Vino’s tactical blunder blows the Giro wide open

This year’s Giro d’Italia has been nothing if not unpredictable so far. For a route which saves most of its biggest challenges until the third and final week, we have already seen thrills and (literally) spills aplenty. But today’s stage 11 from Lucera to L’Aquila topped everything we have seen to date. A tactical blunder of epic proportions by maglia rosa Alexandre Vinokourov and the other leading riders ripped the general classification to shreds and created a genuinely open competition for the second half of the race.

A breakaway group formed early on in the stage, establishing a lead of over 17 minutes. There is nothing unusual in that – indeed, breakaways are a daily staple of long road stages as a small number of low-ranked riders (typically 5-10) are allowed to escape, to be hunted down and usually caught by by the superior collective power of the peloton in the final kilometres.

What was peculiar about today’s break was both its size – 56 riders in all – and its composition, featuring serious GC riders like Bradley Wiggins, 2008 Tour de France winner Carlos Sastre and Linus Gerdemann.

Numbers are everything in cycling. A small breakaway group is easy prey for the main peloton, where the workload can be easily shared out and riders can enjoy the greater aerodynamic benefits of sheltering within a large pack. Working in concert, the peloton can reel in a breakaway at the rate of a minute or more per ten kilometres in normal circumstances. However, a lead group of 20 or more is far better equipped to effectively negate the main pack’s numerical and aerodynamic advantage, and is more likely to be able to defend any sizeable lead once established.

Which is exactly what happened today. Even though a 27-man chase pack including race leader Alexandre Vinokourov, Cadel Evans and Vincenzo Nibali eventually set off in pursuit of the breakaway, they were able to recover barely four of the 17 minute deficit, leaving the remnants of the breakaway to fight it out for glory. Katusha‘s Evgeni Petrov eventually won the kind of free-for-all, every-man-for-himself type of finish normally seen only on the toughest mountain-top finishes, with riders trickling over in ones, twos and threes. Sastre and Wiggins took no excessive risks in the treacherously wet conditions but nonetheless finished close behind Petrov, riding themselves back into contention.

But it is Richie Porte, a little-known 25-year old Australian riding for the Saxo Bank team, who assumed the maglia rosa after crossing the line 13th, 21 seconds after Petrov. Porte is already the fifth different rider to wear the pink jersey in this Giro, leading David Arroyo by 1:42, with Sastre now eighth (7:09 behind) and Wiggins tenth (@8:14). Vinokourov, Evans and Nibali fell to 12th, 13th and 14th respectively; the Kazakh Astana team leader is 9:58 behind Porte and almost three minutes behind Sastre.

There is no chance of Porte wearing the pink jersey all the way to Verona, where the race finishes on May 31st. The number and severity of the climbs to come next week mean Porte and the other current leaders will be swallowed up, and probably sooner rather than later. although his Saxo Bank team will now be obliged to burn precious energy defending his position for as long as possible.

Ordinarily, this is a common tactic employed by the race favourites in the three-week long grand tours – throw a minnow the leader’s jersey, conserve your energy, and then reel him in when the time is right. Indeed, it is just a broader variation on the breakaway principle, where allowing a small group to get away puts the burden of work onto the teams of the sprinters (who want to win the stage) rather than those of the leaders (who want to win the race).

However, even if that was their intention, there is no doubt Vinokourov et al severely misjudged their race today, as evidenced by the size of the breakaway, the catastrophic impact on the overall standings and the obvious effort the favourites themselves had had to put into damage minimisation. They have allowed Sastre – who has a reputation for coming good in the closing week of grand tours – and Wiggins back into a game which they thought had eluded them, and leaving themselves much more work to do than desired.

It sets up a gladiatorial, high-stakes final week, which could make the free-for-all at the end of today’s stage look like a Sunday afternoon stroll. It should be fun. Assuming no one manages to blunder away the entire race before then, that is.


About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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