In this edition: Climbing is hard.
It just keeps getting better and better, this Giro. In two stages this weekend, the race reinvented itself again as Team Liquigas took control of the proceedings and won back-to-back mountain stages. Arroyo clings to the race lead, but is losing ground with every passing day. Indeed, the jersey could change hands as early as Tuesday.
For Tuesday, it’s all uphill in a race against the watch to the line. The Giro goes crazy with the Plan de Corones, which for added zest finishes on gravel roads. I use the term "roads" loosely in this context. 22% gradients? Are you kidding me? A bike race up a ski slope, some things only happen in Italy. Funny, how last year was the Giro Centenario, when this year is turning out to be a battle for the ages. Knocking down tables and overturning chairs, the Giro’s putting on its best imitation of a bar fight. And we're all invited.
The mighty Monte Zoncolan overturned the general classification yet again, as now only David Arroyo and Richie Porte survive from the long breakaway to l’Aquila. Meanwhile, a resurgent Ivan Basso has charged up the standings, and suddenly looks like a rider who could win this Giro d’Italia. On top the Monte Zoncolan, Basso celebrated his first stage victory since 2006 and it was clear that the strongest rider had won on the day. The Liquigas rider now sits third in the general classification three and a half minutes behind David Arroyo. Three hard mountain stages and a time trial remain to decide this Giro.
Maybe they planned it all along at Liquigas. Maybe they meant to let a huge group of riders run out the clock on the road to l’Aquila. Somehow I doubt it. But plainly the Green Team has taken control of this Giro d’Italia and seem unlikely to let go until Verona. On Saturday’s race to Asolo, Liquigas hammered the field on the final climb of the day and forced a selection on the Monte Grappa. The two-captain strategy rarely works in cycling. Usually, it ends in tears. On the road to Asolo, the interests of Basso and Nibali proved compatible, as the two went clear with Cadel Evans and Michele Scarponi for company. Alexandre Vinokourov and Carlos Sastre chased up from behind. They never caught the lead group, though Vinokourov showed some mad skills of his own on the torturous descent from the Grappa.
The Monte Grappa meant the end of young Richie Porte’s days in the race lead. Is there anything not to like about Porte’s ride in this Giro? I can’t think of anything. His team-mate Chris Anker Sorensen, who won on the Terminillo, has slayed himself day after day for Porte. No stilettos at Saxo Bank, at least for now. Despite his best efforts Porte said arrivederci to the Pink Jersey and passed it to Spanish climber David Arroyo of Caisse d’Epargne, where it remains even to this day, though maybe not for long. Porte continues to lead the young rider’s classification, and smiles daily from the podium. I do like a smiley young rider.
Four riders crested the climb together, Basso, Nibali, Scarponi, and Evans. Nibali, he has ambitions. The Sicilian has made no secret of his desire to ride after his own interests. He wants to win a grand tour, and he’s not willing to wait. The cheeky escape on the descent from the Monte Grappa put both his talents and his ambitions on display. With more than 10 kilometers of flat riding to the finish, Nibali had a task to keep the hard-chasing Scarponi and Evans from bringing him back. Of course, Basso got a free ride to the line, thanks to Nibali’s ambition. It was all win-win for Liquigas, though it’s not entirely clear that Nibali much cared about Basso’s interests. Somehow, I doubt it. Nibali enjoyed his day in the sun in Asolo. Live for the moment, that’s what I always say.
The following day reversed the score at Liquigas and overturned the general classification yet again. How many times have I written that sentence this Giro? Many, as the race has plotted a chaotic course over the past two weeks. On Sunday, it was Ivan Basso’s turn for podium kisses. Liquigas again stamped their authority on this Giro, and drove hard over the early climbs of the day. Unlike 2008 when the Giro last visited the Monte Zoncolan, this year’s stage included three climbs before the riders ever reached the fearsome finale. Sylvester Szmyd, currently one of the best climbing support riders in the sport, did the hard work of setting up the final climb. On quite stellar form, Basso rode away from his rivals on the steepest slopes of the Zoncolan. Smiling as he suffered, Basso sat turning the gears over steadily and the time gaps stretched out as the finish line drew closer.
