeamSky had approached the final climb with their standard operating procedure of high tempo, massed ranks pulling hard. Only difference today was that Froome was off the back and apparently falling away. As the gap increased it became apparent that, unable to follow the initial attacks, he was riding his own race and hoping that an even tempo would get him to the top in roughly the same time. Time and time again he slowly reeled the leaders in, only to be distanced again. With what looked like a race-defining effort he caught them once more and finished alongside them.

Then we had the aforementioned stage from hell. A purgatorius eight-lap circumnavigation of a town called Logorno. It wasn’t so much a case that John Degenkolb (GIA) won but that everyone else, including the viewers, lost..

The following day the Vuelta organisers took everyone to the zoo – presumably to make amends for the boring city tour of the day before. I’m surprised that the riders weren’t given an ice-cream each as well to appease them a little more. With a sharp climb right at the end of the stage, which finished in a nature reserve complete with elephants and (hopefully caged) lions and tigers and bears, it looked like the kind of profile that would suit Dan Martin or Alejandro Valverde. Valverde did manage fourth on the stage and Martin ninth with the same time but Spaniard Daniel Navarro, riding for the French Cofidis team took the win with a well timed attack. Most of the GC contenders had held station, knowing that there were tougher days coming ahead. Three massive mountain days beckoned and the stunning Asturian outcrops provided the rocky background against which the riders would have to smash themselves.

Stage 14 to Le Camperona saw a repeat of the Chris Froome tempo show. Again he was left, apparently for dead, on the lower reaches of the incredibly steep Vallee de Sabeo climb and again he arose, Lazarus-like, to come back to the fore in the latter stages. Indeed he broke away in the final metres to eek a few seconds over Contador, Valverde and Rodriguez, who were all consolidating their top four places. Froome had been moving up place by place and now lay third as Uran shipped time on the first of a number of bad days. Ryder Hesjedal (GRS) won the stage from the break, either heartbreakingly overtaking Oliver Zaugg (TKS) just 100m from the line, or expertly judging his effort depending on your point of view.

By now it was clear that Froome’s antics were a pre-defined tactic; designed to limit his underprepared body from debilitating effort and to allow him to race himself into fitness and form whilst maintaining a strong GC position. The tactic was again on show in the second of the three mountain stages of this middle week, though with slightly less success than the days before, Again he hung back as Contador, Valverde and Rodriguez forged ahead and again he came back to them in the final kilometre of the famed Covadonga climb. Contador had repeatedly looked back for him throughout the climb, using every switchback to measure the distance between himself and the dogged Team SKy rider, making it obvious he views Froome as his main rival and threat. But this time the three Spaniards had the measure of the Briton and a Valverde attack a couple of hundred metres from the line – after he had contributed his usual little to the pacemaking – won him 5 seconds over Contador and a second place bonus whilst it cost Froome 7 seconds over the race leader when he couldn’t match the finishing pace. Przemyslaw Niemiec (LAM) just held out for the win, giving Lampre a second stage win of the Vuelta.

And so dawned the Queen Stage. Contador leading Valverde by 31seconds, and both Froome and Rodriguez by 1:20. The race winner would certainly now come form these four men and probably the podium too. Aru lay a distant 5th at 2.22.. I had thought that this would be the day for Froome to attack the Possum/Phoenix tactics of the week were becoming played out and his strength and confidence were visibly growing. Pundits were noting that there seemed to be no love lost between the three Spaniards and that there was none of the collusion that the race has seen in the past. With four Cat 1 climbs (including the summit finish) and a Cat 2 in a short 150km stage it seemed certain that the pattern would have to change. Again Team Sky drilled to the front on the approach but this time Froome was firmly in position and attacked a good 5km out. Only Contador could go with him and the pair raced up the climb, quickly mopping up the breakaway riders and look to contest the stage win. Contador never looked in trouble but the question remained whether Froome would have a second kick. When Contador attacked in the final kilometre it was obvious that the answer was no but he stayed well clear of the chasers to end within three seconds of Valverde’s second place.

We’ve seen a different side of Chris Froome this week. We should know that he is a fighter, a sufferer, a grinder when it is needed. He has not really had the chance to show it to date. If he wins this Vuelta – and I’m afraid I don’t think he can overcome Contador from here – it could just stand the test of time to be his greatest of his career.

