Saturday's stage ascends a dirt road, because in tough economic times first-world nations like Italy can't afford to keep their roads paved, even when those roads are selected for inclusion in the Giro d'Italia.
What? The Colle delle Finestre is unpaved on purpose?
OK, fine. Saturday marks the third inclusion of this gravelly nightmare, the Colle delle Finestre (hill of windows) in the Giro d'Italia, and the third time it has been paired with the natural stage-finish at the Sestriere ski area, which is paved, and even has electricity for the press room. On the Finestre, the bottom half is paved, owing to a military fortress that lives lower down and protects Italy from France, but the upper half is packed dirt -- very neatly packed dirt, but still. Apparently the invading French don't like to get their loafers dirty, because only half of this region of Italy speaks French on a regular basis.
Oh, and it's the scene of the greatest day of cycling in recent Giro history, the 2005 slugfest featuring great climbers, great descenders, strange characters, and unholy alliances. Let's venture back in time...
This stage is visually beyond cool. OK, let's go.
1. I see you there, Paolo Savoldelli
I feel like I'm leading with the last chapter here, but this photo storytelling thing is all at the mercy of a good photo, and, well, this is what I have to work with.
Paolo Savoldelli came in as something of a reclamation project, being a former Giro winner who then "graduated" to T-Mobile, where careers seemed to stall out as often as not back then. In 2002, Savoldelli emerged victorious over Cadel Evans and co., and the two both migrated over to Telekom for a big contract, and were never heard from again. Well, for two years anyway.
Savoldelli in 2005 had left the Mob and joined Discovery. And yes, it's hard to even start on this story without acknowledging in hindsight how incredibly corrupt that outfit turned out to be. Following his retirement, Savoldelli was fingered as a client of Dr. Michele Ferrari and a possible instigator in part of the systematic doping at Lance's old outfit. I guess there are no heroes. Still, at the time he was a man in search of his old ways, and while Discovery offered him a change of scenery, it offered little more. Ryder Hesjedal and Tom Danielson were his most illustrious teammates, and they exited the Giro early, leaving the Falcon with supporters like Pavel Padrnos and Volodimir Bileka as his lieutenants. In other words, naked as a jaybird. On every important stage Savoldelli was isolated and at the mercy of his rivals, many of whom were superior to him going up, though inferior against the watch. And of course the Falcon had no peer when it came to going downhill.
Lampre were loaded, by comparison, with the last two champions Damiano Cunego and Gilberto Simoni on board, plus plenty of help. But the favorite, bar none, was Ivan Basso of CSC. Basso was coming off third place at the Tour, and had targeted the Giro to honor the wish of his mother, who passed away four months before the start. And Basso seized control of the race on stage 11, taking the maglia rosa by 21 seconds over Savoldelli and more than two minutes over Simoni. Damiano Cunego fell out of contention. Only Di Luca, the classics rider, could hang with the leading trio, and that was sure to change. Except Basso proceeded to develop "stomach problems," initially blamed on chugging a lot of ice water, and when the problems persisted for several days, Basso lost his jersey on stage 13 and another 45 minutes on the Stelvio, the main feature of stage 14. No Basso, no Cunego, and Simoni yo-yoing around the peloton, closing the gap one day and letting it back out the next. There's a lot to be said for winning the Giro by default, and that is most definitely a part of Savoldelli's story.
I'll keep telling the rest as we proceed.
2. I see you there, Juan Manuel Garate
Garate had a nice front-row seat to this spectacular battle, but he contributed almost nothing to it. The Spaniard riding for Saunier Duval hung around on every stage but never quite managed to get noticed. On this day he would actually pip Savoldelli and his fellow travelers for fourth on the stage, about as forgettable a result as you'll find. Descriptions suggest he was never part of the Epic Chase, but he had been part of the group that left the Falcon for dead on the gravel, only to be on Savoldelli's wheel in the final stages of the Sestriere climb. Garate would finish fifth overall in Milan, one spot below his career-best fourth in 2002. A specialist in the Giro, he seems to have actually specialized in Giro editions that favored Savoldelli.
3. I see you there, Serhiy Honchar
One of the minor threats to Savoldelli came from Ukrainian Honchar, whose proficiency in the time trials earned him second overall in the 2004 Giro. But there is more to picking favorites than pure math; the 2004 Giro was an outlier in its lack of majestic climbs, the type where Honchar did not excel, and the 2005 edition, while not among the hardest, had plenty of trouble spots for him. Worse still, his main rivals included Basso and Savoldelli, both of whom were strong cronomen, neutralizing Honchar's lone advantage. By stage 11 he was four minutes down, where he stood until the Torino time trial on stage 18, where he lost time to Savoldelli. Like Garate, he could be seen coming in with the Savoldelli group in Sestriere, but not after having contributed anything. Within two years he was being dropped by a T-Mobile squad intent on ridding itself of dopers, and his career was essentially over.
