My take on the opening nine days of racing
This Giro d'Italia has been pure theatre and the story, so far, can be told in three parts.
Part One: The visit to Ireland
It rained but not being sarcastic it does that a lot in Ireland. The real surprise was that it actually stopped raining occasionally as it did for the beginning of the opening stage, the team time trial, when it was dry(ish) for the first couple of teams so that Colombia and Orica-GreenEdge negotiated the traffic islands, white lines and over enthusiastic crowds without too many scares. Then it started raining again, and was more or less, on or off in various places so all the other teams had to deal with slippery surfaces without knowing just where they would be.
With added water the stage no longer became a contest of speed and power but descended into a game of balance and luck. If you had a lot of he former and a hint of the latter the team wobbled and slid round the obstacle course to lose big chunks of time and if you didn't, like Dan Martin and his Garmin squad, it became a nightmare. The TTT as a discipline has more than enough danger in the dry but it borders on the ridiculous when it's wet so in an urban environment like the one served up in Belfast the day proved fatal for the ambitions of many.
When normally the big teams squabble over seconds, the calculations were now in minutes, skin removed and men down. It turned out to be a nice birthday for Svein Tuft though.
The following two stages were basically groundhog days, a water resistant Maarten Tjallingii was part of the doomed escape and Marcel Kittel busted a gut to win the bunch sprint. Sounds easy doesn't it but then you have to remember most of those kilometres were done in the pouring rain, cold and wet despite chucking on all the options of wet weather gear. In fact the climatic conditions were so bad that no-one threw away their rain jacket for the finale, that's unheard of for an Italian race.
It might have been Ireland providing the grey background but this was supposed to be the Giro, you expected to see arm waving and dramatic gesticulations not diving gloves and misery on muck covered faces.
The only conclusion to make from the first three days racing at the Giro 2014 was that there were no real conclusions to be made. Racing wrapped in plastic isn't anyone's idea of fun nor does it give an indication of form so the visit to Ireland wasn't any kind of celebration or even much of a competition. Orica-GreenEdge were still in charge and had passed the pink jersey to Michael “Bling” Matthews who employed his sprinting skills to stay near the front when he needed to be and every now and again the GC riders like Evans and Urán could be spotted paying attention but if this was a play you would have been unimpressed by the opening scenes and the needless removal of one of the main characters.
Part Two: The return to the Italy
As homecomings go it was another disappointment that was waiting for the peloton after the transfer day. Despite it being in the deep south of the peninsula more rain was on the cards and though it was warmer it certainly wasn't safer, far from it. With skid pan levels of grip available it was understandable that a truce was called by the wise men of the race for most of the stage. The negotiated deal being there would still be a result to be decided for those who were feeling particularly inclined to risk it all in Bari but for the GC time taken was after two laps of the three originally planned.
For the finale then the desperate and crazy could indulge themselves in a free for all which unsurprisingly most of the sprinters thought was worth the risk. With Marcel Kittel's withdrawal through illness it was the chance for someone else to be the fastest and despite a mechanical heading into the final lap Nacer Bouhanni dodged the crashes and skidded round the final bends to blast past Giant Shimano's Tom Veelers for the win. To say he was committed would be a bit of an understatement.
Stage 5 with an uphill finish in the backyard of Domenico Pozzovivo promised to be the first skirmish of the GC contenders and almost unbelievably that's actually how it turned out. Despite more rain on the final downhill it came down to a shoot-out on the ascent to Viggiano and finally some good news for the Italian fans.
Lampre's Diego Ulissi timed his sprint perfectly to hold off Evans and Arredondo after Katusha had led out but Joaquim Rodriguez went too early and could only manage seventh which was one place behind Michael Matthews who kept the race lead for Orica-GreenEdge. There was some interesting sparring between the favourites but only Kiserlovski lost a few seconds in the final kilometres.
Stage 6 will be remembered not for Michael Matthews defending his race lead impeccably by winning the uphill finish at Montecassino but for the mega crash on the approach to the final climb that hindered or removed all the GC favourites bar Cadel Evans.
At over 250 km this was the longest day of the race and it turned out to be very painful for all the wrong reasons when rain came down just when the racing got really serious. This turned out to be one of those pile-ups where it was almost easier to list who wasn't affected than who was.
