For an Italian national tour vacationing in the Netherlands, the first two stages of the Giro d’Italia had a decidedly Anglophone feel to them, no?
First, Bradley Wiggins, flying the Union Jack for defacto British national team Sky, edged out American Brent Bookwalter, riding for the Amero-Swiss BMC team, by two seconds. Just behind Bookwalter in third was his Australian teammate Cadel Evans. Three men, three differently accented takes on a single language.
But wait, there’s more. Al Vinokourov (Astana) screwed up the results, something he’s accused of doing pretty often these days, by finishing fourth and being from Kazakhstan. But after that, you have Greg Henderson (Sky), a Kiwi on a British team, Australian Richie Porte (Saxo Bank) in sixth, and David Miller (Garmin-Transitions), a Scot on an American team, in seventh. Sure, the next native English speaker, Garmin Canadian Svein Tuft, doesn’t appear until the 17th spot, but six of the top seven isn’t a bad showing for the crown and its former colonies.
That Stage 1 win also gave Wiggins the maglia rosa, an honor he steadfastly defended until he became one of the many, many riders to throw themselves to the Dutch tarmac the following day. That allowed the race’s second pink shirt to slide onto Evans's shoulders, who achieved that honor by managing to keep himself upright and in the front group after the crash that claimed Wiggins’s and Bookwalters’s hopes. Preceding Evans' arrival on the Stage 2 podium was stage winner Tyler Farrar of Garmin and the United States, meaning the English language contingent had locked up both the stage win and leader's jersey for two days.
I suspect that this shallow, early Anglo dominance of this Giro will come crashing down during today's third stage, if it hasn’t already as I write this. Evans will be unlikely to expend anything more than minimal energy to keep the maglia rosa this early in the race, and though today’s stage is suited for a bunch finish, yesterday’s crash lottery makes predicting a repeat by Farrar or damn near anything else is a risky endeavor. Add in the number of Dutch riders who will be looking to score while the race is on home turf and the number of Italians who would love to carry the leader’s jersey back onto home soil, and anything could happen. If it does come down to a reasonably intact sprint, though, Farrar and Kiwi leadout man Julian Dean, or Sky’s on-form Henderson and lead-out man Chris Sutton could well extend the English-speaking podium streak.
All of that is neither here nor there, of course. After all, we’re amalgamating the results of riders from four or five different countries, depending on how you count, based on creaky colonial relationships that haven’t been valid for hundreds of years. So I'd hardly start wagering based on which language riders reflexively swear in. Still, there seems to be a sort of shared worldview that comes from the common language and heritage, and though they’re not the isolated outsiders they used to be in professional cycling, the Anglos do still seem to stick together. They also attract English-speaking fans in a way that seems to transcend national boundries, and those fans have a lot to cheer for right now.
While many might cite Lance Armstrong’s seven Tour de France wins as a high-water mark for English-language cycling, those wins were obviously pretty well concentrated in the hands of one man. Today, the number and variety of English-speaking riders winning bike races makes it feel less like the monolithic Armstrong days and more like the arguably better and positively more diverse days of the late 1980s and early 1990s, which saw Greg Lemond and Stephen Roche winning the Tour de France, Davis Phinney and Steve Bauer taking stage wins on the flats, Robert Millar winning in the mountains, Sean Kelly terrorizing classics and stage races, and Phil Anderson and Sean Yates generally making everyone look sissies.
- Had all the contractual eye-gouging over the off-season resulted in Wiggins staying at Garmin, the squad could potentially have been celebrating wins in both the first and second stages right now. Or, maybe a pissed-off Wiggins would have raced his entire season at ¾ speed, who knows. Anyway, Wiggins did eventually end up at Sky, and due to the very public rumblings and subsequent junior high girl-style chattering about his transfer, not to mention the substantial money involved, Wiggins really needed to show something big pretty early in the season. Though it’s already had a fleeting effect on the Giro and may not prove much of anything about his prospects as a GC leader this year, that TT win had to be a huge relief for Wiggo.
- If we wanted to factor Vinokourov into our little Stage 1 results sheet game, I suppose we could note that nobody in those top seven spots of the Stage 1 TT hails from a “traditional cycling country.” In fact, you could extend it to the top 8 under those criteria, since Gustav Erik Larsson’s Swedish homeland isn’t exactly a traditional cycling powerhouse, either. Indeed, you have to get down to Dutchman Jos Van Emden’s ninth place before cycling’s traditional power elite countries kick in. Again, that doesn't really mean anything, except that the cycling world has broadened substantially in the last 20 years or so.
- I’m not enthusiastic about the trend towards just-over-prologue distance opening time trials, those little 8 and 9 kilometer tests that seem designed to be long enough to keep sprinters out of leader’s jerseys but short enough prevent any early buzzkilling time gaps among GC contenders. Like the ProTour system, these prolonged-logues seem to be a lingering organizational overreaction to Mario Cipollini, who’s been mostly retired for some time. Grand tours love the sprinters when they have to maintain fan interest on flat ground, but they seem loathe to give them access to a leader’s jersey for fear they’ll leave the race as soon as it gets hilly. As much as I appreciate a good stereotype, with Cipo and the absolutely leaden Ivan Quaranta retired and Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre) heading towards his dotage, the era of the completely one-dimensional sprinter seems to be passing. Many of today’s top sprinters – Mark Cavendish (HTC), Farrar, Thor Hushovd (Cervelo), Oscar Freire (Rabobank), and Danielle Benatti (Liquigas) to name a few, are capable of and willing to finish stage races, even if they have to drag themselves over the Alps, Dolomites, or Pyrenees to do it.
