Blazin' Saddles

Wheels better than balls

Blazin' Saddles

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Rabottini's ride was one of the best seen for years

Sunday's splendid stage 15 of the Giro d'Italia, in which Italian youngster Matteo Rabottini dramatically held on to a miraculous solo victory in the Alps, made a mockery of football's Champions League final, which took place the night before.

Now Saddles will put his hands up here — he is a football fan, follows Arsenal feverishly, loves playing the game and appreciates a Papiss Cisse banana-kick as much as the next man.

But as a spectacle, football is no match for cycling.

The world's most popular game can be so frustrating to watch, what with its tit-for-tat playacting, its constant stop-start nature and the simple fact that after 90 minutes, it can still be 0-0.

Moments after Andrey Amador's scintillating stage 14 win and Ryder Hesjedal's calculated yet daring ride back into pink, Saddles watched an altogether more staid performance from Chelsea and Bayern Munich.

As a neutral, Saddles enjoyed the game — but that might have been more due to the beers, wine and nibbles he was enjoying with old friends, with the football on in the background.

Watching Fernando Torres dive theatrically to try and conjure a penalty before, moments later, witnessing Franck Ribery winning a penalty (rightly) yet injuring himself in the process of hamming up his fall made Saddles smirk.

You just couldn't get away with such antics in the peloton.

The closest you get to playacting there — if you believe the rumours — is Frank Schleck's withdrawal from the Giro on Sunday.

According to the beleaguered Johan Bruyneel — whose ramshackle team have recorded the same amount of wins as lowly Ag2r-La Mondiale this season — Schleck's putative shoulder injury was not enough to see the Luxembourger leave the race.

It was a move that could cost Schleck senior his place on the RSNT roster for the Tour — although you'd expect him to make the cut, if only as a mascot for his brother Andy.

Ribery, a man who makes Cyril Gautier look like Daniele Bennati, limped off the pitch in Berlin after little more than 90 minutes of action. And as for spot kick-bottling winger Juan Mata, the Spaniard could hardly run towards the end of extra time due to cramp.

Remind Saddles how long Wednesday's 255km stage to Montecatini lasted? Just shy of seven hours, did you say? So - the equivalent of three Champions League finals.

Footballers often leave the pitch when an opponent treads on their toes or when an elbow brushes their shoulders (and pretend it made contact with their face).

Mark Cavendish was back on his bike in training the day after his hellish stage three fall; despite being more road-rashed than Ben Hur after his final chariot travails, the world champion continued the race once it arrived in Italy following the rest day. What is more, he has won two stages since — and not taken the rest of the season off to recuperate.

What of that man Rabottini? The 24-year-old Farnese Vini rookie rode most of Sunday's mountain stage out ahead on his own, crossing all four summits in pole position before starting the treacherous descent ahead of the final climb.

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A minor setback

With Damiano Cunego's chasing group hot on his heels, the rain lashing down and the fog closing in, Rabottini lost his grip on a tight left-hand bend, hit the deck and skidded into the pavement.

Such a devastating setback could well have spelled the end for Rabottini. Were he a footballer, the stretcher would have been called for and a substitute urged to start warming up.

But no, Rabottini continued on his way, even managing to increase his lead back to two and a half minutes ahead of the decisive ascent.

The weather was so dark and foreboding it seemed like a scene from Twilight. Had Rabottini not been wearing the day-glow colours of Farnese, watching his exploits on TV would have been a veritable nightmare.

Footballers forced to perform in such adverse conditions would have opted for gloves and one of those cringeworthy snoods, with their socks pulled up above the knee.

Shedding his raincoat, on Rabottini pressed — in pain both physically and mentally following 150-odd kilometres riding ahead, not to mention that crash.

But the peloton was closing in — and when Joaquim Rodriguez made his attack in the final kilometre, it looked like Rabottini's dream was over.

Eurosport commentator David Harmon was overcome by emotion as the Spaniard drew level with his exhausted Italian counterpart. Saddles, too, let out multiple gasps and groans.

"Go Matteo!" he cried out loud. What injustice! How cruel a punishment! Was there not a god looking down, prepared to reward one of the most gutsy rides witnessed in years?

And then it happened — Rabottini somehow summoned the strength not only to hold on to Purito's wheel inside the final 200m, but also to take the win, his first ever in a Grand Tour.

Saddles roared in delight — in unison with the whole of Italy and, in all likelihood, the rest of the world.

Startled, Saddles' Eurosport colleagues couldn't quite understand what had just gone on. You see, they don't get cycling. They're more football types. "How can you get so excited and emotional about cycling?" they asked.

One colleague paraphrased Ken Bates, the former Chelsea owner, in describing most cycling races as "five hours of foreplay before a slow arousal". Given he was doing the live Test match cricket commentary, Saddles thought this was a bit rich.

Rabottini's win was the most spectacular performance you would have seen in any sport over the weekend — and yet it was only enjoyed by a minute percentage of sports fans over the world.

Instead, all eyes were on Chelsea winning the Champions League by default after their opponents missed one more open shot on goal than they did.

The scenes which followed showed John Terry, the odious Chelsea skipper, lifting the cup in full Chelsea kit — even though he was in fact banned for the final after a malicious kick on an opponent.

Rumour has it Terry has ordered a replica pink jersey and has already booked a flight to Milan next Sunday. He's also set to start nurturing a friendship with Bradley Wiggins in the hope of another bandwagon opportunity next July.

Sorry, football fans, but you're missing out. Cycling is the true sport of Champions — and the happy few would agree.

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