In other Vuelta news we had worrying reports and sights of riders plunging over the edges of steep descents. Whilst Quintana luckily managed to stay on the Tarmac side during his acrobatic brush with barrier, Garmin’s Dan Martin and Movistar’s Jose Herrada both had to extricate themselves from the trees during treacherous descents. Both were able to continue with Martin coming in not far off the leaders. Not so Uran, who completed a miserable post TT week with a 15minute plus deficit on Stage 16 alone.

Not able to complete Stage 16 were Tinkoff’s Ivan Rovny and OPQS’s Gianluca Brambilla who brushed with each other on stage 16. The pair exchanged blows during the latter stages and as Brambilla went ahead in the break he was summarily ejected from the race by the commissars who, in the certainty that they would have done so after the stage, were worried that he would have a major bearing on the days outcome. Rovny was then subjected to the same public ejection in order to balance the books.

Fighting in the peloton has a long and varied history – we saw some quality ‘handbags’ earlier in the year and there was a bit and to and fro between Niki Terpstra and Maarten Wynants in the Eneco Tour – but it is usually confined to a bit of elbowing/head butting/bottle throwing by the more het up of the sprinters. Hearing the following day Phillip Deignan accuse Joaquin Rodriguez of a similar full faced punch is worrying. As yet no action has been taken against the Spaniard who seems to have escaped by dint of being not caught on camera.

The final week lies now lies ahead of us with a massive pair of cycling shoes to fill. It’s not in Froome’s nature to settle for second – we know that all too well – but can he really take the fight to Contador and give us that dream showpiece – the final day Time Trial upset – that we foresaw before the race began??

 

GC Standings:
  • 1 CONTADOR, Alberto (TINKOFF-SAXO) 63:25:00
  • 2 VALVERDE, Alejandro (MOVISTAR) + 1.36
  • 3 FROOME, Chris (SKY) + 1.39
  • 4 RODRIGUEZ, Joaquin (KATUSHA) + 2.29
  • 5 ARU, Fabio (ASTANA) + 3.38
  • 6 MARTIN, Dan (Garmin Sharp) +6.17
  • 7 GESINK, Robert (BELKIN) + 6.43
  • 8 SANCHEZ, Samuel (BMC) +6.55
  • 9 BARGUIL, Warren (GIANT-SHIMANO) + 8.37
  • 10 CARUSO, Damiano (Cannondale) +9.10
 

La Vuelta 2014 – The Rest Day Round-up. #1

The 2014 Vuelta could have got off to a real ‘flying start’ if the organisers had had the sense to switch the Prologue Team Time Trial with the showpiece Stage 3 beginning – which took place on the deck of the Spanish aircraft carrier LHD ‘Juan Carlos I’. Despite this obviously missed opportunity the Grand Tour’s take-off salvo was reasonably impressive none-the-less as local lads Movistar jetted across the 12.6km course in the best time and Cannondale upset the expected order by coming in second ahead of more favoured teams such as Orica-Greenedge and Team Sky, who suffered yet another ignominous day in the saddle to only manage 11th.

-Stage 3’s village départ was fairly spectacular.

 
The Movistar team looked united throughout with Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana both coming across the line in the time-setting group. It fell to Jonathan Castroviejo to claim the first leaders’ jersey though as he led the seven intact riders home. Judging by what we have seen since, this might have been the first and last show of unity within the team. Valverde got on the wrong side of a seven second split on the aforementioned Stage 3 and since then he has appeared to be looking to initially regain parity with his younger team mate and then push on beyond him.. It’s unlikely to be the spectacular enmity of the 1986 Tour all over again but it will be interesting to see if he commits to supporting Quintana or just doing his own thing. On Stage 4 he attacked on the final downhill and, though only ever gaining a maximum 14 second gap, forced teams to chase him. Tellingly, Quintana brought the rest of the team to help the chase. It was becoming apparent that nothing in this Vuelta was going to be straightforward.
 
Before those fireworks in the GC battle got started, the sprinters in the race had a couple of days in the sun. And what sun! Temperatures soared as high as the bearded vultures of the Iberian peninsula and also looked to pick off any under-hydrated riders. Teams fought the conditions just as much as each other in the opening stages. Trek Factory Racing’s Fabian Cancellara shed 4kg on one stage alone and whose bronzed thighs must have been like well-roasted crackling by the days end with the combined effects of heat and salt from all the sweat. Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ) showed he thrives in the heat as he took the first sprint win with a strong finish but it was Valverde who ended the first open-racing day in red by dint of coming in ahead of Castroviejo. His podium appearance in the leader’s jersey may have set something off in his mind about ‘letting the road decide’ who was the Movistar team leader.
 
