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More ‘human’ Giro route strikes an entertaining balance

After this year’s widely criticised edition the parcours for the 2012 Giro d’Italia, which was unveiled in Milan yesterday, was proclaimed as more ‘human’ while also offering a greater diversity of challenges to the riders who will line up to tackle the race next May. A lesser emphasis on killer climbs and greater incentive for the sprinters and breakaway artists should result in less attritional racing, a broader range of stage winners and hopefully a result which should remain in doubt deep into the final week.

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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

Giro d’Italia stage 21: Millar wins stage, Contador wins overall – at least for now

Stage 21: Milan, 26km individual time trial

Britain’s David Millar (Garmin-Cervélo) claimed victory in the final stage of this year’s Giro d’Italia, an individual time trial in Milan. Alberto Contador took no risks in finishing third to secure overall victory by more than six minutes. It was his second Giro win in his first participation since taking the maglia rosa in 2008 but – unsatisfactorily – can only be regarded as a provisional victory until his hearing at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) is concluded.

Millar, the 56th out of 159 riders to set off on the shortened and largely straight 26km course, recorded a time of 30:13 to finish seven seconds ahead of Alex Rasmussen. The 26-year old Dane had been the fifth man to ride the course, but proved HTC-Highroad‘s strength in depth when it comes to time-trialling, despite the absence of specialists Marco Pinotti (retired, stage 19) and Tony Martin (not present).

The quality of the pair’s times was underlined as rider after rider failed to get close to the top of the timesheets – indeed, only four other men would record times within 60 seconds of Millar’s benchmark. Contador’s Saxo Bank Sungard teammate Richie Porte, who wore the maglia rosa last year, managed 30:56, while RadioShack‘s Yaroslav Popovych was a further 12 seconds behind. But only Contador himself, the last man off the start ramp, seriously threatened to displace Millar. The champion-elect was a second faster at the first checkpoint, but lost time steadily after that as he refused to take any unnecessary chances and eventually slotted into third spot, 36 seconds behind.

Millar's victory was his first individual Giro win

It confirmed Millar’s first individual stage win at the Giro (he also won the team time trial in 2008), and his ninth at a Grand Tour.

The other key point of interest was whether Vincenzo Nibali could overhaul a 56-second deficit to Michele Scarponi to snatch second spot. It always looked like a tall order – Nibali is considered to be a better time-trialist, but not by that much – and Scarponi was able to pace himself to manage the gap comfortably. In the end, he conceded just ten seconds of his buffer, and was a deserving runner-up. Depending on the outcome at CAS, he could yet be declared the overall winner.

Other than that, there was little change at the top of the general classification. Fourth and fifth-placed men John Gardet and Joaquim Rodríquez were known to be mediocre performers against the clock on flat courses, but had enough of an advantage over those behind them to preserve their positions, despite finisging 71st (2:51 down) and 40th (2:14) respectively.

However, José Rujano, the comeback story of this year’s Giro, conceded sixth to Roman Kreuziger after his 15-second overnight advantage proved to be nowhere near sufficient. And Mikel Nieve also slipped out of the top ten, swapping places with Kanstantsin Sivtsov, one of the stars of the first half of the race.

Contador won both the overall and the points competition (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

In addition to winning the overall classification, Contador won the points competition (by an enormous margin over Scarponi), while 2000 overall winner Stefano Garzelli had already confirmed his second mountains title in three years.

Overall the quality of the racing has been good, although it was a shame that the vast majority of the big Tour de France contenders elected to miss the Giro. The opening week saw the tragic death of Wouter Weylandt in a crash on stage three, and much of the final week largely became an exercise in watching Movistar constantly placing riders in breaks in the hope of gaining a win to dedicate to Xavier Tondó, which was finally achieved in last-gasp fashion with Vasil Kiryienka‘s victory yesterday (Saturday). But the middle portion of the race during which the overall result was shaped featured some incredible spectacles on a succession of some of the toughest climbs anywhere on the cycling calendar. And there can be no argument whatsoever that the strongest rider finished in the maglia rosa.

