Back when the great Eddie Merckx won his legendary 525 races, cyclists often rode everything. They rode the Spring Classics, the Grand Tours, the World Championships and the “Tour of the Falling Leaves”. Starting in the late ’90s, this began to change. While Merckx won the Giro five times, the Tour five times, the Vuelta a Espana twice, he even won the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France in the same season more than once. This has not been done since 1998 and not attempted more than a handful of times in the last 15 years. This is not all bad, especially for American cycling fans.
While for nearly a century, pink has been the color of May on the international cycling calendar, yellow and grizzly bear graphics have made their way in. The three-week tour of Italy had been the natural lead-in for the Tour de France, in the era of specialization and growing prominence of France’s big tour, the Tour of California has become a big race for more than Americans. This was helped in no small part by the moving of the race from February to May in 2010 after two abysmal weather years. Since the move, the biggest teams and racers have made the move to the Golden State.
The Tour of California is “only” a one-week race, this year beginning near San Diego on Sunday, May 12, and heading north for the first time, finishing in Santa Rosa on May 19. The Giro d’Italia is a three-week Grand Tour. Three weeks on a bike takes a big physiological toll on a body. It not only trims any extra fat off a racer, it begins a catabolistic process. It breaks down muscle in an attempt to find more energy to move the body on the bike. This is a difficult from which a racer has only five weeks to recover. As the Giro d’Italia is the most important race for and in Italy, the Tour is the biggest prize in all of stage racing. As a result, a shorter stage race has tremendous advantages for teams and racers whose ultimate goals are Tour wins.
So the best sprinter in the world not from the Isle of Man, Peter Sagan, will be back in California this weekend. The Boulder-based Garmin-Sharp team has the honor of defending Giro champion, and some of the Americans are in Italy to help with that defense, Dave Zabriskie, Garmin’s time trial specialist, will lead a strong team in California. Even Belgian hero Tom Boonen had planned to hone his sprinting skills in California before his crash at the Tour of Flanders last month.
The rise in American cycling will feature prominently again this August here in Colorado. While most Spanish-speaking racers will head to the Vuelta a Espana, most racers with a shot at September’s World Road Championship will skip the Vuelta in favor of the shorter, though still challenging Pro Cycling Challenge. Bad for the Vuelta, already the Grand Tour’s redheaded step-child, good for American cycling fans.
Meanwhile at the Corsa Rosa, Katusha’s Italian rider, Luca Paolini, is ensconced in pink. Defending champ, Garmin’s Canadian rider, Ryder Hasjedal, is 34 seconds back, tied on time with Sky’s leader, Bradley Wiggins.
The Manx Missile, Mark Cavendish started the Giro with a sprint win in Naples.
Team Sky was the overwhelming winner in stage two’s team time trial on the island of Ischia. Surprisingly, it was Sky’s firt TTT win in a grand tour. The win put Sky’s Salvatore Puccio, who also happens to be Italy’s national time trial champion, in the pink leader’s jersey.
Hesjedal took off on an attack during stage three, only to be caught and passed by eventual stage winner Paolini.
Stage four saw former Giro champion Danilo DiLuca get swamped by the sprinters teams less than 400 yards short of the finish line of the 153-mile stage in Serra San Bruno. Sprinter Enrico Battaglin took the bunch sprint. Paolini kept the rain-soaked pink jersey.
Stage five, 126 mostly-flat miles from Cosenza to Matera, was marred by a crash inside the last 1000 meters. Sprinter John Degenkolb of Argo-Shimano avoided the crash and made up a huge gap in just about 100 meters to take his first career win in the Italian tour.
Look west this weekend. The Amgen Tour of California will be televised on NBCSports network beginning Sunday. To see the Giro d’Italia, visit Steephill.tv to find a live video feed.