Giro d’Italia stage 14: Demon descender Amador finds a second kick to win

Stage 14 – Cherasco to Cervinia, 206km

Having completed the majority of the final climb on the first big mountain stage of this year’s Giro d’Italia on his own, Movistar’s Andrey Amador was not going to be denied with the finish line in sight. As NetApp’s Jan Barta sprinted past him in the last 150 metres, he tapped energy reserves which perhaps even he did not realise he possessed to find a second kick which propelled him to a richly deserved victory. Meanwhile a late attack by Ryder Hesjedal saw him reclaim the maglia rosa from Joaquim Rodriguez as the favourites rode a surprisingly conservative race.

After two weeks of sprint crashes, verbal playground spats – take a bow, Frank Schleck and Alex Rasmussen – and gentle sparring between the GC contenders, the gloves finally came off (and the rain jackets went on) as the 2012 Giro tackled the first two of a series of big climbs which will define the fate of the maglia rosa. If what had gone before were mere commas, then today’s stage provided the first big exclamation mark in the narrative of the race.

The 206km stage to a wet and near-freezing Cervinia was flat for 130km before the peloton faced its first category one climbs of this year’s race. Neither featured excessive gradients, but both were long, hard grinds to sap legs already drained by 11 consecutive days of racing. The Col de Joux – at 22.4km and a 5.8% average gradient – was mere antipasti before the main course to conclude the stage: the ascent to the Cervinia ski resort, averaging ‘only’ 5.5% but a distressing 27km long.

What goes up must come down

With the peloton starting at a rapid pace, it took 60km for the day’s breakaway of eight to establish itself. Amador and Barta were joined by Alessandro De Marchi (Androni Giocattoli-Venezuela), Matteo Montaguti (AG2R La Mondiale), Pier Paolo De Negri (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia), Olivier Kaisen (Lotto-Belisol), Nelson Oliveira (RadioShack-Nissan) and Nikolas Maes (Omega Pharma-Quick Step). By the beginning of the Col de Joux their advantage over the peloton was a massive 13 minutes.

Barta raced up the Col de Joux, but wasn’t so hot coming back down (image courtesy of NetApp)

Barta attacked solo to go over the summit with a 25-second advantage before embarking on the rapid 18km descent which varied between wet, damp and occasionally dry. Its difficulty emphasised the difference in style and speed between the hesitant Barta, the aggressive, risk-taking Amador – who was simultaneously thrilling and terrifying to watch – and the smooth, deceptive pace of Lampre-ISD’s Damiano Cunego. Despite almost coming to grief on a number of occasions, Amador caught and passed Barta on the descent, continuing on in the lead on his own.

Meanwhile Ivan Basso, one of the peloton’s less confident descenders, was being shepherded down the descent by a cadre of Liquigas bodyguards. The Astana team of Roman Kreuziger and Paolo Tiralongo moved to the front of the chase, perhaps looking to detach Basso or pressurise him into an error, but Liquigas resolutely ensured the elastic never snapped.

Amador digs deep to win

By the start of the final climb, Amador held a lead of around one minute over Barta, De Marchi, Montaguti and De Negri, but looked to be labouring slightly. On the steeper sections just past the mid-point of the ascent he increasingly looked like he was pedalling squares. De Marchi caught him with 11km remaining, but rather than forge an alliance the Androni rider was either unable or unwilling to contribute, forcing Amador to remain on the front and make the best pace he could.

Cervinia profile

Meanwhile Liquigas, with Sylvester Szmyd leading the way as usual, tapped out a regular rhythm on the front of the favourites’ group. It wasn’t enough to put any of the big men into trouble – although others were gradually shelled out of the back of the group – but it was enough to start hauling in the leaders with alacrity.

As the lead duo passed through the village of Valtournenche with 8.5km to go the peloton was still 5:40 adrift. A kilometre later, Barta joined them but still the gap continued to tumble. By the 6km banner it was an even four minutes, and by 3km it was down to 1:30.

With the chase group now down to only the serious GC men, it heralded the end of the watchful man-marking phase and the start of the attacks. Tiralongo, Gianluca Brambilla (Colnago-CSF Bardiani) and Mikel Nieve (Euskaltel) each put in serious digs, but the first to make an acceleration stick was former race leader Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Barracuda), whose impressive burst quickly moved him clear of the other favourites. Eventually it forced a response from Joaquim Rodriguez, the man who had taken the maglia rosa from Hesjedal on the uphill finish into Assisi on stage ten.The Spaniard was quickly joined by most of the big names including Basso, defending champion Michele Scarponi (Lampre) and stage eight winner Domenico Pozzovivo (Colnago) – but not Kreuziger, who could not respond to the change in tempo. Nevertheless the group were unable to make inroads into the lanky Canadian’s advantage as he wrangled his bike uphill in an ungainly but effective fashion.