If there were a prize for grinta in this Giro, Cadel Evans would surely win it. The Australian proved the last to fall on the Zoncolan, clinging desperately to Basso’s wheel until he simply couldn’t hang on any longer. It was a slow, desperate death for Evans, determined as he was not to concede a centimeter of road. The two riders fought an intensely intimate hand-to-hand leg-to-leg battle until at last Evans could not match Basso any longer. In the end, Evans said Basso was the strongest, and he had no regrets. Nor should he, for certainly Evans gave everything he had, and maybe more. There were no interviews at the finish line, as none of the riders could spare breath for words.
Behind Evans and Basso, the race spread out down the slopes of the Zoncolan. Scarponi said later that he had to back off and ride his own tempo. He could not hold the wheels of the two leaders. The Italian, now eighth in the general classification, crossed the line third over a minute behind Basso. Damiano Cunego, who has quietly found his climbing legs this Giro, finished fourth. Blown out the back on the early slopes of Zoncolan, Cunego recovered and steadily rode up through the field. The 2004 Giro winner came close to catching Scarponi, but couldn’t make it across. Cunego did overtake Vinokourov, who found the steep pitches uncongenial. Climbing is hard. Sastre, not on stellar form, managed to diesel his way to a good, but not great finish. He praised his former team-mate Basso, saying "he is one of the most professional riders I’ve ever known." Sastre also named Basso and Evans as the favorites for victory in Verona.
Nibali, meanwhile, payed for his success on Saturday. The Sicilian could use some practice with his post-race bluffing. Plainly, Nibali was hoping for a better day on Sunday’s stage, his appetite unsatiated by his victory in Asolo. Nibs finished just over three minutes behind Basso and is seventh in the general classification. A few more good days from Scarponi, and Nibali could drop farther, especially if the team car demands his allegiance to Basso. I doubt Nibali would refuse to ride for his team, but he seems likely to look after his own chances and take them where he may. Basso may wish to be wary.
For Marco Pinotti and John Gadret, it was all smiles on Sunday as both riders enjoyed top ten finishes. Pinotti has quietly ridden an impressive Giro this time around, and might yet slip into the top ten in the general. The next few days won’t much suit him, but for a rider not known for grand tour success, he has shown well in this Giro.
Gilberto Simoni, riding his last Giro d’Italia, has twice won on the Zoncolan. This time, he finished well-behind race winner Basso. And while he might have liked a chance to go on a long break and take out a third victory, he said afterwards that with the general classification in play, there was no space for "romanticism." As he neared the finish, the crowds chanted his name, and Simoni sat up at the line to applaud and give them his thanks. He crossed the line smiling, a happy ending to his long career. In a post-race interview, Simoni said he doesn’t know what will come next. Not much of a planner, he said he lives "from day to day." After his long career, Simoni remains a stage racer through and through. Live for the moment, tomorrow’s another day.
It’s nearly all uphill to Verona. Tuesday, a mountain bike race breaks out in the middle of the Giro. The Plan de Corones finishes in the dirt with pitches over 20%. Jens Voigt, when he rode this stage in 2008, gave it the thumbs down and said it was far too crazy. Too crazy for Jens? Could it be that the German grows soft? Perhaps, though certainly this stage will not be super fun for anyone involved. Except maybe the tifosi watching from the couch. Hey, that’s me! What’s not to like about a crazy bike race? I can’t think of anything, and I’ll be starting the espresso machine all early like. Because I wouldn’t want to miss anything important.
And still after the Plan de Corones, there remain three more heavy mountain stages to race in this Giro. David Arroyo still wears the jersey of race leader, but for how much longer? Will I write once more that the general classification has overturned again? With the Mortirolo, Gavia, and Tonale yet to ride, I think it possible, even likely. Pass the espresso, here we go.