Part 4: Angels with Dirty Faces
If Strade Bianche is rapidly becoming the sixth monument of cycling, it owes a debt to the Giro d’Italia. And in particular to stage 7 of the 2010 Giro d’Italia, a day that will live long in the memories of everyone who experienced it.
In 2010 the Strade Bianche was only four years old, having previously existed as the Eroica Strade Bianche, a granfondo for vintage bikes. It was an instant hit with both riders and fans, partly because it harked back to the romantic age of Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali, when practically all Italian races – including the Giro – took place on gravel roads.
So when the Giro d’Italia announced a stage through Tuscany on the famed white roads, it was universally welcomed. Few, however, predicted the drama that was to follow.
Bring on the weather Gods. On the morning of the stage it was cold, raining and the sky was leaden. What had seemed like a picturesque nod to the history of cycling suddenly looked like something altogether more testing.
The first half of the race was on regular roads, undulating rather than hilly, so the racing was straightforward – a break of two escaped early as the peloton huddled in their rain jackets, and built up a lead of almost ten minutes. But as the hills and the dirt roads approached the peloton began to get serious. With 60km to go it split in two and the early break was caught shortly after.
Supreme bike-handler Vicenzo Nibali was in the maglia rosa, having taken it from Alexandre Vinokourov in the stage four team time-trial. On this murky Tuscan stage the race unraveled for the Shark of Messina. On the descent of the Passo del Rospatoio Nibali one of his Liquigas team-mates slid out. Nibali couldn’t avoid an impact and went down, along with three of his team. His bike was damaged and before he’d got a new machine the front group had split again. In the front Vinokourov was driving a select group that also included Stefano Garzelli, Filippo Pozzato and Cadel Evans.
Now it turned really grim. The ‘white’ roads were covered with brown slime, the riders were soaked and plastered with that same slime. The television cameras captured them trying to blink it from their eyes, pick it out of their mouths. On the steep climbs they were riding hard, visibly in pain, often unable to stand on the pedals for fear of traction loss. On the descents they were barely in control.
Nibali formed a chasing group but never got back to the leaders. Vinokourov knew that if he could keep the Sicilian at bay he would go back into the maglia rosa, and that’s how it worked out. In the finale Vinokourov kept surging ahead on the climbs but Evans was able to match him every time. The former mountain biker had prepared rigorously for the stage and looked at ease on the slippery surfaces.
The final climb, with 9km to go, had ramps of 16%, causing the front group to splinter, with Vinokourov, Cunego and Evans pulling away.
The final kilometre into Montalcino was on greasy cobbles. Evans responded to an attack from Cunego then opened his sprint early, from the front. His companions could only follow, and Evans, in a brown version of his rainbow jersey, had plenty of time to put his hands in the air. Afterwards, the Australian told the press that it was a spectacular stage and an important moment for the Giro. Vinokourov was less diplomatic – he described the day as terrible. Dirt roads had no place in a stage race, he said.
I suspect the Giro organisers, RCS, were delighted with the whole affair.
In its 101 editions the Giro d’Italia has entertained, enthralled and excited. It has become synonymous with explosive racing through spectacular landscapes. And it has created many stories, encompassing every human emotion we can imagine. As the 2018 race spins its way towards Rome, Soigneur brings you seven stories from the race’s beautiful history.