For as entertaining as the first part of the Giro was, it’s hard to deny that the final week of racing was some of the most exciting Grand Tour racing anybody has seen in years. The Tour has become “big business”, with little room for error and the weight of the entire season (or rider’s careers) riding on the result. The Giro has come to represent what bike racing really means to many people; passion, pain, glory, suffering … beauty. The final week of the Giro certainly did not disappoint.
Stage 14- Battaglin battles back for stage win
Bardiani CSF took a second win, just one day after their first stage win, with Enrico Battaglin. Even though he looked to be dropped from a whittled down breakaway in the closing moments, Battaglin fought back to win from behind. The mountainous stage, with four categorized climbs, including the Category 1 summit finish, proved to be an ominous show of hands. Domenico Pozzovivo (AG2R- La Mondiale) attacked the GC contenders near the finale, taking Nairo Quintana (Movistar) with him, and showing that perhaps Rigoberto Uran was going to have his hands full. Uran lost time to all of his GC rivals, but brushed it off as nothing to worry about. Hmm, yeah.
Stage 15- Aru arrives
Fabio Aru (Astana), who has previously ridden in support of team leaders Nibali and Scarponi at Astana, found himself leading the team at a very young age at this Giro. With Scarponi out of the picture, the young Italian was freed to open his wings and he took the chance to fly. If his name is unfamiliar, you’re not alone, but it’s a name you’ll be seeing a lot in the future. Stage 15 always had the potential to be crucial to the final GC of this Giro, with a brutal finishing climb of more than 20km, as part of a 225km stage. Aru launched his winning move with about 3km to the finish, dragging Uran with him, until Uran cracked and was dropped by both Quintana and Pierre Rolland (Europcar). Evans suffered and his GC began to slip away, as did Pozzovivo, who finished 12th and dropped from 4th to 6th. Aru is now poised to be the new flag bearer of Italian GC dreams, today and in the future. With the final rest day ahead, tired legs gasped for breath and a little relaxation, knowing that Stage 16 was going to bring agony.
Stage 16- Quintana takes controversial lead
Nairo Quintana conquered the brutality of Stage 16 and took the maglia rosa as his prize. Oh, and he apparently ruffled feathers on the way to winning the stage. Controversy swirled at the finish, much like the snow and rain swirled earlier in the stage. The weather conditions were lousy at best as the riders crested the fabled Gavia and Stelvio climbs. Allegedly the descent off the Stelvio was to be neutralized, but then it wasn’t. Or was it? The arguments about the neutralization of the descent are likely to continue for decades. The end result was that Quintana, along with Ryder Hesjedal and Pierre Rolland, got away from the GC chasers on the Stelvio descent. The gap was less than Quintana’s ultimate margin of victory, and his largest gains in time came on the final climb to the finish line. Still, the confusion of the situation left many people unhappy at the end of the stage, except for Quintana. The final climb up the Val Martello ultimately proved to be more decisive than either the Gavia or Stelvio, and perhaps ironically, was bright and sunny for Quintana’s ascent into the maglia rosa. By the end of the stage, Quintana was in pink, Uran was in second, and Evans was dangling by a thread in third with six riders less than a minute behind him. Hesjedal managed to move into ninth after a fine day that saw him finish second on the stage.
Stage 17- Bardiani strikes again with Pirazzi
With another massive climbing stage ahead, the stage was set for another breakaway, as GC riders and their teams were willing to get a bit of rest before the coming crucial climbs. Stefano Pirazzi (Bardiani CSF) played his hand perfectly, jumping from a large breakaway in the closing kilometers to take the win. Knowing that his sprint was the weakest of the survivors, he decided to eliminate the threat of the sprint early. Securing the third stage win of the Giro for wild card Bardiani, and virtually guaranteeing that the team will be invited back next year. The GC contenders used the day to recover on the mostly downhill rolling stage, really only exercising their mouths as they continued to squabble about the previous stage’s drama. Quintana stayed quietly composed and settled into his role as race leader, knowing that the next stage could be much more important.
Stage 18- Arredondo finally scores a win
Julian Arredondo, the leader of the Mountains classification and an ever-present attacker in the mountains, finally scored a win after countless attempts. The win was well-earned, even if possibly a bit of a “gift” from the main GC riders who appeared shockingly content to allow him his day. Perhaps saving their legs for the nasty uphill TT the following day, the GC riders looked more interested in watching their rivals than actually riding aggressively. Fabio Aru did launch a small attack at the end of the stage to gain a few seconds back, but the stage otherwise belonged entirely to Arredondo and his aggressive pursuit of victory and the Mountains classification. The biggest casualty of the stage was Cadel Evans, who dropped to ninth under the unending pressure of Europcar, working to move Rolland up. Quintana again remained in pink, and looked poised for the upcoming uphill TT.
