Russian rushes to Giro glory despite final fall
Rightly or wrongly, 31-year-old Denis Menchov has built a reputation of being cool, calculating and defensive; making efforts when they are needed, then maintaining a vice-like grip once in the race lead. Sunday's dramatic finish of the Giro d'Italia contrasted utterly with the calm, assured way he went about winning this race, and so too did his burst of emotion after the line.
It's not often he shows such an explosion of joy, but then again these were special circumstances. "I tried to stay very focused and quiet during the whole Giro," Menchov said afterwards, explaining his impassive demeanor throughout the race. "And I knew when I was finished, all the tension was gone. It was the stress and emotion of 21 days. I had to let go.
"This win is very special - when I won the Vuelta, it was more calm," he continued. "This is the best win I've ever had in my career, because of the Centenary, because of the media, and because of the riders who took part. I think I really deserved to express that [emotion] after the finish."
Fittingly for a contest that ended in the shadow of the Colosseum, both he and closest challenger Danilo Di Luca had a real gladiatorial ding-dong in the final time trial. Di Luca tore out of the blocks and sprinted almost continuously to clock pole position at the first time check, using his well-known explosiveness on the long drag after the start.
Di Luca hardly sat in the saddle in that time and, watching him throw his bike around, it was clear that he couldn't possibly keep that frenzy going for the full 14.4-kilometre distance. Menchov, on the other hand, gauged things perfectly. He had elected for a time trial bike rather than the road bike chosen by his rival, and that, his noticeably lower position and his superior pacing saw him carve the pedals around, cut through the air, and ultimately go far quicker.
It was precise stuff. At the first time check he was fifth; at the second, he was up to third, and from there he continued to accelerate. In fact, he looked like being the likely stage winner until his bike slid and skittered away, throwing him to the ground and giving his directeur sportif, his team and his fans a completely unexpected shock.
Menchov is a tough cookie, though, and aided by a phenomenally quick bike change, he got going again and finished, placing tenth on the stage.
The fall was unforeseen as he had been riding carefully. "I didn't take risks, because I felt very good, I had very good legs today," he said afterwards. "So I didn't take chances in the first corners. In the final, when it started raining, I rode without risk. I was perhaps a little afraid of crashing in the final, but I was going slower than we normally go in the dry."
Despite that caution, he still hit the deck. Bizarrely, it happened when he was travelling in a straight line rather than arcing around a bend. Yet his mechanic was there almost immediately, leaping out of the team car and handing him a new machine to use.
"When you crash, the first thing you want to take back is your bike," he said. "But I was very calm, and before I had time to ask for a new bike, it was already there. It's better to take a new bike because there's too many risks [if you use the old one]."
So what went through his mind at that moment? "I don't know, I had no time to think," he answered. "I had information [through my earpiece] that everything was okay; I was told, ‘don't take risks, don't risk anything, don't panic'. I had information that I was more than half a minute ahead on the general [classification]. I didn't have to panic - I just had to take a new bike and finish the stage."
The seconds after the crash were undoubtedly a time of conflicting emotions for Di Luca; his expression showed that clearly. Victory must have looked possible then, even for a few seconds, but he would also have had the realisation that after three weeks and 21 stages, a final kilometre-misfortune would be no way to win the race.
The Italian was gracious in defeat, while Menchov was respectful in victory. "I saw Danilo after the race and we congratulated each other. I told him it was a great pleasure to fight with him," he said, paying credit to the 2007 Giro champion. "It's thanks to him and the people, who were very enthusiastic about the race. And I think to beat him makes me more important. It was very impressive and spectacular in all its aspects, this Giro."
Building towards the centenary maglia rosa
Born on January 25th 1978, Denis Menchov hails from Oryol, a small Russian city approximately 360 kilometres south-south-west of Moscow. He's been racing for a long time and as a twenty-year old amateur, he won the Ronde de l'Isard d'Ariège and the Volta Ciclista Provincia Tarragona. Those performances earned him a slot as a stagiaire with the Banesto team in 1999.
Menchov stayed with that setup until the end of the 2004, netting stages in the Vuelta a España, the Vuelta Castilla y León, the Vuelta Ciclista a Aragón and the Dauphiné Libére, as well as overall victories in the Tour de L'Avenir and the Vuelta Ciclista al País Vasco.
In 2003 he showed his Grand Tour ability when he finished eleventh overall in the general classification of the Tour de France and won the best young rider award. Menchov's first triumph in a three-week race would come after he changed to the Rabobank team in 2005; he ended that year's Vuelta four minutes and 36 seconds behind Roberto Heras (Liberty Seguros), but was retrospectively awarded the win when Heras tested positive for EPO.
The record books show Menchov as the victor but he missed out on the sensations of riding into Madrid in the Maillot Oro and spraying the champagne from the top step of the podium. He didn't have to wait long, however; he dominated the 2007 Vuelta, seizing the jersey on stage nine and holding it until the end of the race. He ended it three minutes and 31 seconds ahead of Carlos Sastre (CSC) and a further 15 seconds ahead of Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel Euskadi).