Amador celebrateas a hard-fought victory (image courtesy of Movistar)

Such was Hesjedal’s speed that he nearly made it across to the lead trio, but with the gradient flattening out in the final 2.5km they were able to contest the sprint between themselves. Amador led out, only for Barta to accelerate smoothly past him inside the final 150 metres. Game over – except it wasn’t. Finding a second kick from somewhere in his exhausted legs, Amador came back at Barta in the last 75 metres, overhauling him comfortably before the line to take a remarkable win – the first by a Costa Rican in any of the three Grand Tours.

Victory completed a remarkable comeback for Amador, who was stabbed and left for dead after being mugged on a training ride in December 2010, suffering kidney and lung injuries from which it took him several months to recover. However, he was quick to dedicate his win in recognition of the other tragedies which have befallen his Movistar team over the past year:

I’ve had a hard time with this famous accident but the whole Movistar team has been affected by the dramatic accident of Juan Mauricio Soler and the tragic death of Xavi Tondo [the first anniversary of whose death is next Wednesday]. This stage win is for everyone who suffered during these difficult times.

Hesjedal came in 20 seconds down on the winner, but more importantly 26 seconds ahead of a nine-strong group containing Rodriguez and most of the other favourites to reclaim the maglia rosa. Kreuziger clung on to finish just six seconds behind that group, which also contained Frank Schleck, who is riding with a dislocated shoulder and looked to be struggling at times on this stage, but was able to tough it out impressively to the end.

The Canadian Hesjedal seemed almost nonchalant about his electrifying performance in the closing kilometres:

I felt good, felt comfortable the whole way. I just figured I would try and see how the legs would respond. I knew it [the climb] eased off after three kilometres [to go]. [I] figured I would have a good go, the jersey was there for the taking. Not much to it.

Despite rumours that he had abandoned, points leader Mark Cavendish crossed the line in a 75-man group 32 minutes later. He lives to fight another day, after most of the other top sprinters – including Matt Goss (Orica-GreenEDGE), Mark Renshaw (Rabobank) and J J Haedo (Saxo Bank) – withdrew overnight to save their legs for later in the season. It confirms the suspicion that Cavendish will fight on in the hope of completing a full set of Grand Tour points jerseys, and increases the likelihood that he will leave the Tour de France early ahead of the Olympics.

From a GC perspective, although the overall lead changed hands nothing was definitively resolved today as most of the favourites rode not to lose time rather than attempt to gain it. The biggest question mark is over the team leadership at Astana, where Tiralongo was the freshest of the nine-man favourites’ group at the end, winning the sprint, while nominal captain Kreuziger laboured when the pace was upped in the closing minutes, but did not blow up. Tiralongo leads Kreuziger by three places – but only 26 seconds – on GC, so it is too early to switch to plan B. How Astana’s management juggle the aspirations of its two top riders will undoubtedly become a key sub-plot of the next few days.

With the first big mountain stage complete, the race is now definitely on – but it is really only just beginning.

Quote of the day: Eurosport’s description of Amador’s pained face on the early part of the final climb:

Like a bulldog chewing a wasp.

Odd occurrences: We had the usual collection of roadside nutters enthusiasts on the final climb, but I could really have done without the sight of the man who ran alongside the leaders for a while wearing nothing but a pair of orange floral underpants. I will be forever traumatised.

VeloVoices rider of the stage: It could only be Andrey Amador, who delighted (and scared) us with his ballsy defending off the Col de Joux, but looked an unlikely winner after being caught by De Marchi and Barta on the final climb, and even more unlikely when the latter sprinted past him in the final 150 metres. But he found some reserves of strength from somewhere to come back to claim a memorable win.

Stage 14 result:

1. Andrey Amador (Movistar) 5:33:36

2. Jan Barta (NetApp) same time

3. Alessandro De Marchi (Androni Giocattoli-Venezuela) +0:02

4. Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Barracuda) +0:20

5. Paolo Tiralongo (Astana) +0:46

General classification:

1. Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Barracuda) 59:55:28

2. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) +0:09

3. Paolo Tiralongo (Astana) +0:41

4. Sandy Casar (FDJ-BigMat) +1:05

5. Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) +1:06

6. Roman Kreuziger (Astana) +1:07

7. Benat Intxausti (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +1:07

8. Rigoberto Uran (Sky) +1:19

9. Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) +1:20

10. Domenico Pozzovivo (Colnago-CSF Bardiani) +1:21

Points leader: Mark Cavendish (Sky).

King of the Mountains leader: Michal Golas (Omega Pharma-Quick Step).

Tomorrow: Stage 15 – Busto Arsizio to Lecco/Pian dei Resinelli, 169km. The marathon 12-day middle stint ends with a stage which shares some of its route with the one-day Classic Giro di Lombardia, including the 11.7km Valcava climb at 8.0%. The final ascent to the summit of Pian dei Resinelli is the last of a pair of second-category climbs. At 7.8km and 7.8%, it’s a steady uphill grind which may favour a bold attack from outside the group of favourites. All the riders will be grateful for the second rest day which follows immediately afterwards.

Cycling the Alps‘ interactive videos of the route can be found here.

Link: Official website

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