4. I think I see you there, Mauricio Ardila
Ah, now we are getting someplace. First, I should apologize for my inability to say conclusively if this is Ardila or his teammate Wim van Huffel. I've scoured the internet for helpful photos but it's too inconclusive to say, though I think it's Ardila. For the purposes of our story, however, the two are virtually interchangeable.
Just last week we saw a rider severely punished for colluding with a friend on another team -- in this case, Sky's Richie Porte, who accepted a wheel from his countryman and frien... excuse me, mate (cobber?), Simon Clarke of Orica-GreenEdge. The Cycling World spent a few days pretending to be outraged by either the riders' collective lack of judgment, the Giro's iron-fisted response, or the general inconsistency with which cycling rules are (always) applied. To the men behind the 2005 Giro, such antics are child's play.
The main drama of the Giro, of this stage, of perhaps the entire 2005 season, unfolded on both the climb and descent of the Colle delle Finestre and the climb to Sestriere. Simoni, Di Luca and Jose Rujano were lying second through fourth on GC, and all three of them had flown the coop on the Finestre gravel, with Savoldelli isolated and settling into a defensive, conservative rhythm. The start of the Finestre climb was some 40km from the finish line, and cycling often rewards the patient. But it also rewards the strong, and Savoldelli could only do so much fighting on his own against three strong riders.
Luck intervened, but so did language. Alan Peiper was directing the Davitamon-Lotto squad, and back in his racing days Peiper, an Aussie, was friends with Sean Yates, an Englishman, as the two navigated their way through life at Peter Post's Peugeot team as well as the predominantly English-free world of 1980s professional cycling. They were mates, and now they were rival directeurs. Yates, in charge of Savoldelli and his invisible teammates, rang up Peiper from the team car to see if any of his boys wouldn't mind joining Savoldelli in chasing down the break. Ardila, whose Giro ambitions had evaporated the previous week, was there and available. [So was Mirko Celestino, but his teammate Honchar was up the road, so he sat on.] Savoldelli crested the Finestre roughly 2.08 in arrears -- and he had begun the day with only 2.09 over Simoni, with time bonuses making matters worse. His maglia rosa was virtually gone.
But Savoldelli remains one of the smarter and nervier riders to ever pull on the maglia rosa. He is said to have wasted some 45 seconds on the descent waiting for Ardila to stay in contact, which paid off when the two began working together on the climb to Sestriere, as they pinned back most of the time lost on the Finestre. It's important not to make too much of the collusion -- Ardila did not pull right away, and did not tow him home like a domestique. But he most definitely contributed, as did Van Huffel later on when Ardila blew up.
It pays to have friends in the peloton. It also pays to cut deals with them outside the purview of people's smartphone cameras.
5. I see your hair there, Vlad Karpets
Another of the interlopers, mentioned only because as time goes on, we forget just how strong Karpets' hair-in-the-wind game was back in the day.
6. I see you there, Danilo Di Luca
Was there a character from the latter half of the Aughts who provoked more emotion than Di Luca? Um, yeah, several of them, but Di Luca will not be forgotten anytime soon. Il Killer di Spoltore was a rarity, an Abruzzese in the peloton, cut from the mold of his neighbor and youth inspiration Vito Taccone. Sometimes stories write themselves: Taccone was a fiery rider, battling anti-southern prejudice in the peloton as well as his own (limited) climbing skills to great success. Il Camoscio d'Abruzzo (the Abruzzo Chamois) won the Giro di Lombardia as a neo-pro and reeled in seven stages of the Giro during his career, though never finishing on the podium. Taccone was known for having spurned the Tour de France after being blamed for causing too many crashes. He went on to produce his own liquor brand, Amaro Taccone, then run for political office, then start an apparel company, which came crashing down in 2007 when he was arrested for selling counterfieted clothing. He died later that year.
