The final Grand Tour of the cycling season begins tonight with the 2020 edition of the Vuelta España.
The Tour de France may be the biggest race in the world, but the 2014 edition will do well to match the drama and beauty of the just-completed Giro d’Italia.
If the stunning parcours, aggressive racing and emerging stars weren’t enough, the avalanche of Australian highlights made it more than a race to remember.
Michael Rogers with two incredible stage wins. Michael Matthews with a stage win and six days in the maglia rosa leader’s jersey. Cadel Evans, four days in pink and a brave attempt to clinch a podium finish in possibly his final Grand Tour. Orica-GreenEDGE’s dramatic fall from team time-trial winners to finishing the Giro with just two riders.
Every day it seemed an Aussie rider was making Giro news. Of the 12 Aussie riders to start, only seven finished. One of those was from Orica-GreenEDGE.
Michael Hepburn, in his first Grand Tour, rolled home in 154th place, 11 minutes faster than the last-placed Jetse Bol (Belkin), who lost more than 5 hours 15 minutes to race winner Nairo Quintana.
Hepburn, who showed his face (along with Adam Hansen) towards the end of the final stage to Trieste, will be delighted to have finished, especially after illness decimated his team in the second week.
Orica-GreenEDGE sports director Matt White said despite the loss of seven riders he was proud of what his team achieved.
“It’s been a dream for us. We came here with clear objectives. We weren’t afraid to tell people what they were, and we achieved more than we planned. It was a contrast of emotions and results. I’m very proud of all the boys – even the ones that aren’t here.
“No one pulled out because they were soft. They pulled out with broken bones or because they were too sick to continue.
“They are certainly in our hearts today as we wrap up a very gratifying three weeks.”
Just ahead of Hepburn was Sky’s Chris Sutton. An unremarkable Giro for ‘CJ’, who managed a best place of 72 as he rode as a domestique for designated sprinter Ben Swift and team leader Dario Cataldo. Sutton typified the Sky campaign at the Giro, never reaching any great heights. Sebastian Henao was their best-placed rider, in 22nd.
Garmin’s Nathan Haas didn’t finish his first crack at a Giro last year, so it was a significant improvement to reach Trieste this year, in 104th position.
Injured in the opening day’s team time trial, Haas did well to finish at all as he battled a sore knee for most of the first half of the race. He figured prominently in the break on Stage 7 and also managed 12th place in Stage 10 after a huge crash in the final kilometre wiped out a large number of contenders.
Tinkoff-Saxo Bank enjoyed a great Giro, with Rafal Majka sixth on GC and third in the young riders classification, plus those two wins by Michael Rogers. The team owners were also pleased that Jay McCarthy, like Michael Hepburn, finished his first Grand Tour (91st). He was a strong finisher too, snaring third place in Stage 17 as Stefano Pirazzi (Bardiani) soloed away in the final kilometres to beat the four remaining riders in the break.
I was a little disappointed by Adam Hansen. Yes, he finished an eighth successive Grand Tour, but last year he won a stage and I was expecting something similar. It didn’t happen, with Hansen coming home in 73rd, and a best place of 23rd after an ill-fated attack on the Stage 15 climb of Plan de Montecampione.
That leaves the two Aussies at the top end of the GC, and the five that didn’t finish.
Oddly, all five DNFs came from Orica-GreenEDGE, where Brett Lancaster was the first rider to withdraw. He crashed out in Stage 6, breaking his hand.
One day after relinquishing the maglia rosa he’d so stunningly worn for six days, Matthews crashed. It was a bittersweet day for Orica-GreenEDGE; as Pieter Weening snared a third win for the team with victory in Stage 9 from Lugo to Sestola, ‘Bling’ was limping home in 180th place, more than 23 minutes down after almost ripping the knicks from his right leg.
Using the rest day to recover, Matthews bravely managed to grab third place in Stage 10, but the pain of a broken coccyx proved too much and he failed to start Stage 11.
But what a Giro to be proud of! Besides the six days in pink, Matthews won a thrilling Stage 6 to Montecassino and of course shared in the opening-day victory.
The blow of Matthews failing to start Stage 11 was compounded a short time later when Luke Durbridge crashed into a grassy ditch while descending, and broke his collarbone. Within a few days, Hepburn was the only homegrown rider left for Orica-GreenEDGE, when Mitch Docker joined Weening and Ivan Santaromita on the sidelines as virus victims.
Luckily for Evans and Rogers, the generally poor weather didn’t cause them too many problems.
Evans was his usual gritty self and it was wonderful to see him in pink for four days. We all hoped he could stay in contention for a podium but realistically, once he lost 1:34 to Uran in the Stage 12 time trial, a sustained challenge looked doubtful.
Cadel remains our most successful Grand Tour rider and will be so for some time yet, with a multitude of top-10 finishes in the most taxing discipline of the sport.
If nothing else though, the Giro showed that age is now riding faster than Cadel, and I’m not sure we’ll see him at a Grand Tour again. So, chapeau Grand Tour Cadel, but how about giving the Classics one more crack?
Age has bettered Rogers. A late inclusion to the Giro after beating his clenbuterol doping charge, Rogers provided one of Australia’s best cycling moments.
His victory on the monstrous Monte Zoncolan was as good as any mountain stage I’ve ever seen. To keep focused on that mad climb, as thousands of fans ran and cheered and generally got too close to the riders, just shows the mental strength of the man.
Of course, Rogers already had one stage win to savour, soloing away in the final 20 kilometres of Stage 11, but the Zoncolan victory was 10 times more impressive.
The helicopter shots of that amphitheatre summit with its snaking, narrow road and people spread all over the snow-flecked but grassy slopes were epic. Seeing Rogers lead a weary peloton up that 10-kilometre climb at speeds rarely above 15 kilometres per hour was exhausting, and I was only watching.
His joy was palpable. It was a dream come true for Rogers, and it was pretty damn fine for the rest of us.
Rogers is out of contract at the end of the season and would be the perfect addition to Orica-GreenEDGE if they intend to build a team around a GC contender. But after a performance like that, it’s going to be hard to prise Rogers away from Tinkoff-Saxo Bank, who will surely be desperate to keep him to help Alberto Contador.
Thanks ‘Dodger’, for giving us such a great Giro. Thanks Cadel and Orica-GreenEDGE too. It was a privilege to watch.