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Froome, Ghosts and Paesani: My Three Giro Things

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The Missing Champions, the actual one, and the state of the Italian State after the 2018 Giro d’Italia

NurPhoto via Getty Images

This would be a place to make grand pronouncements about the 2018 Giro d’Italia, right? I’m so old that I can remember when it was a good idea to write a long column breaking down the ins and outs of a grand tour because nothing had been written about it yet and everyone was hungry for a new storyline to develop. Now, thankfully, the internet has freed me of any real responsibility to inform people of anything, so here are three hot takes instead! [See? I do know how this stuff works.]

And yes, we started out with a Three-Things preview from several of the Editors, and I am hoping to end that way. Heck, it’s not limited to the Editors; if you have three angles you want to discuss, head over to Fanposts and fire away.

The Ghost Champion Strikes Again

Have you noticed how every year the Giro seems to have someone who makes a late and truly tantalizing appearance in the actual or virtual maglia rosa only to fall quickly and somewhat decisively in the end? I am calling this person the Ghost Maglia Rosa, someone whose presence atop the Giro was so ephemeral that in hindsight it’s a bit hard to remember that it was real... though it definitely was. Let’s run in reverse order.

2018: The race had very few Rosa holders, thanks to the opening ITT, and after day 2 they were all rather English in nature (just Dennis, Yates, and Froome). But while we will remember stage 19 more for Chris Froome’s accomplishments, followed maybe by Simon Yates’ implosion, it was largely about the all-too-brief stay in virtual pink by the defending champion and Day 1 jersey holder, Tom Dumoulin. By the top of the day’s first climb he was the leader of the Giro, as Yates disappeared out the back, and held that distinction by minutes, not seconds, until Froome clawed back his entire 2.54 deficit somewhere on the slopes of Sestriere, the penultimate climb in the Giro. Dumoulin can take home some positives from the race, hanging with all the other climbers besides the generationally successful Froome all throughout a ferocious Giro. But the difference from step 2 of the podium to the top was pretty decisive, and probably disappointing since he was one lone slope away from victory. [Edit: well, and stage 20 too. Fairer to say he was a lone slope away from the jersey, with one last battle left.]

2017: Speaking of Dumoulin, he was of course the big story last year. So much so that if you were any less invested in the narrative than your average Dutch cycling fan, you might have forgotten that the Giro didn’t end until Nairo Quintana crossed the line in Milan wearing the pink sweater. Sadly for him, it was merely the actual jersey, not the virtual one, which he’d long since shipped to Dumoulin, who stormed the final day time trial to take back the jersey he’d originally taken off Quintana in the first ITT back on stage 10. Quintana’s time in pink included stages 19 and 20 — usually a good sign! — but all I can remember of that time is everyone feeling quite sure that he was merely borrowing it until Dumoulin asked for it back.

2016: The Legend of Stevie Chaves dates back maybe a bit further than this — he’d had a sensational Vuelta in 2015 where he won two early stages and wore every one of the race’s four jerseys at least once — but it was in this Giro that we all began to take him seriously as a super-smiley grand tour champion. So seriously that his team would (disastrously IMHO) immediately start billing him as a potential Tour de France winner, something I wouldn’t bet on ever happening unless they cut it down to two weeks and strip away all the time trials. Anyway, Stevie nabbed the maglia rosa when long-time holder Steven Kruijswijk bashed himself into a snowbank and shipped four minutes to everyone, putting the genial Colombian into the lead on stage 19. But... is that shark-circling music I hear?

2015: You have to squint a little more carefully to find the ghost in the 2015 race, but ultimately I see one. Mostly this race is remembered for Alberto Contador’s final Giro win, done in pretty mundane fashion, but there were some anxious moments in Week 2, when the Spaniard threw away a slim lead over Fabio Aru on stage 13 when he was held up behind a crash, just outside the 3km limit. I’m sure nobody took Aru’s candidacy that seriously at the time; we mostly just argued about the 3km rule a bit. And sure enough, the stage 14 time trial restored Contador’s lead by minutes, not seconds, making Aru perhaps wish he’d never gotten that day in pink — and all the photos of him decked out on his aero bike, losing the Giro once and for all.

That’s about where the trend began. In 2013 and 2014 you had more typical, and ultimately decisive, battles for pink. In 2012 you might argue that J-Rod was a ghost Rosa, but he had the jersey quite a lot and was simply usurped at the very end. I didn’t really define a ghost very sharply but I’d say it’s someone who we don’t remember all that well as a threat to win, even if by some conventional measurements (having the bloody jersey) he briefly was. Really, before 2015, you’d probably have to go back to 2005 and the famous stage, the last of the Giro’s mountains phase, where Gilberto Simoni was in virtual Pink for a couple hours while Paolo Savoldelli lagged behind, making deals with the Cycling Gods which I am sure he is still repaying. Ten years since the last time we had a brief, tantalizing, and real threat to win. And now we’ve seen that happen four years in a row. Life is weird.

