On The Roadby: Bill Oetinger 6/1/2015
May is such a wonderful month for cycling, both for recreational riders—busting out of the late-Winter doldrums—and for the pro peloton, now hitting its prime-time stride.
The marquee attraction in May is always the Giro d'Italia, the first of the three grand tours. But the month offers a good undercard too, with the six-stage Tour of Romandie and the eight-stage Tour of California.
I haven't paid much attention to Romandie in past years—at least not in this space—but I want to mention it now because I think the result is intriguing. Ilnur Zakarin won the overall. Ever heard of him? I hadn't. He's 25, so not exactly an infant in terms of cycling maturity, but still pretty much of a no-name. Partly that's because he served a two-year ban—2009, 2010—for steroids, and that kind of set his career back on its heels for a time. That misbehavior doesn't endear him to any of us: a bit of a bad boy. But as is so often noted, a lot of people did it. Some got caught, some didn't. Get over it.
Anyway…25 years old, Russian, riding for Katusha. He won by finishing a close second on the only major mountaintop finish (Stage 5) and then second again on the final stage, the individual time trial, in spite of having to make a bike change because of a mechanical. (He won the Junior World Championship ITT at age 17 in 2007 and the Russian ITT championship in 2013, so he's pretty good against the clock.) So he can climb and he can time trial…a rare combination, but the essential package for a GC hopeful.
Who did he beat at Romandie? Among others, Nairo Quintana, Chris Froome, Vincenzo Nibali, Rigoberto Uran, and a handful of other notables with major race wins and podiums in the past couple of years. With the exception of Alberto Contador, pretty much a who's who of top-tier riders.
Zakarin continued to shine with a victory on Stage 11 at the Giro, escaping from a break with about 17 k to go and then time-trialing to the finish on his own. He may end up being a flash in the pan, with just this brief season of success, or he may be an emerging new star. We shall see.
The Tour of California was once again a perplexing, frustrating teaser. It could so easily be so good, and yet the organizers continue to find ways to dumb it down and make it mediocre. But we can't blame the riders for that. Chapeau! to Peter Sagan for winning the overall in a most entertaining and improbable way. My reservations about the race packaging should not detract from his marvelous, gutsy performance. However…the fact that someone who is essentially a sprinter has won the GC battle tells me this is not a really significant stage race at this point.
Okay, I am the first to admit that Sagan is no ordinary sprinter. The guy is an amazing athlete. No other "sprinter" I can think of can climb the way he can. Recall that amazing stage in the 2013 Tirreno-Adriatico when he was the only rider to stay with Nibali and Rodriguez when they attacked on a 30% wall. In the rain. On bad pavement. And he won the ITT at ToC. Admittedly, it was an abbreviated time trial, thanks to an eleventh-hour, emergency route change. At just 10.6 k, it was hardly more than a prologue, which suited Sagan better than a full-length ITT would have.
On the big mountaintop finish at Baldy, his courageous, gut-busting grinder to sixth place was heroic. He was totally shattered at the end, but the time he managed to save—or protect—with that dig-deep effort was enough to allow him to win the overall on the next and final day. He finished the Baldy stage :02 behind Julian Alaphilippe on GC (who had won the stage with an equally impressive ride). In the final stage, Sagan picked up bonus seconds in an intermediate sprint and with a third-place finish in the final sprint. His desperate bike throw put him across the line less than an inch ahead of Tyler Farrar. Those few accumulated bonus seconds added up to pretty much the slimmest margin he needed to get him ahead of Alaphilippe for the overall: a grand total of 3 seconds. Whew!
Speaking of Alaphilippe…who the heck is this new guy? Another newbie making a big impression. He's only 22 and is just breaking into the big time. But it would have been hard to follow racing this Spring without noticing him coming on. He was a surprise second behind Allejandro Valverde at two prestigious spring classics: Fleche-Wallone and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Also 7th at Amstel Gold. Both of those seconds were in brutally tough uphill sprint finishes, so you know the guy is more than just a sprinter…rather like Sagan, perhaps. But who knew the punchy sort of climbing at those spring classics would also translate to riding off the front of the peloton on the long, long ascent to Mt Baldy at the Tour of California? I don't imagine too many people expected that. I certainly didn't.
So…Julian Alaphilippe: another interesting new rider to be watching in the months and years ahead. He now assumes the mantle worn by so many before him: the Next Great French Hope.
I'm not going to wear out my keyboard today over what I perceive to be the planning problems with the ToC. It would take too long and I'd rather devote my column inches to the Giro. But I may come back next month with a closer look at the challenges of our big California stage race.
