As the dust settles on Nairo Quintana's superb Giro d'Italia win, our blogger Blazin' Saddles reflects over the last 24 days of riding in Italy and Ireland.
Quintana would have won even without the Stelvio incident
Although the Stelvio marked the Cima Coppi as the highest peak of the race, the neutralisation fiasco was clearly the low point of the entire Giro. Despite the horrific conditions, the race organisers were extra keen to keep the show going - especially in the light of cancelling the exact same stage one year previously.
This desire clearly blinkered some of their decision-making - but it would be wrong to put the blame entirely at the door of RSC Sports when the real pith of the matter lies with a lack of overriding rules for similar situations in all races throughout the season.
Quintana - along with Ryder Hesjedal and Pierre Rolland, most notably - may have benefited from the confusion surrounding red flags, misinterpreted announcements and hastily deleted tweets. But the form of the Colombian in the mountains both before and after the incident suggests that it was only a matter of time before he took the maglia rosa from the shoulders of his fellow countryman Rigoberto Uran.
Winning on Monte Grappa in the mountain time trial did enough to silence his critics. There's no doubt that Quintana was the pick of the bunch over the three weeks.
Emperor Nairo is the best of many exceptionally good Colombians
Quintana's victory in his first ever Giro came 10 months after his runner-up spot in his debut Tour de France. The best climber of his generation - and still only 24 - he is a supreme talent who will no doubt win many a Grand Tour in the future. But he should forget about the Tour de France this July.
Let Movistar ride with their preferred leader Alejandro Valverde and instead concentrate on a tilt at the Vuelta. Should Quintana enter the 2015 Tour as the reigning Giro and Vuelta winner, then that experience and confidence will make him Chris Froome's biggest challenger, hands down.
But what a race for the Colombians: Uran absolutely beasted the opening time trial to Barolo and finished runner-up for a second consecutive year; Julian Arredondo won a mountain stage and secured the blue jersey on his debut Grand Tour; Fabio Duarte doubled his runner-up count to a total of four stages but did enough to suggest a Giro win will come sooner rather than later.
And what of Team Sky's Sebastian Henao? The youngest rider in the race rode an impeccably solid maiden Giro to finish 22nd at the tender age of 20. Sky team-mate Chris Sutton was impressed: the Australian tweeted after the finish that Henao "will win a big grand tour in the next five years, maybe before then".
Fabio Aru has a big decision to make
The 23-year-old Sardinian entered the race as one of Michele Scarponi's climbing lieutenants and left it on the third rung of the podium having won atop Monte Campione and coming so close to beating Quintana in the Monte Grappa time trial.
Even before this breakthrough Giro, Aru was seen as Italy's next big thing - so winning atop a mountain so intricately linked with the memory of the late Marco Pantani can have done his cause no harm. But the question now is where does Aru go next?
Astana's main man is Aru's compatriot Vincenzo Nibali, a former winner in both the Vuelta and Giro who this July will look to push Froome and Alberto Contador all the way in the Tour. Aru would be best served shaping the rest of his season around the Vuelta and them making a decision.
With Nibali standing in his way - and the Italian contingent at Astana under threat - Aru may have to move elsewhere to satisfy his ambitions. Cannondale would be an obvious destination, given Ivan Basso's demise, while Lampre shouldn't be excluded given Chris Horner's age and injury record and Damiano Cunego's continued retirement from relevancy.
Colombia excelled but don't forget the Australians
Three individual stages for Australia may have been one less than Colombia's haul - but throw in Orica-GreenEdge's win in the opening team time trial, Pieter Weening's victory in Sestola and stints in pink for both Michael Matthews and Cadel Evans, and it's easy to see why so many people were calling this the Giro di Australia (even in spite of Orica's paltry two-man team come Trieste).
Double stage winner Mick Rogers was a revelation for Tinkoff-Saxo - although seeing two former clients of Michele Ferrari, veterans Rogers and Franco Pellizotti, dance their way up the steep 22% gradient of the fearsome Zoncolan would have left a sour taste in the mouth for many.
The race was mighty unkind on the Irish
All eyes were on Dan Martin, Nicolas Roche and Philip Deignan with the race starting on Irish soil - but Garmin-Sharp's Martin crashed out in the opening team time trial with a broken collarbone while days later, in the savage pile-up that marred the end of stage six to Montecassino, Roche saw his hopes reduced to tatters along with his bib shorts.
His GC hopes over, Roche recovered to finish fifth in Oropa and fourth atop the Zoncolan, while the race's third Irishman, Sky's Deignan, attacked regularly in the Alps to secure third place in stage 18 at Valsugana. At least they had a chance at turning things round - Martin's fall, which came so soon after he crashed out in the Liege-Bastogne-Liege finale, will take some getting over.
Watered-down sprint roster didn't made for boring finales
If Marcel Kittel's quick-fire double in Ireland perhaps stressed the lack of competition in the Giro then the German's withdrawal merely saw Frenchman Nacer Bouhanni assume Kittel's role as the peloton's fastest man.
