On The Roadby: Bill Oetinger 6/1/2016
The Giro d’Italia and the Tour of California
I’m writing this on the morning of Sunday, May 29, just after the final, semi-ceremonial stage of the 2016 Giro d’Italia. Today’s stage made it official that Vincenzo Nibali has won the general classification, but it is what happened over the previous two stages that really makes this one special.However, to appreciate that amazing finish, we have to go back to the beginning to see how things unfolded. Or even back to my column from last month, where I made a half-baked non-prediction about the upcoming Giro. Probably the most accurate thing I said was that stage races are too unpredictable for any sort of accurate predictions…that variables such as illness and injury and accident can screw up any preordained pecking order. That certainly was the case with this race. Of the A-list favorites who I suggested “might do well,” Mikel Landa had to abandon because of intestinal upset, Tom Dumoulin had to abandon because of saddle sores, and Ilnur Zakarin had to abandon on Stage 19 after a scary crash on a fast descent. (It looked very grim at first, but was only a broken collarbone.)
Among my other top-tier hopefuls, Nibali won, Alejandro Valverde was 3rd, Rafal Majka was 5th, and Rigo Uran was 7th. So not too bad a prediction. However, there were a couple of key players in the end whom I had not anticipated: Esteban Chaves and Steven Kruijswijk. I had thought about adding Chaves to my list of probable contenders but didn’t do it. He’s a young up-and-comer, but I felt he was not quite seasoned in the big races yet, and not too hot in the time trial discipline. As for Kruijswijk, I never saw that one coming and I doubt too many others did either. He’s a good rider—a better-than-average climber—but his best prior results in 10 grand tours were a 7th and an 8th in the Giro and nothing else even remotely close to the top ten…not exactly a resumé that would indicate a leading role in this year’s first grand tour.
In the end, with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, we can say that the Giro was a battle between four riders, who did in fact end up in the top four places: Nibali, Chaves, Valverde, and Kruijswijk. (Before getting any deeper into this recap, I have to backtrack and correct an error I made in that last column and in at least one other column as well. I had described Valverde as the best rider of his generation to have never won a grand tour. Wrong! He won the 2009 Vuelta ahead of Sammy Sanchez and Cadel Evans. I promise to be more diligent in my fact-checking before making such blanket statements in the future.)
Although I prepared a stage-by-stage chart—for myself—of where seconds were lost or gained among these final four worthies, I’m not going to inflict all that minutiae on you. While other riders had their 15 minutes of fame on the early stages, these four stayed within a few seconds of each other, lurking behind the other, erstwhile leaders, waiting for the time trials and big mountains to sort things out. The first big shift came on Stage 9, the only full-length time trial. Nibali, Kruijswijk, and Valverde finished within four seconds of each other, but Chaves was almost two minutes slower…a big handicap. (Hold that thought for later.)
Things stayed approximately like that until Stages 14, 15, and 16. Chaves won Stage 14 (a classic tour of all the famous summits in the Dolomites), with Kruijswijk right behind on same time. Nibali and Valverde were both dropped and lost time. Kruijswijk took the overall lead, :41 ahead of Nibali and 1:32 ahead of Chaves. Valverde was the biggest loser, finishing 3:00 adrift and falling to 3:23 behind.
The next day was a 10.8-km uphill time trial, averaging about 8%. Kruijswijk finished tied for first, a hugely impressive result for him. Valverde, after his stinker the day before, recovered well and was just :23 back. Chavez was :40 down, but Nibali was a very tired-looking 2:10 off the pace. It only got worse for Nibali on Stage 16. Continuing his personal ressurection, Valverde won the stage, just ahead of Kruijswijk, with Chavez :42 back. Nibali cracked badly at the end and dragged in 1:47 down, looking old and beaten.
At this point, the unheralded Dutchman, Steven Kruijswijk, was looking good in the Maglia Rosa, with a cushy 3:00 lead over Chaves. Valverde was third at 3:23 and Nibali was down and out at 4:43. Nibali had been considered the pre-race favorite, at least in the minds and hearts of his Italian fans. But as his performances tanked, the Italian press went after him like a pack of jackals: over the hill…a has been…overrated…might as well drop out now: no point in carrying on and embarrassing yourself any further, etc. (After the Giro was over, it was revealed that Nibali had been suffering from a bout of dysentery through that three-stage stretch. Later in the tour, he felt better. He also switched his cranks from 175’s to 172.5’s for the later stages, which seemed to help him get the power down.)
