Up until Thursday’s stage finish, Oleg Tinkov's Giro d'Italia was going swimmingly. Of course he'd have told you it's not a surprise at all, that it's part of his greater plan. Seeing as the Giro d'Italia is his first love amongst the Grand Tours, it makes me wonder if Tinkov got to sleep in his first maglia rosa after the stage to Abetone. Tinkov’s problem now is that, with Alberto Contador having bounced down the road in Thursday’s finishing straight, the pyjama party celebrations may well be over before they've even got properly started.
It's been an interesting opening week and a lot harder than many predicted. What was it Greg Lemond said about the Italian race? Training, hmmm… No disrespect meant but during his career, Greg probably wasn't taking it as seriously as the guys in the front were. I don't remember any tranquillo stages when I raced the Giro d'Italia. In fact there were plenty when chaos ensued just like Tuesday's run to La Spezia.
That stage reminded me of the similar panic we experienced in the 1987 Giro d'Italia, when Stephen Roche attacked Roberto Visentini, who just happened to be race leader and on the same Carrera team. They had the Irishman in the front riding flat out and the rest of the team riding flat out trying to catch him. I think the idea was that the other teams would chase but we didn't. We sat back and watched in amazement. Like the stage 4 casino this year, there were guys riding in the front then their team chasing behind when the gap got too big. The riders sent across the gap were told to ride, then told not to ride, then maybe a bit but not too much. You would think that the directeur sportif back in the cars didn't quite know what to do and what might happen. You'd be right. That it kind of all worked out in the end was more by luck than fabulous well-calculated tactics.
Of the major teams, the only one who came out of the stage without egg on their faces was Team Sky and that has to be the biggest surprise of all. In fact up until now Richie Porte has ridden the coolest race of the big favourites. Contador can't help attacking if he notices the slightest opportunity and Aru has the home media and tifosi to get him over-excited. In previous Grand Tours Team Sky would have ridden needlessly during at least one stage but at this year's Giro they've been tactically excellent. Except for the team time trial. Ooops. Finishing ninth must have hurt their pride.
For example, Tinkoff-Saxo messed up working all day on Monday for no real reason and then had to rely on Astana to bale them out the next day when Kreuziger was sent out to cause a reaction. Etixx-QuickStep doesn't have the troops to deal with the up and down roads that the opening stages have been over. And what with Rigoberto Uran looking decidedly second-hand already, they'll do well to stay out of the squabbles until the race comes to its senses.
Much to his delight, I fear any calming of proceedings might just depend on how long Oleg decides his presence is necessary in the team car and if Contador's shoulder can withstand his climbing style. Things are looking ominous for his overall ambitions now because when the road goes upwards, Astana will be the people in charge. The Kazakhs can count on five guys in the first group when Contador and Porte are down to just half that number at best. The tempo they've then been setting on the climbs has been rather impressive. They'll definitely be troubling the Oleg Tinkov game plan.
The good thing about the first skirmishes and stage finishes is that the majority of the guys doing the winning are all relatively young and new, fresh faces in the sport. I ought to say sorry to Andre Greipel because he's not really that old. Elia Viviani might be all of 26 but all the others are best young rider white jersey material. Bling Matthews has been here before but Formolo and Polanc are hopefully going to develop into GC contenders. You don't win a mountain stage at the Giro d'Italia by accident, especially not in the manor which they achieved their victories.
Talking of accidents, the bad news is that the Giro d'Italia is the trickiest of the Grand Tours to negotiate. Many stages are on small, twisty rural roads and you can't know all the corners. There's slippery tarmac now and then, and worst of all, there will be at least one mass pile-up. The teams can only hope any mishaps won't be too serious and that the nutters stay well out the way. I obviously don't include Oleg in the latter category by the way.
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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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