The 2002 edition of the Giro d'Italia was the last time a stage finished atop Campitello Matese, as Saturday's Stage 8 will. Back in 2002, an iconic rider took the stage, but not the overall, in one of the crazier Giro editions of the new millennium. I can't quite locate the perfect single photo, but between these two shots, and a bonus third one, we can retell a pretty weird race story. The top photo is from stage 5, on the Limone Piemonte climb, but the second one is from the Campitello Matese itself, stage 11 back in '02.
1. I don't really see you there, Cadel Evans.
In a race devoid of stars, one was born, then nearly suffocated, then disappeared, only to be reborn a true star of stars. One Cadel Evans, the first Australian to wear the maglia rosa. Sure, now that like 300 Australians have worn it it seems like no big deal, but this was before Stuey's Paris-Roubaix, and an Aussie doing something besides winning sprints was news. Evans, then 24, was a former mountain biker in his second year in the pro peloton, and his appearance at the Giro was mildly amusing, until stage 16, when the maglia rosa landed on his shoulders under circumstances that can scarcely be believed. Let's take a look at some of those circumstances.
2. I see you there, for now, Stefano Garzelli
Garzelli was the reigning Giro champion, and by stage 5 he was comfortably ensconced back in pink, putting up to a minute into his main rivals. But it was his arguably last great moment as a Giro cyclist. Garzelli was not a flamboyant rider, just a steady grinder, but it was enough to land him atop the podium as the winner of the race in 2000. The flu knocked him out of the 2001 Giro, so 2002 was his chance for redemption, and to prove who was the preeminent Giro rider, and in that sense the successor to the great Pantani. Facing off against Gilberto Simoni, winner in 2001, and Francesco Casagrande, second to Garzelli in 2000, the Varesine grabbed the race lead with a stage win in Liege just ahead of Casagrande. As such, he was sent to doping control, and though by the time of this photo he had put a minute into Simoni, his fortunes were already changing. The Liege test turned up positive for probenicid, and while Garzelli stayed in the Giro until stage 9, he lost the jersey to another rider on stage 6 and never ascended to anything like his 2000 heights again.
3. Oh, hello Jens Heppner
Right, the guy who took the jersey from Garzelli. Heppner was a veteran hand for Team Telekom by 2002, specializing in long escapes, and when Garzelli punted the jersey on stage 6 it was Heppner up the road with a group, and in position to take over. Heppner maintained a lead of 3.33 over Garzelli, who was in second until his retirement after stage 9. From there Jens Heppner led the Giro d'Italia by 3.50, over Yaroslav Popovich. But the party would start winding down on Campitello Matese, when the Bigs would begin stalking him, and the fun would end for good on stage 16, to Corvara, where Evans took over the lead as Heppner fell back to the pack. His career would end on a sour, if familiar, note... awash in doping scandal.
4. I definitely see you there, for now, Francesco Casagrande.
By the end of the Giro, Garzelli's story of exclusion from the race would seem quaint. Take that of Francesco Casagrande. The Classics ace and occasional Giro protagonist had reached the height of his powers in the 2000 race, where he came second, but then crashed out of stage 2 in 2001. By 2002, he was riding well, and is seen above in the KOM jersey, which was one of his initial goals. But things changed. Never a true grand tour rider, Big House saw a golden chance at overall victory fall into his lap -- rivals excluded, course not overwhelming, etc. -- and decided to do something about it. Unfortunately that "something" was to run Colombian John Freddy Garcia into the barriers on purpose at the end of a KOM sprint, taking him from the position of "second overall" and "last remaining potentially recognizable favorite" to "disqualified" in an instant. He protested his innocence, but reports from that time suggest it was pretty blatant, which is self-evident given that they kicked an Italian star out of the Giro d'Italia. Casagrande's exclusion was the last of the pins to fall, but only the second-strangest.
