By Brendan McKeown
We’ve had more spills than thrills so far in the Giro d’Italia but at last, after a week dominated by bad weather and crashes, the race is starting to hot up. Not to take anything away from the three days the grand tour spent in Ireland, of course. They made for a fine celebration of sport, a party that will live long and fondly in the heart of every cycling fan.
In racing terms there was little to recommend the two road stages around Antrim and from Armagh to Dublin apart from the sprinting prowess of Marcel Kittel, who won both, and the horrid weather which in the absence of any notable climbs did its best to make a selection.
The team time trial around Belfast that saw Dan Martin’s hopes in the gutter was another great spectacle but surely will have little bearing on the overall classification – other than for Martin who retired with a broken collarbone and his team-mates who lost a bag load of time in the crash.
When the race returned to its home country, French sprinter Nacer Bouhanni showed he can win on the biggest stages – albeit once German powerhouse Kittel has withdrawn suffering from a fever. He’s an exciting rider to watch, brave and powerful, who likes to skirmish in and around the final few hundred metres, elbows out and cutting up rough, before making a late dash for the line. His brace of victories saw him take the sprinters red jersey and he vowed he would fight to keep it throughout the tour.
Diego Ulissi, Lampre-Merida’s youngster, showed he could be one to watch in the hilly classics or as a potential grand tour contender after winning an uphill sprint into Viggiano and the first proper mountain stage of the tour, from Foligno to Montecopiolo.
But the real star of the greatest show on earth has been, well, bigger than all the rest – Australia. Orica-Greenedge, the Aussie super-team won the opening team time trial and with it the pink jersey, first on the shoulders of veteran Svein Tuft and then punchy young sprinter Michael Matthews. He crowned his reign in the Maglia Rosa with a superb victory on the body-strewn road to Monetcassino before relinquishing the jersey to, you’ve guessed it, Aussie warhorse Cadel Evans.
He looks in the sort of form that could see him hold on until the race wraps up in Trieste on June 1- though he will face stiff challenges from the Giro’s many out-and-out climbers. Of these, Domenico Pozzovivo, AG2R’s startle-eyed grimpeur, could be a good outide bet after showing his strength with a late dig on stage 9 – won by Orica-Greenedge’s Pieter Weening – that saw him place third and take around 30 seconds out of the peloton. The tiny Italian has improved his time trialling markedly and with the parcours stacked in favour of the mountain goats could prove a serious threat. Nairo Quintana and Rigoberto Uran’s may beg to differ.
Evan said: “It wasn’t an easy stage. But the team did a good job of controlling the race and it’s been a good day.
“We saw in the final climb that the overall contenders have more or less the same level. I don’t see someone capable of making a big difference on these kinds of climbs and that suits me fine.”
At 3mins 57s down on the GC Ireland’s Roche looks out of contention. He’ll be limited to the role of super-domestique but will be hoping this will give him freedom to go stage hunting in the mountains like his compatriot, Sky’s Philip Deignan.
As all eyes turn to the 10th stage of the Giro today, with Evans 57 seconds ahead of nearest rival Uran after the second rest day of the tour, it’s highly unlikely there will be any change in the overall standings. It’s a pan-flat run-in from Modena to Salsomaggiore Terme that will favour quickmen such as Bouhanni or Cannondale’s Elia Viviani.
This being the Giro d’Italia, though, who knows what the day will bring…