It’s almost a Tour de France tradition for the pre-race talk to not be centred around the upcoming edition, but instead, around the drama taking place off the bikes.
Veteran Mick Rogers kept the run going with his unlikely solo win on Stage 11, but for the most part the second phase of the Giro has been cruel on Australia after such a swashbuckling start.
The memories of Michael Matthews and Cadel Evans’ days in pink – not to mention Orica-GreenEDGE climber Pieter Weening’s wily win over Davide Malacarne in Stage 9 at Sestola – seem very distant now that both Matthews and Weening are no longer in the race.
Evans has been eclipsed by Rigoberto Uran on the summit of the general classification.
It’s fair to say the opening phase of the 2014 Giro was quite brilliant for Australia – with success coming every day, be it in the form of a stage win or pink jersey.
Evans entered the second rest day firmly in the driving seat. There was a real buzz that he could roll back the years and secure his second Grand Tour success.
Not everyone got carried away. Sure, my initial prediction that Evans would not finish in the top ten of the GC may have appeared a bit harsh to many – but I’d still wager there was a better chance of that happening than of Evans now recovering to win.
When I suggested last week that Uran would come very close to taking the maglia rosa in Barolo before toppling Evans in the weekend’s back-to-back Marco Pantani-themed mountain stages at Oropa and Plan di Montecampione, many of you readers went up in arms.
Uran had no time trialling pedigree, apparently, while Evans has both experience and form.
And yet anyone could see that the 41.9-kilometre time trial through the Langhe hills of Piedmont was far from your usual Fabian Cancellara-style flat race against the clock. It was a highly technical, up-and-down affair, which was predictable in its unpredictability.
What’s more, the amount of pictures that Uran has posted on his personal Instagram account of his time trial bike suggested that the 27-year-old had been doing his homework in the off-season.
This was shown in his solid fourth in the recent Tour of Romandie ITT, where he conceded just 15 seconds to winner Chris Froome and one second less to specialist Tony Martin.
Evans finished third in Barolo but lost over a minute and a half to Uran after the Colombian’s truly vintage performance. The time gaps would have been more had Evans not put in an extremely solid final third to stem the tide.
That Evans still finished third – thereby taking time off all his rivals except Uran – was cause for celebration.
That said, you have to fear for the 37-year-old ahead of the four brutal summit finishes of the final week. Especially that 26-kilometre mountain time trial, which will see the likes of Nairo Quintana and Domenico Pozzovivo in all likelihood emerge as Uran’s main challengers in the fight for pink.
Still occupying second place, now 1:03 adrift of Uran, Evans has given Australian fans some hope entering the final six days of the race. But deep down, we all know that Evans needed well over a minute at the top of the standings were he to stand a chance.
Back to Matthews – and the 23-year-old’s race went from a dream to a nightmare in the space of a few hours. The day after conceding the maglia rosa to Evans atop Montecopiolo – and just hours before teammate Weening outfoxed Malacarne for his win – Matthews hit the deck in a needless crash, leaving his hind quarters raw and exposed.
The good and the bad and the ugly combined again on the day Rogers defied the odds with his win. On the first climb of day, Luke Durbridge crashed heavily and broke his collarbone. His withdrawal meant Orica-GreenEDGE were down to just five riders, following Matthews’ earlier retirement and the first week departures of Brett Lancaster and Cameron Meyer.
Coming one day ahead of the time trial was yet another cruel twist, with Durbridge expecting to impress on the vine-lined roads to Barolo.
The Australian team’s luck didn’t get any better. Italian national champion Ivan Santaromita put in a good stint in a breakaway en route to Oropa, but both Weening and Mitchell Docker were forced out with the same illness that waylaid Meyer. That left Orica-GreenEDGE with just three riders – Santaromita, Michael Hepburn and the original maglia rosa, Svein Tuft.
Rogers’ win, then, was an unexpected tonic just as things were looking to go flat.
If ever there was a stage destined for a successful breakaway it was stage 11 to Savona. But when the Androni team of Gianni Savio failed to make the day’s decisive break, the Italian directeur sportif ordered his men to chase down the leaders.
Even a crash in the pack with around 80 kilometres remaining did not stop Androni’s efforts to reel in the escapees – despite some choice words from Evans, who’s BMC lieutenant Steve Morabito was one of the riders to hit the deck.
Seeing that both Evans and Morabito had profited very nicely from the crash that marred the conclusion of Stage 6 – when Matthews took the his stage win atop Montecassino – the Australian veteran’s request for the pace to be dropped while Morabito chased back on was, let’s be honest, rather laughable.
It’s not hard to imagine how his request went down – no doubt greeted with the kind of four-lettered profanity noticeably absent on this Giro with Bradley Wiggins not being around.
The break reeled in on the final Naso di Gatto (Cat’s Nose) climb, Rogers exploited a moment of hesitation amid the main favourites and attacked on the descent. Although he only had around 15 seconds to play with as the race entered Sestola, Rogers held on.
Rumour has it word got out around the chasing group that the Australian should be left to take the win, given the difficulties he had experienced pertaining to his failed clenbuterol test in autumn. If that was the case, I’d be very disappointed.
Sure, it may have been a difficult time for Rogers but it was a situation he brought entirely upon himself – regardless of whether or not he knowingly ingested the banned substance.
Ironically, Rogers won his first individual stage of a Grand Tour doing what he does best – time trialling away – and did so the day before the race’s first time trial. For many, his win left a bitter taste in the mouth.
After a wonderful beginning, that muted win by Rogers could well mark the final cause for celebration for Australia in this Giro.
With the Stelvio and Zoncolan on the horizon – as well as that uphill time trial – I expect Evans may drop out of the podium positions come Trieste, perhaps even out of the top five. Still, didn’t he – and Australia – do well?