The Tour of the Alps came to its grand conclusion in typical style on Friday with the overall classification contenders pushing each other to their limits with relentless attacking over multiple climbs. Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) came out on top, beating Domenico Pozzovivo (Bahrain-Merida) and Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) by 15 seconds.
The five-day Italian race is short, not only in days but also in distance with stages coming in between 134 and 164 kilometres in length. While it is an entirely different prospect to the grind that can be a Grand Tour, it gave us a sneaking glimpse of what we might expect at the Giro d’Italia next month with most of the major contenders lining out in Ora last Monday.
Cyclingnews has taken a look back at the finer points of the Tour of the Alps and analyses what it means for the forthcoming corsa rosa.
Chris Froome's big ask
Chris Froome was unable to give Team Sky a fourth consecutive victory at the Tour of the Alps, but seeing how Richie Porte, Mikel Landa and Geraint Thomas all struggled in some way in recent years, he can perhaps hope the cycling gods are finally going to give him a break and a problem-free run at a first ever Giro d’Italia victory.
His salbutamol case hangs like a sword of Damocles above his career but Froome and Team Sky are convinced that the British rider has a real chance of completing a Giro-Tour double and are planning and preparing as a consequence.
A lot has changed for both Froome and Team Sky since he won the Tour and Vuelta last summer but they seem determined to put their heads down and ride on, despite pressure from UCI president David Lappartient, in the hope that some kind of miracle will explain his salbutamol level from the Vuelta and so avoid a ban from racing.
Froome was not at his best for the Tour of the Alps, because he is convinced that a gradual build-up will allow him to peak in late May and then recover time during June for a second peak during the Tour de France. His attacks were human and his rivals were always able to chase him down, while he was often left struggling and distanced when his rivals attacked him.
Froome took it all on the chin and wheeled out valid arguments for his lack of success. He still has two weeks to find that extra slice of form and a further six stages before the first mountain stage of the Giro d’Italia to Mount Etna. Then, and each day after, will offer a real verdict on his chances of winning the Giro d’Italia.
The Giro-Tour is always a big ask, and a huge challenge. It is even bigger with a salbutamol case in the background, but Froome has decided to take it on.
Less is more for Pinot
Having just missed out on a podium spot at last year’s Giro d’Italia, Thibaut Pinot appears to be coming into top form at just the right time after claiming his first victory of the season at the Tour of the Alps. Pinot had hardly raced in the build-up to the event, with just nine days, across two races, in the bank before it started last Monday.
Pinot has spent his time training at altitude, recently heading to Sicily with teammates, and the lack of racing kilometres does not appear to have hindered him. Though few, his performances have been good so far this season with fifth at Haut Var and 10th at the Volta a Catalunya. While he did not win a stage this week, he remained consistent. Pinot finished outside the top five just once throughout the whole week, on the final day when the race was already won.
The question for Pinot now will be whether or not he can maintain, or even improve on, this form for the next month and a bit. In recent seasons, Team Sky has struggled to capitalise on strong performances at the Tour of the Alps, but perhaps Pinot’s light race schedule will pay dividends once again.
Astana versus Team Sky: the clash of the super teams
The Astana team fielded virtually all their Giro d’Italia squad at the Tour of Alps and their three stage victories and Miguel Angel Lopez’s third place proved they will be a force to be reckoned with between Israel and Rome.
Chris Froome seemed impressed with Astana’s ability to put numerous riders in the final selection of each stage, perhaps because he could only count on a superb Kenny Elissonde. He must be wondering if Team Sky will be able to match Astana’s firepower at the Giro d’Italia when their final line-up includes Wout Poels and other riders from the Ardennes squad.
It was fascinating to see Team Sky and Astana clash at the Tour of the Alps. On Stage 3 to Merano, both played brinksmanship as Thibaut Pinot almost rode away to victory. Astana tried to force Team Sky to chase on the Passo della Mendola, but Team Sky seemed to lack the numbers to ride at the required wattage to keep Pinot under control. Astana eventually used up some riders and then Froome used his descending tricks to close the gap on Pinot.
Froome struck a deal with Fabio Aru on stage 4 to create an interesting triangle of power in the peloton, with Astana still bitter that the Sardinian left them for UAE Team Emirates during the off-season. Aru and Froome swapped attacks on the Bannberg to try to isolate Pinot and stop Astana winning again. But both lacked the prolonged power to make their moves stick. Astana then took sweet revenge with Luis Leon Sanchez winning the stage.
