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Giro d'Italia - Astana Preview
 
By Andy McGrath
Date: 5/11/2007
Giro d'Italia - Astana Preview
 
It’s 28 May 2005, Stage 19 of the 88th Giro d'Italia. Paolo Savoldelli goes down the Colle delle Finestre into cycling folklore. The Giro d’Italia title hangs in the balance; Gilberto Simoni is the virtual maglia rosa. With great cool, the man nicknamed “Il Falco” goes all-out on the descent, charging downhill at breakneck speed. Still, he remains a beautifully-stylish, fluid descender, effortlessly catching then jettisoning some riders. At the foot of the climb, Savoldelli has made up 30 seconds on his rivals and, more importantly, is in a group of riders. Digging deep, aided particularly (and controversially) by the help of Davitamon riders Ardila and Van Huffel, he endeavours to lose no more time on the climb up to Sestriere and holds on to the lead by a mere twenty-eight seconds. His second Giro win is secure, after a race which has captured the attention and imagination of cycling fans the world over. The 2005 Giro has been the most spellbinding Grand Tour of the 21st century, and what Savoldelli will probably be remembered most for in the future.

Locutus, Giro 2005 Stage 19 Prosciutto Awards: Talk about a fighter. Savoldelli was without teammates or allies, and he was haemorrhaging seconds and minutes on the climb up the above category Finestre. Still, he continued to grit his teeth and chase his heart out on his own. Savoldelli then pulled off a brilliant bit of strategy that may have won him the race: he bombed the descent, but wisely he did not try to drop the people he caught on the way down.


Savoldelli plays it cool with the podium girls photo c. Fotoreporter Sirotti

Paolo Savoldelli (2002): “I am Italian, and the Giro is above the Tour for me. To combine the both, you have to have the right head. I doubt I've got that. Don't forget I came to the Giro [in 2002] to win a stage! Look at who can win more than one big stage race: Indurain could do it. I am Paolo Savoldelli; a good athlete but no Armstrong. He is a cyclist with superior qualities; otherwise you wouldn't overcome cancer and return to win multiple Tours."

T wo years after that victory, and Savoldelli still finds himself pigeonholed by some critics as only a solid climber who limits his losses on the descents; others call him lucky. It is fair to say that his 2002 Giro win was considerably helped by cocaine sweets/boxing matches on climbs/steroid masking agents/huge capitulations (step up please Signori Simoni, Casagrande, Garzelli and Evans). Nonetheless, Il Falco rode like a champion on the road to Corvara in Badia (Stage 17) to take the maglia rosa, then to extend his lead in the final time-trial.
Moreover, it’s true that the former Saeco man is not the kind of rider that captures the hearts of the tifosi like Cunego or Simoni with flair and spectacular climbing. Nonetheless, you simply don’t win two Giri d’Italia by only being a solid climber and a lucky rider. It’s easy to forget that Savoldelli did beat Ivan Basso on the mountain finish of Zoldo Alto in 2005, and then rode smartly to his limits to defend the maglia rosa, with a Discovery Channel team which tried hard but lacked helpers in the mountains. Especially in that crucial last week, with huge pressure on his shoulders, Savoldelli kept his cool and rode with great tact and intelligence, following wheels and going hell for leather on descents, where possible.


Paolo Savoldelli slips into the race leaders jersey for the second year in a row.
Photo c. Fotoreporter Sirotti

Daily Peloton, Discovery Channel Giro preview 2005 (ah, the benefit of hindsight!):"Anyway, this gracious rider is a joy to watch, and a lock for a top 10 place, maybe top 5. But don’t expect him to win this Giro."

If he experiences a bad day it tends to be an awful day, but if Savoldelli (at thirty-four, no spring chicken) can keep consistent, a podium place could well be his, though the abundance of mountains will probably render a third overall victory to be a step too far. Of the quartet of Italian Giro favourites, Cunego, Simoni, Di Luca and Savoldelli, it is the Astana man – serial winner of the Tour of Romandy prologue time-trial - who is the best time-trialist out of them. But will that 42km time-trial the day before the processional stage to Milan matter in another Giro edition packed with high mountains? Make no mistake, it may be called “easier” than last year’s, but challenges like the Zoncolan, the Tre Cime di Lavarado and the Izoard are by no stretch of the imagination “easy”.

Paolo Savoldelli post-2002 Giro: "It's hard to say [what is needed to win]. Sure, that in order to win a Tour of Italy you need luck, perseverance, determination and some help by all (your teammates)… It's very difficult to repeat victory; if you look at the Giro palmares, you'll find very few riders able to win it for more than one time in a row.

His Astana supporting cast is not quite as strong as the teams of Simoni, Di Luca or Cunego. It’s likely the team will lose at least a minute to the opening TTT winners, if not more. Mixing several Kazakhs with other nationalities, it looks like the only man able to stick with Il Falco when the going gets tough will be veteran Eddy Mazzoleni, who has been a key support man for Gilberto Simoni and Stefano Garzelli in previous editions of the Giro. Now 33, he still has lots of climbing in him – both captain and lieutenant looked great in Romandy recently - and should finish in the top 20 through just helping his leader. However, if Mazzoleni is quickly distanced on any big climb, it’s likely that Savoldelli will be badly exposed, without a teammate to help him.

Mazzoleni (and indeed Savoldelli, lest we forget his ill-fated period in Magenta) is just one former Telekom/T-Mobile rider with Astana – there’s also seasoned pro Serguei Yakovlev and, looking back to the turn of the century, Andrei Mizourov. Both are decent climbers and good domestiques.

There is one man who rode with Savoldelli in the 2005 Giro – Luxembourger Benoit Joachim, who has spent years with US Postal and its reincarnations as one of their most diligent riders. Though not anything special on the mountains, you can be assured of 100% effort from Joachim, a powerful man on the flat and useful for the TTT too.

Last year, neo-pro Steve Morabito surprised a lot of people by taking a Tour of Switzerland stage victory on the attack. The twenty-four year old was blooded in his first Grand Tour last September and will now be looking to gain more experience here. A solid climber, he mixed it with the best in the GP Indurain on the way to fourth, and might surprise in the hills.

A surprise German win for Bazayev in the rain Courtesy CSC (c) Tim De Waele

Another surprise ProTour stage winner was Assan Bazayev, sprinting to triumph in the first road stage of last year’s Deutschland Tour. He is Astana’s only real option for the flat stages, so could pop up in the top-ten of one or two stages.
Compatriot Dmitri Muravyev’s highlight of the year so far was finishing a superb eighth in the Tour of Flanders. An attacking all-rounder at heart, Muravyev should give good support to Savoldelli on lumpy stages. Rounding off the lineup, there’s one more rider from Kazakhstan - Maxim Gourov. Essentially in his first year as a professional, despite a spell in 2004 with small French team Oktos, this will prove valuable experience for him.
Though the Kazakhs on the team will be domestiques, some are deceptively strong – Gourov and Bazayev were part of the team that scored fourth in a Settimana Coppi e Bartali TTT in late March. Though Astana has removed all traces of the ONCE team from which it has evolved, a lingering history of strong team time-trial results remains.

Astana for the 2007 Giro d’Italia
Paolo Savoldelli
Eddy Mazzoleni
Serguei Yakovlev
Andrei Mizourov
Benoit Joachim
Steve Morabito
Assan Bazayev
Dmitri Muravyev
Maxim Gourov

 
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