So now we wait. Contador dominated the opposition on the road – winning two stages and finishing second four times, gifting wins to others on two of those occasions – but it remains to be seen whether his victory will be allowed to stand. His CAS hearing, originally scheduled for mid-June, will not be concluded until after the Tour, which he should now be eligible to compete in. Regardless of the result of the hearing, it is a hugely unsatisfactory state of affairs from a fan’s point of view, particularly when you consider the alleged doping offence occurred more than ten months ago. And it is a sad reflection on the state of the sport that the level of dominance which Contador exhibited over his rivals must inevitably be tainted with suspicion. In cycling, seeing isn’t necessarily believing.

In the meantime, the Tour de France is now only five weeks away. There is plenty of great racing to be seen between now and then – the Dauphiné kicks off next weekend, for starters – so we can but hope that racing rather than doping attracts the greater attention between now and then.

Stage 21 result:

1. David Millar (Garmin-Cervélo) 30:13

2. Alex Rasmussen (HTC-Highroad) +0:07

3. Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank Sungard) +0:36

4. Richie Porte (Saxo Bank Sungard) +0:43

5. Yaroslav Popovych (RadioShack) +0:55

General classification:

1. Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank Sungard) 84:05:14

2. Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) +6:10

3. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) +6:56

4. John Gadret (AG2R La Mondiale) +10:04

5. Joaquim Rodríquez (Katusha) +11:05

6. Roman Kreuziger (Astana) +11:28

7. José Rujano (Androni Giocattoli) +12:12

8. Denis Menchov (Geox-TMC) +12:18

9. Steven Kruijswijk (Rabobank) +13:51

10. Kanstantsin Sivtsov (HTC-Highroad) +14:10

Points classification:

1. Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank Sungard) 202 pts

2. Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) 122

3. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) 121

4. José Rujano (Androni Giocattoli) 107

5. John Gadret (AG2R La Mondiale) 97

Mountains classification:

1. Stefano Garzelli (Acqua & Sapone) 67 pts

2. Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank Sungard) 58

3. José Rujano (Androni Giocattoli) 43

4. Mikel Nieve (Euskaltel-Euskadi) 39

5. Gianluca Brambilla (Colnago-CSF Inox) 29

Links: Giro d’Italia official websiteSteephill.tv

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

Giro d’Italia stage 20: Victorious Kiryienka pays tribute to Tondó

Stage 20: Verbania to Sestrière, 242km

On a day which turned out to be not quite as explosive as expected, Vasil Kiryienka claimed a memorable solo victory on the slopes of Sestrière and paid tribute to his former Movistar teammate Xavier Tondó by looking up and pointing to the skies with both hands. It was a fitting dedication for one of the peloton’s most popular riders, who died in a freak accident earlier this week when he was crushed against a garage door by his own car.

The penultimate stage of this year’s Giro d’Italia from Verbania to Sestrière was flat for over 190km before the monstrous Colle delle Finestre, an unremitting 18.5km of hell at an average gradient of 9.2%, which leads into the ascent to Sestrière – celebrating the centenary of its first appearance at the Giro – a relatively benign climb but one taxing enough to expose riders with over 3,000km of hard racing in their legs.

A 13-man breakaway formed early on, including serial escapees such as Quick Step‘s Kevin Seeldraeyers, two previous stage winners in Ángel Vicioso (Androni Giocattoli) and Diego Ulissi (Lampre-ISD), Carlos Betancourt (Acqua & Sapone) and Kiryienka. They stretched out their lead to over 11 minutes, before AG2R La Mondiale and Lampre – working for John Gadret (fourth overall) and Michele Scarponi (second) set about bringing down the gap. Later Liquigas-Cannondale would also drive the pace in the chasing pack, looking to set up third-placed Vincenzo Nibali, who started the day just 34 seconds in arrears of Scarponi.