And then there was the Giro. Here at least we had a real bike race, with all the drama anyone could want. Looking at the start list ahead of the event, I figured no one would be able to beat Alberto Contador, at least not if he rode as well as he did in winning the Vuelta a España last Fall. I figured his toughest competition would come from Fabio Aru—who also rode so brilliantly in the Vuelta—but that Aru wouldn't win because he can't match Contador in the Individual Time Trial. That proved to be accurate. Less predictable was the emergence of Aru's Astana teammate Mikel Landa as the other major player. The two Astana riders worked on Contador like a pair of midget tag-team wrestlers, each one taking shots at him, over and over. Aru and Landa won two mountain stages apiece, while Contador didn't win a single stage. All he won was the overall, 2:02 ahead of Aru and 3:14 ahead of Landa.
It was a complex, fascinating tour…never a dull moment. If I've done my bookkeeping correctly, I believe seconds or minutes were gained or lost among the final podium on at least 12 out of 21 stages. Many of those changes were small and turned out to be not that crucial, but there were several stages that stand out as really significant.
Thanks to little things on Stages 1, 4, 5, 8, and 12, Contador had a modest lead after Stage 12 of :17 over Aru and :55 over Landa. But please bear in mind that Contador got tangled up in a finishing straight crash on Stage 6 and dislocated his left shoulder. They popped it back in but then it popped back out during the awards ceremony, just before he was to don the maglia rosa. He could only hold the jersey up in front of himself, as it was too painful to wriggle into it. (I've never had a dislocated shoulder, but when I was in the ER with a broken collarbone, they were popping one back in on a guy on the other side of a curtain from me, and his screaming was more painful to me than my own injury.)
This is the rider—Contador—who won last year's Vuelta just a few weeks after breaking his leg at the Tour de France. Now he's soldiering on in the Giro after a separated shoulder. Lunkheads who only follow football, who think bike racers must be a bunch of lightweight pansies…they need to meet Alberto. This guy is nails.
That wasn't the only time Contador hit the deck. Seven days later on Stage 13, he got caught up in somebody else's crash and went down again, 3.2 kilometers from the finish. That was really bad timing: if you crash within the final 3 k, you get credited with the same time as the winner. But as this crash was just a few meters ahead of the 3-k to go sign, he lost whatever time it took him to pick himself up out of the ditch, get back on the bike and straggle in. And so he slipped to second, :19 behind Aru. Please note that none of his chief rivals waited for him, and nor should they have, under the circumstances. But hold that thought for later.
But it was only a brief spell in pink for Aru, as the next day was the only ITT of the Giro. It was a tough one, at 59.4 k, with a grinding, lumpy profile. Among all the GC contenders, Contador was best: third overall at :14. Aru was at 3:01 and Landa coughed up a serious hairball at 4:14. That meant Contador had beaten Aru by 2:47 and Landa by 4:00. Now go back and look at the final margins for the whole tour: Aru at 2:02 and Landa at 3:14. That was the race right there: in spite of everything else they did, and they did a great deal, they lost the Giro in the time trial. If those Astana boys could time trial worth a lick, they could have and probably would have beaten Contador.
But there was still a week to go at that point, jam-packed with mountainous challenges. Anything could happen! And all sorts of things did. Landa won an uphill finish on Stage 15, just a few seconds ahead of Contador and Aru. No big changes, but it begged the question: if Aru is the designated Astana leader, why is Landa sprinting ahead and swiping the bonus seconds for winning? You had to question the Astana team strategy.
That became much more relevant the next day, with the queen stage over the fearsome Mortirolo ahead of the finishing climb to Aprica. This was one of the great days of this year's Giro. On a descent before the Mortirolo, Contador flatted, had to get a wheel change, and lost the lead group. At the front, the whole Astana team put the hammer down and went full gas. Afterward, they freely admitted they had attacked when they knew Contador had punctured. This is of course in flagrant violation of the time-honored sporting code that says you don't take advantage when your rival has a mechanical.
When Contador hit the bottom of the Mortirolo, Aru and Landa were already a minute ahead, well up the 12-k ascent. But this is where Contador showed his brilliance and his grit. I've done this notorious climb and cannot overstate how brutal it is, with an average for the whole pitch of 11% but with the steepest pitches up around 18%. Most of the hardest bits are in the bottom half of the hill, and that's where Contador did his best work. Out of the saddle, dancing on the pedals, he flew up the hill, passing rider after rider until he finally reeled in Aru and Landa. They must have been astonished to see him back, still only halfway up the climb, and after their rather reprehensible efforts to kill him off while he was messing with a flat.
But now it gets even more interesting. Aru starts to suffer, so he tells Landa to go on ahead, to, in effect, take over the role of team leader. Landa does this, with Contador glued to his wheel. Off they go, over the top and down the long, technical descent and up the last climb to the ski resort of Aprica. (This last climb is not as butch at the Mortirolo, but it is 14 k long and it does have a section in the middle that hits 15%. It's still hard work, especially at the end of such a tough stage.) In the end, Landa wins his second stage in a row, sprinting away from Contador inside the last kilometer to win by :38. Meanwhile, Aru plugs along in full damage-control mode and loses 2:51 to his teammate but, more importantly, 2:13 to Contador. (Recall again the final GC standings: Contador ahead of Aru by 2:02.)
