Week one of the Giro d’Italia ended with three of the four main GC hopes racing for the line in touching distance of each other. The time difference between them was no more than a handful of seconds. An exciting prospect then, but all this had come at the end of an eventful and highly entertaining nine days of racing for the famous Maglia Rosa – the pink jersey in the corporate colour of the La Gazetta dello Sport, which instituted the race back in 1909.
In terms of the overall competition, the Giro has always been about the climbers. Italy’s mountainous spine, combined with its northern alpine regions, meant that you had better be able to propel a bicycle uphill if you wanted to feature – or even survive the race. Many reckon the Giro to be the toughest of the three Grand Tours. There is a new weighting of the points this year which should give more prominence to the sprinters, but looking at the rosters of the top teams, there is a predominance of domestiques who are there to support the climbers. Only Sacha Modolo of Lampre Merida can look to anything like a lead-out train, but Orica Greenedge in support of Michael Matthews can always be relied upon to pull their weight in a sprint.
Last year’s overall winner, Columbian Nairo Quintana, has opted for the Tour de France and is not defending his title, so the favourites were led by Alberto Contador, aiming to repeat Pantani’s feat of winning the Giro and the Tour de France in the same year. His progress is being aided by the presence of owner Oleg Tinkoff, in the team-car. This may or may not explain some of the unusual tactics adopted by the Tinkoff Saxo team, most notably having Kreuziger setting a ferocious pace in the challenging third stage to the possible discomfort of Contador.
This first week of the Giro has been conspicuous for combative riding of that sort. Astana, as well as Sky, have fielded strong teams of quick climbers and seem intent on thinning the field early on.
Sky are riding for Richie Porte who has had an excellent early season as far as stage-races are concerned, while Astana’s big hope is young Italian Fabio Aru, who made himself conspicuous by attacking successfully as he passed the mural of Pantani on the lower slopes of Monte Campione last year, on his way to an exciting third place.
Last year’s runner-up, Rigoberto Uran, completes the list of front-runners. He is supported by the talented, but, this season anyway, inconsistent riders of Etixx Quickstep.
Orica Greenedge predictably won the team time trial, which heralded a good showing by the Australian team in this first week. Astana will also have been pleased to have Aru only six seconds adrift of Contador at this point, as the focus moved to the sprinters
Genoa will always be a special place for Elia Viviani, as he sprinted to his first stage win in a grand tour, with Hofland and Greipel defeated. Matthews won the next stage, before the first of the week’s really memorable events saw significant attacks on a varied and challenging stage to La Spezia. At one point, the whole race seemed likely to be turned upside down as the main contenders’ teams would not commit to chase a significant break. Young Italian Cannondale Garmin rider Davide Formolo eventually broke clear and soloed home to receive the applause of a delighted home crowd. Aru had also attacked strongly, and the
Astana team showed plenty of power in the chase.
Wednesday’s stage offered the climbers another opportunity to shine with the first summit finish in the Tuscan ski resort of Abetone. This was to be the first of three very good days for Lampre Merida as Jan Polanc was first home by a distance and, the next day, a sprint stage in windy conditions saw Sacha Modolo finish third behind Greipel and IAM’s Matteo Pelucci. Lampre will have been delighted to get their second stage win of the week when Diego Ulissi, defying his asthma, won the sprint in Fiuggi. It has been a good year for ex-dopers, it has been said.
Lotto Jumbo NL have not had the best of seasons to date, but Steven Kruijswijk made himself conspicuous, in a sponsor-pleasing way, by getting into the break on both of the next two days. He was overhauled on Saturday, after a brave solo effort, in a stage won by Movistar’s Intxausti with Landa for Astana a significant second. Kruiswijk’s even braver attempt at glory on Sunday was rewarded by second place in a stage won by Astana’s Italian veteran Paulo Tiralongo. The rest of a powerful breakaway followed a few seconds behind with former winner, Ryder Hesjedal, Carlos Betancur and Amaël Moinard, amongst others, reminding everyone this is not just a four-horse race.
Most would agree that this first week’s parcours has left everything nicely poised. Viviani has a narrow lead in the Points classification from Greipel. The blue King of the Mountains jersey has been passed around, but the mountains will be decisive in Week Three. The week’s biggest loser, in GC terms, has been Uran. Twice he has lost time on climbs, and now trails the other three main contenders by over two minutes. Astana seem to have the strongest team, but will the inexperienced Aru have what it takes to go all the way to Milan in pink? Contador is not in the habit of surrendering leaders’ jerseys, but has only a slender advantage over a confident Porte.
Week Two begins with a series of flat sprint stages, but next Saturday could well be decisive. A hilly individual time-trial will set up the trials of the big mountain climbs perfectly. It has been a wonderful Giro so far – and there is plenty more to come.