Stage 19- Quintana crushes as Aru confirms potential
Nairo Quintana proved that his time in pink had been well-earned, despite the grumblings about the Stelvio. After smashing the other GC riders in the uphill TT, there remained no question about who the best rider of the Giro truly was. Fabio Aru, who finished second on the stage and moved into third overall, showed that his potential is truly great. Uran managed to remain in second on GC after battling bravely to finish third on the stage. Evans rode a bit better, moving back up a few spots, as Hesjedal had a dropped chain and bad ride forcing him back down the standings. Domenico Pozzovivo, who appeared destined for the podium, rode to an “ok” fifth place and moved into fifth overall as well. With the upcoming stage the last chance for any movement in the GC, time was truly running out for anybody to budge the diminutive Quintana out of the maglia rosa, and with massive climbs on tap, the chances of dislodging one of the best climbers in the race looked nonexistent.
Stage 20- Rogers wins again as Bongiorno suffers at the hands of hapless fan
Michael Rogers (Tinkoff-Saxo) grabbed an emotional and impressive win atop the mighty Zoncolan. One of the most fabled climbs in cycling, the Zoncolan is an unforgiving beast, and it proved to be so again. Though Rogers was delivered to salvation with his win, Francesco Bongiorno (Bardiani CSF) was delivered to purgatory by the actions of an overexcited fan who gave him a push that was intended to help him, but nearly toppled him from his bike. It’s possible that the outcome of the stage might not have changed for Bongiorno, but thanks to the overzealous (and perhaps idiotic) fan, he’ll never know if he stood a chance of victory. Fans being able to be so close to the action is part of what makes cycling unique, as well as dangerous for the riders. Bongiorno and Rogers had been in a pedal stroke for pedal stroke battle atop the Zoncolan, setting up a thrilling finish. Sadly, the script was rewritten, though Rogers had no idea until after the stage. The Rogers/Bongiorno battle proved to be the story of the stage once more, as the main GC riders kept very close tabs on each other. Movistar protected Quintana vigilantly during the monstrous stage. The previous two climbs before the finish on the Zoncolan had been dominated by the large breakaway, until the final climb whittled it down considerably. By the Zoncolan, the large break had been shattered, setting up the duel between Rogers and Bongiorno. Behind them, the GC riders largely stared at each other in an old fashioned standoff. Movistar essentially delivered Quintana to Giro history, with just one final parade lap left into Trieste.
Stage 21- Mezgec surprises as Quintana makes history for Colombia
Giant-Shimano showed that they have the deepest stable of top-notch sprint talent in the sport, delivering Luka Mezgec to the victory in Trieste. Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek) finished in second, with Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp) managing third and saving a little pride (and thankfully, some of his skin for a change). The final stage, just like with the Tour, is largely ceremonial, so the final GC outcome was never in doubt without a major catastrophe. Movistar kept Quintana out of trouble, insuring that he would become the first Colombian rider to win the Giro. In the final laps, attacks were fast and furious, but the stage was always going to be decided by a sprint. Giant-Shimano had obvious faith in Mezgec and he did not fail to deliver. But the day, and the entire Giro belonged to Nairo Quintana and Movistar. Movistar’s lineage began with the Banesto squad of Miguel Indurain, so many years before, and Quintana became the new torchbearer of the team and their GC aspirations. After his second place at last year’s Tour, it is clear that Quintana is one of the strongest Grand Tour riders of the moment. Riders like Froome and Nibali are likely very thankful he’s skipping the Tour this year. It’s conceivable that we’ll be seeing a lot more of Quintana on GC podiums for many years to come, given the fact he’s only 24 years old.
Observations of note;
Fabio Aru is clearly the next generation of Italian GC contenders. Diego Ulissi took two fantastic stage wins. Bardiani CSF won three stages with three different riders. Italian cycling had a great Giro, even if they didn’t manage to win the final GC. The crop of young talent is deep.
Giant-Shimano is the new Haus of Sprinters; Kittel, Mezgec, Degenkolb (who raced Tour of California instead of the Giro). The talent is amazing and the sprint leadouts are so well oiled, it should prove to be fun in July when Kittel and Cavendish face off at the Tour. Kittel left the Giro after the transfer from Ireland to Italy, but not until taking two very convincing stage wins.
In the absence of Kittel, Bouhanni was the sprinter of reference, winning three stages. The FDJ.fr sprinter is without a contract at the end of this season, and it is unknown if the team can afford to keep him, now that his price is skyrocketing. He’s yet to prove that he can consistently beat guys like Kittel or Cavendish, but he’s very much the best sprinter in the second tier. Can he make the next step up?
It’s a small world after all; Svein Tuft (Canada- one stage), Michael Matthews (Australia- 6 stages), Cadel Evans (Australia- 4 stages), Rigoberto Uran (Colombia- 4 stages), and Nairo Quintana (Colombia- 6 stages) were the only wearers of the maglia rosa this year, shutting all of the European riders out of the picture. Three English speakers and two Colombians – the first time in the history of a Grand Tour. Cycling may have its history in Europe, but the heart and legs come from across the globe.
The Giro, like the Vuelta several years ago, has recreated itself into a truly meaningful Grand Tour. It’s no longer the final prep before the Tour, and few riders have been able to ride both races well in the same season. With outstanding climbing and fierce competition, the Giro is now a highlight on the calendar every year, and based on sheer excitement is often more entertaining than that other race in France during the month of July.
Now that the Giro is over and the Tour is approaching quickly, it’s time to relax and prepare for the Grand Boucle. For now though, I’m gonna have a little more pasta and nurse my Giro hangover.