The clash of the two super teams will no doubt be one of the most interesting trends of the Giro d’Italia.
A tale of two races at Dimension Data
Dimension Data arrived at the Tour of the Alps with just one win in their pocket and a whole heap of misfortune. The race was an opportunity for them to turn their fortunes around, and they did but it wasn’t with the rider many would have anticipated.
Louis Meintjes came into the Tour of the Alps as Dimension Data’s team leader as he prepares for a general classification bid at the Giro d’Italia. However, it was his 22-year-old teammate Ben O’Connor that shone the brightest at the five-day race.
In only his second season as a professional, O’Connor has been going extremely well this year already, and took 11th at the Volta a Catalunya last month. He backed that up this week by hanging onto the big hitters when the attacks came, and even got the better of them on stage 3 to take home a stage win. His performance was a much-needed morale boost for a team that has been off the boil this season.
O’Connor will make his Grand Tour debut at the Giro d’Italia next month. Just how he’ll fare over three weeks of racing another question, but he is an exciting prospect heading into the Giro.
Meintjes admitted to Cyclingnews ahead of the opening stage that his form had been up and down and had no idea how he would shape up. With his teammate doing so well, Meintjes will likely be disappointed by his own result after finishing the week more than nine minutes behind Pinot in the overall classification. There is still time for the South African rider to turn around his form ahead of the Giro, and where O’Connor is unproven over three weeks, Meintjes has twice finished in the top 10 at the Tour de France.
Aru hopes, Italy expects
Fabio Aru suggested he was just a hair’s width away from the form needed to stay with Thibaut Pinot and the other riders at the Tour of the Alps. However, the five days of racing told a different story.
Aru bravely went on the attack when he could, especially on stage 4 to Merano, racing with his heart far more than his legs. But he was often distanced when the real attacks came from Pinot and Lopez. He finished fifth overall, 1:19 down on Pinot, one place below George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo) and one place better than 22-year-old Australian Ben O'Connor (Dimension Data). That does not augur well for the Giro d’Italia.
In the absence of Vincenzo Nibali, Aru carries the hopes of the Italian tifosi. He is the only Italian Grand Tour winner in action and needs to finish at least on the podium with Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) and Froome if his race is not to be deemed a disappointment.
Performances of note
While much of the attention was on Froome, Pinot and pretty much the entire Astana squad, there were plenty of other performances of note during the five days of the Tour of the Alps.
Domenico Pozzovivo was one such name with the veteran rider putting in an aggressive ride to take second place overall behind Pinot. With Vincenzo Nibali set to ride the Tour de France this season, Pozzovivo was brought in from AG2R La Mondiale over the winter to take the leadership role for Bahrain-Merida at the Giro d’Italia. Pozzovivo has always been a rider unafraid to attack but he looked stronger than he has for some time and seems a real threat going into the Giro. If he can maintain this through May then he will be hard to handle in the mountains.
George Bennett’s performance at the Tour of the Alps was a strong one, even before you consider the fact that he was hit by a car just a day before the race began. The LottoNL-Jumbo rider has been battling to get through the aftereffects of the incident, but still managed to play the protagonist in a whippet-quick stage 4 as well as taking second on two separate stages to finish fifth overall just a minute behind the winning time. His teammate Koen Bouwman also shone on stage 4 and has confirmed himself as one to watch for the future and as an important lieutenant for Bennett in May.
Ivan Ramiro Sosa will not be going to the Giro d’Italia but he is worth mentioning here as one to watch for the future. The Colombian is another star in the making discovered by Gianni Savio, just as Egan Bernal was. A huge performance on the Alpe di Pampeago on the race’s queen stage saw him move into the race lead, only to see it slip through his fingers when he crashed on the final descent of the following stage. Nevertheless, it will be exciting to see how Sosa develops over the coming years.
Countdown to the Grand Partenza
The Tour of the Alps ended exactly two weeks before the Grand Partenza of the Giro d’Italia in Israel. While Thibaut Pinot stayed on in Innsbruck to ride the final ‘Hell’ climb that will be used in the elite men’s road race at the Innsbruck World Road Race Championships, everyone else quickly broke ranks and headed home for some recovery days, a final block of training and some down time before the countdown to the Corsa Rosa begins to tick louder and louder.
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