Kiryienka claimed his second career Giro stage win

Kiryienka launched his attack early on the Finestre climb with 41km to go, just as the chasing group had reduced the gap to under four minutes. He gradually worked out a decisive advantage, and by the time he went over the summit at 27km he led two chasers, José Rujano (who had jumped off the front of the maglia rosa group) and Betancourt, with his lead stable at close to four minutes.

Behind these three, the maglia rosa group continued to thin out, with Nibali losing contact towards the top of the climb, leaving only the likes of Alberto Contador, Denis Menchov, Joaquim Rodríquez, Steven Kruijswijk, Gadret and Scarponi to lead the pursuit. Nibali did manage to reconnect with the group on the descent, but decided he simply didn’t have the legs today to launch his expected attack on the descent, leading to a disappointing stalemate as the group rode a neutral tempo which effectively matched that of Kiryienka up ahead.

The Belarusian continued strongly on up the final 16.2km climb to Sestrière, and never looked in any danger of being threatened for the stage win. He was able to cruise to the finish at leisure, looking skywards with both hands upraised, in a celebration reminiscent of Lance Armstrong‘s salute to Fabio Casartelli at the 1995 Tour de France.

Behind him, Rujano dropped Betancourt and continued his solitary pursuit of the leader, although he was unable to dent his lead. Rodríquez then attacked from the favourites’ group, overhauling Betancourt and failing, by just seven seconds, to catch Rujano for second. Betancourt clung on for fourth, while Gadret was fifth just ahead of the maglia rosa, who rolled in with Scarponi, Menchov and Kruijswijk. Contador had appeared totally unruffled throughout, happy to preserve his advantage and wait in the wings in readiness for his coronation tomorrow.

Although there was a disappointing lack of action in the tussle between Scarponi and Nibali for third, Rodríquez and Rujano were big winners on the day, moving up from eighth to fifth and from tenth to sixth respectively. Conversely, Mikel Nieve fell from sixth to tenth, while Kanstantsin Sivstov dropped from fifth all the way to 11th.

Kiryienka had previously won a Giro stage in 2008 and had already shown strong form this season, finishing second overall at the Critérium International and winning a stage of the Tour of the Basque Country. He explained how Movistar had been trying all week to win a stage for Tondó:

We decided the best way to pay tribute to him was to stay in the Giro. We attacked for four days to win a stage for him and I am so happy to be able to deliver this for him.

Today was a great day for me and for my team. I will always remember our teammate Xavi Tondó. I won in a manner very beautiful for him. It was a hard stage but I was thinking of him when I was riding today. It was like he was riding with me.

At the finish line I put my glasses on so people couldn’t see the tears flowing. I am very, very happy with my achievement.

Scarponi took a further 22 seconds out of Nibali, tipping the balance in his favour as he seeks to defend second place in tomorrow’s time trial:

Today’s stage was so hard, I gave all I could to try to get more time. Nibali is usually faster than me in the time trial, but I will give all I have. I want to keep second place.

Nibali accepted that the shortened time trial route – cut from 31.5km to 26km – works against his chances of overhauling Scarponi:

Of course, if the time trial course was longer, it would be better for me. Scarponi and I have been more or less equal. One day he’s a little bit better than me, then the next I’m a little sharper. Tomorrow we’ll see who has the legs.

And race leader Contador was finally willing to admit that his sixth Grand Tour victory – his second at the Giro – was now firmly within his grasp:

I’m very happy because unless something crazy happens, I’ve won the Giro.

Today was a very tough and long stage. A big break went very early, then in the final part my only aim was to control my closest rivals.

Tomorrow’s concluding time trial in Milan is now just 26km in length. With Italian national time trial champion Marco Pinotti out of the race, Britain’s David Millar will start among the favourites to win on the flat course. Barring a serious accident Contador, who will not be taking any unnecessary risks, will be crowned champion at the end of the afternoon. The other key battle is for second, between Scarponi and Nibali, with 56 seconds separating the pair. The winner of that two-man battle could yet be crowned 2011 Giro champion, depending on the outcome of Contador’s upcoming CAS hearing. It’s not how either man would want to win the race, but it remains a very real prospect.

