94th Giro d’Italia/07-29 May 2011
Throughout the course of the Giro d’Italia, Sports Nickel’s resident Non-Traditional Sports Fan in America will offer his news and notes on the action from the first grand tour of the 2011 cycling season…
We’re now through the first seven stages of the 2011 Giro, the first of three weeks of racing now in the books, and as we enter the second weekend of competition everything we thought about this race just a week ago has been turned on its head. The death of Wouter Weylandt near the end of Stage 3 left a mark on the race that will remain eternal — whenever we speak of the race, there it is, no matter what happens through the rest of the fortnight to come.
In the wake of the death the Giro field has seen its numbers dissipate, with Weylandt’s Leopard-Trek team withdrawing after Stage 4 along with some of Weylandt’s close friends in the pelotonsuch as Garmin’s elite sprinter Tyler Farrar. Fourteen riders are already gone from the 207 that started the race, and we have only seen one of the eight summit finishes that are on tap. The question left to ask, given the attrition that will come in the next two weeks, is whether or not we’ll see this year’s race finish with more than the 139 cyclists that completed the course last year…
Stage 4: Quarto dei Mille to Livorno (10 May 2011/216km)
Weylandt’s death left Stage 4 neutralized, the peloton pedaling along the route from Quarto dei Mille to Livorno in a funereal procession. Each team took its turn at the front, pacing the rest of the field down the Ligurian coastline for ten-kilometer stretches and sharing the work equally. Results mattered not, as everyone was still in a state of shock from the premature fatality of the rising Belgian star.
Much like at the 1995 Tour de France, when the Motorola team was allowed ahead to cross the line together on the day after the death of Fabio Casartelli, the peloton eased up at the end in Livorno to let the Leopard-Trek team honor their fallen teammate. But in a touching addition, Weylandt’s best friend Tyler Farrar — the Belgian and the American lived near one another and trained together in Ghent — joined the eight remaining Leopard-Trek riders at the head of the group, tears under his sunglasses betraying his emotions.
It would be a bittersweet day, as both Leopard-Trek and Farrar would both pull out of the race at the end of the day. Understandably, it was simply too much to continue on with the fresh pall of mortality hanging over the proceedings…
Stage 5: Piombino to Orvieto (11 May 2011/191km)
Racing returned in earnest on Wednesday, with the strade bianche making a return to the Giro for the second straight season. The white dirt roads over the Croce di Fighine climb were a boon to some riders, a battle for others, but in the end they made once more for captivating images being piped live to a global audience of cycling fans. It was the kind of stage that doomed maglia rosa David Millar, who had gained his leader’s jersey on that tragic Stage 3 and held it through the neutralized stage the next day. A time-trial specialist, Millar has never been the best climber; but coupled with the surface of the road, he would struggle to finish a mere three minutes down on the day’s winner.
Martin Kohler (BMC) broke away early, getting clear of the field around the 12km mark from the start. He reached the strade bianche with a 5:45 advantage on the chasing field, but as the roads ramped up the toil proved too much after a day alone off the front. Instead it was Rabobank’s Pieter Weening who made the most of the course. Breaking free from the front chase group with AG2R’s darkhorse climber John Gadret, the two riders caught Kohler with ten kilometers to go to the finish. The trio would work together to maintain their advantage…
… but only for another kilometer. As Orvieto neared, Weening punched the pedals once more and opened up a gap on his two breakaway companions. Gaining the slightest separation, the Dutchman went into time-trial mode much like we’ve seen Fabian Cancellara do in the one-day classics of the past few years. The field of contenders behind was charging up fast, sweeping up Gadret and Kohler with just over two kilometers left from the finish. Weening, head down and deep in concentration, just kept turning the drivetrain over and over and praying to stay clear until the end.
