Control was the byword for Bradley Wiggins at the Tour de France last year but on the evidence of stage 7 to Pescara, it seems that the Giro d’Italia will not bend as readily to the will of the Englishman and his Sky team.
After the heavens opened in the closing kilometres, Wiggins crashed on the rain-soaked descent of San Silvestro with 6km to race and conceded 1:24 to his principal rivals for final overall victory and dropped to 23rd overall, 1:32 off the maglia rosa of Benat Intxausti (Movistar).
The breathless finale in Abruzzo was eons removed from the methodical calm with which Sky stage-managed affairs at the Tour last July, with no one team able to control the race and with attacks flying in all directions.
Already sluggish in reacting to the first major move on the penultimate climb of Santa Maria de Criptis, Wiggins was unable to follow Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) when he zipped clear on a sharp descent before the final ascent, the San Silvestro. On the 14 per cent slopes of the climb itself, Wiggins was even distanced from the pink jersey group as it strained to shut down Nibali’s move.
Worse was to follow as Wiggins tried to fight back on the descent. In conditions reminiscent of the famously slippery plunge off the Zovo into Schio at the 1998 Giro, Wiggins seemed to channel Alex Zülle’s performance from that day, sliding off his bike with 6 kilometres from the finish and then proceeding at a snail’s pace the rest of the way down, before being shepherded by teammates Rigoberto Uran and Sergio Henao towards Pescara.
On crossing the finish line, Wiggins rode impassively towards his team bus and clambered up the steps eager to put a disappointing afternoon behind him. After a lengthy conference on board, it was yet again Sky manager Dave Brailsford, rather than Wiggins, who eventually emerged to share Sky’s thoughts on the day with the reporters waiting outside.
“It was very, very slippery and once you fall, it takes you a bit of time to regain your composure,” Brailsford said of Wiggins’ decision to soft-pedal the remainder of the descent after his crash. “It was a setback but not disastrous I don’t think. It could have been a lot worse. There’s a lot of racing still to come and you’ve got to take your good days and your bad days and add it all up at the end and see where you’re at. It’s a long way from being over.”
Brailsford confirmed that Wiggins had not sustained any injuries in the crash, beyond the cut to his right elbow and he said that his leader was looking to keep his disappointment in perspective. “He didn’t say too much to be honest, but I think he’s fine. He recognises that you get your ups and downs in cycling and we’ll see where we are after tomorrow’s stage,” Brailsford said. “Physically he’s strong, very, very strong but having crashed he had to limit his losses and regain his composure, which I think he did.”
Although Wiggins’ difficulties in following the moves even before his crash must be a cause for concern, Brailsford insisted, too, that his rider was “in better shape than he was last year at the Tour. Obviously it’s been a bit sketchy in some areas but we’ll deal with that and welcome the time trial tomorrow and as soon as the road goes uphill we’ll welcome that too.”
The frenetic finale on the approach to Pescara has torn up the “script” of this Giro d’Italia, in which Wiggins was expected by many to hold a commanding lead after Saturday’s 55 kilometre time trial from Gabicce Mare to Saltara. Instead, Wiggins begins the test 1:27 behind Nibali, 1:24 behind Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) and 1:16 behind Cadel Evans (BMC).
Brailsford was coy about the prospects of his leader overhauling all of his rivals in one fell swoop in the Marche on Saturday afternoon. “I think it will be difficult, given that it’s a minute and half, but there’s more than tomorrow’s time trial,” Brailsford said. “There’s a whole race left but obviously there are some brilliant riders in there and it will be difficult to claw that time back.”
It would be foolish to draw conclusions before seeing the nature of Wiggins’ response on the road to Saltara on Saturday afternoon, but the Sky machine could now find itself in the unusual position of looking to recoup ground rather than constricting the race.
“It’s opened it up for the rivals. I also think that in order to win stage races you’ve got to take the rough with the smooth and it’s all about how much balls he’s got really,” Brailsford said. “We’ve got to take it on, haven’t we? Claw it back and take it on – let’s race. Let’s chase some other people down for a change rather than have them chasing us.”
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