Heading into the final few days of this year's Giro, the shape of the final podium is now pretty clear and all of the major competitions (save the Intergiro) seem pretty much decided. Still, there has been a lot of excitement over the last two weeks, and with the climbs and time-trials to come anything is still possible. Last year's race was a toss-up right down to the end, with Paolo Savoldelli, Tyler Hamilton, and Cadel Evans going all out for the GC victory. Though this year's race lacks that same suspense, it has been a much better race for one simple reason: there have yet to be any drug scandals.
In recent years, the Giro has been plagued with police raids and positive tests for banned substances. While the police raided one team (Formaggi Pinzolo Fiave) they found nothing, and no rider has tested positive for any banned substance since the race began. Last year, GC favorites Garzelli and Simoni tested positive for banned substances and were forced from the race. The first two weeks seemed dominated by drug scandals and ugliness, and it wasn't until the final week that one hell of a bike race emerged. Despite Mario Cipollini's six amazing victories, Savoldelli's spectacular comeback, and Hamilton's gritty one-armed heroics, the race was still tainted for many.
This year, the two men most tarred by last year's drug scandals came back fighting. Simoni (Saeco) has attacked every chance he's gotten, using every climb like a cudgel to smite his rivals into submission. However, his rivals haven't been easily cowed. Garzelli (Caldirola) has proven to be a formidable adversary, hammering hard and steady up the climbs and using his solid sprint finish to steal time bonuses on several occasions. Garzelli has won two stages, taken several top 3 placings, and gotten a stranglehold on the 2nd spot on the podium. Italian climbing legend Marco Pantani (Mercatone Uno) has also returned from his own long battles with drug scandals to sit in 10th on GC heading into the final few days. He has not found his old form on the climbs, but he has ridden well on both the mountains and the flats; if he can avoid any serious mishaps, he should easily hold his position in the top ten all the way to Milan. Because of these three riders, this Giro has been one of redemption and not of scandal, of rebirth and pride instead of shame. The long-suffering Italian cycling fans have been rewarded by their heroes for their devotion, and this Giro bodes well for the health of their beloved sport.
The sprints have also been a revelation this year, as Alessandro Petacchi (Fassa Bortolo) has finally managed to get the better of Mario Cipollini (Domina Vacanze-Elitron) in both the race for stage wins and the battle for the Points Jersey. Cipollini started slowly, and Petacchi stormed to three stage wins while holding the Pink Jersey of GC leader for the first week. Cipo fought back in the 2nd week, taking two stage wins before crashing out due to the error of another rider. Robbie McEwen (Lotto-Domo) also took a pair of stage victories, and while there were a few dustups—most notably McEwen's erratic sprint on Stage 2 and the fight between Petacchi and Andris Nauduzs (CCC-Polstat) in Stage 9—the sprints have been clean, hard fought, and exciting. As of today's rest day, Petacchi has taken five victories, consolidated his Points Jersey lead, and shown that he has a will of iron by riding through very painful injuries yesterday in defense of his newfound status as one of the elite sprinters in the world. Now if we could only get the organizers to stop putting hairpin turns in the final sections of the sprints….
Golden Hams of the Race So Far:
- Alessandro "Imhotep" Petacchi (Fassa Bortolo). His form on the climbs and the sprints has made him the star of the flat stages, outshining even the King of Italian sprinters, Mario Cipollini. His strength on the climbs—demonstrated most clearly during his victory on Stage 13 when a sharp climb dusted most other sprinters—has led some to say that Petacchi is not the next Cipollini, but rather the next Erik Zabel. For years, Zabel has earned his victories through outlasting his sprint opponents in the mountains as much as by burning them on the flats. With Petacchi's speed on the flats, he could turn out to be even better than Zabel. If he can continue to overcome his injuries (which have him wrapped up like a mummy), he may match Mario's six sprint victories from last year and take home the Points Jersey. After this year's performance, Petacchi will now be considered a major threat to take the Tour de France's Green Points Jersey, if not this year then certainly in the near future.
- "The Mountain Monster" Gilberto Simoni (Saeco). Gibo has shown the grit and flair of old-time champions, attacking and attacking, and then attacking once again. He has earned his Pink Jersey in every aspect of the race, and should ride into Milano redeemed after his bizarre expulsion last year. If he can hold his form, he and his strong team should give the U.S. Postal Service and everyone else fits in this year's Tour de France.
- Yaroslav Popovytch (Landbouwkrediet-Colnago). This young Ukrainian has lived up to the hype, showing through his outstanding climbing and time-trialing that he will be a major force in the grand tours for years to come. Popovytch now stands in 3rd on GC, only 4' 05" behind the great Simoni. He is the clear favorite to take the final podium spot in Milano, and with this performance, Popovytch will likely command a major contract from a major team in the off-season. With the support of a major team it won't be long before we see young Yaroslav on the top step of podiums throughout Europe on a regular basis.
- Stefano Garzelli (Caldirola-Sidermac-Saunier Duval) and Marco "Papa Smurf" Pantani (Mercatone Uno-Scanavino). The former teammates look alike and even dress alike, mirroring each other in many ways on the road of this year's Giro. Both are returning from drug scandals, both are excellent climbers, and both are popular with Italian fans. Both have shown signs of weakness, but neither has raced regularly for quite some time. And neither has given anything away easily, as they have both ridden their guts out in pursuit of Simoni and their own redemption. Here's hoping that their form continues to improve through the final week, and that both will be regular fixtures once again in the world of international cycling.
- Lampre. The team's big guns Francesco "The Scarecrow" Casagrande and Raimondas "Take My Wife…Please!" Rumsas will likely not make the podium this year: each has struggled at different moments and lost important chunks of time. The Lampre strategy has been somewhat unclear at times, as the team doesn't seem to be clearly supporting any single rider for a high place on the GC. However, as DP reader Udi Tal and DP writer Fabio have pointed out to me, Lampre's tactics probably changed after Casagrande's first bad day: now, Lampre is just trying to win the Giro's Team classification, allowing each of their big guns to ride for himself to get the best placing possible. With Rumsas in 5th on GC, Casagrande in 6th, and Belli in 12th, they currently have a commanding 9' 14" lead over Fassa Bortolo in the Team competition. A victory in this competition will guarantee them an invitation to all of the grand tours next year, and given the fact that they weren't invited to the Tour de France this year, this prize must seem especially attractive to the boys in blue and pink. Therefore, while this year's Giro may seem something of a failure for Lampre, they have followed the ancient advice of Boethius and made a virtue of necessity, turning this year's disappointment into the foundation for future glory.
- Every freakin' rider in the Giro. I'm not going to be handing out any "Ham-Gazer" awards today. I mean, it's a rest day, and ham-gazing is the whole point of a rest day. Instead, I'm giving everybody in the race a Golden Ham award. Why? As mentioned above, this Giro has been drug-scandal free so far. It would be naïve to assume that there isn't somebody in the peloton doing something illegal with drugs; the announcement today of Milaneza-MSS rider Francisco Perez's positive test for EPO in the Tour of Romandie should remind us that cycling has a long way to go before the sport is anything close to cleaned up. However, given the last few years of the Giro, the lack of any hard evidence of doping in this year's edition is a heartening sign that perhaps the sport is making progress. Here's hoping the riders keep it clean and follow Nancy Reagan's advice to "just say no to drugs" for the rest of the race and into the future. And in the meantime, Golden Hams to everyone!