May 22, 2015 – In my last column, written before the 98th Giro d’Italia began, besides mentioning that Alberto Contador, Richie Porte and Rigoberto Urán would likely form the final podium, I suggested there could be a few surprises. There certainly have been a lot of upsets and setbacks in the past two weeks, and as the 183 survivors enter the most difficult week of all, every one of them has a tale to tell of crashes and penalties, sickness and injuries, heat and cold, wins and losses…the list goes on. But, for this column, I’ll review some of the possibilities I wrote about before and then look ahead to the horrendously difficult stages to come. First, I’ve put in brackets brief items from that earlier column, and then commented on them, illustrated by stories from what has gone down in the opening 13 stages.
Written by John Wilcockson/Photos by Yuzuru Sunada
[Among the potential surprises at this Giro…is the coming to age of Italy’s best GC hope Fabio Aru of Team Astana. His main weakness is his time trialing, which could prove fatal to his victory prospects in the lengthy 59.4-kilometer TT awaiting everyone on stage 14. If he can survive opening week without losing time, Aru could benefit from his relative freshness in the grueling final week.]
Well, Aru has done more than survive. His teammates—headed by his veteran “brother” Paolo Tiralongo (who was previously Contador’s gregario)—have been tremendously strong so far and helped him avoid early mistakes. They were so powerful on the first difficult stage, stage 4 in the Cinque Terre, that they split the race apart in chasing down a dangerous breakaway and caused both a sick Urán and a “taken by surprise” Ryder Hesjedal to lose valuable time.
Aru has had an erratic race in the first two weeks, varying from rides of great aggression to not eating timely on stage 12 and conceding a quarter-minute on the uphill finish at Vicenza where he should have gained time. But he was safely ensconced in the Astana bubble when Contador, Hesjedal and Porte were all caught up in the mass pileup 3.2 kilometers from Friday’s stage 13 finish in Jesolo—which allowed Aru to take over the pink jersey from Contador by 19 seconds.
Asked about the stage 14 TT—that’s flat for 30 kilometers before a very hilly second half through the Prosecco vineyards—Aru said, “I don’t know how [the TT] will go because I’ve worked differently than ever before on my time trialing [including wind-tunnel testing with Specialized in California.]. The route is unusually long and, after 13 very hard stages, in a Giro that was hot at the start, and has been wet for the past few days, your body feels the fatigue.”
Whatever time Aru loses to the other contenders on this Saturday’s stage he will certainly have chances of retrieving time on the severe climbs next week. As Tiralongo observed: “They say that the mountains have been cut back, that’s crap! An illusion. The repetition of the difficulties will quickly become exhausting. … Fabio is informed, it’s necessary to stay concentrated, day by day, or risk losing the Giro without a fight.”
[A possibility is the blossoming of a 25-year-old Russian named Ilnur Zakarin of Team Katusha, winner of the recent Tour de Romandie. Zakarin is not the “unknown” he’s been made out to be, and his Giro performance…could well show him to be the man Katusha has been looking for to replace its aging Spanish leader, Joachim Rodriguez.]
That possibility soon faded, but Zakarin confirmed his class and his great potential on stage 11 to Imola. Part of a long-distance breakaway group that included Hesjedal, the Russian broke away the second time up the short Tre Monte hill on three laps of a finishing circuit (the same one where Vittorio Adorni won solo the 1968 world road championship). The other breakaway members looked to Hesjedal to chase…and Zakarin went on to win the stage by a minute.
In his press conference, Zakarin said, “After Romandie, we thought maybe I could fight for the Giro d’Italia GC, and we came to San Remo with those ambitions. But on Day One I didn’t feel very good, so we decided to change strategy and fight for stage wins, and today we have achieved our goal. It’s impossible to compare winning Romandie overall and winning a stage of the Giro d’Italia. Both are very important.”
It will be interesting to see whether Zakarin will be given a chance to confirm his climbing abilities on one of the mountain stages to come—perhaps the one to Verbania next Thursday. For now, he’ll be called on to defend the top-10 position of his teammate Yury Trofimov.
[Another possibility is a return to the limelight of one of the Giro’s former champions…Ryder Hesjedal of Cannondale-Garmin. This will be his 16th start in a grand tour and…the ultra-tough Canadian may well be up with the leaders fighting for the podium when they’re grinding up the Passo del Mortirolo and Colle delle Finestre in the final week.]