Things stayed like that through Stages 17 and 18, and then we had the final act of this intriguing drama: two gigantic stages in the French and Italian Alps. Stage 19 had a simple but daunting profile: first the massive up-and-over of Colle dell’Agnello—the highest point of this year’s Giro—and then the long ascent to the French ski resort of Risoul.
Valverde was gapped by the other leaders to the tune of about :40 over the top of Agnello. Then, some way down the far side of this enormous summit, Kruijswijk overcooked it in a rather innocuous looking left-hand curve and piled into a snowbank at about 50 mph, doing a wild front somersault while his bike went flying down the road. (This is not far from the spot where Zakarin went off the road and crashed out of the Giro.) Kruijswijk quickly remounted and carried on, but had to stop twice more, first to tinker with his somewhat bent bike and then to swap that bike out for a new one. Meanwhile, Nibali and Chaves were barreling down the mountain and eventually Valverde caught back up and passed the damaged Dutchman as well. (Yes, damaged: although landing in a snowbank saved him from more serious injuries, he did fracture a rib, never a plus when you’re working at 110% in the mountains.)
Nibali, all of a sudden full of life and hope again, attacked Chaves with about 5 km to go on the final climb to Risoul, and the young Colombian climber couldn’t respond. Nibali won the stage and put :53 into Chaves and 2:14 into Valverde (who never really got back on terms with the leaders). Kruijswijk, what with the broken rib and all the bike troubles—not to mention just having had a high-speed tumble—finally cracked and came in 4:54 in arrears, giving up his pink jersey and slipping to 3rd overall. Chaves inherited 1st, but Nibali was the big winner, erasing four minutes of his deficit to sit just :44 behind Chaves with one big mountain stage to go. At the finish, Nibali put his head down on his bars and began to sob, his shoulders quaking, as a team worker gently patted him on the back. After all his troubles, all the negative, critical press, after his own self-doubt, he was back…back from the dead.
Or almost back: there was still the matter of that :44 time gap between him and Chaves. All Chaves—a superb climber—would have to do would be to shadow Nibali throughout Stage 20…just stick to his wheel…and the Giro would be his. Stage 20 was even more daunting than Stage 19: three huge climbs over Vars, Bonette, and Lombarda, plus a shorter but still challenging uphill finish. Behind a breakaway of secondary riders, the leaders marked each other over Vars and Bonette and most of the way up Lombarda. But 5 km from the summit, Nibali pushed all his chips onto the table. He attacked and none of the others could stick with him. Within those 5 km to the summit, he opened up a 55-second gap on Chaves, which put him in the virtual leader’s jersey. He used his legendary descending skills to hold or expand his lead on the long, long descent, and then did enough to protect the lead on the final climb.
Behind the remnants of the break, Nibali finished 1:34 ahead of Chaves and 1:29 ahead of Kruijswijk. Valverde—as good a descender as Nibali—battled hard through the last, long downhill and the last, short uphill, taking back almost all the time he had lost earlier to finish right behind Nibali, just :13 back. Nibali ended up :52 seconds clear of Chaves for the GC honors. Thanks to his hard chase at the end of Stage 20, Valverde supplanted Kruijswick on the third step of the podium at 1:17. One nice moment at the finish: Esteban Chaves’ parents had traveled from Colombia to see their young son do well, but even before he had finished on Stage 20, they approached Nibali and graciously offered their congratulations…a very classy act at a time when their hearts must have been heavy.
It was as dramatic and as emotionally exhilirating—and draining—as any grand tour I can recall in recent years. No one could have or would have predicted that Nibali could win when he was down by almost five minutes with just two serious stages to go, especially not when he had looked so downtrodden and demoralized after Stage 16. But Vinnie has the heart of a true champion, and somehow he managed to find some reserves of courage and grinta…and he did it…did the impossible. Some has been!
Would Nibali have caught Kruijswijk if the latter had not crashed? Should Nibali and Chaves, et al have waited when he crashed? The answer to the second question is no. Nibali had already attacked Kruijswijk over the top of Agnello and they were all going full bore on the descent. Kruijswijk’s crash was operator error, plain and simple. He pushed too hard to hang on to Nibali on the descent and he messed up a corner. Descending is as important a skill set as climbing. As for the first question, Nibali put 6:23 into Kruijswijk over those two stages and I doubt more than two minutes of that were lost during the crash and the two subsequent stops. No doubt the broken rib kept Kruijswijk from performing at his best, but in the end, it looks more like Nibali just rode better and faster.
