It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The opening line of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities was equally applicable on today’s penultimate leg of the 2012 Giro, as for once the queen stage lived up to its billing and provided an epic suffer-fest which offered us both elation and misery and left the fate of the maglia rosa still hanging delicately in the balance.
Indeed, the stage could have been subtitled A Tale of Two Races. Thomas De Gendt produced one of the most memorable solo victories of recent times to put himself within touching distance of the podium, while behind him overall leader Joaquim Rodriguez grabbed a few critical seconds and Ryder Hesjedal defended his position as favourite with great assertiveness and style. But for Michele Scarponi and Ivan Basso, the two most recent champions, the stage saw their hopes of victory effectively extinguished.
A marathon 219km parcours – the longest mountain stage this year – concluded with two iconic climbs: the Mortirolo and the giant 2,757-metre Stelvio. The 11.4km Mortirolo averages 10.5% but most of its first half is above 12%, while the final 2km averages an eye-watering 13.7% with some sections touching 22%. The Stelvio is the grind to end all grinds to sap the energy from already exhausted riders – it averages ‘only’ 6.9% but goes on for 22.4km. Either climb in isolation is brutal – to have both in succession borders on sadistic.
Mortirolo blows the race to pieces as De Gendt attacks
A break of 14 riders went away early on, including yesterday’s stage winner Roman Kreuziger (Astana), 2011 Giro di Lombardia winner Oliver Zaugg (RadioShack-Nissan), Matteo Carrara (Vacansoleil-DCM), stage 14 winner Andrey Amador (Movistar) and mountains jersey leader Matteo Rabottini (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia). Interestingly, each of the top four riders also had a teammate in the group: Alberto Losada (Katusha), Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Barracuda), Matteo Bono (Lampre-ISD) and Damiano Caruso (Liquigas-Cannondale), riding to provide later tactical options for Joaquim Rodriguez, Ryder Hesjedal, Michele Scarponi and Ivan Basso respectively.
The group held a three-minute advantage over the peloton as they arrived at the foot of the Mortirolo, at which point all hell broke loose. Zaugg successfully attacked off the front as the breakaway abruptly detonated, and the Swiss rider went over the summit alone.
Behind him in the peloton, the maglia rosa himself launched a surprise move to test out his rivals. However, Hesjedal and Scarponi were alert to the danger and responded immediately to Rodriguez’s acceleration as the favourites remained glued together in a rapidly dwindling chase group of about 20. But other, less threatening riders were eventually able to get away in pursuit of the lone leader: Thomas De Gendt, birthday boy Mikel Nieve (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD).
With various riders jumping from group to group on the descent and the flat section preceding the start of the Stelvio, the tiring Zaugg’s advantage was swallowed up and the lead group swelled to seven as he was caught by De Gendt, Cunego, Amador, Nieve, Euskaltel teammate Jon Izagirre (who won stage 16) and Tanel Kangert (Astana) on the approach to the Stelvio. They held an advantage over the Garmin-led peloton of 3:45 which remained virtually constant as leaders and chasers matched each other pedal-stroke for pedal-stroke.
Two races become one on the Stelvio
As the final climb began in earnest, De Gendt looked by far the freshest of the lead group and it was little surprise when the Belgian launched an attack with 17km remaining. Nieve stuck to his wheel, while Cunego dangled a few seconds further back before eventually inching his way back into contact. But when he accelerated again with 13km to go, this time it was decisive, and he quickly eked out a minute’s lead over Cunego.
Behind him the favourites remained watchful, with each wearing a slightly different variation of a mask of pain. It was left to Hesjedal’s Garmin teammate Vande Velde to tow the maglia rosa group up the climb, soon passing long-time leader Zaugg with still 15km to go. Is there a worse feeling in the world, or one more certain to make a rider’s legs turn to lead than that?
Despite their steady tempo, De Gendt’s attacks enabled him to extend his lead to as much as 5½ minutes, moving him up from eighth at the start of the day into a virtual podium position, and even at one point threatening Rodriguez for the overall lead. All of a sudden the Belgian had become more than a minor inconvenience as the race for the stage suddenly became a dogfight for control of the GC. Although separated by over 2km of road, battle was now well and truly joined.
It took a couple of attacks by AG2R’s John Gadret – and Hesjedal’s subsequent accelerations to cover the moves – to start the process of curbing De Gendt’s advantage, which threatened every member of the maglia rosa group in some way. Hesjedal was forced to set the pace on the front alone, and as he gradually cranked up his pace several members of the group were suddenly put into trouble. Domenico Pozzovivo (Colnago-CSF), the white jersey of Rigoberto Uran (Sky) and – most tellingly – Basso blew up simultaneously close to the 3km marker, leaving only Rodriguez, Scarponi and Sky’s Sergio Henao on Hesjedal’s wheel as he chugged on, slicing large chunks out of De Gendt’s lead.
