Where were they on Saturday for Stage 14? I refer to the nae sayers, ‘experts,’ critics, anonymous forum trolls and headline writers who tell us what a rotten sport we have.
Daniele Ratto (Cannondale & Italy) took four hours and 24 minutes to win this stage, for those at the other end of the field it was nearly five hours. Five hours of horrible, gnarly Pyrenean climbs, life threatening descents, cold and freezing rain. When you see a man of Ratto’s team mate and compatriot Ivan Basso’s quality, experience and grinta lifted off his bike and hear that another 13 riders had to quit then you realise what a brutal, epic day this really was.
I was going to do a l’Equipe style ‘marks out of 10’ for the day – but it would be disrespectful to all of the 160 men who finished those gruesome 155.7 kilometres to Collada de la Gallina.
But it’s a race and there have to be winners and losers. Let’s get the negs over with. The ‘worst day of my career’ said Ivan Basso – when he regained the powers of logical thought and speech – after the realisation sunk in that he was out of the race.
His Cannondale team rode a poor TTT but the Italian didn’t let it affect him, working steadily back up the classement and into seventh spot – until Saturday. Rafal Majka (Saxo & Poland) had a disastrous day, dropping from ninth to 26th@ 23:15.
And whilst it would be wrong to describe Saxo’s Nico Roche’s day as disastrous, it was a ‘sore one’ as the Scottish football commentators say. Starting the day in second spot @ 31 seconds on Vincenzo Nibali (Astana & Italy) the Irishman cracked on the last ascent and is now at more than four minutes behind ‘The Shark of the Straights.’
On the other side of the coin it was a positive day for most of the rest of the top ten with Horner perhaps taking the most out of the day, moving up from fourth to second and now the only man within a minute of Nibali.
He looked very impressive as he distanced all of the top ten except the omnipresent Nibali who has perfected the, ‘I’m just taking a pedal down to the paper shop’ look and let Horner do all the pace making on the last kilometres to the line as the two of them under lined who the best riders in the race really are.
Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha & Spain), the surprising Domenico Pozzovivo (AG2R & Italy) and young French hope Thibaud Pinot (F des J & France) all moved up the standings. Dani Moreno (Katusha & Spain) slid to 10th as stage winner and revelation Leo Konig (NetApp-Endura & Czech Republic) and Nibali’s loyal Astana lieutenant, Estonian Tanel Kangert leapfrogged the Spaniard to go eighth and 10th respectively.
And then there’s the man we haven’t mentioned – Alejandro Valverde (Movistar & Spain) he started and ended the day in third spot on GC – but it so nearly looked like he was out of it . . .
In his own words; “It was a really hard day for me, horrible, cruel; for me, it was the hardest day ever on a bike. Not only due to the hard parcours, but also because of the conditions which made things much, much harder. I was feeling so cold into the descents, trembling, unable to pedal, I almost crashed; people were overtaking me all the time. I was feeling cold even when climbing – when that happens, everything becomes so difficult. I have to thank my team, because they gave everything for me and their work was phenomenal.
Thanks to them, I could get over the day – due to them and the fans, who deserve the best of wishes from me, I could get over it. At the last climb I recovered well, warmed up, got on a nice pace and started overtaking riders. That’s why I’m happy with the result. It was a hellish day for everything. Seeing how many riders withdrew, and thinking about tomorrow’s stage, with 250k including the neutral zone – should the weather develop like today, I don’t really know what will happen. Surrendering? I never surrender – and we’re still in 3rd place. Winning the Vuelta will be difficult, but getting a podium finish is always beautiful.”
His was a ride which embodied what bike racing is all about, courage, pushing beyond the limits and refusing to quit. With seven stages to go it’s perhaps too early to say that Nibali has it won – but he looks cool, in control and capable of fielding anything which is thrown at him.
But the organisers may yet get their final ‘shoot out’ on the Angliru with Horner giving his all to try and grab what is almost certainly his last chance to win a Grand Tour. But let’s not forget the man who triumphed on this terrible day, Cannondale’s Daniel Ratto – a karmic win given Basso’s sad exit.
