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ASSESSING THE GIRO

So, now that the centenary Giro d’Italia is over, was it a good race?

Well, it was certainly one that threw up a big story every day, but sometimes the main talking points did not always show the race, or the sport, in a good light.

The showdown between Denis Menchov and Danilo Di Luca was gripping, and the final day drama was heart-stopping, especially when the Russian fell, but it was a relief that a freak crash on wet cobbles did not alter the result, because had it done so it would have been unjust.

Angelo Zomegnan, the race organiser, must feel that every gamble he took with the race route failed to pay off. The queen stage, which was supposed to go over the Col de Vars and Col d’Izoard in France, was altered and considerably watered down.

The early summit finishes in the first week should have been exciting, but the reality was that riders were not prepared to go into the red with two-and-a-half weeks still to go, and so the effect was diluted.

Although the huge, 61-kilometre time trial won by Menchov was one of the most fascinating in recent grand tour history, it did not do much for the overall contest. It was, effectively, over from then on even if the time gaps remained small.

Were it not for the time bonuses on offer at the end of each road stage, Menchov would have been home and dry before Rome. More on that below.

Carlos Sastre and Franco Pellizotti’s attacking in the final week’s mountain stages was exciting, but for all the praise for Di Luca’s never-say-die style, it lacked subtlety. Once he’d realised he was not going to ride Menchov off his wheel, why didn’t he try something else just once, like jumping from a few places back, for example?

And the final time trial, the biggest gamble of them all, almost lost the house everything. On Sunday afternoon when the rain began to fall, Zomegnan must have had the look of a casino chief who knew one of his highest rolling clients had a hand full of aces.

Yes, the course showed the Italian capital in a great light, yes it was an exciting stage, but only if you watched from between your fingers. The riders who rode in the wet were simply getting round in one piece. The TV shots of Jens Voigt, one of the most powerful riders and one of the most skilful bike handlers, cornering gingerly, with one foot out of the pedal on one bend, did not show the race in a good light.

The history of the city was visible in every camera shot and the finish outside the Colosseum was beautiful, but the times were not an accurate reflection.

The roads were twisty and cobbled, and the rain made them very slippery. Zomegnan is fortunate the stage did not degenerate into a complete farce. Drama is great and all that, but no one wants to see a three-week grand tour reduced to the sort of bike-handling contest you’d get at a funfair.

We’ll also remember the complaints about the descents (reality check to riders – mountain descents are dangerous, and have been for a hundred years), and the badly-handled protest in Milan.

Having said all that, it’s been an absorbing three weeks with some very entertaining racing and there were a lot of pleasing aspects, but still it’s difficult to avoid noticing that six of the stages were won by riders who have served doping suspensions, and another by a rider who was not part of the UCI’s biological passport (if that means anything).

Perhaps we should describe the 2009 Giro as great entertainment. Pure theatre.

THE IMPORTANCE OF BONUSES

Denis Menchov assembled his Giro d’Italia victory methodically, in the manner of a patient man putting together a flat-pack wardrobe.

The contrast between him and the hyperactive Danilo Di Luca couldn’t have been starker, or more engaging.

Menchov lay all the pieces out on the floor in front of him, read the instructions carefully and steadily built it from the bottom up. He constantly checked the instructions, making sure he was always on the right track.

The drama in the final week owed everything to the fact that the time gap between the first two riders was so small.

But for the time bonuses of 20, 12 and eight seconds on offer at the end of each road stage, Menchov would have enjoyed a lot more breathing space in the final week.

The Russian went into the final time trial 20 seconds ahead of Di Luca. Had there been no time bonuses in the Giro, that gap would have been one minute and six seconds and there would have been no such tense finish.

Di Luca trimmed one minute and 18 seconds off his overall time thanks to bonuses, while Menchov picked up 32 seconds.

Time bonuses are nothing new, of course. They’ve been around for years, and in the early part of a grand tour they help keep the battle for the leader’s jersey intruiging.

Fortunately it didn’t happen in this year’s Giro, but there would be something a touch unfair if a grand tour was won by a rider other than the one who covered the course in the quickest time.

COUNTDOWN TO THE TOUR

The Tour de France is almost here, and the Dauphiné Libéré, which starts on Sunday, is the start of the final countdown.

It’s unusual to see the Dauphiné start as far north as Nancy. A 12-kilometre time trial kicks off the week.

But it is next Thursday’s fourth stage, which climbs Mont Ventoux, which will really get the pulses racing.

And for many television viewers in the UK, it will be a first chance to see Ireland’s Birmingham-born climber Dan Martin in action. Last month he was second in the Tour of Catalonia, just a few seconds behind Alejandro Valverde.

The climb of Mont Ventoux will give a very big clue as to his chances of a top 15 finish in the Tour.

CAN WIGGINS STRIKE IT LUCKY IN MONACO?

Whenever anyone has suggested Bradley Wiggins as a potential winner of the Tour de France prologue in Monaco there has been sniggering.

I wonder if people will give him more of a chance following his excellent showing in the mountains during the first half of the Giro d’Italia?

Having been guided round the prologue course last October by Bradley McGee I was surprised by how hard it was. It’s basically uphill for the first half, then back down again with some technical corners, before a flat section to the finish that will require the riders to leave something in the tank.

If there’s one thing Wiggins is strong at, it’s measuring his effort, judging how much to save until the last quarter and then emptying it all out. That’s a skill track pursuiting has taught him.

And after two near misses this season, he perhaps deserves a slice of good fortune. At Paris-Nice he rode a near-perfect race, only to see Alberto Contador streak round the course seven seconds quicker.

On Sunday, he looked set to record the quickest time and was fastest at the intermediate checkpoints before the rain began to fall on the latter part of his ride. Then, the rider who started two minutes ahead of him, Mathieu Sprick, crashed and Wiggins had to slow down to get past the rider and his team car.

