I'll be linking to a lot of source material, so if you want more videos, blogs and links, click through when you see each of the stages highlighted, and you can get to the daily race reports that are packed with all kinds of fun
Emma Pooley in the mountains
I asked on twitter what other people's highlights were, and the answer was pretty unanimously "Emma Pooley". It's not just the Pooley fans (although there are a lot of them), and it's not just her glorious wins, it's also how she came back from GC disaster and kept fighting. And she gave us exactly what cycling fans love - three different styles of win, two of them coming right down to the line. After her horrible nosebleed and asthma attack on Stage 1, she'd lost so much time the GC was over for her and Lotto-Belisol - but when she attacked on the first, early climb of Stage 6 we knew that stage wins were in her sights. Could she do it? Such a tense stage, being caught by a chase group after 20km and dropping them on the big climb, then descending and time trialling home, with a serious chase group of 3 Rabo-Livs - Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, Anna van der Breggen and two-time Giro winner Marianne Vos - with another 2-time winner, UnitedHealthcare's Mara Abbott, Claudia Lichtenberg (Liv-Shimano), who won in 2009, and young Italian star Elisa Longo Borghini (Hitec Products) both working hard, so that the gap dropped to just 9 seconds.... but Pooley kept it together, winning by 15 seconds, tears in her eyes, and cycling fans everywhere on the edge of their seats!
So Pooley could still win in the breakaways, but when it came to the Stage 8 Queen Stage we'd see how she'd do in the mountains - and it ended up with Pooley and Abbott dropping all their opponents, catching Van der Breggen, who'd been out solo for around half the climb, and dropping her in the final kilometre - and then it was back to 2010, when Abbott and Pooley duelled all through way through the mountains, Abbott winning the Giro and Pooley winning the Pyrennean Grand Tour, the Tour de l'Aude.... and this time it was Pooley who proved herself the dominant climber, putting in a final effort and winning with panache.
Her third win, on the final Stage 9 was different again, after her team had to pull her back through the tunnels and roads along Lake Como, and she chased the attacks at the bottom of the Madonna del Ghisallo climb - and then, halfway up, when the group had been whittled to just 5, she attacked and kicked off solo, using time trail skills on the descent/flat portion of the climb, then blasting up the final hairpins, with the bells of the chapel ringing out over her... Yeah, that was some serious climbing!
Emma told us all about her Giro (you can listen to it on my blog, or read the transcript on the Café), and I could rhapsodise about the Pooley stages for days, but she wasn't the only one winning multiple stages...
Marianne Vos winning in different ways
Vos had won the Giro twice, and at the start this time was cheerfully talking about how she was just one of three Rabo-Liv GC threats - and what makes her so incredibly formidable is that not only does she mean it 100%, had she lost her GC chance at any time, she would have been the most dedicated domestique out there. As it was, she put down her marker early, taking the maglia rosa from her team mate Annemiek van Vleuten by attacking with Ferrand-Prévot and Longo Borghini on Stage 1 - and then winning Stage 4 in a dramatic save, when her team-mate Lucinda Brand thought she'd won after diving through the technical corners, but was pipped to the line by Shelley Olds as Brand started to celebrate - but as soon as Olds accelerated, Vos dived forward to save the victory for the team - something I just want to watch back over and over
Stage 5 was won by Vos in another sprint, and Stage 7 in an uphill tough drag race into a head-wind, but three things stand out for me - how every win pulled out her lead, so that she gained nearly a minute just from podium bonifications, how when she was dropped on the climb on Stage 8, she fought and fought to limit her time lost - and how Rabo rode like such an amazing team. It was glorious seeing Annemiek van Vleuten finally back to her best and winning Stage 3 after years of problems caused by scar tissue in her femoral artery - and it was great seeing the Rabo team tactics, with AvV, Brand, Iris Slappendel and Roxane Knetemann working in all the early stages, and Kasia Nieuwiadoma especially kicking it in the mountains - it was her attack on the final stage that turned the early, steepest part of the Madonna del Ghisallo climb from a chance for the climbers to get away into a desperate chase for most of the GC contenders. Afterwards, Vos said her third Giro win was a win by the whole team, and she was right.