This is where you really have to scratch your head over the Astana game plan. Sure, if Aru is having a bit of a bonk on this stage, maybe you turn Landa loose to do the best he can do. But while he was haring off into the distance, he was dragging Contador along with him, all the while widening the gap back to Aru. At the end of the day, that gap was just a bit more time than the final margin between Contador and Aru for the overall. This becomes painfully significant in light of what happened in the remaining stages.
First of all, on Stage 18, Contador stole some time from the Astanas with a feisty attack. This stage had a big climb—Monte Ologno: most of 18 k at up to 13%—that began 46 k from the finish, with a huge, mostly downhill run from the summit to the end. Here the tables were turned a bit from the Mortirolo day: heading toward the big climb, Landa had a minor crash and he, Aru and most of their team were briefly delayed. Contador was ahead of the crash, and some way up the road from his rivals on the lower slopes of Ologno, he kicked up the tempo. Over the top and down the other side, he kept the boot in it—working well with Ryder Hesjedal—to come in 1:13 ahead of the Aru/Landa group.
Some analysts said it was payback for him to attack after his rivals were held up, just as they had done to him a couple of days previously, and that one bit of karma cancels out the other. I disagree. I don't think the two incidents are the same at all. Contador's delay was due to a legitimate mechanical: a flat. And putting your whole team on the front at full gas to distance a guy with a flat is not the same as putting in a good dig on a big climb. Contador probably would have done that whether the Astanas were with him or not. Also remember that no one waited for Contador when he crashed on Stage 13.
That brings us to the final two mountaintop finishes on Stages 19 and 20, with Contador now enjoying a comfortable lead: 5:15 over Landa and 6:05 over Aru. On Stage 19, the three were together most of the way up the last climb when Aru attacked. Contador chose to cover second-place Landa and let Aru go. Aru—left for dead a few days ago—beavered off up the hill and won, with Landa and Contador 1:18 back. That put Aru back into second, 4:37 behind Contador.
Stage 20 was almost as epic as the Mortirolo stage and had some similarities in its profile: a huge, brutal climb, a long descent, and then an easier climb to the finish at the ski resort of Sestriere. The big climb is Colle delle Finestre: 18.5 k at an average grade of 9% but with the steepest pitches at 14% and the final 9 k on hard-packed dirt. Once again, our main players were all together midway up this bad boy when Landa attacked, followed in a few minutes by Aru…but not by Contador. After dominating the whole Giro, having pretty much everything his way, Contador showed he is human after all. He cracked a bit on the hard dirt road, lost a fair bit of time over the summit and lost a few more seconds on the last uphill to the finish. Aru won again, 2:25 ahead of Contador. But Contador's overall was never really in danger. Yes, he was distanced over the big summit, but after that it was simply a matter of riding a steady tempo and keeping the leaders well within the 4:37 cushion he had to work with.
Astana threw everything but the kitchen sink at Contador. Day after day, the long climbs were a vision of baby blue at the front, as five or six or seven Astana teammates set the tempo for the lead group, while Contador was mostly on his own, with no Tinkoff-Saxo soldiers to help him. Landa and Aru double-teamed him constantly, first one attacking, then the other, to the point where he must have had a hard time knowing who to cover next. It almost worked. But in spite of being so heavily outnumbered, in spite crashing (twice) and separating his shoulder (twice), he still managed to prevail. He may have been the pre-race favorite, but he still had to ride all the stages and contend with some very spirited adversaries.
It was an impressive victory and adds to his already impressive palmarés. He has now won seven grand tours—two Tours, two Giros, and three Vueltas—and you can hold your own personal debate as to whether we should also count an additional Tour and Giro, taken from him as part of his penalty for the clenbuterol offense. (I don't want to be an apologist for dopers, but if you read the details about his case, you will see that there is still a great deal of uncertainty as to whether the crucial urine sample was a true positive or not, and if it was a positive, whether it was intentional or accidental, and further, whether the trace amount of the banned substance found in his sample could have been enough to improve his performance in any way.) Without those few picograms in one sample, he would now be the owner of three victories apiece in each of the three grand tours…has in fact won them all on the road, with or without pharmaceutical assistance.
Now he's out to do what so many recent cycling analysts have claimed is impossible in the modern era: the Giro-Tour double. He plans to be out there in a month, ready to mix it up with a new array of adversaries on another daunting parcourse. Stay tuned! Meanwhile, stay happy about this delightful month of May and savor the memories of another wonderful Giro.
Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org