Highlights of the Year – Part IV

The Giro d’Italia had plenty of action including a lively opening week where the main contenders and their teams were already trying to take control of the race. Among the three weeks of action was Stage 16, the Mortirolo stage from Pinzolo to Aprica.

Albert Contador had already taken control of the race and wore the maglia rosa but he used the hardest climb in the race to stick it to Fabio Aru and make a point.

The “Mortirolo Stage” seems the right label because if Aprica might signal mountains to you, the Mortirolo is infamous as one of the hardest climbs in the Alps, 11km at 11% and with a long 18% section. Visit the region and even if you have mountain gearing this climb could still be a long leg-press session, cycling reduced to weight lifting. Many pros opt for 34×29 gearing and the climb proved decisive on the day.

Let’s jump back a moment for context, this was a hard climb coming late into a hard race where the opening week had seen a chorus of cries that this was the hardest start to a grand tour anyone could remember. RCS had made the first week hard on paper with a series of selective stages and the teams exploited this as much as they could. The opening week was a draining fight between the top teams as they turned up the pace early on many stages, shredding the field hours before the finish. Why? Well the terrain played a part, a series of hilly stages and even some minor summit finishes meant time could be won and lost. But some said Astana were on a mission to make life as hard as possible for Alberto Contador in order to sap his chances of the Giro-Tour double, three weeks of mayhem in May would come with a price attached in July.

Contador Landa Aru Giro 2015

Into the Alps Alberto Contador had taken over the race lead in the Valdobbiane time trial stage won by Vasil Kiryienka and the next day Contador had engineered a win for compatriot Mikel Landa as he contained Fabio Aru and Yuri Trofimov.

Things livened up on Stage 16 when Contador stopped for a puncture or some other problem with his front wheel. Astana and Katusha were driving the pace. Deliberately? Reports differed but the ex post accounts didn’t matter because in the moment Contador took this personally. He made it back to the bunch just in time for the climb of the Mortirolo and rode through the bunch like a bladed spoke through butter. On the savage slopes of the Mortirolo Contador was in full attack mode and doing his Spanish dancer routine as weaved up the climb. In time he dropped Aru, and Landa was given permission by Astana to follow him, leaving Aru sitting second overall and chasing solo to stay on the podium.

All told this was Alberto Contador at his most aggressive best and attacking his rivals while in the race lead. Perhaps he was provoked by the thoughts of other teams driving the pace while he was stopped by the roadside but it was a gamble to attack such a hard climb so early and then keep going. It’s this kind of display that makes Contador an exciting prospect for the 2016 Tour de France, a lookback at racing in 2015 that promises something for next year.


Hindsight: Contador would later take off on the stage to Verbania, pictured above. While Philippe Gilbert had the result sewn up from a breakaway Contador rode on pride and danced away from the peloton to show Astana he could attack where and when he wanted, something portrayed as revenge for events on the way to Aprica.

Stage 16 was also Mikel Landa’s day, he took the stage after getting permission from the team to follow Contador and leaving his leader Aru to fend for himself. Landa would ride on to finish third overall, three minutes behind on Contador having lost four minutes to him in the Valdobbiane time trial stage. Meanwhile the likes of Steven Kruijswijk, Ryder Hesjedal and Andrey Amador confirmed their form this day on their way to a top-10 finish but were more actors in the race rather than contenders, Amador for example was impressive but never in with a shout of the podium because if he finished fourth there was a five minute gap between him and Landa.

In the space of one climb Contadoe turned the tables on Fabio Aru, chasing him down and then dropping him. Aru never gave up and while left to chase solo he still limited his losses, surrendering two minutes. If he lost the day he gained in popularity as the public like to see a champion suffer and face adversity. In a similar vein Contador’s wobble on the Colle delle Finestre later in the race probably helped the Spaniard conquer hearts and minds in Italy as it showed a fragile side after weeks of crushing domination. Contador’s win the race is worth remembering for the total way in which he ground down his rivals, even turning a crash – which saw him go to hospital and leave with his arm in a sling – into a strong point as his rivals initially secretly prayed he was done for only to see their raised hopes dashed.

The Mortirolo and the wheel change also gave rise to whispers of electric motors in bikes and the idea that if the UCI has been checking bottom brackets then these could be hidden inside the hubs. True or false? If true it would be the scoop of the year. For now it’s one of those bizarre conspiracy theories to which pro cycling has been so conditioned and where the wildest ideas can find fertile ground.

37 thoughts on “Highlights of the Year – Part IV”

  1. That was one hell of a stage.

    INRNG: just one thing…’and the next day Contador had engineered a win for Astana team mate Mikel Landa’ – maybe needs a little re-wording? Engineered a win for Aru’s Astana team mate? Engineered a win for his compatriot?

