Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The 95th Giro d’Italia

By Brad Oremland

Competitive cycling has three Grand Tours: the Giro d'Italia, the Tour de France, and the Vuelta a España. The Giro is first on the calendar, and last weekend concluded the 95th edition of the race, which began in 1909, but was suspended for the first and second World Wars. It was in many ways a historic race, and I'll highlight that below, but let's begin with a summary of this year's Giro.

Stage 1

The 95th Giro was scheduled to begin in Washington, DC, but logistic issues moved it instead to Denmark, where the first three stages were held. Stage 1 featured individual time trials, which is unfortunate, because one-at-a-time sucks a lot of the drama out of racing. It's not a great way to pull in new or casual fans. The early lead was held by 24-year-old Lithuanian Ramūnas Navardauskas, of the Garmin-Barracuda team. Several of the last few cyclists finally surpassed him, pushing Navardauskas to sixth, with the win going to 21-year-old American Taylor Phinney, the son of former cyclists Davis Phinney and Connie Carpenter-Phinney.

Competing in just his second Grand Tour, and never having finished one, Phinney captured the individual time trial and the maglia rosa of the race leader, making him one of only three U.S. cyclists ever to don the pink jersey. Second place went to Geraint Thomas, of Great Britain's Team Sky.

Stage 3

After a crash at the end of Stage 2 derailed several riders, the sprint finish at the end of Stage 3 created even more chaos. With the racers setting up in the final straightaway, Roberto Ferrari of the Androni Giocattoli team swerved to his right. He collided with Stage 2 winner and Stage 3 favorite Mark Cavendish, who toppled to the street and took a dozen other riders with him, including Phinney. It was initially reported that Phinney, who crossed the finish line in an ambulance, would be forced to drop out of the race, but he took advantage of the early rest day before Stage 4 and remained in the competition.

Ferrari was penalized, but he remained in the race, later winning Stage 11. He was strongly chastised by many riders and race observers, including Cavendish, who tweeted that Ferrari should be "ashamed to take out Pink, Red & World Champ jerseys" and noted that he himself had been removed from races for less serious offenses. U.S. announcers Steve Schlanger and Todd Gogulski joked that when the cyclists took two planes to Italy on the rest day before Stage Four, 197 of them went in one plane, and Ferrari in the other.

Stage 4

Phinney finally lost the pink jersey in Stage 4, the team time trial. After a mechanical issue in Stage 2 dropped him to the back of the peloton, his team helped Phinney back to the front of the race, only to see him caught in the crash. Following the more serious crash in Stage 3, during the team time trial Phinney went off into the grass and had to pull a chunk of earth out of his back wheel. By this time, he had also been struck by a car, whose right side view mirror brushed him during an earlier stage. Phinney finished the Giro, but on the final day of the race, another individual time trial, the motorcyle leading him went off-course. If there's any justice in the world, Phinney has used about a year's worth of bad luck in three weeks, and has a friendlier future to look forward to.

The biggest story in the team time trial was a surprisingly strong run by Katyusha, riding for General Classification hopeful Joaquim Rodriguez, but the stage was won by Garmin-Barracuda, putting Navardauskas into the maglia rosa and five of his teammates into the top 10.

Stages 7-10

The early stages featured little serious climbing, but a medium mountain stage on the sixth day of racing dropped Navardauskas out of the lead. The following day, however, his team recaptured the maglia rosa with General Classification leader Ryder Hesjedal, a 6th-place finisher in the 2010 Tour de France. Hesjedal held the race lead for three days, losing it to Rodriguez when the Spanish cyclist pulled away at the end of Stage 10 to capture both the stage and the maglia rosa. At this point, Hesjedal and Rodriguez, well-positioned from their team time trials, were favorites to win the Giro d'Italia.

Stages 14-15

Leading into the Giro's second and final rest day, the race featured its first two serious mountain stages, with the race leaders truly establishing themselves. Among the notable withdrawals in these stages was RadioShack-Nissan's Fränk Schleck, the national champion of Luxembourg and an expected contender in the General Classification. Hesjedal attacked at the end of Stage 14 and recaptured the maglia rosa, but lost it right back to Rodriguez in an epic Stage 15, one of two defining stages of the 2012 Giro.

Featuring four categorized climbs, Stage 15 saw an early two-man breakaway less than 20 kilometers into the 169-km stage. The two men in the breakaway, Guillaume Bonnafond and Matteo Rabottini, eventually established a lead of about nine minutes. When the lead fell to eight minutes at the foot of the first major climb, Rabottini left Bonnafond and continued to hold the race lead without any assistance.

