What do we count as the biggest sporting day in Australia? Is it the AFL grand final? Maybe the NRL grand final? What about Melbourne Cup?
As Franco Pellizotti attempted to return to the wheel of Mick Rogers near the summit of Monte Zoncolan, I wonder what Doctor Michele Ferrari thought about his two former clients going at it hammer and tongs?
For a race so dominated by youth it was certainly odd to see one of the old guard win on the fearsome Zoncolan.
Particularly considering Rogers had just one race day in his legs prior to arriving in Ireland ahead of his impressive two-stage cameo in Italy.
That it was Australian veteran Rogers and not Francesco Bongiorno, the young Italian from Bardiani-CSF, who profited from one excitable fan’s over-zealous push three kilometres from the summit of the hardest climb in professional cycling would no doubt have made Tyler ‘Karma’ Hamilton choke on his cornflakes. But cycling can often work in mysterious ways.
The off-season must have been hellish for Rogers – at worst, a gross feeling of injustice and fear for the future; at best, too much time to reflect on a colourful past.
Either way, Rogers clearly trained very hard and, at 34, the triple time-trial world champion became the oldest stage winner on the first Grand Tour of the season, twice. Funnily enough, the wins came one day before and one day after the individual time trials in which he used to shine.
Rogers was one of only two riders over the age of 30 to taste victory in the Giro – the other being Orica-GreenEDGE’s Pieter Weening.
Indeed, if the 2014 Giro d’Italia will be remembered for anything – beyond Nairo Quintana’s first Colombian Giro victory and the neutralisation chaos of the Stelvio snafu – it is the out-with-the-old-and-in-with-the-new spring clean that took hold of the peloton and shook it out so vigorously.
Like Stage 13 of last year’s Tour de France, when Rogers’ Tinkoff-Saxo team combined with the Omega Pharma-Quick Step train of Mark Cavendish to force echelons in the crosswinds to distance so many key players, this year’s Giro forced a huge split between generations.
Movistar missed out that day in France en route to Saint Amand Montrond, with Alejandro Valverde, the man who will keep Quintana out of the Tour this year, losing more than 10 minutes to drop out of contention.
But in the 2014 Giro it was Movistar and Quintana who helped blow the winds of change.
Quintana won both the race’s queen stage and the key mountain time trial en route to being crowned Giro champion at the first attempt – a first for Colombia to boot. Aged just 24, he also won the white jersey competition, and was joined on the podium by 27-year-old Rigoberto Uran and Fabio Aru, 23.
An average age of just over 25 makes this the youngest Giro podium since 1940, the year Fausto Coppi won the first of his five scalps.
Coppi was known as ‘Il Campionissimo‘ and enjoyed a long rivalry with fellow Italian Gino Bartali – perhaps the only other rider to reach campionissimi status.
This year we saw Aru win atop Monte Campione to cement his position as Italy’s next big thing. Aru’s Astana teammate Vincenzo Nibali is already a double Grand Tour campione. With the Sicilian in one corner and the Sardinian in the other, could we be witnessing the birth of an Italian rivalry to match that of Coppi and Bartali?
Aru will certainly be alerted to the news that teams such as BMC and Sky are reportedly willing to quadruple his €500,000 salary. But should he rush into anything? A tilt at the Vuelta – where he would come up against Quintana once again, as well as Joaquim Rodriguez, the Spaniard who crashed out in week one of the race – seems the natural next step.
With Nibali no doubt keen to focus on the Tour in 2015 once again, Aru could be free to lead Astana at the Giro again next year – a team dedicated to him, as opposed to the declining Michele Scarponi.
Scarponi and fellow Italian veterans Ivan Basso (Cannondale), Damiano Cunego (Lampre) and Pellizotti (Androni) showed in their performances in May that their time is up – retired from relevance and eclipsed by a top ten in Trieste in which seven were under 30.
Aru and 24-year-old Rafal Majka both wore Quintana’s white jersey during the race, while Wilco Kelderman, 23, was always in the mix. When 27-year-olds like Uran, Pierre Rolland and Robert Kiserlovski are considered some of the race’s more experienced heads, you know there’s been a seismic shift in the race dynamic.
As for stage winners – the average age was just under 26, with Michael Matthews and Nacer Bouhanni (both 23) shining bright. Colombia’s Julian Arredondo, 25, won both a stage and the blue mountains jersey in his first Grand Tour, while 24-year-old Diego Ulissi’s brace of wins could well have been a hat-trick had Uran not ridden so indomitably in the Barolo time trial.
The Giro goalposts have not only been moved by a lowering of age but also an uncanny geographic swing that has global cycling fans immensely excited.
After the recent successes in Grand Tours from the likes of British riders Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and Cavendish, it was refreshing to see no British stage winner in Italy – and hardly surprising, given Sky’s Ben Swift was the only rider from the UK taking part.
Established cycling nations such as the Netherlands (one), Germany (two), France (three) and Italy (six) all tasted glory, but for the second year running there was not one Belgian stage winner, while the Giro was a rare fruitless race for the Spaniards.
Three wins for Australia – four if you include Orica-GreenEdge’s team time-trial triumph in Belfast – was a superb return for a nation that has really taken to riding in Italy, only bettered by Colombia’s haul of four individual wins for Quintana (two), Uran (one) and Arredondo (one).
Last year’s Giro was celebrated for its Colombian flavour, with Uran finishing second and winning a stage, Carlos Betancur taking the white jersey and the likes of Darwin Atapuma, Robinson Chalapud, Jarlinson Pantano and Fabio Duarte all starring for the wildcard Colombia team.
Well, this year the Colombian boys were back, and were regular animators of the race – Duarte in particular adding two second places to two previous runner-up spots. Surely it’s a question of when, not if, Duarte finally stands atop a podium on the Giro.
But most telling of all was the fact that no European rider ever led the race during its 24-day duration, with two Colombians (Uran and Quintana) taking over the baton from two Australians (Matthews and Cadel Evans) and one Canadian (Svein Tuft).
Instead of Orica-GreenEDGE allowing Italian national champion Ivan Santaromita to cross the line in pole position in the opening team time trial in Belfast to wear the race’s first maglia rosa, the Australian team opted for Tuft as a fitting 37th birthday present.
A Giro d’Italia without at least one Italian wearing the maglia rosa hadn’t happened since 1992, when Spaniard Miguel Indurain took over the leadership from Frenchman Thierry Marie three days in and stayed in front until the end.
These are exciting times – even if the critics will account for the youthful new-world swing more as a sign of the Giro’s inability to attract the sport’s top riders in their pomp rather than any changing of the guard.
July’s Tour de France should see viewers reacquainted with the familiar sights of Messrs Froome, Contador and Nibali battling it out for yellow, and a sprint roster featuring the likes of Cavendish, Andre Greipel, Marcel Kittel and Peter Sagan – where, in all likelihood, there’ll be no space for Monsieurs Bouhanni and Mezgec.
But isn’t this what makes the Giro so special. Not only is it the toughest race on the calender, it also gives us a chance to see the stars of tomorrow become the stars of today – momentarily eclipsing their supposedly more illustrious and selective colleagues.
For spectacle alone, I’d be highly surprised if the Tour comes close to outdoing the Giro.