  2. The highlight of the year for me. Seeing him – largely unaided by his team – take on the whole Astana team for almost the entire three weeks was tremendous.
    Really hope Contador reconsiders his comparatively early retirement. We have a purple patch for GT contenders at the moment – rare to have a few riders who are so closely matched – and it would be great to see them all fight it out for a few more years.

      • He seems pretty set on it, like Hinault. If he wins the 2016 Tour he’ll probably ride the Vuelta as a victory lap and then call it quits, after all, what else is there left to achieve (other than an Olympic gold medal)? If he falls just short then in my opinion he might reconsider. Putting on my armchair psychologist hat, I think Contador would like to prove he can win a Tour de France without the taint that came from the Clembuterol fiasco.

    • “Largely unaided by his team” is quite unfair. He was indeed quite happy (not just in interviews) with his team and indeed confirmed – against expectations – half of the team for the Tour, too. They were technically/physically inferior to the Astana team, and it’s not easy for a weaker team to look dominant against stronger ones, but they were able do everything they were being asked by their captain as it was just what he felt he needed. The problem is that you couldn’t see on TV most of the work they were doing, since it was more than everything about controlling the first part of each stage, in order to assure that no dangerous strategical context was being set. It was like that until stage 18 included. And it’s a darn hard work, feel assured. They made it, and it was quite decisive, since Astana potentially had two very dangerous men; besides, we had a good number of high-placed GC men who were riding aggresively and who could be allies for the Astana couple in some kind of long-range attack if they had been let go (note that they also publicly complained about being kept under control by the Tinkoff guys!). I agree that Contador’s was a largely individual feat, but his team complied very effectively with the required “stage setting” for the leading character to offer us his show. What I mean is that your sentence I quoted applies way better to Dumoulin in the Vuelta, Nibali in the Tour… or even to Quintana (!), in a sense. Hence, I feel it’s not appropriate to describe that way what team Tinkoff did in the Giro.

      • It was a bit of a sweeping statement: perhaps I should have put something more along the lines of Contador not having the support that Aru had – especially in the mountains.
        Certainly, Contador had more to thank his team for than Dumoulin (not really their fault, admittedly), Nibali and Quintana.
        Question is, will Contador’s team be stronger in next year’s Tour?
        I imagine Nibali will be joined at the Giro by a significantly weaker team than Aru had this year, before escaping Astana’s clutches/being kicked out in favour of Aru (I might be wrong about that, but Astana have certainly treated Nibali shabbily this year).
        Hopefully, Quintana will get Movistar’s full support and ride with more courage and panache himself.

  3. A great stage and race to watch this year.

    Minor typoe? “…even turning a crash – which saw him go to hospital and leave with his arm in a sling – into a strong point as his rivals…” should there be a bit more here?

  4. Certainly one of the more interesting days of 2015. I thought the story was that Basso and Contador swapped REAR wheels for some reason? Flat tire was the original explanation but Basso was seen to continue on after installing Contador’s rear wheel in his bike – giving rise to thoughts of chicanery though one could wonder if Basso’s bike merely had a larger cogset that Il Pistolero decided he wanted? Aru certainly showed some “grinta” that day. He’ll need that in July 2016.

    • Lets hope it was ‘grinta’, a healthy portion of spaghetti with Papa Martinelli’s special bolognese sauce and a good nights sleep that turned him from a quickly tiring youngster being upstaged by his team mate to a stage winning national hero.

      • If you watched the race, you’re speaking absolute nonsense.
        Aru wasn’t in his best shape in the last days, either, despite winning that couple of stages. You don’t need an eagle eye to notice that. He won those stage thanks to team strategies heavily directed to achieve that task, even more than trying to win the overall, plus a favourable tactical context.
        At the same time, the Aprica stage where he looked to be suffering that much, really proved he was recovering from his previous troubles (besides having the required guts): his conditions were quite worse during the second week, as one could observe watching attentively his racing attitude, even if he was losing mere seconds instead of minutes.
        Some *healthy* portion of spaghetti (unless you’re referring to rice-spaghetti) might have been part of the problem, as they became aware and made public later.
        Obviously, as ever I’m not saying that Astana – or whatever other team – are crystal-clear, but one needs to assess when something is suspicious in itself or, on the contrary, quite normal (considering previous history of the rider, circumstances and so on). The latter was Aru’s case in the Giro.

  5. Certainly my highlight of the year and all within the context of a fantastic Giro. Some great racing and not a little intrigue along the way too.