vale quin with smiles
I can’t see this Vuelta ending in smiles for both Valverde and Quintana
 
Alejandro is another who is said to thrive in hot conditions but he couldn’t repeat the trick the following day when, on a finish that looked well suited to his old Liege-Bastogne-Liege winning skills, he got caught in that split which cost him seven seconds. Michael Matthews (OGE) showed great strength and even greater timing to overhaul another favourite for the day Dan Martin (GRS) to sneak the win and, thanks to those time bonuses, the leader’s jersey as well. Matthews is becoming something of a first week leaders jersey specialist having worn pink for six days in May during the Giro and now holding onto red for three days in Spain. Giant-Shimano took the stage win reins next as they looked to remind the cycling world that they don’t necessarily need Marcel Kittel to win Grand Tour sprints. Kittel’s fellow German John Degenkolb took two wins on the bounce to first challenge and then overtake Matthews in the green jersey competition.
 
The usual hustle of the GC contenders to get to the front of the pack in order to avoid the chances of being held up in a crash at the end of each days racing provided some early indication about how much credence we should be giving to Alberto Contador’s words about only challenging in the final week. ‘Not much’ would seem be the answer as the Spaniard was well to the fore in every stage and marshalled his troops to ensure that he was always in contention. He looked far more competitive from the off than Quintana whose usual first week impression of an invisible man was particularly impressive this time around. So good in fact that when he had transponder issues on Stage 7 and didn’t show up in the final standings, the general consensus was that he had been dropped and lost a whole bunch of time. In fact he had finished 12th but no-one had noticed. Neat trick.
 
Chris Froome was having a more visible first week than the man who was being touted as his main rival for the overall. He too was often at the head of affairs and, after the disappointment of the TTT, Team Sky performed much more like we would expect them to. Having crashed (yet again) earlier in the day and had to chase back for 15km, Froome powered away in the final metres of that same Stage 7 finale to grab a couple of seconds back over the others but he and Valverde had done more damage the day before when they broke free from a stellar five strong group also containing Quintana, Contador and Joaquin Rodriguez (KAT) on the final metres of the 1st Cat Alto Cumbres Verdes to contest the victory. Valverde edged out the Briton, reclaimed the red jersey and leapfrogged Quintana on GC with same blow. It was a riveting finish to an intriguing stage but one which, in the end, asked more questions than it answered. What are Valverde’s intentions exactly? How bad was Contador’s Tour injury really? Will Froome fade and Quintana bloom towards the end of the race?
 
Valverde win
Froome, Valverde, Contador and Rodriguez made time on the Alto Cumbres Verdes
 
The answers were supposed to be put on ice for Stage 8 with a flat day that had ‘bunch sprint’ written all over it in store. But as we have seen before those pesky crosswinds put paid to the idea of a relatively calm approach to the line for the sprinters to frenetically contest. Echelons exploded across the peloton with around 15km to run and, although the first group initially contained all the favourites, Sky and Tinkoff-Saxo put the hammer down again and split the still large group again. This time Quintana was found wanting and it required the worried Giant-Shimano team, desperate to deliver Degenkolb back up to the front, to bring him back into contention. This time it was he, rather than Valverde, who was isolated and without the support of his team. Nacer Bouhanni won the ensuing sprint – albeit with an almighty wobble at the very end that seemed to put Matthews off his own effort and which divided the race jury 2-2 as to whether he should be punished for a irregularity. It was pretty ironic given that Bouhanni had made a great noise of complaining about Degenkolb’s line a couple of days earlier.
 
Someone making a conspicuous lack of noise has been Peter Sagan (CAN). Inevitably touted as a strong contender for the green jersey and with some early stage profiles suiting his all-round explosive style, finding him languishing down in 25th with only 17 points by Saturday (Degenkolb led with 87 at that stage) would prove a mystery to most onlookers. ‘Slightly overweight and ‘totally uninterested’ has been the professional pundits’ verdict; the cause of which has been assumed to be mainly his now-confirmed switch to Tinkoff for next season. Perhaps he is acting ‘honourably’ by not wanting to earn any more World Tour points this season as they will only benefit his new team. Or perhaps he just can’t be arsed.
 