Ratto was second in the World Junior Road race Championship to fellow Italian and now Lampre star, Diego Ulissi in 2007. In 2008 he won the Piccolo (little) Giro di Lombardia and then in 2009 had four wins for his Palazzago Elledent Rad Logistica squadra. Turning full pro for CarmioOro in 2010 he won the GP Industria & Artigianato before moving to the ill-starred Geox team for 2011.
Last season he was with Liquigas and moved across to the team’s new incarnation as Cannondale for 2013. He’s had a whole raft of top placings in races as diverse as the Vuelta a Burgos, Tour of Poland, Tour de Slovenie, Pais Vasco and Trofeo Melinda since 2010. But with the confidence of a Grand Tour stage win behind him it’s likely he’ll begin to see more of the podium in 2014.
Stage 15 just couldn’t be a ‘death race’ given the apocalypse on Saturday but it was another tough day with Alexandre Geniez (F des J & France) the best survivor of the day’s break holding out to win by three minutes from fellow break away Michele Scarponi (Lampre & Italy). The 25 year-old Frenchman clearly has none of his team leader Thibaud Pinot’s ‘blockage’ when it come to descending – his nerveless downhill skills need little improving.
Geniez rode for Skil in 2010 and 11 and stayed with the team when it became Argos for last season before transferring to F des J for this year. A stage win in the 2011 Tour of Austria and top ten spots on GC in the Tour of Poland and Circuit de la Sarthe in 2012 were the highlights of his palmares – until this day.
Next home behind Scarponi was Nico Roche (Saxo & Ireland) who broke clear from the group of ‘Bigs’ on the last climb to snatch back 17 seconds on the five riders ahead of him on GC but still remains sixth – you have to admire the man’s grinta. The top five – Nibali, Horner, Valverde, Rodriguez and Pozzovivo finished together with the man in seventh spot, Pinot distanced in the finale. Konig stays eighth and a weary Sammy Sanchez goes ninth at 7:46 with Tangert still 10th. Dani Moreno slid again to 11th as another payment on his acrobatic first week fell due.
Stage 16 and there I was thinking of this last – and least strenuous – day in the Pyrenees; ‘some Spanish guy will win out of the break and the Bigs will just ride in, Horner might have a prod or two . . . .
Instead we were treated to the emergence of a new French star – Barguil taking his second stage for Argos and Nibali having a ‘jour sans.’ In French that’s literally, ‘a day without’ the normally imperious Vincenzo scrabbling for wheels in the closing kilometres and dropping 28 seconds to Joaquim Rodriguez, 25 seconds to Alejandro Valverde, 22 to Chris Horner, six to Nicolas Roche and five to Domenico Pozzovivo. The most dangerous loss is that to Horner who must surely fancy his chances of winning this race even more.
In his favour Nibali has a rest day today and a sprinter stage the day after. All of the greats have bad days, Nibali will almost definitely bounce back; but Horner, Valverde and Rodriguez all smell blood and will be on the attack in the final three mountain stages; Thursday through Cantabria; Asturias on Friday (the 13th!) – or will they save it all for Saturday and the gruesome Angliru?
The organisers may well get their wish of the race being decided on the penultimate day on that fearsome road to the clouds which is certainly the toughest climb I’ve ever seen.
But a rousing ‘chapeau’ goes to Barguil and his excellent ride; attacking the survivors of the break on the last climb and then remaining ice cool when fellow breakaway and Giro runner-up Uran (Sky & Colombia) re-caught him. Uran immediately attacked the Frenchman when he made the junction, giving Barguil every excuse – if one were needed – not to work.
It looked as if Uran had it won in the sprint – and Sky’s Vuelta wasn’t a total disaster. But Barguil was too clever and too quick for the Colombian strong man – and Sky’s Vuelta is a . . . . .
It may be an unbalanced race with too many mountain top finishes – but it’s a damned good one. And what was I saying about a certain Sicilian looking like he’s riding to the paper shop?
Not on Monday he wasn’t. . . .