Finally Scarponi put in a big dig to which Hesjedal had no response. Rodriguez eventually set off after him, catching and passing him with 400 metres to go to beat him to fourth place, crucially moving him one point ahead of Mark Cavendish in the points classification. The battling Hesjedal kept going to the line, finishing just two seconds behind Scarponi and 14 behind Rodriguez to minimise his losses.
The impressive De Gendt, however, had already finished 3½ minutes before to complete an impressive and stylish victory which will live long in the memory. He beat Cunego by 56 seconds, with Nieve a lonely third at 2:50, and jumped from eighth to fourth in the general classification. He is just 27 seconds adrift of third-place man Scarponi and 2:18 behind the maglia rosa. The bottom step of the podium is certainly within his grasp, and if he can turn in the kind of performance he did in the Grenoble time trial at last year’s Tour – where he was beaten only by world champion-to-be Tony Martin and yellow jersey Cadel Evans – then second place is also potentially within reach.
The day’s big loser was Basso, who lost 1:33 to Rodriguez to nearly double his deficit and drop to fifth overall, with little chance of improvement. He and his Liquigas team have paid the price for riding a largely defensive race, perhaps indicative of an awareness that his form was not quite where it needed to be for a more aggressive tilt at a third Giro title.
Stage winner De Gendt said that his initial aim was only to defend his eighth position, but will now be aiming for a podium finish in Milan tomorrow:
My first thought was just to make sure I had a gap at the start of the Mortirolo so I could keep my eighth overall. I was scared of Gadret and Nieve. Only in the last 10km did I start to believe in the stage win. I don’t think I’m going to win the Giro d’Italia but I have a good chance to finish third.
So the battle for the pink jersey will go down to the wire, with Hesjedal the favourite and Rodriguez the underdog. De Gendt is a shadowy wild-card ready to pounce should disaster befall either or both of them. Rodriguez is all but confirmed as the winner of the points competition, while Matteo Rabottini will claim the blue jersey as winner of the King of the Mountains classification. The white jersey for best young rider will be won by a Sky rider – should Uran (seventh overall) falter, then Henao (11th) will step up, with their nearest rival six minutes behind the latter.
Cavendish will fall a point short of completing his full set of Grand Tour points jerseys. He will rue being beaten by Andrea Guardini on stage 18, as well as his misfortune in being caught up in two crashes in the first half of the race. Without those he would have walked away with the red jersey. Nonetheless, Rodriguez is a more than worthy winner of the classification. It remains to be seen whether he can add pink to red, however. We will find out tomorrow. No matter what, whoever emerges atop the general classification will be a true champion.
VeloVoices rider of the stage: Although Christian Vande Velde deserves a nod for his long stint as the lone pace-maker for the favourites on the Stelvio, who else could it be but Thomas De Gendt? Considered to be more of a punchy breakaway artist and a good time-trialist than a genuine climber, he has performed consistently in the mountains and possessed both the confidence and the strength to attack on the Mortirolo and sustain himself to the finish. Chapeau.
Stage 20 result:
1. Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM) 6:54:41
2. Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) +0:56
3. Mikel Nieve (Euskaltel-Euksadi) +2:50
4. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) +3:22
5. Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) +3:34
1. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) 91:04:16
2. Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Barracuda) +0:31
3. Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) +1:51
4. Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM) +2:18
5. Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) +3:18
6. Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) +3:43
7. Rigoberto Uran (Sky) +4:52
8. Domenico Pozzovivo (Colnago-CSF Inox) +5:47
9. Mikel Nieve (Euskaltel-Euksadi) +5:56
10. John Gadret (AG2R La Mondiale) +6:43
Points leader: Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha).
King of the Mountains leader: Matteo Rabottini (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia).
Tomorrow: Stage 21 – Milan, 30km individual time trial. The Giro concludes with a 30km time trial finishing in Milan’s central cathedral square. The pan-flat route contains a good mix of technical and aerodynamic elements and will favour time trial specialists such as the initial maglia rosa, BMC’s Taylor Phinney, and Sky’s Geraint Thomas. But all eyes will be on the final four. Can Hesjedal live up to his tag as the favourite and claw back 31 seconds on Rodriguez? He is certainly the better time-trialist, but the historical head-to-head between the pair suggests his advantage is not a conclusive one. How will Scarponi fare? And can De Gendt, who has ridden as well as anyone in this final week, summon one last superhuman effort to jump up to third – or possibly even better? The form book suggests that Hesjedal should edge out Rodriguez with De Gendt overhauling Scarponi for third, but at the end of three gruelling weeks we cannot be sure how each rider’s legs will respond on this final day. Don’t miss it.
Link: Official website