Teams that never gave up
In the face of such huge Rabo-Liv domination, it would be understandable if the other teams just gave up and sat on their wheels, and hoped something could happen. Of course, that would be crazy, then we'd have 6 Rabos in the top 10 - but it's also completely out of character for the women's peloton! What really made me happy was that although Rabo made it look easy, their winning was anything but, and the other teams made them fight for every moment.
This is by no means all the riders or times that illustrate this spirit, but moments that stood out for me included Vale Scandolara's fighting to keep the Mountains jersey as long as she could, Liv-Shimano pushing it extraordinarily hard on the final stage setting it up for Claudia Lichtenberg to make a last-ditch attempt to climb the GC, and her and Evie Stevens attacking in the mountains; Megan Guarnier, after losing time due to a crash and asthma, making a bid for glory on Stage 8 - and Lichtenberg, Guarnier, Stevens and Elisa Longo Borghini fighting back up the climb after being dropped on Stage 9 and catching Vos, Van der Breggen, Ferrand-Prévot and Mara Abbott on the downhill section of the Madonna del Ghisallo climb, and continuing to fight right to the finish.
And speaking of Longo Borghini, she and her team Hitec Products were the other stand-out team for me behind Rabo and Lotto, attacking, well, everywhere! If I had to choose 1 team that animated the race it would be Hitec, they made the race hard for riders and fun for us wherever they could, and while they didn't win a stage, as a fan I'd far, far rather see them get all "death or gladioli" than sit on and hope. When I think of this Giro, I'll think of Audrey Cordon and Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio and of course Elisa Longo Borghini trying things over and over and over, and I'll be smiling my head off! Stage 1 was a perfect example, but look at pretty much any of the stages and you'll see what I mean.
The (relative) luxury of the race media
Normally I'd pull the video from Stage 1 in here and embed it, but this year I can't - but that only underlines the luxury of the Giro for me. Having the hour of tv everyday on RAI Sport 2 is just heaven, and I loved the format of the programmes - starting with Serena Danesai in pre-recorded previews of the stages, riding key sections with different pros, often riders local to the area, and then including Marina Romoli as a commentator on a number of the stages. If you're not familiar with Romoli, she was a very talented young rider, silver medallist in the 2006 Junior Road World Championships who has been in a wheelchair ever since a car pulled out in front of her (illegally I believe) while she was training, damaging her spine. She's an important figure for the Giro, and of course as an Italian rider she really knows her racing, so it's always great to hear her commentary. (You can find more about Romoli at the Foundation set up in her name). The RAI coverage tried to show the full final half hour of each stage - so the whole climbs, and then some great interviews afterwards - and that's so exciting, getting to watch, for example, not just the final sprint, but the attacking and setting up to get there. It's total luxury, and I love it!
This year the race didn't get to include the actual footage in their own videos, but they made up for it, filming the finish-line and focusing on pre-race and post-race rider interviews - lots in Italian, naturally, but also in English, with Serena Danesai, again, asking some great questions, so that the race videos complemented the RAI coverage. I've pulled all the video I found on Youtube into a playlist, so if you missed anything, or want to relive it all over again, click through.
Then, the social media. The Giro Rosa twitter was very excitable, which of course I love, and they pushed the use of the GiroRosa14 hashtag, retweeting some excellent content. I absolutely loved being able to see not only the race "backstage" atmosphere, but also fans on the roadside - especially (but not exclusively!) Sean Velofocus (whose photos are also on his website), PureDolomites, Steven Jayanathan, Nathalie Novembrini, and Wei Yuet Wong (whose photos were on the Bicycling instagram, on Ride Magazine's site and on his tumblr). I wished I was there, of course, but it felt like we could all be part of a community following the race together.
Oh, and of course, I will ALWAYS love a race with a themetune.....
