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 by: Bill Oetinger  6/1/2014

May Flowers

This will mostly be about the Giro d'Italia, concluded on Sunday, June 1, but I'll also hazard some observations about the Tour of California, run earlier this month.

If you follow racing, you know Columbian Nairo Quintana (Movistar) won the Giro fairly convincingly, winning two epic stages and--usually at least--getting the better of all his nearest rivals in the many mountain-top finishes. That there were so many mountainous stages was at least part of the reason Quintana was entered here, instead of at the Tour de France, where he finished second last year (as a rookie). He's a pure climber, and this was a climber's tour, with over half of the 21 stages being hilly to some degree or other. Ten had uphill finishes. Not all of those were difference-makers, but many were.

Second behind Quintana was his countryman Rigoberto Urån (Omega), making this a day for dancing in the streets of Columbia. (Quintana is the first Columbian to win the Giro.) Urån was second last year as well, after having begun that tour as the top lieutenant for Bradley Wiggins. He finished 4:43 behind Nibali last year and 3:07 behind Quntana this year. He won the first individual time trial (Stage 12)--his first major ITT victory--and was solid, if not spectacular, throughout. (Nibali, by the way, was not entered this year, presumably keeping his powder dry for le Tour.)

For me, one of the big surprises of the Giro was third-place finisher Fabio Aru (Astana). He had to be a surprise, simply because I had never noticed him before in any significant race. He won the mountaintop stage to Plan di Montecampione with an impressive attack off the front of the maglia rosa group at 3 K to go, putting anywhere from :22 to 1:13 into all the other top guns, and he finished a dramatic, close second to Quintana on the Stage 19 uphill time trial to Cima Grappa. Who is this guy?

I had thought to do one of my micro-analyses of the Giro, stage by stage, puzzling out where seconds were gained or lost. I've been picking over the results, jotting down notes, and trying to remember all those little tipping points. But now I don’t think I'll inflict all of that minutiae on you. While there were many such moments, in the end, the tour displayed a fairly predictable trajectory, with Quintana in control…or at least in control in the latter half of the Giro, when it really mattered. His margin of victory was not massive, not crushing, but it was comfortable and more than enough to take a bit of the drama out of things at the end. (Easy for me to say in retrospect: he certainly could have cracked on one of those steep walls, later in the race, but he never did. So now it all seems a fait accompli.)

Instead of obsessing over seconds, then, I'll content myself with a few general observations…

• Youth will be served

Quintana fulfills his promise from last year's brilliant Tour de France debut, and he stokes up our expectations about what he might accomplish in the seasons ahead. He's only 24. But then, that doesn't seem as remarkable in the current context as it might have in some other era of cycling. Right now, the sport is enjoying a baby boom, with youngsters hogging the highlights. Look at the final GC results for the Giro, with the ages of the riders…

1. Nairo Quintana (24)

2. Rigoberto Uran (27)

3. Fabio Aru (23)

4. Pierre Rolland (27)

5. Domenico Pozzovivo (31)

6. Rafal Majka (24)

7. Wilco Kelderman (23)

Hard to picture the baby-faced pixie Pozzovivo as the elder statesman in this kindergarten. He and Rolland and Uran may be in their fighting' primes, but the rest of these kids were racing as juniors within the last year or two. The conventional wisdom used to be that you would be too young, too unseasoned, to do well in a grand tour in your early 20's. Apparently these tiny tots never got that memo. And these are just the squirts entered in the Giro. There are other youngsters coming up all over the place. It bodes well for the future of the sport.

• Old age and cunning

An old saying--said by old people--asserts that old age and cunning will defeat youth and vigor. It seems occasionally to be borne out by an improbable result. Witness Chris Horner at last year’s Vuelta or Cadel Evans at the 2011 Tour. But more frequently, the old guys get muscled off-stage.

Cadel Evans has become the poster boy for old die-hards who refuse to die. Thanks to a good team time trial in the opening stage, and then to a fortuitous break in the field in the crash-marred Stage 6, he held the lead for a few days. But in the latter stages, he did what he seems to do all the time anymore: he hung on gamely, fighting like a cornered badger, but always grudgingly giving up seconds, then minutes. After similar late-race attrition dropped him from second to third in last year's Giro, this year, the time lost, one struggling finish at a time, finally saw him end up as a battered non-factor in eighth. He's such a nice guy and clearly gives it his all. It's sad to see him losing ground this way. He had won the Giro del Trentino--ahead of Pozzovivo and Aru, among others--as a final tune-up prior to the Giro. But a four or five-day tour is one thing, a three-week grand tour quite another, especially at age 37. His contract with BMC is up at the end of this year…

