94th Giro d’Italia/07-29 May 2011
Throughout the course of the Giro d’Italia, Sports Nickel’s resident Non-Traditional Sports Fan in America will offer his news and notes on the action from the first grand tour of the 2011 cycling season…
As expected the sprinters bolted the race in droves before the lung-busting trio of stages leading through the weekend into Monday’s second rest day. Amongst those specialists who ply their trade in the final kilometer of long days in the saddle, only Roberto Ferrari remains of a group that only four days ago boasted two of the top three contenders in the points classification. With nothing left but futile days trying to stay within the time limit over the high mountains of the race, only those riders whose sprinting aspirations must be tempered by the need to serve a teammate as a domestique stayed behind as the rockets regrouped for their annual assault on the sunflower fields of Gaul.
Alessandro Petacchi is gone, having bagged yet another Giro stage to add to his career glut and showing signs of aging like a fine Barolo. Mark Cavendish bolted after snagging stages 10 and 12, surpassing Robbie McEwen amongst active riders in all-time grand-tour stages after getting his twenty-fifth career victory and positioning himself to move into the top fifteen in the all-time records in this year’s Tour de France. Francisco Ventoso, who fended off Petacchi for his own stage victory on day six, pulled out as well, as did Sky’s Davide Appollonio. Four of the top ten in the points classification after the twelfth stage are now out of the running entirely of their own volition.
It is an interesting quirk of course design. Whereas the Tour de France has settled pretty much permanently on its traditional criterium finish with laps on the Champs-Elysees, the Giro has vacillated in the structure of its finale. For the past two years they are doing a concluding individual time trial instead of a sprint finish, leaving no crumbs in a race that already was amongst the most mountainous in the history of any of the three grand tours.
So we’re left with the same kind of predictability that we saw during Lance Armstrong’s dominance of the Tour de France… except Alberto Contador doesn’t even need to spend rigorous months doing specific training and stage scouting for a race. He can toe the line on short notice or with advance notice, whether the Giro or the Tour or the Vuelta, and dominate the field before him. Both have seen the doping accusations levied against them, but the difference between the two is that Contador is willing to challenge himself to greatness in any race; Lance only ever gave a damn about the Tour, ignoring a rich history to try to nab as much publicity as possible in the marquee event.
Of course, Contador’s results might be expunged. But because I’m not a court of law, I’m of a mind to believe everyone is guilty until proven innocent. But I’m also not the type to want to arbitrarily take punitive action whenever a testing program that inevitably will not catch everything blindly lands its dart in the bulls-eye. Because of this I am not the type to expunge records merely because of some drugs in an athlete’s system. I still say Petacchi has those five Giro stages that were expunged after he tested positive for salbutamol — for which he had a therapeutic use exemption due to its being the active ingredient in his asthma inhaler — and was suspended for an entire season. And should Contador find his exoneration by the Spanish cycling federation reversed by the Court of Arbitration for Sport ahead of the 2011 Tour, his previous victories will still be as valid as before in my eyes.
We’re deluding ourselves if we assert that the present wave of doping is degrading the past… in any sport. Cycling, due to its long history of drug testing, has proven to have more stories about positive results at different incarnations of doping history, but that hardly means it is a dirtier sport. That’s why I’m going to sit back, enjoy the rest of the Giro action in this last week, and marvel in the dominance that Contador brings to a sport that hasn’t seen an all-around, year-round rider of his class since the days of Hinault and before him Merckx. He, more than Lance, is the forbear of that great patron tradition in the peloton, a rider who respects all points of an undulating season of races and is a champion who earns that respect with his actions…
Stage 13: Spilimbergo to Grossglockner/AUT (20 May 2011/167km)
Contador was already leading the race by a minute when he used the highest point of the 2011 Giro d’Italia to springboard into an even more well-padded lead on the peloton’s sojourn into Austria for the summit of the Grossglockner. Climbing with Jose Rujano, Contador conceded the stage victory but stole away full minutes from the other men who had previously looked like contenders for the Giro. Now, barring some illness — or another positive drug test that would render the previous one moot save for the length of punishment for a new indiscretion.
The winner would prove to be climbing sensation Jose Rujano, far more experienced having spent the past half-decade in the hinterlands of cycling’s minor leagues following his breakthrough podium finish in the 2005 Giro. The Colombian was the only one who could stick with Contador when the leader made his move on the slopes, fending off attacks from Michele Scarponi and Igor Anton before launching his own bid for victory.
But with the Colombian clinging to his wheel, he would have to settle for second place. It was sweet consolation, as he increased his lead to over three minutes over next-best Vincenzo Nibali and third-placed Scarponi. And in the process, aided in part by the departure of the sprinters, the Spaniard also claimed the lead in the points and mountains classifications. While the records will show Rujano crossed the line first, Contador proved the true winner in the Friday ride on Austrian soil.
Stage 14: Lienz/AUT to Monte Zoncolan (21 May 2011/
The stage to the summit of the Zoncolan would end up being shortened significantly, with protests and unsafe roads eliminating climbs along the route. It would not matter, as the results were all too easily anticipated. Two Spaniards set off the fireworks on the legendary climb, outpacing the hometown contingent in a display that offered even more confirmation about both which riders are preeminent in cycling at the moment… and about which nation has been putting out the best of them.
Vincenco Nibali and Michele Scarponi and the rest could only watch as Igor Anton and Alberto Contador split off the front and used the steep grades as their own playground. Anton, who crashed out of the Vuelta last September while leading the race, is undoubtedly a talent with all-around ability that makes him a growing threat in any stage race he contests.
Of course, he’s no Contador… but then again few riders ever will reach that caliber, just one or if we’re lucky two a generation, and that’s no reason to diminish this result. If anything, staying 33 seconds clear of a determined maglia rosa whose got his axe a-grinding in anticipation of the kill is even more impressive given the person donning the leader’s jersey and being forced to settle for a second straight runner-up. Again, though, it just meant more time out of his closest rivals, a bigger cushion in his overall lead, more time to give him the freedom to take risks and be even more dominant.
Stage 15: Conegliano to Gardeccia Val di Fassa (22 May 2011/229km)
There was one more stage to leave riders reeling prior to their rest day, a Sunday in hell in the Dolomites winnowing down the contenders unequivocally down to one. With over four minutes on Michele Scarponi, another top-three finish making it five so far this Giro, and the lead just growing by the stage over all those guys who came into the Giro with then-legitimate dreams of taking down the king.
Euskaltel-Euskadi, the Basque team that had come into the Giro on a massive cold streak, came into the second rest day looking far better than they had all year after taking both stages over the weekend. Igor Anton stole away stage 14 from Contador, and this time it was Mikel Nieve outwitting the big guns to stay away by almost two minutes on the final stage in the Dolomites before a day out of the saddle.
Again, though, the story was left even more to Contador. In third place he stole almost two minutes out of Vincenzo Nibali, took another six seconds out of Scarponi, made John Gadret and Jose Rujano fall even further behind. It is definitely a matter of something far more than mere dope that is making Contador as good as he is these days, and while one wondered if the Bruyneel connection would be missed the fact just might be that new team director Bjarne Riis might just be even better at getting the best out of his new team leader. If this Giro is evidence, and if the CAS doesn’t rule him ineligible and sitting on the sidelines, we’re witnessing mere prelude to another dominant performance come July…
AFTER 15 OF 21 STAGES:
KING OF THE MOUNTAINS