Riders' and team media
Alongside the race media and mainstream tv, I really appreciated all that the teams and riders did for us. This is one of the beauties of women's cycling - that since the mainstream cycling media pays so little attention, they've come up with innovative and fun ways of telling their own stories and shaping the narrative - and they really pull out the stops on races like the Giro (despite the lack of wifi in a lot of hotels, and super-long transfers). Wiggle Honda and Rabo-Liv gave us daily videos with real insights into life on the race, and while there's a lot to love (Wiggle's final stage video, with riders and staff getting a bit loopy, Rabo's profile of domestique Iris Slappendel) I think my very favourite thing was this - Rabo giving us the view from Marianne Vos' prosecco bottle on the Stage 8 podium
I also loved how the two teams weren't only about their own riders, but generously shared other riders' stories, which is awesome, showing a lovely spirit AND really promoting the race. This Wiggle video, delving into the secret of Emma Pooley's Stage 6 win, for example, was really sweet, and this Rabo video of all the stage winners thanking Astoria prosecco for the podium sponsorship made me smile and smile. Huge thanks to Wiggle's Aaron, and Rabo's Niels Goudriaan for all their work! Watch all the videos on the Wiggle youtube, Rabo youtube and RaboSportTV.
Then there were the riders. I loved all the witty, funny and insightful tweets, but even more, I am always in awe of riders who finish the race and write race reports for us, and I really hope they get paid, because Chloe Hosking's blogs on Cyclingnews (also on her site, where she even roped in her sister Chelsea to blog about the Giro from a spectator's point of view) and Tiffany Cromwell's race reports on CyclingTips were just fantastic, combining real insight into the strategy and how and why the races played out, with personal details and great story telling. And Marijn de Vries didn't blog about every stage, but what she did write I loved - on puking on the bike (Dutch and English), leaving the chaos of Napoli for the mountains on Stage 3 (Dutch and English), trying not to race the 17km neutralised descent on Stage 7 (Dutch and English), and on the final climb to the Madonna del Ghisallo (Dutch and English). Other blogs I liked were Peta Mullens' - and I'm always on the lookout for more, so if you spotted any post-Giro bloggery, pop it into the comments!
OK, OK, I know I titled this "five highlights", but there's room for one more, right?
I must admit, like a lot of people, much as I loved Pooley's win on Stage 8, I would have loved to see Elisa Longo Borghini take that particular stage - it's her home roads, Hitec had attacked all the way through the race, and it would be a nice contrast to last year when she had to watch from the roadside in a wheelchair. But I'd also like to have seen it for the reaction of the Zampine...
The Zampine are.... I have no idea how to describe them - crazed sports fans who will support anyone local? A drinking club with tons of local pride? People I wish I live near so I could join them? They're superb! They're based in Ornavasso, and get together to follow and cheer on local sports stars whenever they can, and one of those is Elisa Longo Borghini. If you saw "Elisa" and the names of the Hitec riders painted on the roads of the Stage 8 climb, or a paw print on the road, or wondered why in some of the podium photos riders were holding things with the pawprint on them, that was the Zampine...
and they're the ones starring in Chloe Hosking's great blog post:
And, as promised as I rounded one of the final corners of the 15km climb I spotted the Zampine.
"Ciao Zampine," I yelled, waving my hand in their signature paw wave.
Like a crowd at a football match when their team scores the group of ten or so erupted into cheers, "Ciao Chloe! Ciao Zampini!"
Andrea, one of the ring leaders of the group, ran down towards me with a cold beer in his hand and turned to run alongside me as he reached me. He handed me the beer and as I passed the crazy, cheering squad of Zampine I raised the beer to my lips and and poured it down my throat like it was water on a 45 degree day. Amazingly, as I did so, the cheers got louder.
With a huge smile on my face I handed the beer back to Andrea and he fulfilled the second part of his promise, giving me one final push before I passed the group.
I asked Elisa if they'd be out on the final stage...
Dear Podium Café types, can we meet up on a mountain at a women's race and see if we can beat the Zampine at their own game?
So those are my highlights..... what are yours? To remind yourself of everything that happened, all the Podium Café coverage is here in our storystream - and you can listen to omnevelnihill and I talk about the race on our podcast - part 1, covering the first 5 days, and part 2, running through the second part.
Photo used with very kind permission of Sean Velofocus - check out all his 2014 Giro photos on his website.