It may be a stretch to think of Mick Rogers as an older rider. He's still only 34. Perhaps it just seems as if he's been around forever because he won the World Championship in the time trial in 2003, 2004, and 2005…a lifetime ago in terms of a pro career. At this point, he reminds me of Jens Voigt: too big to be a grand tour all-rounder, but capable of launching audacious attacks, either off the front of the peloton or off the front of whichever break he's been in. He was riding in support of his young Tinkoff-Saxo teammate Majka, and he did yeoman work in that role, often pulling the lead group up the mountains the way Jens would have done or the way Hincapie might have done, back in his prime. But he still found time to win Stage 11 with a brazen downhill attack off the front of the peloton. And then he won the queen stage of the entire Giro: the monster ascent of Zoncolan, with its 20%+ ramps, on Stage 20. To be sure, he did this out of a 20-rider break that had an 8-minute cushion at the start of the climb, but still…a huge result for him. (I'll have bit more to say about Zoncolan later.)

The last time I mentioned Rogers in this space, it was to announce that he had been busted for Clenbuterol, back in October of last year. He of course maintained his innocence and claimed the same "tainted beef" excuse as his teammate Alberto Contador had tried a while back. But in this case--unlike Contador's--it appears there was some real basis for his protest (tainted beef while racing in China) and eventually he was absolved of all wrongs and reinstated in the pros. I was delighted to learn that, as Rogers is another nice guy and has always been a credit to the sport. Nice to know that occasionally, these "positives" don't hold up.

• Crashes

There were the usual array of crashes in the Giro, and a couple of them had an impact on the results, or at least they had a hypothetical impact in the sense of: what if…? Dan Martin was touted as one of the pre-tour favorites, but he was taken out in a weird pig pile in the team time trial on Stage 1 in Belfast. One of his teammates somehow got crossed up on a manhole cover and went down, and three riders in line behind him also hit the deck, including Martin. He ended up having to withdraw with the standard broken collarbone.

I feel especially sorry for Martin this spring. On April 27 he crashed in the final corner at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the "doyenne" of spring monuments. Last year, he won LBL with a perfect uphill sprint around that last corner to ride away from Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez. This year, he was set up to do exactly the same thing, with a late move to overtake Pozzovivo and Giampaolo Caruso in the same corner when, for some unexplained reason, his rear wheel slid out and he was on the ground. Then, less than two weeks later, racing in his home country of Ireland, in Stage 1 of the Giro, he crashes out a few minutes into the race.

For whatever it's worth, that crash of the Garmin-Sharp train on Stage 1 also cost Ryder Hesejedal about three minutes. The 2012 Giro champ faded in the same way as Cadel Evans in the Giro, ending up ninth. But without those lost three minutes, he would have finished seventh. In spite of his losing big chunks of time here and there over the course of the tour, I have to salute Hesejedal for his super gutsy ride on the epic Stage 16 (over the Gavia and the Stelvio in the rain and snow, then up Val Martello to its superb, switchbacking conclusion). He and Rolland and Quintana got ahead of the other leaders after the Stelvio descent…about a minute ahead. (You will have to read elsewhere to get the full, tempest-in-a-teapot story about the controversial Stelvio descent.) The three of them hit the last climb together and eventually put another three minutes into all their rivals, which put Quintana in pink. Quintana, did 90% of the work on the climb, and it was enough to drop Rolland (a former Alpe d'Huez winner). But Hesejedal refused to be dropped. Time after time, he was gapped off the back, but each time the big British Columbian bowed his neck and clawed back up to the much smaller, more hill-friendly Columbian. (Quintana is 5'6", 130 lbs; Hesejedal is 6'2", 160 lbs. In a sport where advantage is measured in grams, that's a whole lot of grams.) You could just feel how hard it was…how deep he was digging. To me, it was one of the highlights of the whole Giro. In the end, it didn't do him much good…except for earning him the respect and admiration of bike fans everywhere.

But back to crashes… The other significant one came just a few K from the end of a rain-slick Stage 6. (This was the stage where Evans got away ahead of the crash and gained time on the other leaders, all of whom were delayed behind the wreckage.) The chief victim in this pile-up--at least among the contenders--was Joaquim Rodriguez, always a favorite for a grand tour podium. He got back on his bike and finished the stage--pretty courageous, seeing as how he was later found to have two broken ribs and a fractured thumb.

• The fans

I can't offhand think of another major sport where the fans get to interact so closely with the participants. Saying it's a spectator sport in cycling means that the spectators are not just spectating; in many cases, they insert themselves right into the "game."

