Giro d'Italia feature, May 29, 2008
Germany's André Greipel took the biggest win of his career when he took the sprint in stage 17 of the Giro d'Italia, but to get there the Team High Road rider had to suffer through several brutal mountain stages where many a sprinter climbed off.
The win in Locarno's Piazza Grande was a testament to both Greipel's perseverance and the American team's hard work throughout the three-week Giro d'Italia. High Road is one of just five teams to have kept all nine riders in the race, battling crashes, fatigue and the time cuts which have slowly whittled the peloton down.
The mountains nearly deprived Greipel of his chance at glory, when last Sunday, the relentless series of climbs in the Dolomites almost cracked his spirit. "When we did the last hard mountain stage, I nearly stopped three times," confessed the fresh faced Greipel following his win. "I kept going... Yesterday, in the rest day, I felt good and we did some sprints. I knew then that I was not tired."
"We wanted to win as a team and we won as a team." -Greipel dispelled any notion that the win was a gift, or any cause of a rift.
With a rest day behind him, the 25-year-old had new energy to help control the race on the 146 kilometre march from Sondrio to Locarno. "Today, I felt good in the stage and the team worked well to control the escape."
Cavendish and Greipel were delivered to the line by the likes of German Tony Martin, Australian Adam Hansen and Brit Bradley Wiggins, who were able to control the final ten kilometres perfectly. After reeling in the last man from the day's breakaway, Mikhail Ignatiev of Tinkoff Credit Systems, then spoiling the effort of CSC's Jens Voigt, the team was able to prevent Milram's lead-out man, Alberto Ongarato, from pushing into their train.
Normally, Greipel would be the last man leading out his young team-mate Mark Cavendish, who took two previous stage wins. When the black and white team led through to the final corner where Greipel took the lead, he never relinquished that position and took his first Grand Tour stage.
The German complemented his talented squad for putting in such an impressive performance. "Rabon, Wiggins – World Pursuit Champion – Pinotti, Hansen – Australian Time Trial Champion – and Tony Martin, who is also a strong time trialer and really young. Yeah, of course, I think we are the fastest train here in the Giro and we have showed it the whole time. Today, no one could follow us. Ongarato was impressive, but Cavendish and I are some of the fastest sprinters."
Coming into the last corner at 250 metres to go, it was Greipel leading Cavendish, Daniele Bennati (Liquigas) and Erik Zabel (Team Milram), and the order did not change at the finish line.
"It was the plan that I was first into the last corner. The team did a really good job. They did a really good lead-out, no one could follow us. Tony Martin did the lead-out before and I started my sprint." It was then a case of, "Who[ever] can pass me can pass me."
Nobody passed him, not even his team-mate Cavendish, winner of two stages thus far in the 91st Giro d'Italia. The Manx-man was busy keeping an eye on the position of Bennati through the final 250 metres, not concerning himself with winning the sprint. "If Bennati had accelerated then, I would have accelerated too," explained the 23-year-old Cavendish, who was actually the first of the two High Road riders to raise his arms in victory at the line.
While the press was keen to make an issue out of the team's second man coming to the line ahead of its star sprinter, Greipel downplayed the idea that the win was a gift from Cavendish. "I think he tried to pass me," he insisted. "I think if you are a sprinter you want to win." Regardless, the stage winner knows that a team victory is important no matter which member of the team takes it.
"I think everyone was happy with me. I think when he won the last time I did a really good job for him," Greipel said. "We came first and second today. We wanted to win as a team and we won as a team. He [Cavendish - ed.] said nothing to me, but I think he was happy with me. ... I knew that I am fast and I think that I am strong in the sprint; I am one of the fastest in the bunch. Either way, we would have been first and second."
The High Road team is roaring in the 91st Giro d'Italia and it wishes to do the same in the Tour de France in July. It is not certain whether or not the team will take a 'sprint team' or 'classification team' to the world's largest race.
"I don't know who is going to the Tour," Greipel explained. "It is different because we want to also have a rider for the general classification. It is really important for the team. After the Giro, I need a rest and I really don't know who will go to the Tour de France.
Cheers to 2008's first ProTour leader
Greipel led the ProTour briefly in 2008 thanks to his dominance in its first event of 2008, the Tour Down Under. He won four stages and the overall of the Australian tour before returning to Europe. The ProTour leadership was forgotten as he continued his world travels with a trip to the Tour de Georgia in the USA.
"I think I did really good in Australia," Greipel reflected. "I believed in myself and I knew I was fast. If the team is behind me then I can win. I think in the sprint you don't need good form, I am always good in the sprint.
"I think that a three-week race is always very hard. You have to think from day to day. I did a lot of races in three continents. We are an international team and we have to do races in every country... I think that we are one of the best teams in the world. We have now won three stages in this three-week race. It is really important for us to have success to find a sponsor."