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A look at the school, the races and the future of this unique 'sport'
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Team Columbia-Highroad hammer their way through Saturday's opening stage of the Centenary Giro d'Italia
Julian Dean (Garmin-Slipstream) already in his time trial tuck.
Riding as if Venice was to sink tomorrow and the lives of nine men depended on it, Team Columbia-Highroad hammered their way through Saturday's opening stage of the Centenary Giro d'Italia, awarding their precocious sprinter Mark Cavendish the venerable honour of the race's first maglia rosa.
On this crisp, clear spring afternoon on the island of Lido, the whopping sandbar a stone's throw from Venice that separates the world's most famous fluvial archipelago from the Adriatic, the tiger-striped squad stopped the clock after 21:50. Over 20.5 kilometres, they set an incredible average of 56.33 km/h.
"I wear the maglia rosa for the whole team tomorrow," said Cavendish.
"The next few days will be sprints, which will suit me and the team. Obviously, the pressure's off because of today, but we'll try for more wins. I've got no problems wearing this shirt, so I'll keep going as long as I can."
An eclectic mix of seven nationalities they may be, but when all nine crossed the line in Lido's Piazzale Ravà as one, you'd be forgiven for thinking Barry, Boasson Hagen, Cavendish, Lövkvist, Pinotti, Possoni, Renshaw, Rogers and Siutsou came from the same family.
"I was nervous; we were worried about every team. Being first off, it was hard, waiting at the anti-doping control; waiting two-and-a-half hours before going for a wee was pretty hard... " joked the laconic, dry-humoured Cavendish.
Second would be good for most - except Jonathan Vaughters' Garmin-Slipstream team.
Over the previous weeks leading to the 92nd edition of the Giro d'Italia and over various public loudspeakers, they announced it was their intention to replicate what many didn't think they could do last year. When Tour de France revelation Christian Vande Velde found himself pretty in pink in 2008, albeit for a day, it sent a warning shot that Garmin was a team to stay, play, and win.
On Saturday, however, when Australian Cameron Meyer was the fourth rider to trail in the team's wake in the final kilometre, Garmin finishing with the minimum of five riders, had things perhaps not gone to plan, despite a seemingly small six-second deficit?
What sort of message did that send? That they're beatable? They're vulnerable? Or maybe it's just a small glitch; a few riders having an off day. Over the next three weeks, we'll know for sure.
Team manager Jonathan Vaughters said, "Of course it's disappointing not to win when you've worked so hard, but does that mean we should work less hard? Of course not. We always planned to finish with five riders, and it was a very smooth ride. There were no execution errors.
"Winning today was definitely a goal but the result can't be a specific parameter to measure the process. I think that the guys did a great team time trial. We went six seconds slower than the number one team in the world. Contrary to the consensus among some people we have other goals over the next three weeks."
Asked if he enjoyed beating Garmin-Slipstream, Cavendish hesitated before answering. "Sure... who wouldn't? Doesn't matter who was second; as long as we won, we were happy.
"I want to take this opportunity to clear up what I said yesterday. It wasn't [directed] at the whole team, just the comments by the director. The riders are really, really good guys. I maybe regretted [what I said] towards the riders, but what I said... I think a lot of people think that," he laughed.
Arguably the strongest squad in the race, Astana showed the colours of Kazakhstan (though maybe for not much longer) to round out the podium, no slow-pokes at 13 seconds adrift of Columbia-Highroad. Their best riders including many tip as the man to beat, Levi Leipheimer, were all there in the end - Lance Armstrong, Chris Horner and Yaroslav Popovych no doubt licking their sweat-stained lips at what lies ahead.
The teams of previous Giro champions Danilo Di Luca (LPR Brakes-Farnese Vini, 4th at 22 seconds), Ivan Basso (Liquigas, 8th at 40 seconds), and Damiano Cunego (Lampre, 9th at 42 seconds) can return to the Italian mainland Sunday with confidence.
While they were not the winners of two years ago - after all, they're not the same team when he took the 2007 edition - the 33-year-old Di Luca and co. are clearly in good enough form to fight in this crucial first week, where this 21-stage, 3,456.5 kilometre test can well be lost, even if it isn't won.
Basso, a much-improved climber-cum-time trialist before being handed a two two-year suspension for his involvement in Operación Puerto, will probably fare better alone without his team in the following two individual time trials. With his comparative lack of race fitness, one can only see the 31-year-old grow stronger as the days unfold.
Conversely, their compatriots Gilberto Simoni and Stefano Garzelli, with three overall wins between them, all suffered from the strength of their teams - or more precisely, their lack of it.
Simoni, champion in 2001 and 2003, and his near-unpronounceable Serramenti PVC Diquigiovanni-Androni Giocattoli coterie finished 16th out of 22 teams; while 35-year-old Garzelli looks to be past his prime, Acqua & Sapone 16 seconds short of the wooden spoon, the dubious honour awarded to Fuji-Servetto.
With a time and position that slotted them straight down the middle, the performance from the team of 2008 Tour de France champion Carlos Sastre seems to have reaffirmed what the Spaniard's been saying all along: that he's come to Italy to prepare for the Tour.
Start first, finish first
First cab off the rank was Columbia-High Road, along with Garmin-Slipstream one of two clear pre-race favourites with powerhouse time trialists Rogers, Lövkvist and Pinotti in their nine-man clan.
Mild temps, a slight easterly and a dead-flat parcours proved to be the perfect scenario for this team that has definitively banished the T-Mobile doping demons of years past, under the guidance of general manager Bob Stapleton. And when all nine men finished together, 10 seconds short of the 22-minute mark, it was clear they had spent themselves to absolute perfection.
The following two squads, Rabobank and Barloworld, did well to limit their losses to under a minute, and by the day's end the boys clad in white and mandarin-orange rode well enough finish seventh, 38 seconds off the winning pace.
But what really caused a stir was Garmin-Slipstream.
Unsurprisingly, Dave Zabriskie and Tom Danielson were two of their strongest, shown trading huge pulls at the front of their largely single-file train. Whether it was the lack of television coverage or a first sign of weakness, however, their other crono specialists David Millar, Bradley Wiggins and Christian Vande Velde didn't seem to be firing as they normally would - perhaps mentally interrupted by the unexpected loss of four team-mates out on the road.
Realistically, it was Astana, the last to leave, that stood any chance of changing the face of the first day's podium. Yet they too couldn't find what Columbia-High Road appeared to have in spades: a heady cocktail of supreme confidence matched with the form of their lives.