Rabottini's lead gradually shrank as the GC riders made up ground, and he even crashed on a descent, but it appeared that his improbable lead would stick, with Rabottini capturing a mountain stage win at the Giro after riding solo for most of the day. He slowed considerably in the final kilometers, though, and with just 400 meters remaining, he was passed by Joaquim Rodriguez, who had broken away from the main group. When Rodriguez caught him, though, Rabottini found new strength, staying on Rodriguez's wheel and using a furious sprint to pass the Spaniard on an inside corner and capture the Stage.

It's hard to communicate in print how dramatic and inspiring Rabottini's win was to behold.

Stages 16-19

After the peloton seemed to take a collective rest in Stage 16, the following three days further established that there seemed to be only four serious contenders for the General Classification: Rodriguez, Hesjedal, defending champion Michele Scarponi of the Italian Lampre team, and fellow Italian Ivan Basso of Liquigas-Cannondale, himself a two-time Giro champion. The only other riders within four minutes of the race lead were Team Sky's Rigoberto Urán, wearing the white jersey of the best young rider, Beñat Intxausti of Movistar, and Colnago's Domenico Pozzovivo.

The Astana team lost two GC contenders in Stage 17, when both Roman Kreuziger and Stage 7 winner Paolo Tiralongo were dropped in the mountains. Kreuziger recovered to win Stage 19, but never rejoined the top 10 overall. Hesjedal finished second in Stage 19, cutting Rodriguez's lead to :17 and establishing himself as the strong favorite, since he is a much stronger time trialist than Scarponi, Basso, and especially Rodriguez.

Stage 20

The brutal Stage 19 was followed by an equally brutal queen stage, featuring the highest altitude of the race. Stage 20 included climbs of the famous Passo del Mortirolo and Passo dello Stelvio. With Garmin-Barracuda's Hesjedal now a strong favorite to win the Giro, the other teams focused on him, allowing a breakaway featuring top-10 GC riders Thomas De Gendt and Damiano Cunego to establish a significant lead late in the race.

On the Stelvio, Hesjedal finally acknowledged the possibility that De Gendt, also a fine time trialist, could surpass him in the General Classification and win the race. Pushing the pace and without anyone else to take pulls at the front, Hesjedal dropped Basso and most of the other contenders, leading a trio with Rodriguez and Scarponi to the front. De Gendt, of the Vacansoleil team, won the stage, finishing almost a minute ahead of Cunego and more than three minutes ahead of Rodriguez, who passed Scarponi and Hesjedal in the final kilometer. Rodriguez retained the pink jersey, but with Hesjedal only :31 behind going into the individual time trial, it seemed unlikely he would capture the GC.

Stage 21, Final Stage

After three grueling weeks, the 95th Giro d'Italia wrapped up with a 28.2-km individual time trial. The stage was won by Italian national champion Marco Pinotti, with Geraint Thomas again finishing second. More importantly, De Gendt and Hesjedal both finished in the top 10, putting the Canadian in the maglia rosa and the Belgian De Gendt on the podium. Scarponi finished :53 behind De Gendt in the time trial and :26 back overall, placing fourth and marking the first time since 1995 that no Italians stood on the final podium of their national race. Basso finished fifth, and Scarponi's teammate Cunego ranked sixth, giving the host nation three of the top six but no one in the top three.

Hesjedal's victory made him the first Canadian ever to win a Grand Tour, and only the third non-Italian to win the Giro in the last 16 years, following 2010 and 2011 wins by Basso and Scarponi, respectively. It was also the first time since 1984 that the maglia rosa changed hands on the final day of the race.

Rodriguez, second in the GC, did pass British sprinter Mark Cavendish in the Points Classification, while Rabottini, the Stage 15 winner, easily won the King of the Mountains classification, and Team Sky's Rigoberto Uran was the best Young Rider, finishing 7th in the GC.

