In this Edition: It’s far easier to lose a bike race than it is to win one.
It’s a whole new bike race after Wednesday’s long, wet race stage of the Giro d’Italia. The bigs became the ex-bigs, as 56 riders split away from the field and rode off into the distance. Yes, that’s right 56 riders. And quite a distance it was, as the front group drove the gap to 18 minutes. A combination of tired legs, hard terrain, and tactical errors ended the hopes of riders like Ivan Basso, Cadel Evans, and Alexandre Vinokourov. They now sit 11 minutes or more behind the new race leader Richie Porte of Saxo Bank, who is racing his first grand tour. A chess game in a hurricane, this Giro turned to chaos, its hierarchy upended, its king toppled.
How did the bigs lose the Giro? Join me now for all the hijinx and polemica from Wednesday’s adventures. Did I mention there was polemica? Yes, my friends, there was polemica.
Roberto Amadio, team manager of Liquigas, woke up smiling on Wednesday. He had a plan. Everyone knew that this long stage to l’Aquila over jumbled terrain meant a day for a breakaway. At the start of the day when Amadio was still smiling, Liquigas had Vincenzo Nibali sitting third in the general classification and Ivan Basso sitting fifth. They also had a stronger team than either of the two riders ahead of Nibali, race leader Alexandre Vinokourov and second placed Cadel Evans. Attrition has steadily whittled away at Astana and BMC, leaving Vinokourov and Evans vulnerable and offering opportunity for their rivals. Amadio planned to turn the screws on Astana and told four riders to go in the early break. This plan placed the onus to chase on Astana and BMC. Amadio plotted the destruction of Vinokourov’s hopes. We wanted to make the team of the Pink Jersey work, Amadio said later when it was all over.
In bike racing, plans that look good on paper don’t always look so good on the road. Liquigas badly misplayed their hand, as a ginormous break went up the road, and Astana lacked the legs or the will to chase it down. At its peak, the break numbered 56 riders, and included riders who could well defend their new general classification placings. You kids let Carlos Sastre go up the road? For reals? Liquigas, meanwhile, had four riders in the leading group, and figured the other general classification teams would keep the race under control.
Guess again. Astana and BMC could do nothing against the teeming mob up the road. Both teams lost two riders each during the stage, and Evans now has only four team-mates left in the race. Brent Bookwalter joined the break, a routine move in the normal way of the things. This race proved anything but normal. Eventually, Bookwalter came back from the break, but it was too little, too late. Liquigas, too, pulled two riders back from the lead group. But they could not repair the damage to the general classification hopes of Vincenzo Nibali and Ivan Basso. By the end of the day, both Nibali and Basso dropped to over 11 minutes behind the new race leader, Richie Porte of Saxo Bank. Robert Kiserlovski and Valerio Agnoli, who wore the White Jersey earlier this Giro, inherited the general classification hopes of Liquigas. At the race’s end, Amadio was no longer smiling.
Un giornataccia, a very bad day, said Basso after the stage. In just one day, the bigs of this Giro d’Italia became the ex-bigs. Vinokourov, Evans, Basso, Nibali, Cunego, Garzelli, and Scarponi. Said Pozzato, perhaps rightly, they can’t win now. Nibali, perhaps less experienced than Basso with facing down a hostile scrum of journos, fell back on the excuse that he hadn’t prepared for this Giro, didn’t care about the general classification, and anyway, I’m not supposed to be here. It sure looked like Nibali cared a great deal about the general classification on the road to Montalcino, where he took all kinds of risks to ride himself back into the race. But what could he say, really?
Rumor swirled that race radio delayed relaying the names of the riders in the break to the team cars, which in turn delayed the chase. Cunego: We didn’t know that Sastre was in the break. Seriously? Nearly a third of the bike race goes up the road, and you really need to know the names before you start chasing? Garzelli admitted he’d never seen a race like this one. But he also recognized the danger and put his team on the front immediately. A small team down two riders, Acqua&Sapone could not make much headway alone. Shrugging, Garzelli said the break was impossible to bring back. It was too strong, it had far too many riders. Androni, the team of Michele Scarponi, also went to work without much success. Astana lost the Giro, said the Androni sports director in a post-race comment.
It was all finger-pointing after this upending of the Giro. It was Astana’s fault, they should have ridden, they had the Pink Jersey. No, Liquigas blew it, they are the strongest team with two general classification hopes. One observer called Astana and BMC amateurish in their tactical choices. Probably not fair, but nothing’s fair when the polemica starts flying. Pozzato put it succinctly: Liquigas had the strongest team. If they wanted to win, they should have ridden. No smiles left, Amadio conceded that things hadn’t gone according to plan, but maintained that it was Astana who should have ridden.
It’s hard to figure out how 56 riders go up the road in a grand tour without anyone bothering to stop them. In the normal way of things, the team of the race leader together with the teams of the bigs patrol the front of the race. They decide who goes up the road, and by decide, I don’t mean they draw straws or stop for a chat along the road. The teams who want to win the general classification will generally chase back any move that looks dangerous and will work to make sure that the group that goes away is small enough to contain. This is smart riding, but it requires coordination and a strong team.