5. I see you there, for sure, Gilberto Simoni.
I've included the two angles of Gilberto Simoni, boxed in by his rivals on stage 5 and jumping free from the reduced field on stage 11, where he won the stage to Campitello Matese. Simoni wore the #1 dossard as the previous winner, but it also signified his heavy favorite status. Simoni's timing, coming after Pantani's demise was well underway, was perfect, since all the other guys in this article (so far) are more one-day types than true grimpeurs. Simoni alone was cut from the pure climber mold. Prior to the rise of Nibali, I would go so far as to say he was the last true Italian cycling hero... on the bike. Off the bike he was (and presumably is) a pretty outspoken guy, and is remembered for making snide comments about Lance Armstrong and Ivan Basso after losing to them. Wait, maybe he is a hero off the bike too.
Given that, and the tendency of the Tour guys to avoid the Giro in the 2000s, the fact that Simoni is only a double Giro winner is a bit remarkable. He lost in 2000 to Garzelli and Casagrande by just over 90 seconds, and given their squishy histories you could say he got cheated out of that one. He won in '01 and '03. In 2006 he lost to Basso, who he called "extraterrestrial" as a thinly-veiled j'accuse. So that's four he could have won, in a just world. Then there are the losses.
In 2005, he faltered on the stage to Zoldo Alto, fell behind Paolo Savoldelli, then made up ground all the way to the maglia rosa virtuale, only for Savoldelli to reclaim his prize (more on that next week). In 2004 he watched his young teammate Damiano Cunego steal his chance of victory when the Kid moved into the top spot and hung on over a relatively tame course. And in 2002, Simoni earned his only Giro ejection when traces of cocaine showed up in the test administered to the stage winner. In this case, Simoni, after winning at Campitello Matese. The cocaine supposedly was traced back to some candies his aunt brought back for him from Peru. That took a while to sort out, and Simoni's incredulous protests couldn't overcome the fact that he was positive for a schedule 1 no-no. His Giro was over before his aunt produced the exculpation.
So if you are scoring at home, that's two wins, two cheated out of wins, and three I can't believe you fucked it up wins. Seven Giri d'Italia would have looked pretty nice on his mantle.
6. I see you there in one piece, Tyler Hamilton.
Well, sort of. Tyler Hamilton, America's only winner of a Monument (Liege-Bastogne-Liege) as well as one of the many disgraced Lance lieutenants, has a reputation for toughness that no sporting standard can ever take away. Sure, EPO kept him turning the pedals, but the former ski racer began creating legends at the 2002 Giro. Hamilton had fallen early on (maybe stage 2? Can't seem to verify), but for the heck of it he decided he could soldier on at the Giro with a cracked collarbone. It was his first grand tour as a team leader, having just joined CSC that winter, and what was the worst that could happen, that hadn't happened already? On stage 5 Hamilton showed that pain was just that, as he stayed with the leaders and even took a few pulls on the Limone Piemonte. By Milan, he had hung in all the way as the only rider to potentially threaten Savoldelli for the win. Hamilton even won the stage 14 time trial, so when it came to the penultimate stage, with only a 1.28 deficit (and lying third, with Pietro Caucchioli about to Italian himself out of competition*), it made sense that Hamilton could repeat his crono success and make Savoldelli sweat. It wasn't to be, and Hamilton settled for second overall, his greatest accomplishment as a grand tour rider. After the race, he allegedly had 11 teeth capped or replaced, as a result of intense grinding during the race. Even more bizarre, he repeated the feat in the 2003 Tour de France, again cracking his collarbone early on and again hanging in, winning a stage as the Tour exited the Pyrenees. [Yes, it was all dope-fueled, and yes, that really does diminish the results. But he was still one tough mo-fo.]
* As I've often said, the nation is not known for time triallists. It's not easy to focus on your heart rate when all of life's beauty surrounds you.
