Pello Bilbao pointed a finger to the sky in memory of his late teammate Michele Scarponi on Monday as he crossed the finish line to take victory on the opening stage of the Tour of the Alps. It was a poignant reminder of what had happened only a year previously.
Just 12 months ago it had been Scarponi throwing his arms in the air in celebration of his win on the stage in Innsbruck. With Astana’s team leader injured, Scarponi would be their man for the forthcoming Giro d’Italia. However, his life was cut short just a few days after that victory when he was hit by a vehicle during a training ride. Scarponi’s memory has never been too far from the Astana team, but it was particularly present in Folgaria, and Bilbao would go on to dedicate his win to Scarponi and his family.
“It is the most special one because of the circumstances. It’s a year since Scarpo won this stage,” Bilbao said after his win.
“Throughout the whole year, he’s always on our mind. For me, it’s an honour to be here in this maglia in Italy, his country. Of course, this victory is for him and his family. He’s been an important inspiration for our team and that’s why it is the most special victory.”
With a race name like the Tour of the Alps, there was little chance that the riders were going to be eased into the week’s racing, and stage 1 took the peloton over two classified climbs. The final, second category ascent crested with six kilometres remaining and would set the scene for the last act of this 134.6-kilometre play. Though they lost ground when Chris Froome (Team Sky) attacked inside the final 10 kilometres, Astana had power in numbers and were able to pull the race back together. Luis Leon Sanchez gave Astana a strong option for a small group sprint, but Bilbao saw his chance and seized the moment.
“We had to be smart in the final kilometres because we knew that maybe we had the strongest rider in the front for the sprint, which was Luis. One option was to control the race until the finish line, and then go with Luis in the sprint,” explained Bilbao. “The circumstances at the top of the mountain were a little bit difficult. I didn’t know exactly how Luis was feeling and there was a small gap. I saw that some riders were doubting so I thought that this was the best moment to go in the front.
“On the radio, they were telling me that I had a small gap and I needed to go full gas until the finish line and that’s what I did. I didn’t really think too much. I just went, and until the finish line, I didn’t look back. I went full gas.”
Bilbao, as Scarponi was last year, is the first rider to don the leader’s jersey with a 10-second advantage over his teammate Sanchez, who finished second on the stage. Androni’s Ivan Ramiro Sosa sits in third a further two seconds in arrears, while the GC favourites sitting at 20 and 24 seconds back. Five of Astana’s seven riders, including Giro d’Italia hopeful Miguel Angel Lopez, are sitting in the top 15. When asked if he would have to relent his jersey to Lopez on Tuesday’s queen stage, Bilbao said that he would gladly do it but that the general classification is not Lopez’s primary target.
“For us, the most important thing with Miguel is to arrive 100 per cent into the Giro,” he said. “He has his mind on the Giro. For sure, if he has the legs and he wants to try tomorrow then he can have the jersey. For us, the main objective was to win a stage and now we have won a stage. Now we can change the strategy and think about other goals.”
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