His haul was impressive; in addition to the general classification, Menchov also won the mountains prize, the combativity award and a stage. Yet, as he said on Sunday, the Italian win trumps that. "I think the performance of this Giro is my best till now," he stated. "I was really confident. I don't why, but I was feeling really good. I hope it's a natural and logical thing.
"I was improving over the years, little by little. Also, my age, 32 to 35 is perfect. So I think it's my age, experience, and good feelings [that have contributed to this win]."
Menchov headed away from Italy with the maglia rosa, the winner's trophy, and also two very special memories. "The most beautiful moment was the stage to Sestri Levante [the stage 12 time trial]," he said. "It was my best win. I will speak about it to my children when they grow older. But the most dramatic was today. It [the race] was like an adventure."
He now plans to head back to his adopted home in Spain and rest for a few days. He said that he was looking forward to seeing his family and to spend time with his children. It's time to switch off for a little while; the Giro was hot and hectic, defending the leader's jersey was stressful, and so too the questions that were asked during the race about his alleged links to Vienna blood bank, Humanplasma.
As regards the latter, he insists that he has no involvement and is happy to talk to the investigators and clear his name. Time will tell what comes of that, whether the story will prove to be unfounded or whether he will be yet another big name to be busted.
But, providing his name is cleared, he will head to the Tour de France determined to chase another big prize. Thus far, his fourth place of last year is his best performance in the race, a result that should soon be upgraded to third when Bernhard Kohl is officially disqualified.
Yet that's not enough. Winning the Giro will only further his ambition, develop his confidence, and encourage him to set his sights higher. Triumphing in Rome was special; celebrating in Paris would be even bigger.
Russian riders and the Giro d'Italia
Despite a long tradition of success in the Olympics, the ban on professionalism meant that Russian riders were absent from the major stage races until relatively recently.
The first Russian rider to compete in the Tour de France was Dimitri Konyshev in 1990, who was joined in the race by Dimitri Zhdanov the following year. Konyshev was also the first to win a stage, netting victory in Pau during his first participation.
Four years after that important success, Evgeni Berzin became the first Russian rider to win a Grand Tour, triumphing in the Giro d’Italia. He was a former world champion at the individual and team pursuit disciplines and turned professional with the Mecair-Ballan team in 1993.
A stunning - but brief - period of glory followed the next season when, at 23 years of age, he was part of the Gewiss one-two-three in Flèche Wallone, sandwiched between Moreno Argentin and Giorgio Furlan, beat Lance Armstrong and Furlan to win Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and then went on to dominate the Giro.
Berzin jumped clear on the mountainous fourth stage, led the race from there until the finish and bested runner-up Marco Pantani by two minutes and 51 seconds. Miguel Indurain was a further 32 seconds back in third.
The season was a controversial one, as the Gewiss team doctor at the time was Michelle Ferrari and the team was widely suspected of using EPO. Ferrari infamously said, "EPO is not dangerous, it's the abuse that is. It's also dangerous to drink 10 liters of orange juice."
Gewiss eventually banned him from dealing with its riders, but Ferrari went on to work with some of the biggest names in the sport, including Lance Armstrong.
Whether or not the doping suspicions were true, Berzin’s career burned out soon afterwards. He won a stage and finished second to another Ferrari client Tony Rominger in the 1995 Giro, then won a stage and finished tenth a year later. He took won a stage in the 1996 Tour de France, leading the race briefly before slumping to a final finishing position of 20th overall.
And that was largely it. In 1997 he tried to take the world hour record then held by Chris Boardman but quickly fell behind pace, abandoning after 17 minutes. His career continued towards anonymity and he retired in 2000, aged just 30.
The second Russian to win the Giro d’Italia did so in 1996. Pavel Tonkov was born 27 years earlier and came from Izhevsk, a former closed city in the Western Urals. In 1987 he became world junior road race champion. In 1992 he made his professional debut with the Russ Baikal team, winning the Settimana Ciclista Lombarda. He took stage victories in the Tour de Suisse in 1993 and 1995, and won the overall classification in the second of those years.
The 1996 Giro was his biggest triumph, however. He won a stage and held the maglia rosa from stages 13 - 19. Abraham Olano took over for stage 20, but Tonkov then wrenched it back and finished the race two minutes and 43 seconds ahead of Italian rider Enrico Zaina. Olano was third, a further 14 seconds down, and would have to wait until the 1998 Vuelta to win his only Grand Tour.
Tonkov continued to race at a high level for several seasons. He was second in the 1997 and 1998 Giri d’Italia, finishing on the podium behind Marco Pantani and Ivan Gotti respectively, while in 2000 he was third overall in the Vuelta. He took stage wins in the 2002 and 2004 Giri, and retired in 2005.
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