The first weekend of the Giro taught us that to win a bike race, you need to stay on your bike. This requires excellent bike handling skill combined with bucket loads of luck. Unfortunately for some, lady luck abandoned them on the roads of the Netherlands with many riders losing up to 8 minutes on Stage 3 last Monday. All it takes is a misplaced barrier, an awkward roundabout or a wide road bottle-necked into a narrower one for a rider’s Grand Tour aspirations to be wiped out. The events at the Giro this week makes the achievments of recent Tour masters Lance Armstrong and Miguel Indurain all the more impressive. These riders managed to win multiple Tours de France in a row without ever succumbing to the pitfalls of a crash. The only time I recall either rider ever ‘crashing’ during their Tour reigns was when Armstrong snagged his handlebars on a fan’s musette bag in the 2003 Tour and went over, but for good measure, the Texan romped home afterward to win the stage anyway.
As I said, a lot of this crash avoidance comes down to luck, but plenty of it can be attributed to bike handling. The famous example is when Joseba Beloki crashed on the descent to Gap, again in the 2003 Tour. Armstrong could easily have come a cropper also but instead chose to go off road across a field. This is one of the most memorable events in Tour history, but Armstrong’s bike handling skills were further demonstrated in the Amstel Gold race of 1999. He was in a leading group of four with Gabriele Missaglia, Marcus Zberg and eventual winner Michael Boogerd. The four riders were approaching a left hand bend where they were presented with a motorbike which had stopped on the corner so the photographer could get a shot of the riders approaching. Armstrong somehow managed to stay upright only just missing the motorbike, Boogerd managed to follow Armstrong’s wheel successfully but the other two riders were not so lucky. This is a more subtle example of bike handling skills but, I think, just as impressive (although not as impressive as this). The only incident I can recall involving Miguel Indurain was when he took a bend slightly wide on a descent (in the 1993 Tour?) and had to unclip his left shoe to stay upright, if you could even call that an incident.
But then there’s the luck factor which cannot be attributed to a lack of fitness, skills or practice…bad luck is bad luck. In recent years there have been many riders who’ve lost their opportunity to challenge in a Grand Tour due to bad luck. There’s Joseba Beloki in the incident mentioned above. The Spaniard was on a descent when his rear tyre dislodged from the wheel due to extreme road surface temperatures. He broke his wrist, his elbow and his leg and his season was over. In the 2004 Tour, as there will be in the 2010 Tour, there were cobbled sections on Stage 3. These cobblestones contributed to Iban Mayo’s downfall when he was involved in a pileup and never regained contact with the peloton losing almost 4 minutes and his Tour hopes. In the 2007 Tour, current Giro d’Italia leader Alexandre Vinokourov crashed with less than 30km to go in what looked to be a routine stage into Autun. Vino ended up losing a couple of minutes and would go on to lose even more due to the discomfort caused by those injuries sustained on Stage 5, although his Tour would end up going pear shaped for far more sinister reasons.
In this year’s Giro, the crashes have been caused by a treacherous race route. It’s never nice to see riders crash, and it’s terrible to say this, but an increase in race route treachery certainly leads to an increase in intrigue for the cycling fan. If last weekend’s events are a taster of what’s to come, the opening days of the 2010 Tour de France are set to be very intriguing indeed. But getting back to the Giro, already by Stage 3 there are many riders who have fallen too far back in the G.C. to be considered an overall threat. Bradley Wiggins was brought down in a crash which involved most of Team Sky and ended up losing almost 4 minutes. Further overall hopefuls to lose time were Marzio Bruseghin, Gilberto Simoni, Domenico Pozzovivo and Dan Martin who all lost 8 minutes. Perhaps the biggest time loss by a big name rider was the 15 minutes lost by David Moncoutié, although this will suit the Frenchman perfectly as he only has eyes for the King of the Mountains prize. Due to his major G.C. defecit he will now be afforded plenty of leeway to pop of the front of the race whenever it suits him to hoover up mountains points. He will be trying to add the Maglia verde to the mountains prizes he won in the last two editions of the Vuelta a Espana.
The same leeway could also be afforded to the other aforementioned riders which could lead to an odd race situation when they reach the mountains. In last year’s Giro, the mountaineous stages all followed a similar script. The race would be whittled down until, on the final climb, all that was left were Di Luca, Menchov, Garzelli, Basso, Pellizotti and Sastre. Each rider didn’t want to lose time to any of the others. While there was plenty of attacks, Menchov (and di Luca when he was in pink) did a fine job of closing the attacks down and keeping the front of the race together. It wasn’t until Stage 16 that one of these riders, Carlos Sastre, finally broke the elastic and went up the road with a considerable distance left to the finish.
This year, there will be plenty of riders (including all those mentioned above who have lost considerable amounts of time) who no longer harbour interests in the G.C. but will be well capable of staying with the likes of Evans, Basso and Nibali when the road starts going up. It will make for interesting race dynamics when different groups could form containing some G.C. hopefuls, and some riders simply on the hunt for stage victories, who will all be fairly equal in climbing ability.
One of these riders is Dan Martin. He stated after Monday’s stage that his aims were to go for the White jersey and a stage win. He may find the young rider’s classification very difficult to attain now. Although with Vincenzo Nibali no longer eligible, Martin is possibly the only under-25 rider who will be capable of keeping up in the high mountains in the third week. With a Giro so lacking in time trial miles and so rich in summit finishes, hauling back a 9 minute defecit in the White jersey competition may not be completely beyond him. But a stage win seems more likely. He will find himself in the same situation as David Moncoutié. The big G.C. riders such as Evans and Basso won’t be too bothered if Martin goes on the attack. The Irishman’s hopes of a top 10 place may be gone, but he still has plenty to race for in the coming weeks.