Mamma Mia... And Not the Good Kind

There’s a piece at CN about how this Giro didn’t do much for Italians and Italian cycling. I guess that’s true. Aru seemed like a potential winner but was unexpectedly terrible at riding his bike. Domenico Pozzovivo, the ageless Professor (the nickname given to all cyclists who either wear glasses or get their university degree), moved up to fifth overall after Thibaut Pinot’s illness and retirement to pace the home nation. I guess people could get excited about Elia Viviani’s wins, but he’s more like best of the B list for anyone to get too happy.

Italian cycling certainly doesn’t have a grip on the Giro d’Italia like it used to, and almost everyone would agree that’s a good thing. As recently as the early Aughts it seemed like the race would still be won by some Italian rider that we didn’t care about too much, over other Italians we maybe cared even less about, and that whatever foreign competition came out would either be half-interested Tour guys or people who weren’t anything special. The Giro has its share of legendary editions and legendary winners, but there’s a good deal of chaff mixed in too. So for the last few winners to be Contador, Nibali, Dumoulin, Froome and Quintana speaks well of the race’s prominence. It’s a better race because Italians don’t just win it all the time.

But you won’t catch me weeping for Italy over the state of its racing. Yes, the lack of a classic Italian-branded World Tour team is sad, but that’s just about money. You know who Cycling Quotient ranks as the current points leader by nationality? Italy. You know who won the points ranking in 2017? Italy. [They were/are third in the PdC rankings via the FSA DS, thanks to our inherently Belgian-biased system, I am proud to say.] You know what country Vincenzo Nibali is from? Italy. Ulissi, Trentin, Colbrelli too as well as Viv and Aru and the Professor. You know what countries’ fans would kill to have anyone currently riding with the palmares those guys have? France, Germany, Australia, Denmark, all of Scandinavia, and many more. Add in the US and Taiwan and you’ve covered the surfaces of the Earth where 99% of the bikes are made. Pretty much everywhere but the UK and Spain wishes they could be as good at riding a bike as the Italians have been. The future outlook is not good, but if that’s what people want to whine about, let’s at least wait for the future to happen, and suck for Italy, before we go there.

Froome Went Zoom on Doom and the Internet Went Boom

I don’t want to ruin your day by rehashing the whole purported controversy over Froome’s winning with a long-distance attack which has launched a thousand speculative doping accusations. The history of fan distrust of Sky is long and tortured. If you don’t want to believe, well, cycling has given you plenty of reasons not to.

But I will say that not every attack on a climbing stage is indicative of doping, right? Cafe-ster William H passed along the following graphic that charted Froome’s success on that stage:

Breaking this down, you have Froome getting 45 seconds on Dumoulin on the Finestre, over some 29 minutes of climbing — a second gained for every 40 seconds or so of work — and another 45-ish seconds on the Sestriere climb, another half-hour of work. The rest of his 3:30 came on descents, and he gave back a couple seconds on the Jafferau climb. So while I would never rule out anyone being doped, doesn’t doping against an un-doped field look more like guys absolutely crushing the field on all the climbs, particularly at the end? Doesn’t the poor victim churning away at his pedals on nothing but lettuce cede minutes over such distances, as in 2-3 minutes on each climb, rather than two bike lengths every minute?

To me this looks more like Froome, the world’s reigning champion of all grand tours, out-climbing a not-great climber in Dumoulin, and taking advantage of the complexities inherent in the chase, from South American riders eyeing each other and in no position to help, to alternate contenders with mixed feelings about whether they should try something... and undoubtedly mixed abilities to do something too. Miguel Angel Lopez is a future GT hope, not a present one, and he ended up third overall. How many people knew much about Richard Carapaz besides his name and team, before he finished fourth? They say the quality of your win lies in who you beat, and Froome didn’t exactly slay a decade’s worth of top rivals with his now-famous ride on Friday.

If you don’t like Froome, I won’t try to change your mind. I’m not his biggest fan (though I officially respect him a lot as a cyclist). But if you are pointing to Stage 19 as evidence that he’s dirty, as long as due process still exists in the world, I’m going to say you’re going to have to try a little harder to prove that case. If Stage 19 was suspicious, then every winning attack in a bike race is.