But Bouhanni's three wins didn't make a poor spectacle. In Bari, the Frenchman came from very far back and had to avoid a host of riders skittling over in the rain; he showed strength and positioning in Foligno while his third win in Salsomaggiore Terme was admittedly diluted by accident caused by Tyler Farrar, but still saw Bouhanni having to swing past perpetual bridesmaid Giacomo Nizzolo.
When Trek's Nizzolo did finally beat Bouhanni he still finished second for a fourth time thanks to Luka Mezgec's quite astonishing late surge in Trieste - to give the fans from neighbouring Slovenia something to cheer. The likes of Elia Viviani and Ben Swift failed to impress in the bunch sprints but fans were nevertheless treated to some great displays - even if normal service will no doubt resume come July in the shape of Messrs Cavendish, Sagan, Greipel and that man Kittel.
Bardiani-CSF were the best team
Constantly getting into breaks - most notably through Enrico Barbin, Nicola Boem and Edoardo Zardini - Bardiani were not only the most successful second tier Italian team in the race, but perhaps the best team of the whole race thanks to their attacking guile and never-say-die attitude.
Back-to-back victories from Marco Canola and Enrico Battaglin was topped by an emotional victory for Stefano Pirazzi, who finally secured an elusive win on his home tour after years of relentless breaks in the mountains.
At one point during the Monte Grappa time trial, Bardiani occupied the top three spots on the provisional classification while one day later, on Monte Zoncolan, youngster Francesco Bongiorno came within one cretin's shove of contesting an unlikely victory with Mick Rogers.
Given the lack of wins for fellow pro continental outfits Androni and Neri Sottoli - who attacked just as much, but with no end product - Bardiani's haul was even more the impressive.
Katusha top the disappointment list - but are in good company
With joint pre-race favourite Joaquim Rodriguez crashing out in stage six alongside Angel Vicioso and Giampaolo Caruso, Katusha were down to just six riders before the end of the opening week. All was not well before that, however, with Rodriguez struggling to make an impact following Katusha's shoddy display in the opening TTT in stormy Belfast.
Another team hit by the conditions in Belfast was Garmin-Sharp, who lost both Martin and Koldo Fernandez to injury, while saw their GC man Ryder Hesjedal effectively start the race with a three-and-a-half-minute handicap. Garmin rallied but ultimately disappointed - despite Hesjedal's second place in Val Martello.
In the first week, BMC controlled the race but ended up with nothing - Evans missing out on the stage win in the fallout from the stage six pile-up and then merely keeping the maglia rosa warm for the Colombian favourites. Belkin can be happy with Wilco Kelderman's top ten but otherwise did very little - although Josh van Emden did break up his ascent of Monte Grappa with a cheeky proposal to his girlfriend.
As mentioned above, Bardiani's success made the plight of Neri Sottoli and Androni seem even worse, while Lampre-Merida struggled to impose themselves on the race save for Diego Ulissi's brace and strong showing in the Barolo ITT. Attacking livewire Tim Wellens - plus the green prize for the most environmentally friendly team - saved Lotto Belisol's blushes, while Dario Cataldo and Philip Deignan's mountain heroics saved things for Sky, whose Tour-centric focus to cycling is proving rather frustrating for fans.
Evans's days as a GC rider are over
To think that some Australians actually felt Cadel Evans was in for a shout while he wore pink at the end of the first week was rather quaint. There can be no denying that Evans rode the first phase of the race impeccably, but he was always going to get caught out in the time trials and the mountain-heavy second half of the race.
You cannot fault his effort, but you could certainly sense the desperation when Cuddles had to resort to profiting from a pile-up in order to gain a few seconds on his rivals. A stab at the Vuelta now looks likely - although the 37-year-old former Tour winner would be better off forgetting about the red jersey and instead going to Spain with stage wins in mind.
Evans is still a competent stage racer but it's time he lowered his targets a little. That doesn't mean he should retire - that would be a shame for someone who still has a lot to offer - just that he should be realistic.
My predictions weren't bad - but not that good either
Well, I was bold and predicted that Evans, Hesjedal and Roche would all finish outside the top ten - and just one of them fell into that bracket (although such were the time gaps, both Hesjedal's and Evans's final positions hardly had a top ten feel to them).
I did predict Quintana to win - but then again, so did the world and his dog. Likewise, I was correct in placing Uran, Domenico Pozzovivo, Rafal Majka, Robert Kiserlovski and Pierre Rolland in the top ten; less so about Rodriguez (predicted second), Przemyslaw Niemiec (who finished 46 positions lower than my suggested third) and both Michele Scarponi and Samuel Sanchez.
Still, my team of Uran, Kelderman, Majka, Arredondo, Matthews, Kiserlovski, Monfort, Mezgec and Quintana did top the Blazin' Saddles official Velogames mini-league - and was 15th in the main league of thousands. So perhaps I'm not that rubbish, after all.
- Sports & Recreation
- Nairo Quintana
- Chris Froome
- Nicolas Roche
- Monte Grappa
- Cadel Evans