So when his protege, Di Luca, broke out and won Amstel Gold and La Fleche Wallonne in 2005, he began to play the part of successor to Taccone, complete with the lowered Giro expectations. Wearing white as the Pro Tour leader, Di Luca spent nearly the entire three weeks defying those expectations. In hindsight, we can guess how he managed to grow wings, but at the time it was a fascinating story. Di Luca won an emotional stage into L'Aquila, the capitol of his home region, and wore the maglia rosa that day, losing it the next, and regaining it the day after that. Even when his GC hopes melted away on the preceding two stages, Di Luca was still there at the front as the race heated up on the gravel. The Killer spent much of the upper reaches of the Finestre pounding out a heroic pace, even sitting up to eat an energy bar on yet another devilishly steep ramp, which I still can't believe I saw. His all-round skill served the leading trio well on the descent, as they yielded only a few seconds to Savoldelli, but shortly after that it all came crashing down. Cramps in his legs reduced Di Luca to a struggling mess, and Simoni and Rujano left him behind with 14km remaining to Sestriere.
Di Luca went on to win an equally fascinating (at the time) Giro in 2007, a classic rider's special against the pure climbers. He was again the Pro Tour leader when the Oil for Drugs case caused his removal from the peloton, and while he wasn't suspended until 2009 (for CERA), a second positive followed in 2013 and he was banned from the peloton for life. Like his hero, he flew higher than anyone ever expected, but he fell as hard and as fast as you can.
7. I see you there, Gilberto Simoni
Simoni was the focus of an earlier Photo dissection, and by now I've covered a lot of what happened in 2005. But a few postscripts. Simoni could be pretty tart-tongued about his rivals, and yet he didn't seem to ever take shots at Savoldelli, who got a gift ride from Davitamon, or even Di Luca, who climbed well beyond his natural profile, right next to Gibo. It's a bit surprising, but in 2005 we saw a mellower Simoni, one who had struggled and lost enough to maybe not give a shit anymore. In 2003, coming off his Giro win Simoni challenged Lance Armstrong verbally at the outset of the Tour, saying Armstrong hadn't faced a lot of pure climbers in his time. Simoni finished 84th in the Tour, and never better than 17th in 2004. Maybe by 2005 Simoni had seen enough of the two speeds in the race not to care anymore.
But after the Sestriere stage, Simoni graciously stated that he had simply weakened on the final climb, and didn't have enough to finish off the win. Luck was once again not his friend, however, as his powerful trio with Di Luca and Rujano had fractured in the final 14km, as Di Luca cramped and dropped back, and eventually a faster Rujano accelerated away, making it Gibo's turn to ride by his lonesome. Simoni did regain 1.29 on Savoldelli, as well as a time bonus for finishing second, but the Falcon had 28 seconds left of his overall lead with nothing more than a parade into Milan remaining.
8. I see you there, Jose Rujano
Our other hero of the day, the pint-sized Venezuelan (48kg, or 106 pounds) shocked the cognoscenti with his stage victory on the race's main event. It was Rujano's first Giro appearance, and while he tossed away enough time early on and in time trials to reduce his ability to threaten Savoldelli, he grabbed the KOM jersey (then green) on stage 11, and rode impressively in the rest of the climbs. third on stage 13, and briefly the virtual maglia rosa as he summited the Stelvio with Ivan Parra. He dropped enough time on stage 18 to place himself three minutes back of Savoldelli as they began stage 19, but by the day's end his fans were left either celebrating his accomplishments or ruing what might have been had he held on at a few key moments. Rujano emerged as the most impressive climber, not merely staying with Di Luca and Simoni but leaving both for dead at the end of the stage to win by 26 seconds. Strangely enough, Rujano signed with Quick Step in 2006 but was scarcely seen again in Europe until the 2011 Giro, where he won two more stages and finished sixth overall. He started one Tour de France, in 2006 for Quick Step, but by then Patrick Lefevre was suggesting his motivation was lacking, and they parted ways at season's end.
This was every bit as dramatic and exciting a stage of the Giro as you will ever see. Watch for yourself below. But in retrospect it probably loses some of its lustre. First, we know a bit more about most of the riders involved, and you have to wonder if this isn't yet another Giro stolen from Gibo Simoni. Secondly, the polemics really weren't as important as they seemed at the time. Yes, Savoldelli got help, but more impressively he marshaled his energy wisely and had enough in the tank not to blow up, so that when Simoni weakened, Savoldelli could save his Giro. I'm sure Ardila and company helped, but I'm not so sure he couldn't have gained back enough on the descent to seal the deal on his own. We have often seen the virtual lead change hands in favor of a rider who took off too soon, only to have reality come back to bite. I guess you could call it another such episode.
But that's in hindsight. In real time, this was explosive drama of the highest order.