Giro analysis: Sprint madness, remembering Wouter

While the riders are enjoying their rest day in Verona, here at VeloVoices Towers I’ve been picking the bones out of the first three days of action in the 2012 Giro d’Italia. Having looked at Taylor Phinney‘s big adventure so far and the early winners and losers, here’s the second part of my analysis which focuses on the glorious madness of the sprints and remembering the loss of one of the sport’s true champions.

Sprint Madness I: There’s nothing quite like a Grand Tour sprint

Stage two provided the first opportunity for the sprinters to strut their stuff. It was little surprise that (a) there was a crash inside the final kilometre and (b) Mark Cavendish won.

The first bunch gallop is often fraught, and often won by the coolest head, not just the strongest legs. All the sprint teams are keen to lay down an early marker, especially those with men looking to break into the top echelon, such as Farnese Vini’s Andrea Guardini (winner of six stages at February’s Tour de Langkawi). As a consequence, the closing kilometres are even more ‘elbowy’ than normal. Cycling, a non-contact sport? Think again.

Smiling Theo Bos winner stage 1 (image coutesy of Rabobank)

Bos paid a heavy price for a small error (image courtesy of Rabobank)

This was amplified on Sunday’s finish by a right-hand bend 400 metres from the finish line, where Theo Bos‘ crash occurred. Desperate not to lose the wheel of lead-out man Mark Renshaw, the Dutchman clipped his teammate’s rear wheel and high-sided spectacularly into the barriers. Bos is an exceptionally quick finisher but his positioning is often suspect, and here he was perhaps ten metres further back in the line than ideal.

Ahead of the crash, Cavendish showed why he has won 31 Grand Tour stages, giving a masterclass in how to finish a sprint. Aided by superb race-craft by Geraint Thomas, whose rear wheel he was glued to throughout the final 10km, the Manxman edged into the perfect position for the final corner, taking it in sixth wheel. On the slightly uphill finish, he checked his sprint, ignoring Thor Hushovd‘s charge, knowing the big Norwegian would fade, then checked again, before finally going full gas less than 150 metres from home. Goss was well beaten, a full bike length behind.

Speed is a prerequisite if you want to win a Grand Tour sprint. But, as Cavendish amply demonstrated, timing is just as important. It is a lesson that Bos, Guardini and others would do well to learn if they want to win at the highest level. Compared to taking victories at a lower level, where the pace is slower and the run-in less competitive, a Grand Tour sprint is a whole different game.

Sprint Madness II: Ferrari fails to mirror, signal, manoeuvre

Stage three provided a second opportunity for the sprinters. Lo and behold: another crash inside the final kilometre, although this one trumped the previous day’s effort by (a) occurring just 150 metres from the line and (b) taking out both points leader Mark Cavendish and the maglia rosa, Taylor Phinney. Cycling, a non-contact sport? Think again, yada, yada, yada.

Whereas the previous day’s was caused by a simple misjudgment, the incident initiated here by Roberto Ferrari, a sprinter for the wild-card Androni Giocattoli-Venezuela squad, was the result of recklessness and, one suspects, the act of a rider desperate to catch the eye of a bigger team. The clip below (start from 5:00) requires little explanation. Ferrari is in white, Cavendish in the red points jersey:

Cycling’s rules governing propriety in sprint finishes are (to put it mildly) vague. Riders are not supposed to deviate from their ‘lane’ and should not endanger others with their actions. In general, there is decent consensus between sprinters defining where the line is between good and bad practice. The prevailing rule is, if I may paraphrase: don’t be an arse. The general opinion from riders, commentators and fans alike after the stage was fairly unanimous: Ferrari was an arse.

I’ve watched the overhead shot (from 7:40 onwards) several times now, and the difference between Cavendish’s and Ferrari’s conduct is instructive. Cavendish, boxed in, is forced to bide his time and check his acceleration repeatedly as riders ahead of him drift across his path. But when he does finally kick with 275 metres to go, it is into open space. Ferrari, slightly further ahead, appears frustrated at being stuck behind Matt Goss, J J Haedo and Tyler Farrar, and veers violently to the right by 2-3 metres. Cavendish attempts to take evasive action, but Ferrari sweeps the world champion’s front wheel out from underneath him.

Here’s what Eurosport’s David Harmon thought:

The race commissaires agreed, but only to an extent. They relegated Ferrari to the back of the peloton, docked him points and fined him. [Don’t get too excited: the fine was 200 Swiss Francs, or about £135- Ed.] As Cavendish and others have pointed out, riders have been thrown out of races altogether for committing lesser crimes. I will comment only that the commissaires are neutral, but that this was an incident involving an Italian rider on an Italian team in an Italian race.

Ferrari himself was utterly unrepentant after the race:

I made my sprint. I was on my course. I was in front of him [Cavendish], I don’t care what happens behind me.

His Androni team manager Gianni Savio struck up a more conciliatory tone, apologising to Cavendish on his rider’s behalf, but the lack of any similar statement from Ferrari himself speaks volumes about his view. Even if he does eventually apologise, I think we can chalk that down to PR rather than anything genuine. I don’t think anyone is accusing Ferrari of a deliberate act – but it was certainly reckless, and one which I feel merited disqualification. The commissaires could and should have done more.

However, if Ferrari thinks this is the end of the matter, he is being short-sighted. The peloton has a way of dealing its own justice for unpunished crimes. I strongly suspect he will find it much more difficult to fight his way to the front in the future, and his team will find few favours in the mountains, which is where Androni are really looking to feature. They certainly won’t be forging any alliances with either Cavendish’s Sky or Phinney’s BMC teams any time soon, that’s for sure.

Wouter Weylandt: sempre con noi

I watched stage three of last year’s race live on TV. Even now, I wish I hadn’t.

Image courtesy of RadioShack-Nissan

It was Monday 9th May 2011. On the fast, twisty and tight descent from the Passo del Bocco, with the peloton in hot pursuit of the day’s breakaway, Leopard Trek’s Wouter Weylandt clipped his left pedal on the ground and flew across the road, suffering a fatal head injury on landing. Distressing post-crash TV images clearly showed serious bleeding from a head injury and medics administering CPR to the unconscious rider on the scene. He was airlifted to hospital but pronounced dead.

Wouter Weylandt, 27/9/84-9/5/11. RIP. Gone, but never forgotten (image courtesy of RadioShack-Nissan)

Weylandt’s death was a tragic reminder that fatal accidents are an ever-present threat in this high-speed sport. It was the fourth time in the Giro’s history a rider had been killed in a crash, but the first since 1986. The last pro to have died in a racing crash was Andrei Kivilev, who succumbed to head injuries the day after crashing during Paris-Nice in 2003.

The most tragic part of Weylandt’s death was that his girlfriend An-Sophie was five months pregnant with their first child at the time. Alizée was born on 1st September. She will never know her father, except perhaps through the heartfelt tributes of others. His memory was observed by the riders before the start of yesterday’s stage, by thousands of fans at the roadside, and by many more online and on Twitter via the hashtag #WW108.

Weylandt won the third stage of the 2010 Giro d’Italia. He died on stage three of the 2011 race. His good friend and training partner, Garmin’s Tyler Farrar, won stage three of the 2011 Tour de France and finished third in the sprint on yesterday’s third stage. The anniversary of his death is tomorrow, May 9th. Despite yesterday’s commemorations, it’s worth a moment’s pause again tomorrow. You are always with us, Wouter. Sempre con noi.

Part one of our Giro analysis is here.

Link: Official website

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