    • Certainly the highlight of the year for me (aside from being present for Sagan’s world championship). I had been wondering over the last few days whether this would make the top-5 cut for Inrng; glad to see it did.

      Funny thing – I’ve watched the stage probably a dozen times over youtube, and even though I know by now exactly how it all turns out, it nevertheless continues to be compelling and exciting television.

  6. How do we put to bed the questions regarding motorised doping? I too wonder why Contador swapped wheels with Basso but I find it pretty outrageous that the wheel had a motor in it.

    The same goes for Cancellara’s supposed mechanised bikes from 5-years ago.

    If this is true, that means there ia a large number of people that would have to be complicit in this scandal. Has there been any reliable reports from ex-team employees or anything? It sounds to me like there’s only speculation (Davide Cassani) at this point.

    • Sounds like nonsense. What kind of energy capacity can you even get in the space of a bike wheel hub? 10Wh? That wouldn’t even make up for the 1kg+ weight of the thing.

      Motors in the bottom-bracket are a more reasonable proposition (and indeed exist), but the UCI has been checking these in all the grand tours now.

      • I know UCI’s been checking them, but if you switch bikes do they check all the team’s bikes?

        Also, think about it this way, what if a rider used a motorised bike for the first 4-hours of a mountain stage and then switched to their regular ride just before the final climb? They’d be significantly fresher than everyone else for the last climb and could definitely take advantage of this. The UCI might test their stage winning bike, but would they check the initial bike the rider used? Or, would the team sneak that bike away from the team?

    • Sadly, it’s like the rest of doping. Can’t prove a negative, but when bikes or components are switched out with no (or a flimsy) explanation they leave questions. I don’t really want to go back to the daze when this was banned and the team would after-the-fact cut a cable or puncture a tire to escape a penalty, but the rules allowing substitution of equipment are abused too often. Perhaps an inspection team needs to be created – one that roams the race and can demand to inspect a team’s equipment at any time?

      • Larry – that would be an interesting approach. It would randomise things which would make it too big of a risk to a team to leave a motorised approach.

        My next question – using your best judgement, do you think that cancellara or other big names actually used these things? I’ve been really trying to sort this out. On one hand I can’t believe that cancellara did this. BUT, at the same time, he was dominant in many of his races. I feel though that if cancellara did this to win Monuments, then guess who else did this? Boonen, as they were pretty well matched in a handful of their battles.

        I’m not saying they did this, but I’m just throwing this out there to see what others think.

          • Agreed – it would be like doping was – most real fans knew that doping was going on, but it was never officially discussed. The mechanics would HAVE to know if a bike had a motor in it.

  7. Inrng, I truly hope your next Highlight (part V) is about Tom Dumoulin’s nail-biting performance in this year’s Vuelta up to the last mountain stage clincher. It was great fun to watch!

  8. I’d like to add a couple of lines about Hesjedal and Kruijswijk. Actors rather than contenders? Quite true, but how many riders can be usually defined as outright contenders, in a GT? It’s clear as daylight that they wouldn’t stand a chance in any one-to-one match against Contador, but probably only Landa could, among all the cyclists in the field.
    Hence, the Canadian and the Dutchman tried what was their only chance to have a shot to victory, aggressive racing and long-range attacks – however long that shot might result.
    It can be deemed as a very feeble chance, but it was not like they had many other options.
    And *it can* happen, ask Talansky.

    Therefore, I’d say that riding like that was the only way to “become contenders”, in a sense – 1% contenders, if you want – but, hey, defending a 7th place with conservative riding, that’s what I’d call not-being-a-contender, because there’s no way in the world something will happen to everyone ahead of you. Whereas a long-range attack might (just “might”) even create a situation when you find yourself on the top, maybe with another couple of riders, however strong, and that’s when *the impossible* can happen. A fall, a bonk, a positive test, whatever.

    Besides, Ryder and Steven ended up with fine top-five / top-ten placements, all the same, which probably was the best they could hope to achieve even playing the waiting game in a selected group of best riders “à la TdF”. Yeah, maybe both of them could perhaps climb up a step in the final GC being more conservative, but would that have mattered so much? Fans-wise, sponsor-wise, teammates-wise… is it better König’s 6th place or Kruijswijk’s 7th? Have a look to the opening photo inrng wisely chose. That’s worthy enough for any sponsor, believe me. The last photo is quite revealing, too. You can see both Hesjedal and König (I think), and it says quantity.

    Please note that I’m not criticising König (or Amador or Caruso), these are riders who found themselves in charge of a GC without expecting it, or as a sort of first test in their careers and so on. Plus, there’s a riding-style component which is also needed to attack.
    I’m just saying that high-placed GC riders going on the attack soon in the stage or anyway far from the finish line was hugely refreshing.