As if this were not enough excitement for the month of May, we also had the 8-stage Tour of California running at the same time. As I noted in last month’s preview, they had included a wonderful mountaintop finish on Gibraltar Road, above Santa Barbara, and this promised to be a big enough, hard enough challenge to sort out the leaders. It did do that. Last year, young Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe won the queen stage to Mount Baldy but lost the Tour by a scant three seconds to Peter Sagan. This year, he indulged in some pro-level sandbagging ahead of the tour: I’m not in shape; I’m just riding this as training, blah, blah…yeah, right. After assorted other climbers had tried their luck at getting away on the big Gilbraltar climb on Stage 3, he pounced, with next to no road left. He carved out a slim lead over his rivals. In another round of 20-20 hindsight, we can see that the most significant of those rivals was Rohan Dennis, who was :58 down after that stage.
None of the other road stages had any significant bearing on the overall. As I noted last month, several of those stages offered up substantial climbing challenge, but all ended with enough roll-out or flats to allow the group to come back together for some form of bunch sprint. (This begs the question: why put the riders through all those grueling ups and dicey downs if you’re just going to regroup for a field sprint in the end? Hills are supposed to be difference-makers, but if you don’t put them near enough to the finish, the exercise becomes somewhat pointless. Now that we’ve had that lovely hilltop finish on Gibraltar, I’m greedy for more: let’s have two really tough hilltop finishes, so it’s not all decided in one, 15-minute struggle on one stage.)
The only other place where seconds changed hands in large batches was the time trial around Folsom on Stage 6. Rohan Dennis, an extremely competent time trialer, finished first. Andrew Talansky was an impressive second, just :17 back (three seconds ahead of Taylor Phinney). Alaphilippe did just enough in the ITT to save his tour. He finished :45 behind Dennis, but that left him still with a slim few seconds in hand, and nothing that happened on any of the other stages changed that.
Stage 7 began and ended in Santa Rosa. This one had a little added interest for me, and not just because the riders were racing on my own backyard back roads. For a variety of reasons, the local organizing committee had invited me to be the ceremonial starter for the stage, firing off a pistol to launch the racers on their way. I already had a VIP pass that afforded me access to some of the insider places along the start/finish straight, but this gave me a slightly elevated level of celebrity. I was interviewed before the start and was on stage throughout the period where the riders come up and sign in. While they were doing their official sign-ins, they were also stopping by my corner of the stage and autographing a special jersey, just for me. I thought that was pretty cool. I was thinking I could get it framed and hang it on the wall in my man-cave. But when I came to look at it closely later, I was a little disappointed. These guys—who have to do this sign-in ritual every day—have honed their signatures down to the most rudimentary squiggles…the zen of autographs. They are so scrawly and cryptic as to be utterly indecipherable. It looks like a flock of chickens had walked through some ink and then across the jersey. Or maybe like something Jackson Pollock might have done at the end of a nine-day bender. Try as I might, out of the hundreds of “signatures” on the jersey, I cannot make out the actual name of a single rider. I know all those big stars signed the jersey. I stood there and watched them do it…from Brad Wiggins to Laurens ten Dam; from Haimar Zubeldia to Mark Cavendish to Peter Sagan. But their runic scribbles have kept their identities safe from prying eyes.
After the riders set off on their journey through the west county hills, I spent a pleasant day mooching around between the assorted VIP tents, hoovering my way through the gourmet buffets, slurping up lots of excellent wine, and schmoozing with the other folks nearby…everyone from local politicians to Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwyn to assorted Amgen big shots to members of the World Anti-Doping Agency…and lots of my regular bike buddies. At some point the race popped up on the many big-screen TVs in the tents, and from then on we watched as the riders worked their way back to Santa Rosa, finally bursting free of the screens and onto the street right in front of us. If you want to be a spectator at a bike race, this is a nice way to do it.
So…what a month…what fun! The Tour of California was better than it has been in years but probably still has a way to go to mature into its full potential as a world-class event. But they’re getting better at it, and they had more World Tour teams than ever before. It’s headed in the right direction. The Giro is already there and need not take a back seat to any other bike event on the calendar, including the Tour de France. As long and verbose as this race summary is, it hardly does justice to all the drama and danger and travail that unfolded over its three-week run. Any result would have been good…any winner worthy of the accolades. But what we got this year was something quite extraordinary. It’s a Giro bike racing fans will be talking about for years. Epic stuff. All hail the Shark of Messina, Vincenzo Nibali. Rumors of his death have been greatly exaggerated.
Bill can be reached at email@example.com