Stage 20 result:

1. Vasil Kiryienka (Movistar) 6:17:03

2. José Rujano (Androni Giocattoli) +4:43

3. Joaquim Rodríquez (Katusha) +4:50

4. Carlos Betancourt (Acqua & Sapone) +5:31

5. John Gadret (Ag2r La Mondiale) +5:54

General classification:

1. Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank Sungard) 83:34:25

2. Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) +5:18

3. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) +6:14

4. John Gadret (AG2R La Mondiale) +7:49

5. Joaquim Rodríquez (Katusha) +9:27

6. José Rujano (Androni Giocattoli) +10:23

7. Roman Kreuziger (Astana) +10:38

8. Denis Menchov (Geox-TMC) +10:51

9. Steven Kruijswijk (Rabobank) +12:56

10. Mikel Nieve (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +12:57

Points classification:

1. Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank Sungard) 186 pts

2. Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) 122

3. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) 116

4. José Rujano (Androni Giocattoli) 107

5. John Gadret (AG2R La Mondiale) 97

Mountains classification:

1. Stefano Garzelli (Acqua & Sapone) 67 pts

2. Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank Sungard) 58

3. José Rujano (Androni Giocattoli) 43

4. Mikel Nieve (Euskaltel-Euskadi) 39

5. Gianluca Brambilla (Colnago-CSF Inox) 29

Links: Giro d’Italia official websiteSteephill.tv

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

Giro d’Italia stage 19: Rain cannot dampen Tiralongo’s day in the sun

Stage 19: Bergamo to Macugnaga, 209km

12-year veteran Paolo Tiralongo claimed his first career victory at the end of the long climb to Macugnaga on stage 19 of the Giro d’Italia. The 33-year old Italian was caught but then paced to the finish by Alberto Contador, who graciously allowed his former domestique to cruise over the line unchallenged. It was the third consecutive day an Italian rider has won.

On a day when the riders had to contend with heavy rain and slick roads, Lars Bak (HTC-Highroad), Jérôme Pineau (Quick Step) and Matteo Rabottini (Farnese Vini-Neri Sottoli) formed the day’s breakaway. They established an impressive 12-minute lead before the peloton, led by the Acqua & Sapone team of mountains classification leader Stefano Garzelli, set to work chipping away at the gap before they reached the first of the day’s two climbs.

The first-category Mottarone (13.8km, 6.2% average gradient), about two-thirds of the way through the stage, is an awkward and variable climb which touches gradients as high as 14% early and late in the climb, with a short descent midway and a difficult last 4km. The leading trio hit the lower slopes with their lead still a healthy nine minutes, but by the summit their advantage would be cut to barely one minute. Garzelli attacked off the front of the peloton on the steep closing section, narrowly failing to catch the leaders but still claiming fourth place over the summit and consolidating his lead in the mountains competition. He, Mickaël Cherel (Ag2R La Mondiale) and Johann Tschopp (BMC) caught the initial breakaway on the descent to form a new lead group of six. They were allowed to slip back out to four minutes in advance of the final climb.

In treacherous and torrentially wet conditions, a crash 45km from the finish involving the HTC pair of Craig Lewis and Marco Pinotti and a traffic sign in the middle of the road took down several riders. Lewis was taken directly to hospital with a fractured femur and two broken ribs, while Pinotti, second on yesterday’s stage, also abandoned after fracturing part of his hip-bone.

In the maglia rosa group, the Katusha team of Joaquim Rodríquez drove the pace, with Danilo di Luca prominent on the front as the breakaway started on the climb to Macugnaga, a seemingly interminable but mild 28km grind. Up ahead, the lead sextet slowly dissolved away to leave just Pineau and Rabottini on their own at the head of the race, to be caught with 14km remaining.

After several minutes of stalemate, Tiralongo launched his solo attack with just under 7km remaining. He was caught, but went again shortly after, and this time the leaders were content to let him go as he edged out to a 25-second advantage. With just over 2km to go, Hubert Dupont (AG2R) was the first to attack from the group, drawing a response from Rodríquez who caught and then continued past him.