The Stage 9 showdown – ahead of the rest day and the first individual time trial – proved to be as thrilling a finish as Stage 6. With a large break ahead for most of the rain-sodden day, the selection process on the approach to and up the final climb of Aramòn Valdelinares played out in two places almost simultaneously. As the magnificently monikered Lampre-Merida rider Winner Anacona struck out from the disintegrated break in an attempt to snatch the stage win from Bob Jungels (TFR) and then Javier Moreno (MOV) and the overall race lead with a bold solo ascent, Dan Martin was lighting the peloton’s touchpaper after more solid work from TeamSky to half the break’s advantage from over six minutes to hover around the point where Anacona – lying 2′ 50″ back at the start of the day – would take the red jersey. Martin could not make his attack stick but his initial foray goaded the others into action and when a visibly bouyant Contador shot past the Katusha riders who had ferried Rodriguez et al back up to Martin, few could follow. Valverde and Froome certainly could not bridge the gap and immediately went into damage limitation mode. Sky’s dominance of just a few minutes earlier when Kennaugh, Deignan, Nieve and Cataldo were all making good on the usual mammoth stint from Kiriyenka was washed away with the standing water coursing across the mountain road. As Quintana and Rodriguez battled their way back towards the dancing Contador the race for the GC lead was inexorably clawed away from Anacona, who had already crossed the line as stage winner, to whether Contador could hold off Quintana for the three seconds he would need to leapfrog him. As remnants of the break still staggered over the finish, the Colombian Giro d’Italia winner, aided by Rodriguez, caught Contador on the line to secure the same time and deny El Pistelero the leader’s jersey. Sadly in doing so he also denied a fair few cycling sub-editors the chance to dust off their ABBA puns and declare that “The Winner Takes It All”.
 
quintana red
But it was Quintana who finished the first week in the leader’s red jersey
 
Froome and Valverde toiled in a further 23 seconds back with both trying to sound positive afterwards. Froome looked towards Tuesday’s 36.5km trial trial as a place to recover his 28 second deficit time whilst Valverde – though acknowledging it was good that the lead had stayed within the team – still only trailed by eight seconds and made statements about the road deciding who will lead “Team” Movistar. With the top six within 30 seconds of each other and five summit finishes included in the next block of racing after the time trial we really do seem set for the ding-dong battle that we have all been wishing for.. This ‘Spanish Feast’ does keep on delivering.
 
GC Standings:
  • 1 QUINTANA, Nairo (MOVISTAR) 35:58:05
  • 2 CONTADOR, Alberto (TINKOFF-SAXO) + 3
  • 3 VALVERDE, Alejandro (MOVISTAR) + 8
  • 4 ANACONA, Winner (LAMPRE – MERIDA) + 9
  • 5 FROOME, Chris (SKY) + 28
  • 6 RODRIGUEZ, Joaquin (KATUSHA) + 30
  • 7 ARU, Fabio (ASTANA) + 1:06
  • 8 GESINK, Robert (BELKIN) + 1:19
  • 9 URAN, Rigoberto (OMEGA PHARMA – QUICK-STEP) + 1:26
  • 10 BARGUIL, Warren (GIANT-SHIMANO)
 

 

A Spanish Feast? Tapas Time at La Vuelta. Race Preview

The Vuelta a España starts this weekend. Normally relegated to a fairly distant gruppetto in terms of importance compared to the peloton of the Tour de France and the breakaway of the early season Giro d’Italia, events have conspired this year to elevate the last Grand Tour of the year to give it a much higher profile than normal.

It’s often said that one man’s loss is another man’s gain. That’s certainly been true for the Vuelta organisers and sponsors this year whose collective hands must have been worn smooth with all the gleeful rubbing that has been going on since late Spring. Nairo Quintana’s decision to target the Giro and Vuelta had already brought some joy to the race but a series of crashes and withdrawals across May and July has raised the stock enormously of the peloton who will set off on Saturday evening’s pan-flat Team Time Trial in Jerez.

Unexpected additions to the startlist include Chris Froome, Alberto Contador and Dan Martin; all of whom crashed out of Grand Tours earlier in the season. Expectation that Contador would not be able to recover from his Tour de France injury in time was high but the recent news is that he will take part, making a new Quintana-Froome-Contador face-off a reality. Add in Rigoberto Uran, Cadel Evans, Joaquin Rodriguez, Peter Sagan, Thibault Pinot and Quintana’s teammate Alejandro Valverde and the field is the strongest for many, many years.

tapas

Each new adjustment to the affected riders’ racing programme has added another unexpected element to the Vuelta roster, and raised the stock of the race over the past few weeks and months. It has been like enjoying a tapas-style meal where new delights are continually introduced as the meal goes on. Unlike the staid statement of á la carte dining, this quintessentially Spanish style of dining is continually surprising and exciting – just as we hope the racing will be.

