There have plenty of great stage 17’s at the Tour de France in recent times. Often it contains the final mountain top finish of the race so has the potential for plenty of drama. So I had to choose two stages for today:
Stage 17 of the 2008 Tour de France had all the ingredients to turn it into a classic. It was was one of the closes races in years, only 8 seconds separated Frank Schleck in 1st and Cadel Evans in 3rd and the top five were all within 1 minute 13 seconds of each other. It was also the final mountain stage with its finale taking part on Alpe d’Huez. Perfect.
The battle to win the Tour that day was going to be between the climbers and the time trialists. Frank Schleck, his CSC teammate Carlos Sastre and Bernhard Kohl knew they needed to put time into Evans and Denis Menchov as the penultimate stage that year was going to a 53 km test against the clock. It was reckoned 2 minutes would have done the trick.
Schleck and Sastre had the advantage of having the strongest team. They had been aided well in the mountains by Frank’s younger brother. Andy Schleck was taking part in his first Tour and held the white jersey. There is a little mentioned story that tells of Frank Schleck proclaiming to some journalists: “If you think I am good then wait till you see my brother”. Andy was living up to his hype. Cadel Evans’ Silence-Lotto team by contrast had been letting him down every time the road went up.
Today the Giro reaches Messina, the home of the most talented Italian rider of recent times, Vincenzo Nibali. The current champion is one of only six riders to have won all three grand tours and was seen something of a saviour for Italian cycling at the start of the decade when there were fewer top riders and fewer top Italian teams. The decline in Italian teams in the World Tour reached its zenith the year after the demise of the Lampre squad meaning their number has reached zero. And now with ‘The Shark Of Messina’ reaching 32 Italian cycling fans are desperate for a new hero to emerge.
Fabio Aru, missing this years Giro due to injury, is the obvious heir to Nibali but after a disappointing 2016 he still has much to improve before becoming a reliable champion. As he gets older and reaches prime Grand Tour age perhaps he will be able to help Italy keep its proud tradition of winners at the Giro going.
Of the 99 Giri 69 have been won by 41 different Italians. It wasn’t until 1950 that the first foreign rider, Hugo Koblet of Switzerland, won. After that the Italians had to share the prize with an increasing number of countries such as Luxembourg, France, Belgium and Sweden. At the start of the 90’s the hosts had to go three years without a win but Ivan Gotti’s victory in 1997 saw the return of Italian domination.
All sports have hero’s and villains. Their presence adds to the spectacle of what you’re watching and changes it into theatre. Unfortunately in cycling many of the heros are actually villains and when you find out you realise that you’ve been watching a tragedy.
David Millar was one such hero of mine. Being Scottish I had always been a fan of his namesake Robert but never really had a chance to watch him race. I nearly saw him race. I remember the sense of anticipation before the 1995 Tour after hearing he would be making a return with his new Le Groupememt team, then the disappointment after they folded days before the start. So when David Millar came on the scene at the start of the 2000’s I was loving being able to watch someone from my own country race in the Tour de France. (Many have questioned his Scottishness but Millar had a similar life to me. I was brought up abroad, I considered another country home for years and I didn’t sound particularly like ‘a jock’ but I feel Scottish. I am Scottish). When he started winning stages and wearing the yellow jersey I was delighted. So when he was popped in 2004 I couldn’t believe it. I felt cheated. All his success which I had celebrated was actually worthless, it was a lie. He wasn’t my hero anymore, he was an embarrassment.
Roll forward to the 2009 Tour and the stage finish in Barcelona. I’d been to Barcelona before and it’s always enjoyable watching a race and seeing the peloton go through areas you recognise but there was added interest that day. David Millar had attacked from the days breakaway with about 30 km to go and had been holding a steady lead over the pack. But with about 5 km to go he arrived at Montjuic with its steep slopes and his advantage was starting to look shaky. I had a dilemma at this point where his fate was unknown. Should I be wanting him to win or fail? I still felt a little betrayed by him but it was 5 years since he was caught cheating and this was already his third Tour since coming back from suspension. Had he done his time for the crime? I decided to just try and enjoy the moment and see it as a brave attack from a cyclist in the Tour de France. It’s the way I often need to watch cycling these days. Enjoy the moment rather than let an individuals doping past spoil things.
In the end Millar was caught with only 1 km to go. While I didn’t celebrate I thought it was a fair outcome. For me, Millar still hadn’t suffered enough to earn forgiveness and glory, but now with this agonising defeat could his redemption could perhaps be complete?
Gerard Vroomen asked an interesting question on Twitter on Monday. He was wondering why Marco Pantani gets so much kudos when he was as much a doper as Lance Armstrong. This has been something I have been thinking about recently as I wrestled with my own views on Marco Pantani while reading Matt Rendell’s book “The death of Marco Pantani”. Even though I have always known he was a doper and cheat I have held him in high regard as a magical rider and along with many cycling fans, I’m sure, spared him a thought on Valentines day. But why was I so delighted when Lance Armstrong was convicted of doping last month, while my adoration for Pantani is only starting to waver now almost 14 years since being kicked out of the Giro at Madonna di Campiglio for having a high hematocrit level. This was one of many times he recorded a high level and probably wasn’t too surprising given his links to Francesco Conconi and Eufemiano Fuentes. However Marco was a god to me and many others while Lance was the devil.