With bodies and bikes everywhere there was serious confusion but once the dust settled and the ambulances were heading to hospitals the recriminations began with some suggesting that the Evans group should have waited for those hindered. I'm not sure if BMC were right or wrong to continue riding but you have to ask yourself would Movistar or Omega Pharma have waited in the same circumstances? I doubt it and that's without considering whether there were old scores to be paid for.
So at the finish of another dramatic day Cadel Evans took almost 50 seconds from his most notable rivals Uran, Ulissi and Quintana, with Scarponi and Cunego conceding one minute thirty but others were worse off than that. A broken looking Joaquim Rodriguez came in at eight minutes, Nicolas Roche lost fifteen minutes and Trek's Arredondo eighteen.
Part Three: who still has nine lives?
And victory number two for Nacer Bouhanni on stage 7. What I'd consider the first normal stage of this year's race as the result was unaffected by the weather, crashes or unforeseen circumstances. Orica-GreenEdge did their race leader duties, controlling the gap to the early break until the sprinters’ teams took over and ensured a bunch sprint. Despite having to surf the wheels when he lost his lead-out men the FDJ sprinter came round Mezgec and Nizzolo with an impressive acceleration.
With a scary number of riders bandaged and bleeding a traditional day of tactics and a hint of sunshine was a welcome reprieve.
And victory number two for Diego Ulissi on stage 8. Julian Arredondo was the star of the day being caught and passed two kilometres from the finish after he had been part the day long break. However he did pick up most of the mountain points available despite the presence of the fabulously annoying surges of Stefano Pirazzi. That classification, I suspect, will be the young Colombian's objective of this Giro now that any pretensions to a high GC placing are gone.
From the lead group of twenty odd riders that fought out the stage victory on the slopes of Montecopiolo Cadel Evans didn't seem to be under that much pressure despite some good riding from Pozzivivo's Ag2r team onto the last climb and the only real casualty of the day was Michelle Scarponi who lost nine minutes.
It had been BMC and Movistar controlling things up until the French team chased down Pierre Rolland and tried to set up an opportunity for their diminutive leader but he came up short in the sprint which Ulissi again timed perfectly to come over Robert Kiserlovski in the final fifty meters. Of the pre-race favourites Evans looked like he was keeping his energies for the final week, same with Uran and Rafal Majka.
Although Evans rode defensively, with the Australian taking over the pink jersey, he will be placed under more scrutiny from now on. Of the old guys Basso was surprisingly solid and hiding in the background was one Ryder Hesjedal, who was looking a lot happier than he was in Belfast.
On stage 9 we saw, for the first time, one of the escapees succeeded in getting to the end without being caught and Orica-GreenEdge's Peter Weening compensated for the team losing the race lead by winning the two-man sprint from Europcar's Davide Malacarne.
The big talking point of the day was the attack of Pozzovivo from the favourites’ group to take back just under thirty seconds from Cadel Evans and move into fourth place on GC with the really big mountains still to come. Interestingly the French teams of Ag2r, Eurocar and FdJ continued to show that they weren't afraid to get involved in the action and that's a bit of a surprise as it's been a good while since we saw riders from those teams actually contributing to the decision making at any of the Grand Tours. That bodes well for the final week as they don't have riders who can wait for the time trials to make the difference. Guys like Pozzovivo and Pierre Rolland have to take chances from far out to stay in the GC fight.
It's definitely been an Australian show for the first nine days of the 2014 Giro. Orica-GreenEdge have enjoyed the limelight since the start in Ireland, Michael Matthews has shown he has great form and with Cadel Evans now sitting in the pink jersey heading into the second week the Ozfest looks like continuing for a while yet. The surviving GC favourites have been playing it cagey, waiting for a moment of weakness from the 2011 Tour de France champion but so far that hasn't happened.
- Robert Millar
Robert Millar was one of the last pure climbers of the Tour de France, winning several stages in the mountain stages and finishing fourth overall in 1984. He is also the only English speaker to have ever won the prestigious polka-dot jersey climber's competition jersey. Millar retired in 1995 but has continued to follow the sport closely. He was often critical of the media and quickly cuts through the excuses and spin to understand why and how riders win and lose.
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