Traversing Spain from South to North in a roughly counter-clockwise arc, the Vuelta routing looks remarkably similar to the Tour’s downward curve by omitting the entirety of the western part of the country. It’s an ‘easier’ Vuelta than the mountain-fests of recent years and the main Pyrenean stages come at the end of the second week with 3 stages over Saturday 6th, Sunday 7th and Monday 8th September. The 8th is a public holiday in the local Asturius region so the second rest day will be held on the Tuesday leaving just two further mountainous stages in the final week.

The biggest change though is that the final day is an Individual Time Trial. This is a major change for Grand Tour planning and harks back to the infamous finish in Paris in 1989 when Greg Lemond took over a minute out of of leader Laurent Fignon to win the Tour by just eight seconds, but also (less favourably) to the last Vuelta final day TT 10 years ago when Tyler Hamilton’s Phonak teammate Santiago Perez won two final week mountain stages and then the final Time Trial to get within 30seconds of overall winner Roberto Heras. Perez was later banned for testing positive for EPO in the race. The location for the final day has also been moved and the race will not finish in Madrid for the first time in many years, ending instead in Santiago de Compostela.Vuelta-route-14

This is the first Vuelta run since ASO – the owners of the Tour de France – took over completely earlier year and one senses that they will use the Vuelta in future as a test bed for ideas as well as looking at ways of just re-invigorating the race. Time bonuses for the top three finishes in each stage (except time trials) are again a feature which adds extra spice to the denouement of each day’s riding. Chris Froome lost to Juan Cobo on time bonuses in 2011. He will not want to finish second in this way again and despite his time trialling proficiency will, I think, wish to stamp an authority on the race in order to regain some wavering respect.

Team Sky will be desperate to save a desperately poor season and have a very strong line-up in support of Froome. The Spanish contenders always go well in their home race and Dan Martin will be looking to rebuild the form he was showing earlier in the year. He will just be hoping that, unlike Dublin where he came a cropper in the Giro, it’s dry for this opening day Team Time Trial. Meanwhile Contador is currently playing down his chances, saying he will just be looking for a stage win in the last week if possible but we know that Tinkoff-Saxo can think on the fly and he will exploit any tactical weakness from the other main players.

We’ve already talked about one man’s loss being another man’s gain and the extra unexpected riders taking part in the race.. So who are the loser’s to our gain? Oddly enough Nairo Quintana heads this list by dint of being a red hot favourite who had suddenly had a host of fired-up, high-quality rivals suddenly parachuted down on top of him. One gets the feeling that this will not unduly bother the Colombian too much but until Froome and Contador started getting acquainted with the tarmac of Northern France he must have felt exceptionally confident about doing the Giro-Tour double. Whether he can achieve a double spike in form is yet to be seen (Nibali came up short on a similar race programme last year) but it’s certain that he will have to find that great form to win now whereas the feeling might have been that he could beat the opposition as less than full strength before. In his favour are two things – he has no need to prove anything else this season and he can shadow the leaders ‘in service of Valverde’ if he wishes to for the first couple of weeks.

Cycle style watcher alert! Dave Millar has been confirmed by the Garmin-Sharp team and will be riding his last Grand Tour. This will be only a small consolation to the Scot, who really wanted to take his curtain call on his beloved Champs Elysees. Fizik – his shoe sponsors  – have had enough time since his TdF ommission to knock up something new for the Vuelta for his ongoing charity auction that has been running all year. These ones will benefit the World Wildlife Fund (a close affiliate of Garmin-Sharp ever since Dan Martin was chased by a panda costume wearing fan back in Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 2013) rather than his usual Small Steps Project, which aims to rescue children who have to survive by trawling rubbish dumps but Fizik suggest that David will be wearing a range of shoes throughout the Vuelta. Keep your eyes peeled.

1408618938front_dritto

Another notable shoe-wearer will also be lining up but his involvement was as about as sure a bet as one could hope for in sport. Adam Hansen of Lotto-Bellisol will be hoping to complete his own 3,181.5km pilgrimage to the sacred city of Santiago del Compostela to complete his 10th consecutive Grand Tour. Chapeau as always to the Aussie.

Chris Horner also deserves a mention. He is the reigning champion and was to wear the number 1 dossard but his last minute omission from the squad due to an illness causing his cortisol levels to fall below those required by a the Movement for Credible Cycling (MPCC), of which his Lampre-Merida team are a member, as yet another blow for the ill-fated veteran who missed the Giro due a training accident with a car.