Points classification

1. Joaquim Rodriguez (ESP), Katyusha, 139 pts
2. Mark Cavendish (GBR), Team Sky, 138
3. Ryder Hesjedal (CAN), Garmin-Barracuda, 113

King of the Mountains

1. Matteo Rabottini (ITA), Farnese Vini, 84 pts
2. Stefano Pirazzi (ITA), Colnago, 44
3. Andrey Amador (CRC), Movistar, 43

Young Riders

1. Rigoberto Urán (COL), Team Sky, 91:44:59
2. Sergio Henao (COL), Team Sky, 91:46:52 (+ 1:53)
3. Gianluca Brambilla (ITA), Colnago, 91:53:22 (+ 8:23)

General Classification

1. Ryder Hesjedal (CAN), Garmin-Barracuda, 91:39:02
2. Joaquim Rodríguez (ESP), Katyusha, 91:39:18 (+ :16)
3. Thomas De Gendt (BEL), Vacansoleil, 91:40:41 (+ 1:39)
4. Michele Scarponi (ITA), Lampre, 91:41:07 (+ 2:05)
5. Ivan Basso (ITA), Liquigas-Cannondale, 91:42:46 (+ 3:44)
6. Damiano Cunego (ITA), Lampre, 91:43:42 (+ 4:40)
7. Rigoberto Urán (COL), Team Sky, 91:44:59 (+ 5:57)
8. Domenico Pozzovivo (ITA), Colnago, 91:45:30 (+ 6:28)
9. Sergio Henao (COL), Team Sky, 91:46:52 (+ 7:50)
10. Mikel Nieve (ESP), Euskaltel, 91:47:10 (+ 8:08)

Other Thoughts

I love races. I write mostly about football, but my greatest love in sports is racing. I was an all-conference hurdler and relay runner in high school, so of course I love track and field, but this isn't just about reliving my glory days as a sprinter. I quit the swim team when I was 8, and I think horse racing is barbaric, but two of my all-time favorite events were the 2007 Belmont Stakes and Men's 4x100 Meter Freestyle Relay at the 2008 Summer Olympics. My favorite event at the Winter Games is cross-country skiing. Yes, it is. I love races.

That extends to cycling. This was my first time watching the Giro d'Italia, and while some stages were more exciting than others, it was definitely a positive experience, and one I'd recommend to anyone else who enjoys races. NBC's Universal Sports carried the Giro, for which I'm immensely thankful, and largely did a very good job. The picture was choppy sometimes, but that's to be expected when you're broadcasting from Denmark and the Italian Alps. The announcers, Schlanger and Gogulski, were pleasant to listen to, and informative without being esoteric.

There are several areas, however, in which the U.S. television broadcast could be immensely improved:

1) Replays. Most of the broadcasts picked up more than halfway through the stage. That's fine — it's probably best that I don't spend six hours a day for three weeks watching most of the riders in a group with little real separation. But when a serious crash occurs during that first half of the stage, especially a crash that causes riders to withdraw from the race, viewers should get a chance to see what happened.

2) Breakaways getting caught. When the peloton or a chase group catches someone who had been up ahead in a breakaway, that's interesting. During one stage, I practically jumped off the couch when the camera cut away from such a scene to show ... the back of the peloton. That's like a baseball broadcast cutting from the play itself to show the manager sitting in the dugout scratching himself. Please, don't do that.

3) More attention to more riders. I'm not sure I heard De Gendt's name mentioned until Stage 20, when he moved into fourth place and a likely spot on the final podium. Beñat Intxausti was in the GC's top seven from Stages 8-18, and it sometimes seemed like the announcers were going out of their way not to talk about him. I understand that, because "Intxausti" is a tricky name, but if NFL announcers can handle "Houshmandzadeh" then Schlanger and Gogulski can figure out Intxausti.

With so much attention paid to Hesjedal, Rodriguez, Scarponi, Basso, Kreuziger, Cavendish, and even Schleck, there was very little attention given to other riders except when they were in a small breakaway. I was shocked when it became apparent, during Stage 20, that this guy I hadn't heard of had a legitimate chance of winning the Giro d'Italia. That's a serious mis-step from the U.S. broadcast team. At the very least, top-10 riders should be highlighted at some level.

4) Show the standings. Speaking of which, my biggest disappointment was that I had to go online to find standings. The announcers often neglected to mention who finished second or third in a stage, and I don't feel like a graphic with that information is unreasonable to expect in 2012. Expanded GC standings would be nice, too, especially in the later stages.

Don't get me wrong, I think Universal Sports largely did a great job with a tough event, but I'm not asking for the moon and stars here. Show a few replays, don't cut away from something interesting, don't focus quite so much on the perceived top contenders, and at the end of each stage, take a moment to show the results from the stage and the current GC standings. Those are all pretty do-able, and they'll enhance the experience for viewers.

The Tour de France begins June 30. See you then.

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