May 13, 2005
This 88th running of the Giro d'Italia is proving, at least for we tifosi, to be anything but dull. On all but one stage thus far the race course has put a twist (literally) into the final run-in, causing all manner of havoc to the bunch. Since departing Calabria, there has been only one straightforward finale, the long direct run into the finish on Stage 2, where Robbie McEwen artfully crafted an impressive win.
The sprinters are sure to be unhappy otherwise. This first week hasn't given them much opportunity to shine, as is customary in a Grand Tour. One has to suspect this is a direct result of last year's over-abundance of field sprint finishes. "Petacchi all the time" is boring, even for the Italians. In contrast, we've seen a different stage winner everyday during this Giro and the stages have proven to be showcases for other Italian stars like Bettini and Di Luca.
And every day, the final kilometer seemingly gets more surreal; stage one had the 15 percent grade, stage three looked like an uphill criterium, while stage four featured a switchback descent. Still, that's not to say there haven't been hard-fought sprint finishes. In fact, despite to the difficult run-ins, those surviving at the front are truly showing their teeth.
The sight of Paolo Bettini going WWF on Baden Cooke, hooking him into the fencing on stage four was the topper. Thankfully Baden pulled off a near perfect 'tuck and roll' to stave off serous injury. And while Cooke ostensibly might have backed off, stayed upright and gained the stage win on protest, you just knew that wasn't going to happen.
The day before, Bettini had lost a sure win after Di Luca pinched him against the fence coming out of the final turn. And Bettini, who could've leaned into Danilo, braked instead, finishing sixth. But backing off isn't Cooke's style. He's more pure sprinter than Bettini and Australian to boot. Expecting an Aussie sprinter to back off when he can almost taste the victory spumante is like asking an Mike Tyson to walk away from a bar fight. Ain't gonna happen.
There are better ways to 'close the door' on a rider during a sprint. Kirsipuu's slight 'adjustment' on Stage 2, that squeezed out Petacchi, was an example. Perfect. Bettini could have done the same Wednesday. Coming into the finish in Frosinone, Paolo jumped early but with good speed and drifted left over the next 150 meters, controlling the sprint. Now Bettini claims at that point, his gear skipped while shifting, causing the overt swerve, or hook, into Cooke. Likely we'll never know, but had Bettini held fast to his line, closing the door with more subtlety, and holding Baden on the fence instead of forcing him into it - he still might have staved off the Cooke Express. While there surely still would have been a protest, it's less likely the final result would have been altered.
But that is pure conjecture from the sidelines. One thing that's certain is this; Paolo Bettini is lucky that he wasn't punched out by Cooke when he tried to approach him after Baden was forced to walk the last hundred meters, swearing a blue streak no doubt - frustrated and angry beyond reason at what might have been.