Despite showing live coverage for the past couple of years ITV4 are only showing an evening highlights package this year, which, given the turn of events with the startlist, is a real shame. Perhaps it’s time to invest in the Eurosport Player app if you haven’t done so already to get the full experience. If you are not able to watch live, Blazin’ Saddles will be doing live daily updates on the Eurosport website and blogging about the race throughout. Always worth a few minutes of your day.

Prediction: Froome, Quintana, Uran.

One to watch: Fabio Aru shot into the limelight with his stage win and podium finish at the Giro. He comes to the Vuelta as Astana team leader and will want to grasp the chance with both hands.

Don’t miss: The final day time trial. History has shown us that anything could happen.

Giro d’Italia – Final Roundup

Read The Jersey Pocket’s first three Giro Rest Day Roundups herehere and here.
As expected, actually being in Italy during the final week of the Giro affected my ability to follow the race as closely as I could at home. That said, watching some of the stages as they were broadcast live and highlights of others in Italian did give the experience an extra dimension as I fought to extract roughly one word in every fifty from the commentary. The passion for cycling was much in evidence, even it is on the wane from earlier years. In Sicily, where I was for the week, we saw loads of club cyclists out on the roads at the weekends – far more than even in the cycling mecca of Kent. Older guys in the main, their strict adherence to the old-school Euro-gaud look was exemplary and on our back to the airport yesterday morning we even sighted a small, slightly-built fellow with a goatee beard, pirate earrings and a bandana…
Stage 16. Quintana takes pink as controversy swirls around the Stelvio.
The Queen stage of this year’s Giro d’Italia, which included ascents of the Passo Gavia and Passo del Stelvio, were the literal and metaphorical high points of the whole grand tour but poor weather again led to chaotic scenes as confusion about the descent off the highest point in this years race allowed Nairo Quintana and some others to slip away from Maglia Rosa Rigoberto Uran ahead of the crucial last climb of the day.
With red flags being waved and misunderstood assertions that race radio had declared the descent neutralised due to the cold and wet conditions, Uran’s OPQS team did not expect attacks and continued to argue the point into the next day, threatening to further derail the Giro. In the short-term at least, Quintana donned the pink jersey that he wrestled from his compatriot Uran by a margin of 1’41” after winning the stage to Val Martello with the improved form that he had threatened to show in the last couple of days.
After Sky’s Dario Cataldo claimed the Cimi Coppi prize atop the Stelvio, Quintana broke clear on the descent with team mate Iziguirre, previous Giro winner Ryder Hesjedal and the Europcar pair of Pierre Rolland and Romaine Sicard. The twisting climb of Val Martello soon distanced Iziguirre and Sicard before Rolland too was dropped as Quintana drove the pace in relentless fashion. Hesjedal stuck with him doggedly until the last kilometre and came home only eight seconds back. Rolland was 1’13” further back and then the big gaps started. Uran lost 4’11” on the day, coming in 9th. Kelderman, Pozzovivo and Majka had already crossed with around 3 minute deficits whilst Cadel Evans, the biggest loser on the day, shipped  4’48” to Quintana and from a position of dominance a week earlier now faced a severe test to stay on the podium.
The manner of Quintana’s victory was as emphatic as anything we had seen from him this year but if it was Movistar’s hope to gently bed him in to the role of Grand Tour leader the events of the day conspired against a tranquilo takeover of the Maglia Rosa. The rain storm on the Stelvio that caused the problems may have passed already but the ripples of discontent causes by the neutralisation that never was rumbled on for days, and the tiny Colombian is set firmly at the eye of the storm.
Giro d'Italia 2014 - Tappa 16 Ponte di Legno - Val Martello
Stage 17. Bardiani, again!
Dissent was still swirling around the teams of the GC contenders the following day and Stage 17 to Vittorio Veneto was in much need of a distraction. A huge breakaway of 25 riders provided just such a diversion, building a break of over 13 minutes that all but guaranteed that the day’s winner would come from their ranks.
With Thomas de Gendt freed from OPQS domestique duties for the day and Lotto strongman Tim Wellens also featuring heavily in the latter kilometres of the day, the clever money would have probably backed one of those two for the first place. But Italy in general, and Team Bardiani in particular, had cause to celebrate again when Stephano Pirazzi shot off the front of a five man breakaway breakaway and hared for line from a couple of kilometres out. De Gendt, Wellens and their two other companions were guilty of looking around for others to do the work to catch Pirazzi and, though none were more a few seconds off the leader at the finish, the Italian had just enough time for a proper celebration of his first and Bardiani’s third stage win of the Giro. Wellens pipped Jay McCarthy of Tinkoff Saxobank for second with De Gendt finishing an angry-looking fourth ahead of AG2R’s Matteo Montaguti.