On Wednesday, Astana had neither of these essential ingredients. The break went early, as heavy rain began to fall. Confusion abounded as riders went looking for rain capes. Riders from both Astana and BMC were behind the main field when the break was going away. The terrain was hilly and difficult, the wind gusting, the rain falling: These are all conditions that favor the adventurous. With visibility low, the television screens and race radios in the team cars offered little help. Everyone had to fly on instinct, and for many of the big riders, those instincts failed.
Astana collapsed. It seemed that Vinokourov was not on a good day, the form he’d shown on past stages melting away. At the finish, he could only mumble a few unintelligible words. I think he said it was hard, but I can’t be sure. BMC managed better, with Bookwalter going with the break. Like Liquigas, Evans assumed that surely Astana would chase and the World Champion, who has jousted with Vinokourov over the past few stages, may also have overestimated Astana’s ability to get it done.
If it was all chaos in the main field, what was happening up the road? With all the handwringing and tomato tossing, the decisions in the break escaped attention and credit. Yes, four teams had riders in the break and worked together to make the race unfold the way it did. For not only the mistakes of the chasers, but also the initiative of the attackers overturned this Giro. It’s hard to imagine that the presence in the escape of Richie Porte with team-mates Laurent Didier and Chris Anker Sorensen resulted from pure chance. Saxo Bank, leaving tactics to chance? It hardly seems likely. Also, on the subject of Saxo Bank, does Chris Anker Sorensen have the best suffering face in the history of the world? Yes, yes he does. At the finish, Porte said Sorensen had buried himself to drive the break, and credited his team with delivering him into the race lead. Amadio may not have been the only guy with a plan.
Carlos Sastre, the last rider to join the break, also credited his team. Volodimir Gustov rode himself into the ground, so much so that he finished with the grupetto more than 30 minutes after the lead group. At the finish, Gustov had the thousand kilometer stare of a rider who has been to hell and back. A post-race comment proved more than he could muster. That’s team riding of the highest order. Cervélo had also Marcel Wyss and Xavier Tondo, now fourth in the general, in the lead group. Team manager Alex Sans Vega said after the stage that they had expected a hard day out for this stage, because of its length. The Cervélos had also noticed the fatigue accumulated in the legs of many of the teams, and was on the look-out for an opportunity. Now, anything is possible, said Sastre. Cervélo still has nine riders in the race.
Four teams collaborated to make this stage the potential hinge of this year’s Giro d’Italia. Saxo Bank, Team Sky, Cervélo TestTeam, and Caisse d’Epargne each had slipped their general classification leader into the escape. Richie Porte, Bradley Wiggins, Carlos Sastre, and David Arroyo will all race from the front as the Giro heads into the high mountains. Porte is untried in the three week races. Who knows what the young rider from Tasmania can do. David Arroyo has finished 9th and 10th in previous editions of the Italian grand tour and is handy rider for the high mountains. Arroyo now sits 1:42 behind Porte. Bradley Wiggins sits tenth at 8:14, which puts him a purgatorio of sorts. A bit of a wildcard, this Wiggins, who would likely prefer a few more kilometers against the watch than this race has to offer.
Carlos Sastre, meanwhile, has his work cut out for him. He’s now 7:09 behind the race leader. But Sastre is nearly 3:00 ahead of Vinokourov, and four minutes (roughly) ahead of Evans, Nibali, and Basso. Everything may not be possible, but certainly Sastre has ridden back into a bike race that looked ready to leave him for dead. Xavier Tondo may have the better chance for Cervélo at 3:54 down, but the 31 year old has no previous grand tour results. Cervélo, with two riders in the top ten, sits in a commanding position, though certainly, Liquigas has shown us how quickly that can end.
Be careful what you wish for. Liquigas now has Robert Kiserlovski (whose name I must certainly learn to spell) third at 1:56 and Valerio Agnoli in fifth at 4:41. Neither is necessarily a known quantity, and no doubt Liquigas is wishing that Basso and Nibali could take their place. Others in your new top ten: Alexander Efimkin in sixth at 5:16, Linus Gerdemann in seventh at 5:34, and Laurent Didier in eighth at 7:24. Gerdemann, not known for his ability to recover in a grand tour’s third week, will have some work to hang on.
Surely, the biggest smile of the day belonged to Evgeni Petrov of Katusha. Petrov won the stage solo after riding over the top of Linus Gerdemann on the final climb. Gerdemann had caught local boy Dario Cataldo, but he couldn’t match the acceleration of Petrov. The Russian hasn’t celebrated victory since 2002. Ebullient after his rare victory, Petrov sent a few words greeting to his friends and family in Russian. Quite the international affair, this Giro.
Thursday, it’s a day for the sprinters and for the ex-bigs to recover their spirits after the brutality of the race to l’Aquila. The race has begun anew, with still the hard mountains to come. It’s anyone’s guess who will wear the final pink jersey of this year’s Giro d’Italia. Which is as it should be. For there’s nothing more boring than a predictable bike race. What will happen next? It’s Christmas every day. I’m smiling.