Tiralongo was grateful for the help of his former team leader Contador

Next to try his luck was the maglia rosa himself. Contador’s short, sharp attack gapped everyone bar second, third and fourth-placed men Michele Scarponi, Vincenzo Nibali and John Gadret, and Rabobank‘s Steven Kruijswijk. Content with the impact of his acceleration, Contador eased off slightly and Gadret launched an immediate counter-attack. The race leader allowed him to stretch the elastic for a while, then kicked again, leaving the others reeling in his wake and flying over the top of Gadret as if he was standing still.

Contador’s electrifying acceleration catapulted him onto the tiring Tiralongo’s wheel 400 metres from the finish. He moved ahead then visibly eased off, giving his former teammate a welcome tow and enough of a boost to ensure he could claim the victory his solo break had richly deserved – a day after finishing fifth from a group break in San Pellegrino Terme – with the race leader as his wing-man.

Nibali beat out Gadret and Rodríquez in the sprint for third, enabling him to edge a few seconds closer to Scarponi in the overall. Although there were some minor gains and losses, there was no change in the order of the top five. Below them, however, Mikel Nieve, Roman Kreuziger and Rodríquez moved up at the expense of José Rujano and Denis Menchov.

Tiralongo had waited 12 long years to taste life on the top step of the podium, but was ready to savour the moment:

After a life as a domestique, I’ve finally reached my goal of winning a race.

He also revealed that his stage-winning attack had come with the prompting of the maglia rosa himself:

It was Alberto who suggested to me to attack with six kilometres to go. He touched my shoulder to give me the signal.

This was my only week of freedom. Otherwise, I always give 100% for my captains. I can imagine that 90% of the riders are very happy that I’ve won today after seeing me racing for my captains for such a long time. The first of them is Contador. When I saw him coming across to me, I saw a friend, not a rival. I knew he would do what he could to make me win this stage.

Contador himself was quick to pay tribute to his former teammate:

Paolo was absolutely essential to my Tour de France victory last year. He was a great teammate. He worked for me all season long last year and I am glad today to see him win as if I had won myself.

Tomorrow’s penultimate stage from Verbania to Sestrière opens with a long, flat run before tackling two Alpine peaks. The concluding climb to Sestrière (16.2km, 3.8%) is not that difficult in itself, but it is preceded by the monstrous Colle delle Finestre, an unremitting 18.5km of hell at an average gradient of 9.2%, whose summit is just 11km before the start of the Sestrière ascent. The race will explode into life on the Finestre, although the top riders may be so busy covering each other’s moves that there is a big opportunity for a breakaway to survive to the end.

Stage 20 profile

Stage 19 result:

1. Paolo Tiralongo (Astana) 5:26:27

2. Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank Sungard) same time

3. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) +0:03

4. John Gadret (AG2R La Mondiale) +0:06

5. Joaquim Rodríquez (Katusha) s/t

General classification:

1. Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank Sungard) 77:11:24

2. Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) +5:18

3. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) +5:52

4. John Gadret (AG2R La Mondiale) +7:53

5. Kanstantsin Sivstov (HTC-Highroad)  +9:58

6. Mikel Nieve (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +10:08

7. Roman Kreuziger (Astana) +10:20

8. Joaquim Rodríquez (Katusha) +10:43

9. Denis Menchov (Geox-TMC) +10:51

10. José Rujano (Androni Giocattoli) +11:50

Points classification:

1. Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank Sungard) 178 pts

2. Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) 112

3. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) 111

4. José Rujano (Androni Giocattoli) 87

5. John Gadret (AG2R La Mondiale) 85

Mountains classification:

1. Stefano Garzelli (Acqua & Sapone) 67 pts

2. Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank Sungard) 56

3. Mikel Nieve (Euskaltel-Euskadi) 39

4. José Rujano (Androni Giocattoli) 29

5. Gianluca Brambilla (Colnago-CSF Inox) 29

Links: Giro d’Italia official websiteSteephill.tv

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

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