In the end, he was a single second slower than Cervélo’s Ignatas Konovalovas.

Now, it’s pure conjecture to suggest that if it had remained dry all day he’d have won, because Marco Pinotti and Denis Menchov, to name just two, would have pushed him close.

But you have to wonder about Garmin’s lack of luck this season.

Perhaps it will all turn around in Monte Carlo?

A SUCCESSFUL FORMAT

Of late I’ve changed my view on the merits of the Tour Series format more often than an MP flip-flopping their primary place of residence.

When I first read about it, I was intrigued, and felt it was a good, innovative idea. But having seen it in action at Milton Keynes, I was less convinced. After all, a bike race like a town centre criterium is all about who gets over the line first, not which team has the best third-best rider.

But having watched the Exeter race on TV, I’m firmly in favour again, partly because the teams had worked out the tactical implications after that first experience.

The emphasis was on teams attacking in pairs, which made for open, aggressive racing. For a start any teams that missed out, or even those who only had one rider in a break, still had a very strong reason to chase. And up ahead there is more motivation to try to make an escape work if you have a team-mate in there with you.

Now the riders are using the format to their advantage, it’s proving successful, and as the series goes on, and there’s more on the line, it’ll get even more exciting. What would be good for the competition is if someone can prise the blue leader’s jerseys from CandiTV in the next couple of races and make it a real scrap.

PACKED PROGRAMME

The British domestic scene is as busy as I can ever remember it at the moment.

Last weekend there was the Edinburgh Nocturne. Yesterday the Tour Series called in at Woking and tomorrow the crit racers head to Peterborough. On Saturday it’s the Smithfield Nocturne and then there’s the Ryedale Grand Prix Premier Calendar race on Sunday.

It reminds me of the glorious heyday of the late 1980s when the Milk Race kicked off a summer of action which included criterium races and the Kellogg’s Tour of Britain.

When the Tour Series ends, there’s the National Championships road races which will feature the junior, women’s and men’s events in Abergavenny.

The prospect of a battle between Nicole Cooke and Emma Pooley is fantastic, and with just about every European-based male pro rider returning to compete, the men’s race promises to be one of the best ever.

Once the Tour de France is out of the way, the Tour of Britain looms into view and although there are the usual misgivings about the length of transfers, there are some great stages. The two in the West Country stand out particularly.

With Plowman Craven set to become Madison.co.uk and having relinquished their UCI Continental status, they are no longer eligible for the Tour of Britain, which is something of a shame.

It is tricky to make a case for the rules being bent to allow Madison.co.uk to enter, simply because the other UK based teams (Rapha Condor, CandiTV-Marshalls Pasta and Halfords) have paid their fees too, in order to be eligible.

But the rule demonstrates the lack of clear thinking on the part of the UCI once again.

Surely one of the important factors for a national tour is to have a strong home team presence and an attractive selection of foreign squads.

The ideal scenario is to have a few top drawer teams, a strong crowd of Pro Continental teams and then all the British squads. After all, what would people in this country rather see, a small team of unknowns from Europe or a similar sized squad of riders from the UK?

Making teams pay through the nose for Continental licences may make it sound like the UCI is getting tough on teams that fail to pay their riders, but in these tough economic times, what use to a small team is a load of their money sitting in the UCI’s Swiss bank account?

POOLEY’S BOLD MOVE

Until the weekend, Mark Cavendish was the clear front-runner for the title of great British performance of the year for his sensational dive for the line at the end of the 298-kilometre Milan San Remo Classic.

But Emma Pooley more than matched that with a sensational attack in the Montreal round of the World Cup.

Pooley, riding for Cervélo, attacked after 400 metres (yes, 400 metres) of the 110-kilometre race and rode on alone for just over three hours to win by a minute.

By any standards that is remarkable stuff.

ON THE AIR

If you’ve been to one of the Tour Series races so far, you may recognise one of the people working as a photographer.

It’s Paul Watson, the former professional who rode for ANC-Halfords and then the Belgian team Hitachi in the late 1980s, before quitting road cycling and joining the burgeoning, and lucrative, mountain biking scene.

A bad crash left him with a broken arm, reconstructive surgery and a handsome insurance pay-off, which he used to invest in property. In recent years he’s sold off almost all of his property portfolio and has again become interested in cycling.

The Columbia-Highroad directeur sportif Brian Holm is one of his best friends. They’ve known each other since their amateur days, racing for the La Redoute amateur squad and living in Lille in the early 1980s.

Earlier this year, Watson was asked to work as co-commentator for cycling.tv on one of the Spring Classics, so he rang Holm to ask if he could give him a call during the race. “Sure,” said the laid-back Dane.

So, the race is underway and Watson dials Holm’s number. The cycling.tv technician explains which button to press to get Holm live on air once he answers the phone.

“Hi Brian, it’s Paul.”

“Hey, Paul, how are you doing?”

“I’m good thanks. How are you?”

“Good, thanks. So, tell me, what’s going on?

“What’s going on?”

“Yeah, in the race. What’s going on?”

“What race? I’m on my way to the dentist.”

See Paul Watson’s photographs on www.cyclingweekly.co.uk
Exeter Tour Series picture gallery
Woking Tour Series picture gallery
Mark Cavendish in London: Picture Exclusive
ANC-Halfords 1987
Read about Paul Watson and his team-mates and their experiences at the 1987 Tour de France

THE WEDNESDAY COMMENT IN 2009
May 27: The ticking time bomb?
May 20: The Milan go-slow
May 13: Klöden’s commeuppance?
May 6: The end of Astana?
April 29: An open letter to Pat McQuaid
Find links to all previous editions of The Wednesday Comment here.