The Tour de France maybe the biggest grand tour in cycling but in recent years, the Giro d’Italia has created some of the most spectacular racing and this year’s corsa rosa was one of the best ever.
The start in the Netherlands, the dirt roads in Tuscany, frequent changes in the overall standings and then a hard fought final week in the mountains produced three weeks of consistently entertaining action.
Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Doimo) emerged as the overall winner after the time trial into the Roman arena in Verona, but it had been a nail-biting race after Spain’s David Arroyo (Caisse d’Epargne) gained more than 12 minutes on the main favourites during the rain-soaked stage to L’Aquila. He hung on to finish second overall, just 1:51 behind.
Basso's teammate Vincenzo Nibali proved his credentials by taking third at 2:37, while Richie Porte (Saxo Bank) also confirmed his budding talent by finishing seventh overall and best young rider. Australia won three of the four jerseys at the Giro, with Cadel Evans (BMC) winning the red points jersey and Matt Lloyd (Omega Pharma-Lotto) taking the green climber’s jersey.
Three days in the Netherlands
The 93rd edition of the Giro d’Italia started in Amsterdam in the Netherlands, with rain and wind adding an extra twist to the action.
The opening 8.4km time trial was held on wet roads in the centre of Amsterdam but Bradley Wiggins held his nerve and gave Team Sky its first ever grand tour leader’s jersey. Brent Bookwalter was second and his highly-credentialed BMC teammate Cadel Evans was third as other riders opted to brake and avoid embarrassing crashes.
That was impossible the next day, as traffic furniture caused crash chaos. Evans took the pink jersey but he then lost it to Vinokourov on stage three to Middelburg after he was delayed by a pile-up on a windswept section on the coastal roads that exposed the weakness of his team. It was a thrilling start of the Giro to watch but painful for many of the riders.
Team time trial
The suffering continued after the first rest day and the transfer back to Italy. Heavy rain affected the team time trial to Cuneo, with Liquigas-Doimo winning the stage and putting Vincenzo Nibali in pink. The Italian team rode well but was lucky with the rain. Team Sky was not so fortunate and rode through a deluge, finishing 13 seconds slower, with HTC-Columbia at 21 seconds.
Two days later Matt Lloyd took control of the climber’s jersey with a classy stage win in Marina di Carrara. The little Aussie scored points on four climbs and then dropped Androni Giocattoli rider Rubens Bertogliati to win alone. He used his head, legs and teammates for the rest and secured the green jersey.
Iconic dirt roads
Stage seven to Montalcino will be remembered as one of the most iconic stages of the Giro after heavy rain turned the stage on the strade bianche of Tuscany into a battle of survival and turned the race upside down yet again.
Nibali was in the pink jersey and Liquigas seemed in control until he crashed - ironically, on a section of normal road - together with three teammates. The other the riders didn’t wait for them and attacked on the dirt road sections, with Astana's Alexandre Vinokourov driving hard, knowing he could pull on pink.
Cadel Evans was with him and seemed comfortable on the dirt thanks to his past as a mountain biker. Evans made sure he was on the front for the final corner and then powered up the short climb to the finish in Montalcino. He thoroughly deserved his special bottle of Brunello red wine, as did every rider who made it to the finish. This was like pre-war bike racing, with riders faces covered in mud and pain.
Arroyo takes control in L’Aquila
The action eased slightly as the race headed south and Matt Goss (HTC-Columbia) and Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions) won sprint stages but then Arroyo took the pink jersey after stage 11, when the main favourites preferred to take it easy in the rain on the road to L’Aquila.
Race leader Vinokourov and Astana did not want to chase and called Liquigas-Doimo’s bluff, but the Italians also sat up and the break gained a whopping 12 minutes. Richie Porte (Saxo Bank) pulled on the pink jersey. Arroyo was at 1:42 and Basso was at a distant 11:49.
Katusha's mercurial Italian Filippo Pozzato won in Porto Recanati and local hero Manuel Belletti gave Colnago a big day out by taking the sprint in Cesenatico. However the mountains were looming and ready to host a showdown between Basso, Nibali and Evans. Who would emerge as the best climber and could they take enough time back from Arroyo and Porte?
Nibali took a fine win after a lone attack on the Asolo climb but was ready to work for Basso, who appeared back to his best in his second season after his doping ban. Stage 15 finished atop Monte Zoncolan with a huge crowd surrounding the finish in a natural stadium formed by the mountains. Evans and Basso emerged as strongest but then the Australian cracked, losing 1:19. Arroyo hung onto the pink jersey but now Basso was only 3:33 behind.
The Plan des Corones time trial was again a real test because of the gradient and dirt track finish but created little time gaps. Stefano Garzelli (Aqua & Sapone) took the crown as king of the hill.
Andrei Greipel finally won a sprint for HTC-Columbia after several slip-ups earlier on, as the overall contenders got ready for the showdown in the mountains. Stage 19 included the Mortirolo and finished in Aprica, while stage 20 climbed above 2,200 metres four times and included the Passo di Gavia.
Michele Scarponi (Androni Giocattoli) won in Aprica but Liquigas took charge and Basso finally took the pink jersey from Arroyo. With Nibali riding for his older teammate, the boys in lime green were always in control as their rivals faded after three hard weeks of racing. Cervélo TestTeam veteran Carlos Sastre was struggling with back problems, Evans had been ill mid-race and Arroyo ran out of climbing legs.
The Gavia was surprisingly conquered by Bbox Bouygues Telecom’s Johan Tschopp, who spoiled Gilberto Simoni’s swansong as Basso extended his overall lead.
The final 15km individual time trial to Verona became a day of celebration for Basso. He was greeted by his family and a huge cheer and pulled on the final pink jersey.
When he won the Giro in 2006, Basso’s victory was soon clouded in doubt because he was implicated in Operación Puerto. His coach Aldo Sassi insisted there were no doubts about this victory, ahead of Arroyo and Nibali, as Italian cycling seemed to enjoy three weeks with little talk of doping and police investigation.