We see it all the time, and pretty much every cyclist I know deplores the antics of those idiots who run along beside the riders, screaming in their faces and pushing at them…not to mention the ones who dress up as the pope or a ballerina or clown. I mean, who are these people, and what motivates them to do this? (I can recall going out to a steep uphill corner to wait for the racers to come by in a big stage race, and watching these grown men get out of their car and then begin dressing up as princesses or Gumby or something…and thinking: what are they thinking?) What thought processes get you to the point where this seems like a bright idea? Where do you decide that it makes sense to make a fool out of yourself?

I have to assume these twits go home afterward and watch the replays, hoping to catch a glimpse of themselves in all their demented glory. And if they do, they'll hear the announcers ridiculing them and saying what absolute jerks and dimwits they are. Can they not hear that disdain being heaped upon them? How can you be so tone deaf and self-absorbed that you fail to notice that everyone else thinks you're a moron? It's all a great mystery to me.

The whackos were in evidence on every long, slow climb, but they really got into the middle of things on the epic climb to Zoncolan on Stage 20. Francesco Bongiorno was riding with Mick Rogers at the front of the field on that brutal climb…the last two men standing out of the break of 20, both struggling to keep it moving up the hill, with the finish still too far away and the end still in doubt…when some dork leaped into the road and attempted to give the rider a helpful push. Instead, he nearly knocked him over. Bongiorno had to put a foot down and pretty much came to a halt. When you come to a halt on a 20% pitch, getting started again is almost impossible. He lost his momentum and rhythm, not to mention 20 quick yards. He never got back on terms with Rogers. Other riders, including Rogers, were seen fending off overzealous goombahs who got in their faces. Jeez, it’s hard enough just keeping the bike moving on a grade like that, let alone trying to win or at least do well, and then you have to be batting at these buttheads…

I believe the race commissaires have the authority to penalize riders who assault the fans, and I have vague memories of riders being docked time for having punched a spectator. I'd like to see that rule changed. I'd like to see the riders really punching the nut jobs in the nose. I am reminded of that stage in the Tour, several years ago…the one where Hincapie won a great uphill finish out of break (similar to Rogers' win)…and some dimwit fan, chasing after a rider, got run over by a motorcycle with a camera-man on the back. Big, heavy BMW rolls right over the guy and messes him up. And we all--a large group of us watching it on TV--cheered like mad. It was wonderful. I wish that would happen all the time.

• That other race

So enough about the Giro…a delightful three weeks of cycling intensity, as good as it gets. Now a brief note about the other big May event, the Tour of California. In a word: boring! Hey, I don't want to bite the hand that feeds us this race. I don't want them to become discouraged and give up. (Not that listening to my whining would have much effect on their plans.) But c'mon folks…you can do better than this.

I do believe they're trying. When the race began, several years ago, I argued that it wouldn't be worth watching until they could give us some really good mountaintop finishes. This year, they had two. On paper, you'd think at least the climb to Mt Diablo would be a difference-maker, but it really wasn't. The only part that seriously tested the riders was that last little chute at the finish, and that's not enough to really shake things up. The other one, Mountain High, was a total yawn. I mean, sure, they were shedding some sprinters and domestiques off the back, but the leaders were all just hangin' in, riding tempo. It was an almost pointless waste of time.

In the end, the entire race came down to the time trial, and that was about as exciting as watching paint dry. An utterly featureless landscape, with no redeeming scenic value, no little ups or downs or curves to wake the riders up. Barring some scenic treats or kinks in the parcourse, the only thing that can make an ITT exciting for the fans is having intermediate time splits on the screen, to see who's doing what…who's gaining or losing time. And did they have these splits? Nooooo….sorry! We've only been producing this race--and its TV broadcasts--since 2006, only NINE years so far, and we just haven't had the time yet to figure out how to get those graphics on the TV screens.

I don't know what it's going to take to get this race over the hump, to the point where it has some real pizzazz and gravitas. As it is now, it's just like watching a bunch of teams doing training rides. This year looked like a step backward. The crowds seemed small at many venues. It all seemed lame. I don't mean to take anything away from the riders, who did the best they could with the course they were given. But somehow, somewhere, the organizers have to find some summit finishes that are authentic monsters…not just mountain-top-lite. And they need to hire some decent people for the TV feed who know what sort of graphics to put on the screens. The new has worn off the Tour of California now. It can't trade on its novelty anymore. It's time for it to grow up and be taken seriously in the world of racing. I would have thought nine years would be enough time to have figured this out, but apparently not.

Thank goodness we had the Giro.

Alright then…enough about racing for now. TIme to get out the door and do some riding.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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