He would survive by eight seconds, time enough to sit up on the pedals and raise his arms in a victorious celebration. Unlike his stage win in the 2005 Tour de France, when he won a two-man uphill sprint against Andreas Klöden, Weening was all alone in victory this time around. The peloton behind surged forward, reducing the gap as far as it could, but by the time the group of twenty crossed the line the damage had already been done. Weening took the stage win, slipped into the pink jersey and left the contenders picking up the consolation prizes…
Stage 6: Orvieto to Fiuggi Terme (12 May 2011/216km)
Another of the rare opportunities for the sprinters to do battle had arrived on Thursday. With so few chances to win a stage, every one of the speedsters has been wary about his chances. Farrar’s departure opened the door for the other favorites to increase their odds at victory, but few had counted on the victory going to somebody not named Petacchi or Cavendish.
Especially in the closing kilometer of the uphill sprint, it looked like the man they call Ale-Jet had turned on the afterburners and secured an easy sprint victory. Then, inexplicably, the jet fuel burned out and opened the door for another rider to steal away the stage. The man in prime position proved to be Movistar’s Francisco Ventoso, the 29-year-old Spaniard who had previously won a Vuelta stage in 2006 and had taken fourth in the Gent-Wevelgem spring classic four years ago.
Noticing that Petacchi had stopped pedaling as the meters melted away between the sprinters and the finish line, Ventoso had already neutralized one attack from former Giro winner Danilo di Luca. Now, finding some unexpected reserves of energy, he accelerated once more, pipping Petacchi at the finish line for the biggest sprint win to date in his veteran career. Both men would drive themselves beyond the limit, as Ventoso upchucked from the exertion before receiving his podium time and Petacchi would look gaunt for a while after his loss at the line.
The result would have absolutely no effect on the general classification, as Weening remained bedecked in pink on the podium in Fiuggi Terme. And for the sprinters in the field, from Ventoso and Petacchi to the others who found themselves further down in the stage standings, it would prove their last sanctuary for a while. The peloton cooled down, with visions of the first summit finish resting in their minds as they settled into slumber of varying restfulness…
Stage 7: Maddaloni to Montevergine di Mercogliano (13 May 2011/110km)
Could we have just witnessed the first fledgling steps toward greatness in a burgeoning career? By beating out an accomplished field of climbers and contenders to the summit of Montevergine di Mercogliano on Friday, rookie professional Bart De Clercq showed an explosive finish on the pitches of the climb to claim a stage win in his first-ever grand tour ride. As the favorites marked one another’s accelerations, the 24-year-old Belgian coolly stepped up and stole away victory much like Ventoso did from Petacchi the day before.
It was a short day, a welcome respite from the long hauls of the preceding days, but with several climbs along the route it was a day that once again required vigilance from every rider. A five-man breakaway — consisting of Federico Canuti (Colnago), Jérôme Pineau (Quick Step), Giovanni Visconti (Farnese Vini), Lars Ytting Bak (HTC-Highroad) and Matteo Montaguti (AG2R) – formed 30km into the stage. Their gap had grown to 3:20 as they descended the Serra della Strada, 40km from the finish, and Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoliel) viewed an opportunity to bridge the gap. Riding on his 28th birthday, Hoogerland made it across to complete the half-dozen off the front, but it would prove to be an effort made in vain.
The attacks would form in earnest as soon as the road ramped up toward the finish, 17 kilometers of climbing completing the day’s course. The breakaway would be swept up in fragments, with each rider in turn blowing up off the front and finding itself spit out the back of the chasing group. In the end all the contenders would remain bunched together, 26 strong at the finish line, sticking together to prevent any of the other GC hopefuls an advantage heading into the second weekend of racing.
Pieter Weening would finish amongst the front field, retaining his pink jersey for another day. Despite finishing far back of the front group, Alessandro Petacchi would retain his points jersey another day as well. And with his stage victory atop the Montevergine di Mercogliano, De Clercq would amass enough points in the King of the Mountains race to pull on the maglia verde as leader of the climbers. As the peloton settled in for its evening repose on Friday, the sprinters licked their chops once more, knowing that another of their rare opportunities loomed on the Saturday horizon in Tropea…
AFTER 7 OF 21 STAGES:
KING OF THE MOUNTAINS