7. I don't see you anywhere (but sure wish I did), Marco Pantani.
Il Pirate was on the scene at the 2002 Giro, and no amount of mediocrity was going to stop the Italian public from adoring him. I won't repeat all of his story here, of course; suffice to say that he was one of several former winners to take the start, and the least convincing one by far. After his win in 1998, part of his legendary Giro-Tour double, he was famously kicked out of the 1999 event after winning the stage to Madonna di Campiglio (more on that later too). Pantani returned in 2000, clearly diminished, and only managed 28th. In 2001, he showed up depressed and out of shape, withdrawing in the third week, and things weren't much better in 2002. That didn't stop fans on stage 5 from hoping, but by the time this photo was snapped, hope was running low. Pantani finished 7.02 down on the stage and was rendered irrelevant until withdrawing from stage 16.
8. I see you and your golden locks there, Franco Pellizotti
Of course, one rider's absence is pretty conspicuous. Making his Giro debut, 23-year-old Franco Pellizotti suited up for Alessio Bianchi and delivered a very tidy 17th place in support of former two-time winner Ivan Gotti (probably the blurry image over Casagrande's shoulder in the second photo). Pellizotti would go on to take a second place overall in 2009, but his biological passport showed irregular blood values and his result was scrubbed -- as was his greatest triumph, victory in the Tour de France's mountains classification.
9. I see you there, Julio Perez Cuapio.
Quiz: who is Mexico's greatest cyclist ever? I'll give you Raul Alcala, by a nose. But second has to be Perez. The pure climber for Panaria won three Giro stages and would take home the climber's jersey in 2002. Along the way he would take the 13th and 16th stages, the latter a glorious solo victory in il tappone, the Giro's Queen Stage, over four climbs including the Cima Coppi at the Passo Pordoi (which Perez had won on in 2001). Cadel Evans was third on the stage and joined Perez on the podium for his first grand tour leadership... which didn't end well. But it made him tougher. Anyway, Perez' career peaked at the 2002 Giro; from there he only won a Giro del Trentino, amidst struggles to find consistent form. Frankly, given the tenor of the times, that probably says something positive about his ethics.
10. I can barely see you there, Aitor Gonzalez.
Spanish riders have rarely targeted the Giro d'Italia, in part because the Vuelta a Espana ran shortly before the Giro as recently as 1994, before moving to September. By 2002, only Miguel Indurain had notched a victory for Spain in the Giro (two, actually), and to have Kelme at the 2002 Giro in force was something of a good sign. [At the time, when we didn't know Kelme like we do now.] Making his Giro debut was 27-year-old Aitor Gonzalez, but not very conspicuously... yet. As the peloton rode up to the Campitello Matese finish, however, Gonzalez was among the leaders and finished 11" down on Simoni for the day, continuing a climb up the standings that would culminate in an impressive sixth place overall. Was it partly by default? Yep. Was he "prepared" by his doctor, Eufemiano Fuentes? Almost certainly. So you can toss it out the window if you want. But everyone would know his name by the end of the season, when he won his only Vuelta over a sordid cast of characters led by Roberto Heras.
11. I see you there, Paolo Savoldelli
Yes, il Falco, the charismatic descender and generally cagey Giro double-winner had been skulking around in the shadows, waiting to swoop. There will be more to discuss later, but for now know that he was the takeaway story of the 2002 race. Second overall in 1999, Savoldelli was known to have some quality in the stage racing arena, where his overall mix of skills lent themselves to steady, if unspectacular, performance. Savoldelli won two Giri and a total of three stages, none in 2002 and none on the majestic Italian mountain passes. [The stages were two decent mountain affairs, to Borgo San Dalmazzo in 1999 and to Zoldo Alto in 2005, plus a prologue in 2006.] But he was more than the last man standing in 2002, he was excellent in the final ITT, and he left nobody unconvinced of his mix of talents by the time the race hit Milan.
All photos by Lars Ronbog, Getty Images