The GC boys – including Quintana dressed in a ridiculous head-to -toe pink outfit – rolled in many, many minutes down on the stage winners but all in the same group so no change in the overall.
bardiani
Stage 18. At last, Arredondo
Colombia have had an incredible Giro. Along with Quintana and Uran fighting it out for overall glory and Duarte illuminating the race in Italy, Trek Factory Racing’s Julian Arredondo had been been looking good for the Mountains Prize for some time but had lacked a stage win. Stage 18 would finally be his day.
I only saw the very last few kilometres of this stage and when I did finally get to see something it was initially Cadel Evans struggling in a thinning Maglia Rosa group. By the time Rolland attacked out of that group with 2.5km remaining there was no sign of Cadel. He had gone, and surely also gone was his credibility as a Grand Tour contender. His younger rivals Majka, Hesjedal and Pozzovivo were still there along with Quintana who was content to drop a few secs behind and few others.
Up ahead Arredondo split off from the day’s early break, first battling with and then distancing Duarte, Pellizotti and Deignan. Having crested all three climbs of the day first and boosted his blue jersey points massively Arredondo also gets the stage win and a lot of prise for his strong ride.
As Duarte beats Deignan for second ace Wellens finally makes a GC group moves and soon overtakes Rolland. At 1200 metres to go, and with the remnants of the breakaway crossing the finish line ahead of them, first Aru and then Uran and Quintana do the same to all place in the top 12.
Overall Rolland moved up to third whilst Evans plummeted to 9th overall. Rolland will still have to work hard for his new podium position with a number of riders – namely Aru and Majka – now snapping at his heels. At the post-race interviews Uran looked haggard and spent; his normally craggy face having taken on an extra unwanted puffiness as well. In contrast, Quintana (albeit with the benefit of a wash and brush up) looked as fresh as the proverbial daisy. Going on this alone it was easy to feel confident of that way the race would good.
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On a side note, it’s good to see that the awkward mid-massage interview is still alive and well on Italian television. During our time in watching the race on Rai 3 we were treated to numerous members of the Androni Gatacoli team being asked for their opinions about all manner of things whilst having their leg muscles rubbed by large men with calloused hands, baby oil and unspecified vibrating devices…
Stage 19. Strong stuff on the Grappa.
The 26.8km time trial up to Monte Grappa had long threatened to be a paradigm of suspense. Placed squarely within the back-loaded climbing days of the final week, the main contenders for victory – and the main chances for disaster – were always going be setting off in the final few positions, guaranteeing a thrilling finish.
Astana’s Fabio Aru once again looked to have put in a stage winning performance after a face-saving ride by Evans, and Pozzivivo had improved their starting positions on the GC slightly. With Rafal Majka and Ryder Hesjedal in particular having days to forget the minor placings were still very much up for grabs, whilst with only 1’41” separating first and second places Uran’s deficit to Quintana was not yet thought to be insurmountable.
When the dust finally settled and the last man was back in, Aru’s time of 1:05’54” was good enough for second place on the stage and to move into 3rd place overall, at the expense of Pierre Rolland whose 4th place on the stage was matched by 4th place on GC. With just Uran and Quintana left on the climb and both going strongly the drama reached a natural climax.
Uran’s excellent effort was just over a minute slower than Aru and slotted him into second place for the couple of minutes that elapsed before Quintana, kitted out shocking pink from head to toe, stormed home to take the stage win by 17 seconds. It was another emphatic show of strength from the Movistar man, who now led Uran by 3’07” with just one last test of climbing to come. Uran, the pink jersey wearer earlier in the race, would have to be looking forwards and backwards as the race ascends the shockingly difficult Zoncolan with the other ‘in-form’ man in the race Aru, breathing down his neck. Both will have to contend with Quintana though, who said he intended to attack on the Zoncolan to cement his likely victory in style.
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Stage 20. Rogers conquers, Bongiorno suffers, Quintana reigns
