It is often difficult to understand the suffering riders go through during a Grand Tour but their pain-afflicted faces as they crossed the finish line at the end of the Giro d'Italia stage 14 on the Jafferau climb revealed the madness and bravery of professional cycling in the same instant.
For Mauro Santambrogio (Vini Fantini-Selle Italia) and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), the joy of victory and the satisfaction of having gained time on their rivals no doubt eased the pain of the day. For everyone else, the pain and suffering seemed to increase as soon as they crossed the line.
With snow falling and temperatures close to zero at the 1908m high finish, soigneurs and team helpers waited just past the line, with warm clothes, warm drinks, encouragement and congratulation. The media also waited, in the hope of capturing riders' thoughts on the stage, but most were simply too cold and tired to talk.
Santambrogio and Nibali were quickly taken into a tent reserved for the riders who go onto the podium. Everyone else had to wrap up quickly and then head further up the mountain to a hotel where each team had a room reserved for the riders to shower.
Cadel Evans (BMC) came to a stop just after the finish line after giving his all to limit his losses to Nibali to 33 seconds. His orange sunglass lenses were steamed up and he had gone so deep that he didn't seem to know where he was. His soigneur quickly wrapped a towel around his neck, freed him from the media scrum and sent him to the hotel.
Michele Scarponi (Lampre-Merida) lost 1:24 and slipped to fifth overall at 3:53. He was so cold that he could not talk or even pull on a jacket and gloves without help. His hands were frozen and he tried to warm them by stretching them wide open, grimacing in pain. A soigneur poured arm water on them and even put on his own neck in the hope that the warmth of his body would help his rider get some feeling back in his fingers.
The only thing Scarponi said was, "The final kilometres were terrible. There was nothing I could do. That's all I can say, I desperately need to get warm."
Robert Gesink (Blanco) finished with three teammates but was 4:16 behind Nibali and dropped to 11th overall, 6:40 down, his hopes of overall victory suddenly over.
He was so cold that he was allowed to change in the podium area tent. He faced the extra problem of being selected for anti-doping but at least could get warm in the special vehicle used for the testing. He refused to speak when he headed to the ski lift that took the riders down the mountain to the waiting team buses.
A few hours after the stage he tweeted, "A terrible day for me on the bike! Got so cold I couldn't move my legs anymore at the last climb. Thanks @BlancoCycling for all the help!"
Cavendish's anger, Haas makes it home
Riders crossed the finish line in small groups and were met by their soigneurs. Some were not as bad as others and simply turned around and rode to the nearby hotel. Others needed help and time to recover. Matteo Trentin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) stopped for several minutes at the finish, drinking warm tea and to heat up his body and recover from the day in the saddle.
Team leader Mark Cavendish finished 12 minutes later, 22 minutes after stage winner Santambrogio. He vented his anger at the race commissaries and then headed to the podium tent to get changed and honour the podium ceremony. He was shivering on the podium and was helped to the hotel by team press officer Alessandro Tegner. He had suffered as much, if not more, than 24 hours before, when he went deep to win the sprint in Cherasco.
Yet Cavendish was not the last rider to finish. Others, looking just as weary, as shell shocked, came in after him. Ramunas Navardauskas (Garmin-Sharp) looked strong when he won stage 11 on Wednesday. Today he suffered, finishing 171st at 23:45.
His teammate Nathan Haas was last to finish, in 180th place, at 25:24.
Only Alessandro Vanotti (Astana), Enrico Battaglin (Bardiani Valvole-CSF Inox) and David Millar (Garmin-Sharp) failed to finish. Vanotti and Battaglin crashed out early in the stage, while Millar was too sick to continue.
Despite the weather conditions and yet another day in the rain and even snow, the other 180 riders all made it to the finish at Jafferau. No doubt after a warm shower, a massage, some pasta and a good nights sleep, they will be ready to suffer all over again during Sunday's 15th stage.
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