The start of this Giro was somewhat of a disaster for Hesjedal. When his young Italian teammate Davide Formolo was winning solo (from the breakaway) the spectacular stage 4 to La Spezia, Hesjedal faltered on the day’s main climb when Astana stepped on the gas and he lost 5:03 to the Aru-Contador-Porte group. After 13 stages, Formolo is in 14th overall, four minutes behind Aru—but he has vowed he will continue to ride for Hesjedal in the days to come. That’s because Hesjedal, without the self-imposed handicap from stage 4, would be in fourth overall at 1:37 instead of lying in 20th place overall at 6:40.
That gap could come down considerably after Saturday’s time trial—when heavy rain showers and headwinds on the flatter opening section will favor Hesjedal, who has honed his form in several long breakaways this past week, as opposed to the featherweight Aru, who has been so well protected by his teammates in the peloton. So given his turnaround and his always coming strong in the third week, the Cannondale-Garmin rider should be a man to watch before the Giro finishes in Milan next Sunday.
[The biggest shock of all would be a below-par performance from Contador. There is an awful lot of pressure on Contador to win his seventh grand tour. And it’s possible that at 32, and probably in his penultimate season, he may not have the form he needs to carry out his declared goal of doing the Giro-Tour double… so if Contador finds himself minutes off the pace after the stage 14 time trial, he may well ease off the gas pedal in the final week.]
As opposed to riding below par, Contador has been formidable thus far—from taking the pink jersey after aggressive riding on the uphill Abetone finish on stage 5 to gapping the other contenders on the short uphill Vicenza arrival—despite two almost disastrous crashes, both on flat sprinters’ stages. Instead of disaster, his and his Tinkoff-Saxo teammates’ quick reactions helped him out each time.
When Italian rider Daniele Colli collided with the telephoto lens of a spectator leaning on the barriers, causing a mass crash in the finish sprint at Castiglione della Pescaia, Contador fell heavily on his left shoulder. “I’ve never broken my collarbone,” Contador said, “and I feared that that was the case. Then I touched my shoulder and I instinctively put it back into position myself.” Without that rapid response to dislocating his shoulder, Contador may well have been out of the race.
The second crash, just before the 3-kilometer-to-go “safety zone” on stage 13, saw Contador on the ground with a broken bike. Again, quick thinking helped him. This time veteran Italian teammate Matteo Tosatto leapt over other riders and bikes and gave Contador his (undamaged) bike—and his leader lost only 36 seconds to Aru. Hesjedal was also in Contador chase group.
The Spanish star banged up his knee, but he said he’s most concerned about his shoulder in the upcoming time trial, not being able to hold his arms close together on the aero bars. “I’ve decided to slightly widen the position of my [aero]bars,” Contador said. “It costs a little bit aerodynamically, but it puts less pressure on my shoulder. This is absolutely a time trial with focus on aerodynamic advantages. When I tested the route in training, I had an average speed of 40 kilometers an hour, and the last climb is very gradual.”
Should his damaged shoulder (and knee) hold up, Contador will recapture the pink jersey and enter the Dolomites in his favorite position of being able to defend an overall lead.
[Contador not being in front would depend on some tremendous performances by Porte and Urán in that long time trial. Porte’s major negative factor is his lack of results in grand tours: but the confidence he has gained these past four months give him the strongest chance of becoming the first Australian to win the Giro.]
Some have written off Team Sky’s Porte’s podium hopes because of the time he has lost in two incidents: a puncture toward the end of stage 10 into Forli and the stage 13 pileup. After the flat tire, Porte lost 47 seconds and was then penalized two minutes for accepting a spare wheel from fellow Aussie Simon Clarke of the Orica-GreenEdge team—it’s strictly against the rules to accept help from a rival team. In the Jesolo crash, Porte wasn’t as lucky as Contador because the teammate who gave up his bike was Vasil Kiryienka, much taller than the Aussie, and Porte had to stand up on the pedals on the 3-kilometer run-in and finished more than two minutes down.
The result is that Porte, who also banged up his knee, fell to 17th place overall, 5:05 behind Aru. Given that a year ago, Aru conceded three minutes in a 42-kilometer Giro time trial to stage winner Urán, it is possible he could concede four minutes over 59 kilometers to Porte and/or Urán, with Contador somewhere in between. If that’s the case, there will everything to play for on Tuesday over the mighty Mortirolo into Aprica, on Friday on the mountaintop finish at Cervinia, and next Saturday over the Finestre climb to Sestriere. Keep watching. More surprises are guaranteed.