With the whole race condensed to final monster climb and a breakaway threatening to spoil Quintana’s statement of intent the Movistar team hit the lower slopes with a ferocity that reminded me of darker days when EPO’s blasted Haute Catergory climbs at unseemly paces.   Immediately Quintana and two team mates went clear but with no response coming from their group the impetus faltered and they sat up to wait. It was Quintana who called a halt to the premature attack – perhaps it was shock tactic to scare the others, or a older plan that was made to look a bit silly by the size of the gap to the breakaway who were already battling the upper slopes almost 7 minutes further up the climb.  As with Stage 18 we had two separate races on the road and this time it was the front group who gave most of the action:
The Zoncolan is a crazy climb. It’s crazy steep and crazy popular with fans. But, like the mountain itself, they get a bit crazy sometimes too. Around the steepest sections of the climb, where the roads hits an incredible 22% the break finally splits and Pellizotti, Mick Rogers and Bardiani’s Bongiorno eek out a gap and the crowds swirl around them. It’s so steep that mechanics are carrying spare bikes over their shoulders on motorbikes. With no cars able to make the ascent the crowds are closer than usual and seem to be in a feisty mood. Tinkoff’s Mick Rogers, leading the three away from the Giant Shimano pair of De Gendt and Geschke gives one a huge swipe to clear the narrowest of paths as he and Bongiorno distance Pellizotti.
Away down the mountain the group surrounding Quintana is thinning.. Cadel goes backwards again, his face set so hard in pain and frustration that you can almost hear the inward screams of despair.
Aru is towards the back of the group, looking less than comfortable for once, alongside Rolland but the familiar names are still together. Quintana, sitting just behind his Movistar team mate Igor Anton, who is putting in a massive turn at the front, Uran with his own gregario Walt Poels, Majka and Pozzovivo. Again the crowds get too close for comfort and Poels takes a pair of sunglasses off a spectators face and throws them away in disgust. A fan wrapped in a Colombian flag almost takes out Quintana. Things are getting frantic and, perhaps sensing a moment of distraction Uran sends Walt Poels to the front to inject pace. Suddenly, with just about 5km to go Rolland, Pozzovivo, Majka and Aru are gapped.
With 2.5km to go the crowd issues finally get out of control as a well-meaning spectator pushes Bongiorno, who cannons into the back of Rogers’ bike and loses momentum as he has to put a foot down and loses momentum. It’s awful bad luck for the Italian who never really recovers. Rogers goes on to takes his second stage win but not before having to shout a few choice words at other spectators who again threaten to disrupt his progress with the over exhuberence.
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With Anton now spent and OPQS’s man from the breakaway, Sherry, joining Uran and Poels, Quintana is eventually isolated but never looks vulnerable. There is a thought that Uran could be preparing for an attack on Quintana but when the pace drops a little, allowing Pozzivivo to pace the chasing four closer to him, it was clear that Rigo is more concerned about saving his second place than forging ahead to test Quintana. The pace is upped again by the indomitable Poels (who only runs out of steam inside the last kilometre) to re-gap the chasers before Uran and Quintana ride together up the final ramps. There is no attack from Uran and Quintana is never less than comfortable, even being able to put in a little sprint over the line whilst others are hardly able to stay upright as they finish. Back in the chasing group Fabio Aru does enough to keep his third place with just the ceremonial run to Trieste to come. Barring disaster the 2014 Giro GC is done.
Stage 21. All smiles, even from the impassive Quintana.
Following the traditional processional stage into the final kilometres outside Trieste, and a bunch sprint that saw Luka Mezgec get a stage win ahead of Nizzoli and Farrar, Quintana allowed his normally impassive visage to slip into the broadest of smiles as, accompanied by his family, he collected the final pink jersey and the mighty spiralled gold trophy of the Giro d’Italia. He also tops the Young Rider category, which Aru inherits.
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It’s been a generally hugely entertaining Giro stuffed full of interest, intrigue, incident and ridden mostly by up-and-coming riders showing that the guard will change once again in the decades old cycle of dominance. Colombia in particular, appear to have a new Golden Age ahead of them but both France and Italy will also be hugely encouraged by what they have seen in the last month. The race ebbed and flowed wonderfully, even as it built to the expected crescendo in the final week. Sixteen different stage winners, five different Maglia Rosa wearers, cameo turns from likely and unlikely sources, and the ongoing battle with not only the other riders and the terrain but also the less than ideal elements. Calamity and controversy added to the excitement without detracting or tainting (with the possible exception of the spectator push on Bongiorno) the overall results. It has set the Grand Tour season off to a flying start. Bring on Le Grand Depart!