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Maglia Rossa: Sprinters Need Not Apply... Again

There was an odd moment today in the Giro d'Italia as the peloton approached traguardo volante, the intermediate sprint point, in Ceprano, 24km from the finish in Frosinone. World Champion Mark Cavendish bolted out of the peloton and took six points, with little resistance from Thomas De Gendt, the nearest competition. The move gave Cav second in the sprint and brought him to within four of current points leader Matt Goss. This made for a pretty interesting battle for the lead in that secondarily important competition... but the battle didn't materialize when Pippo Pozzato couldn't hold his line and Goss went over his bars, taking Cavendish down in the process.


And with that, the hope of a sprint battle all the way to Milan was officially extinguished. Cav and his six points... who cares?

I am not willing to go so far as to say that Cavendish and the other high-priced sprinters should go home, but I wouldn't blame them one bit if they did. What's left to contest? A couple more stages, if you can survive the climbs, and the shaky, season-threatening run-ins to the line. The Giro has tried to kinda-maybe bring the sprinters back into the points comp, but this effort is doomed, and let me just take a moment to say that it didn't have to be. While the Giro is plenty good at a lot of things, creating a good sprint comp has ceased to be one of them.

For a lot of fans, the bunch sprints don't mean much in the way of viewing excitement. But they do carry significance in the FSA DS. And they do tend to bring in big names, besides the current world champion. And, well, some of us actually like a good group gallop. Let's delve deeper into this dusty old element of the Giro... alla flippa!

We already knew that the points competition has only occasionally shaken out as a sprinters' deal in recent years. Daniele Bennati won in 2008, but since then the points jersey has gone to two overall winners and Cadel Evans, then a semi-challenger for pink. Before Bennati, Paolo Bettini was making it something of an interesting category, the comp for semi-climbers who can sprint. At least it wasn't entirely redundant. But since 2008 the Giro has gone hog-wild on climbing, and the conversation hasn't even gotten started. Even in '08 Bennati out-distanced his closest two competitors by more than 50 points -- and they were Emanuele Sella and Ricardo Ricco. Defo two guys you aren't trying to build a competition for anything around.

This year's Giro was different, with some five-to-seven stages offering the possibility of a bunch finish. With clean endings, you could picture a trio or quartet of elite sprinters trading blows each day, amassing big chunks of points, and fending off the climbers for control of the maglia rossa. Let's see how that's gone:

Stage 2: Cav wins over Goss; crash takes out Bos and Kristoff

Stage 3: Goss wins; Ferrari takes out Cav, et al.

Stage 5: ice cream truck Cav beats Goss; Farrar dropped on climb

Stage 9: Ventoso pips Felline and Nizzolo; Cav and Goss go down.

And so it goes. Crashes have become an accepted part of the sport, since the days of Paris-Brest-Paris. But today was an example of a run-in where basically the entire Podium Cafe knew there would be a crash. Now, I'm no expert on Frosinone, but a quick peek at Mapquest tells me that there are, in fact, a few relatively straight roads in the town, where had they held the finish there, they would have avoided the obvious mayhem of a 100-plus degree left-hander. It didn't have to be like this. We say that a lot in May, it seems.

Apart from being bad for people's health (and really, if Cav's parents were really looking out for his welfare, shouldn't they have signed him up for something more gentle, like rugby?), crashes devastate the sprint competition. Now, of the possible 100 points a sprinter like Cav could have garnered by winning all four sprints (and that's not including intermediate points), Goss leads with 65. Instead of he and Cav in a real race at something like 90 points each, with people like Joaquim Rodriguez and Domenico Pozzovivo in the 30s and not really thinking about points, the two are looking at something like 100 points maximum for the Giro if they were to gut it out over the Stelvio. Last year Michele Scarponi had 122 and was eventually declared the maglia rossa when Contador (who had 202 points) was disqualified. Scarponi's total was the lowest winning total since the competition was created in 1966. In other words, guys with 100 points have no chance.

Maybe the Giro doesn't need sprinters around. The geography makes it tough, not because you can't find flat surfaces, but because the tilted ones are so numerous and awesome. It's too tempting not to add in a Montevergine at the end when it's just sitting there. Still, the race is not completely immune to real sprint comps, like in 2002 and 2004, when Alessandro Petacchi and Mario Cipollini were in form. Petacchi's performance in 2004, when he won an unthinkable nine (!!!) stages against the likes of Olaf Pollack, Robbie McEwen, and Freddie Rodriguez, was the ultimate sprinters' Giro. The latter two also nabbed stages, and Damiano Cunego's overall victory was itself a testament to the lack of climbs -- a mistake organizers seemed determined not to repeat. Anyway, that edition of the Giro also enjoyed a significant run through the south, where sprint stages are hardly mandatory but more likely to occur. Translation: if Acquarone is interested in enlivening the maglia rossa (and it's hard to believe he hasn't thought this through), and if he intends to include the mezzogiorno next year, then the sprinters' revival may actually happen.

And when it does, I'll believe it.