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Giro d’Italia review: Six talking points

The 2011 Giro d’Italia concluded in Milan on Sunday, confirming what had become increasingly obvious since the stage nine finish on Mount Etna: that Alberto Contador was, by some distance, the best rider in this year’s race. It was a point he repeatedly underlined during the final two weeks, winning two stages with devastating accelerations and finishing a massive 6:10 ahead of Michele Scarponi without looking like he was ever in the slightest trouble. It was one of the most utterly dominating performances the sport has seen in recent memory.

However, the nature of the race – and the ease with which Contador won it – raises a number of key talking points which I believe detracted from the overall spectacle and point towards potential improvements. Here are my top six.

1. Was this year’s Giro too hard?

Seven summit finishes. The monstrous Zoncolan – all 10.1km of it, with an eye-watering average gradient of 11.9% – at the end of a day which would have seen the peloton climb the marginally less torturous Monte Crostis immediately before it had it not been removed at the last minute. A marathon stage the following day which took 7½ hours to complete. Even the designated ‘flat’ stages were rarely straightforward, often featuring challenging climbs in their closing stages to tax tired legs. Several riders complained after the end of the race that this year’s edition had been too hard. It’s easy to see why.

Alberto Contador keeps a watchful eye on his rivals on the punishing ascent of the Colle delle Finestre on the Giro's penultimate stage (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

It has now reached the point where it now seems no longer feasible for a top rider to have realistic aspirations in both the Giro and the Tour de France (the two are separated by just five weeks). Certainly this was the case last year, where only four of the Giro’s top ten also attempted the Tour, with significantly poorer results:

  • Ivan Basso – won the Giro, 32nd in the Tour
  • Cadel Evans – 5th in the Giro, 26th in the Tour (although hampered by a fractured elbow)
  • Alexander Vinokourov – 6th in the Giro, 16th in the Tour
  • Carlos Sastre – 8th in the Giro, 26th in the Tour

Although Contador won in Italy and is also making noises about racing in France too, he would probably be the only major Tour contender to attempt both. Denis Menchov‘s Geox-TMC team were not invited to the Tour, and Roman Kreuziger will play second fiddle to Astana team leader Vinokourov (if he competes at all). Other top riders from the Giro will skip the Tour and focus instead on September’s Vuelta a España. Of those who skipped the Giro, Basso and Evans will certainly be major contenders, as will 2010 runner-up Andy Schleck, who opted instead for the less tiring Tour of California.

All this meant the Giro was missing too many of the sport’s biggest names, and points increasingly towards a split calendar where riders either focus on the Tour, or target the Giro/Vuelta double. If so, that would be a real shame.

2. Who’d be a sprinter?

It came as no surprise that virtually all the sprinters withdrew from the race after stage 12.

In fact, the Giro offered pretty meagre fare for the fast-twitch men in general, with only four stages – two, three, ten and 12 – offering a realistic opportunity for a bunch sprint. (Stages eight and 18 were also designated as ‘flat’, but both featured late difficult climbs which were always going to eliminate the sprinters.)

Mark Cavendish celebrates a rare victory for the sprinters on stage 10 (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

Consequently the race for the maglia rossa – traditionally the carrot for the sprinters to focus on – became little more than a reflection of the general classification, with the top three the same in both competitions. The organisers cannot pretend to have been surprised by this, having planned a parcours dominated by mountain-top finishes which did not feature even a sniff of a bunch sprint in its final days. Mark Cavendish, Alessandro Petacchi and their ilk were always going to climb off the bikes after stage 12 – with nothing left to race for, what was the point of them continuing?

No one wants an endless procession of flat 200km drags at a Grand Tour – something the Tour de France has often been guilty of in its early stages – but long transition stages are part and parcel of the fabric of moving a race around a big country without logistically challenging air/rail transfers (another frequent riders’ complaint at the Giro). The balance and distribution of sprinters’ stages this year was clearly wrong, and the Giro would be a poorer place if the top fast men started to miss it for lack of opportunity.

3. Where was the excitement in the final week?

By the second rest day, the competition for the maglia rosa was effectively over. With a succession of tough summit finishes peppering the back end of the second week – Grossglockner, Zoncolan, Gardeccia – Contador pulled out a lead of 4:20 over the pack and, after winning the stage 16 mountain time trial, was able to cruise through the less strenuous final week with the luxury of needing only to cover the big moves, while those lower in the order were forced to take the initiative in chasing down early breaks or later attacks.

All this meant the final week’s stages included several successful breakaways and repeated attempts by Movistar to win a stage to dedicate to Xavier Tondó (which Vasil Kiryienka finally achieved on the last road stage). And with Vincenzo Nibali lacking the legs/will to attack Scarponi in an attempt to seize second, the only movement at the upper end of the GC involved the minor placings.

In truth, the final week was a desperate anti-climax. Some of that was down to Contador’s crushing supremacy, but putting so many of the big climbs in the middle of the race certainly didn’t help either.

4. What’s the point of a mountain time trial?

The result of the stage 16 mountain time trial told us what we already knew  – that Contador was the best climber in this year’s race, with Nibali, Scarponi and José Rujano not far behind. The time gaps on the 12.7km stage, the first 5km of which was relatively flat, were relatively small and had virtually no impact on the general classification. Although Contador did win by an impressive 34 seconds, the gap between the next ten riders was a trifling 31 seconds.