So let’s stop living in fear of Cipollini and axe the prolonged-logues. They're guarding against the last decade's threat, and they just aren’t particularly satisfying from any perspective. In running, there is a reason that sprinters can be famous, marathoners can be kind of famous, but not many non-competitive runners can name a single middle-distance runner (except for Steve Prefontaine, and that’s mostly because he died young and spectacularly). Spectators like either short and fast, or a longer test of speed and endurance, but not the mushy middle ground.
- Wait, what was that? How the hell is Mario Cipollini responsible for the ProTour? That one’s easy. Cipollini in his prime rode for Saeco, which was one of the richest and most successful teams in the peloton largely thanks to his ability to win a hell of a lot of bike races each year, and to delight photographers even when he wasn’t. Popular though he was, Tour de France organizer ASO got tired of Cipo grabbing a bunch of early stage wins and the occasional yellow jersey, only to bail out as soon as he detected the slightest elevation change. So ASO stopped inviting Saeco to the Tour, regardless of the fact that it was one of the top teams in the world, Cipo or no Cipo. That woke up all the top teams and their current and potential sponsors to the full extent to which personal or organizational whim and vendetta could control what was ostensibly a professionally run sport. So they demanded guarantees that, if they dumped enough money into the sport, they’d get invited to the biggest races, the ones that made having their name on the jersey worthwhile in the first place. Since the UCI is an end recipient of some of the sponsorship money that flows to riders, teams, and federations, the UCI has a stake in keeping the sponsors in the sport, and sponsors like knowing what they’re getting for their money. Hence, the UCI created the ProTour, which promised invitations to top events to teams that gave the UCI enough money. Unfortunately, those weren’t the UCI’s guest lists to manage, and we all know where things went from there… But anyway, that’s how Mario Cipollini created the ProTour, at least according to the Service Course.
- While I’m complaining, I’m not too big on final day time trials’s either. Yes, yes, it was exciting in the 1989 Tour de France, 8 seconds, aerobars, ponytails, blah, blah, blah. And it was exciting at last year’s Giro too, but really only due to maglia rosa Denis Menchov’s willingness to toss himself repeatedly to the ground, ramping up the tension quotient considerably. But if the mountains have created any sort of real gaps, which is very likely during the vicious final week of this Giro, the TT can be a snoozer of a way to close out your grand tour. Nothing says "spectacular finish" like a nice, conservative time trial to cement your GC placing.
- I feel like I should say something more about Farrar’s Stage 2 win, but I can’t quite come up with it. The guy’s a great sprinter, and he put in a great sprint and won. I guess I should say that the Garmin train seems to be a bit better at controlling things through chaos than they were last year, which bodes well for Farrar’s grand tour campaign. Though the team still has the competent Christian Vande Velde to support as its GC man, I have to wonder if Farrar will prove to be the chief beneficiary of Wiggins’ departure. Less GC hopes mean more sprinter resources.
- As I said, Brad Wiggins needed that Stage 1 win to start to justify all the off-season blathering that was done on his behalf. You know who else needs a blathering-justifying win at the Giro? Andre Greipel (HTC-Columbia). In fact, I’d say nobody else in the peloton needs one worse. After spending the spring picking media fights with teammate and fellow sprinter Mark Cavendish over who should or shouldn’t start the Tour de France and other races, Greipel needs to come out of the Giro with at least one stage to his name, or start brushing up on his Spanish. Greipel could win every stage of the Tour of Turkey from here to eternity, but unless he can come up with goods now, Cavendish’s wishes will be HTC’s command come Tour time, and right now Cavendish wishes for no Greipel at the Tour. Like a lot of people, Greipel likes to call attention to Cavendish’s slow start, but even so, you can’t reasonably argue with Cavendish’s recent grand tour record and the associated right to be the lead sprinter come Tour time. More and more, I’m seeing Greipel in Omega Pharma-Lotto colors next year.
- After the last few years of Giro d’Italia course safety woes, it’s tempting to shoot scolding glances at the course designers every time there’s a crash. But in yesterday’s finale, when all the unhappy crunchy sounds began, the course didn’t seem to have anything to do with it. In fact, it seemed like people were just riding off the sides of clear, straight two-lane highways and flopping over. Of course, unless the crash happens at the front, the TV punter doesn’t get a very good look at it, so maybe there was some of the Netherlands’ ubiquitous road furniture lurking just out of the shot, who knows. Various poles, curbs, and islands were certainly responsible for some of incidents earlier in the race, and those hazards reportedly could have probably been better marked. But that’s a staffing/course security issue, not a design issue – if you want to race in the Netherlands, there’s no avoiding those things altogether. As for those late-race crashes, though, they looked suspiciously like the jitters of the first road stage of the season’s first grand tour.
- After his own little dive to the pavement, Katusha’s Pippo Pozzato still looked fabulous. That's a given, though -- it’s his defining characteristic as a rider. But despite appearances, I got the feeling he was pretty rattled. As he got moving again, he very slowly, very deliberately retrieved his sunglasses from his pocket, going so far as to rest his forearms on the handlebar and use both hands to unfold them before putting them on. It may not seem like much, but for Italians like Pippo, the motions required to retrieve and don sunglasses should be as smooth, viscous, and stylish as the product that graces their tresses, and these weren't. Pippo looked labored, and that's a tell as sure as darting eyes or nervous giggling at a poker game.
- Speaking of Pozatto and looking fabulous, you’ll be happy to know that I’ve finally ridden in my white shoes. Suffice to say that I am now just as fast and stylish as Pippo, but, fortunately, not nearly so slippery.