    And that’s also because it’s not only about them. The presence of a strong rider up the road shuffle the cards a lot (ask Quintana and Aru about 2014…). The rhythm needed to keep him under control becomes higher. Selection in the selected group is therefore harder, the gregari are lost before and the captains find themselves *dangerously* exposed sooner than usual. Besides, a later attack by more dangerous GC men may find fortuitous support in those strong actors up the road. The over-the-top nervous reaction by Froome to Nibali’s attack towards La Toussuire tells us a lot about the subject (just as Nibali’s in the first stages told us a lot about his lost “tranquillità”).

    I know this Giro offered so many sparks that’s nearly impossible to make justice to them all (and inrng at least hinted to more or less everything, indeed), but I felt that this specific theme deserved a bit more of a highlight.

    • What is interesting though, Gabriele, is the ease with which Landa rode away 4km out for the win on stage 16.
      This suggests his pacing of Aru up the Mortirolo was very much within himself, possibly because Aru was not feeling good on the day ?
      If Landa had been riding without a weakened leader, would Contador have caught him ?

      The setting was between the main characters of Aru / Landa and Contador, in the context of the stage and the race, in a similar way that Alpe d’Huez provided later in the Summer with Froome and Movistar.
      So, in that sense, the other riders were supporting ‘actors’ – give Hesjedal and Kruijswijk nominations for Best Supporting Actors however 🙂

      Was the legacy of stage 16 one where Landa wrote his de facto contact with Team Sky and set up future GC battles against his team leader ; they’re both 25 years old ?
      Stage 16 was momentous for all kinds of reasons.

      • This stage is indeed a source of endless analysis, and credit must go to the beautiful design of the course.
        To start with, every reflection about the subject must take into account the nature of the finale. The climb to Aprica – after the steep, short stretch on the old road included in recent editions – is essentially a false flat barely averaging a 3% gradient. Which means a large, exhausting, energy-draining sector where sitting on the wheels grants a huge advantage in terms of resting. Even the five kms or so in the valley between Mortirolo and Aprica do reinforce the same concept of a very tactical finish. The history of the stage has nearly always confirmed this interpretation, be it the historical Pantani-Indurain duel (where Pantani waited for the Spaniard, who just looked stronger towards Aprica… only to fade brutally in the last Santa Cristina climb) or the recent 2010 stage.

        Hence, the ease with which Landa rode away was not unrelated to what had happened before. When the three riders arrived at the last 4 kms, the effort produced during the previous 25′ was radically different between them, both in nature and in intensity. Contador and Kruijswijk were in a sort of a “Trofeo Baracchi” TT, approximating their top: Landa was, by consequence, well below. Which allowed him to accelerate in a last 5′-power stint. More than half of his final advantage was obtained during the first 90″ of his attack. Each passing kms saw his rhythm becoming lower and more and more similar to the chasing couple, as he was losing the advantage of freshness while the chasers traded turns.
        The Mortirolo ascent must be included in the equation, too: at the end of the day, Contador climbed it nearly one minute faster than what Landa needed to, which obviously is going to affect your physical prowess in what comes thereafter. Besides, Landa’s domestic duties were especially favourable, setting the most regular pace on a climb were there’s no slipstream effect to be suffered by the head of the race, whereas Contador was enduring psychological pressure while pushing himself to the limit without blowing up.

        It’s quite clear that without Aru, the whole picture would have been hugely different. Yes, Landa might have crossed over the Mortirolo top with some 50″ of advantage (maybe), then what? IMHO, he would have been very, very lucky just to defend that, needing to face the final 40′ of race *all alone* (which, again, brings us to the importance of the “supporting actors”), and being right from the start quite more fatigued than he was in the stage as we know it. Not to speak of the risk of blowing up while trying to force his pace, both on Mortirolo and in the finale, on a course he perhaps didn’t even know. The other option, in a parallel universe without Aru, would have been waiting for the rest, which inevitably would have included Contador: but in that scenario, no sitting on the wheels would have been available to him. Quite the contrary, I’d say.

        All that said, I agree that Landa, generally speaking, was the only rider who could have challenged Contador as a proper contender, although I doubt he could ever represent a real menace, for different reasons I won’t detail now. But that’s precisely my point. Leaving aside the Aru question, we end up having an 80% contender, a 15% one and some 1-2% guys. I feel I need to differentiate them from the rest of the top GC “cast” who doesn’t stand a chance and doesn’t even try to seize one. Among other things, because they can actually shift the options of the top guys. “Best Supporting Actor”, as you say, is maybe an idea, in contrast with “Background Actors”, “Bit Players” or “Extras”?

Comments are closed.