Much of the preceding week had been spent sorting out the men from the boys and establishing a clear order on GC, which the time trial did nothing but underline. Why have a relatively short uphill time trial with less than 8km of serious climbing which has virtually no impact on the overall race? Surely it would have been better to have either a longer, more testing climb to offer the opportunity of some meaningful time differences or, as has been suggested by others, one which incorporates a technical descent to offer a different challenge to the riders. Nibali, for one, would have enjoyed the opportunity to test Contador’s mettle against the clock on a tricky downhill, and could have led to more significant changes in the overall rankings.

5. Is Alberto Contador beatable?

All other things being equal, the simple answer is: no. Having laid low during the formative early stages, he featured in the top three finishers on eight of the final 14 stages, a record of consistency underlined by the huge margin by which he won the points classification over Scarponi (202 points to 122). Whenever he needed to be at the front to cover a move or launch his own attack, he inevitably was.

Contador launches his stage-winning attack on Etna, leaving everyone in his wake (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

A record of two wins, four second places and two thirds speaks for itself. Cavendish was the only other man to win more than once, and had Contador not gifted wins to Rujano (stage 13) and former teammate Paolo Tiralongo (stage 19), he would have claimed four wins. He was effectively untouchable no matter what anyone else tried, and the one potential chink in his armour – descending – was never seriously tested.

Can he now pull off the seemingly impossible Giro/Tour double? If anyone can, it is Contador.

6. When will we know who the winner of the Giro is?

Of course, the biggest threat to Contador’s Giro win is still to come. His hearing at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) – in which the UCI and WADA will attempt to overturn the Spanish federation RFEC‘s decision not to impose a ban after a positive test at last July’s Tour de France – was originally scheduled for June, but now looks likely to take place after the Tour. A finding in favour of the UCI and WADA would almost certainly result in the annulment of the Spaniard’s results in the time since his failed test, including the Giro. This would promote Scarponi to race winner after the event – and over a year after the doping test in question.

To say the situation is unsatisfactory from both a sporting and procedural perspective is putting it mildly. But, for those who follow the sport closely, it is hardly a surprising state of affairs. Too many race results are ‘provisional’ or cast under some kind of cloud of doubt, and it does the credibility of the sport no good whatsoever.

Finally, a note to acknowledge the deaths of Wouter Weylandt, who died after a crash on stage three, and Xavier Tondó, who was not competing at the Giro but was killed in a freak accident involving his car and a garage door on the second rest day.

The peloton has lost two of its most popular members. Rest in peace. May the wind always be at your backs.

Giro d’Italia recaps

Stage 1: Pinotti swaps red, white and green for pink

Stage 2: Petacchi celebrates, Cavendish remonstrates in ham-fisted Parma finish

Stage 3: Weylandt’s death casts a long shadow

Stage 4: Peloton rides in tribute to Weylandt

Stage 5: Weening takes maglia rosa as Millar bites the dust

Stage 6: Ale-Jet runs out of gas as Ventoso wins uphill drag

Stage 7: De Clercq claims first professional win by a whisker

Stage 8: Gatto gets the cream as Contador shows his claws

Stage 9: Explosive Contador erupts on Etna

Stage 10: No tow required as Cavendish opens Giro account

Stage 11: Gadret times his finish to perfection

Stage 12: Cavendish doubles up and retires from the Giro

Stage 13: Contador’s gift leaves Rujano singing in the rain

Stage 14: All pain, few gain as Antón triumphs on the ascent to Hell

Stage 15: Nieve wins marathon stage, Contador sails serenely on

Stage 16: Contador victory confirms Giro rivals are racing for second

Stage 17: Ulissi wins, Visconti relegated when push comes to shove

Stage 18: Capecchi finally puts Liquigas in the winner’s circle

Stage 19: Rain cannot dampen Tiralongo’s day in the sun

Stage 20: Victorious Kiryienka pays tribute to Tondó

Stage 21: Millar wins stage, Contador wins overall – at least for now

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

2 Responses to Giro d’Italia review: Six talking points

  1. Kitty Fondue says:

    Excellent post, as usual, Tim. My heart definitely went out of it when Wouter died, but I was willing to give it another chance. Which didn’t take, for a couple of reasons.

    I think the Giro planners just got carried away with themselves because of how exciting last year was. But thinking about it, the most incredible stage of the whole race last year was the mud stage, which they couldn’t possibly have planned if they’d tried – THAT set the Giro on fire (if mud can actually catch fire!), along with the hard grappling between Cadel Evans and Ivan Basso, especially up the Zoncolan. I think they were planning for stages to set the race on fire this year and, well, they didn’t (Etna – which almost literally set the race on fire….).

    So those two elements – surprise and a real battle of wills (and styles) – were missing this year and I have to say … this year’s peloton went through Snoozeville just a little too often for me and I stopped watching once Contador did his attack on the Mt Etna. So I was greatly disappointed. I hope the organisers stay creative but temper it with a little common sense.

    • Tim says:

      Agreed.

      It would definitely have been a more interesting race if more of the big names had shown up, not least because it would have increased the number of angles from which Contador could have been attacked. If not for Contador’s swashbuckling attacks and the joyful sight of Rujano at the front of things day after day, it would have been as dull in the second week as it was in the third. But the second week was at times magical, even if there was a shortage of attacks by big names other than Contador and the stages were just too hard.

      Therein lies the problem for the Giro organisers. They want to create spectacular stages, but a spectacular parcours doesn’t necessarily encourage good racing. Indeed, because so many choose not to turn up and those who do are afraid to attack too hard one day for fear of paying the next (or because they are still suffering from the previous days), it can often make for poorer racing.

      Oh well. On to the Tour, which appears to be equally sadistic but at least spreads out the agony a bit better and does at least have enough to keep the sprinters interested all the way to Paris.

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