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Giro Di Pez: All Hail The Zoncolan

Roadside St. 14: A controversial day at the Giro with the late change of route upsetting more than just the local organisers, who had worked hard to ensure the Crostis climb was ready. There was heat, there was hail and there was polemica. All in all it was another great day at the Giro d’Italia.

From Austria to Italy the long was around was the order of today’s 14th stage. The elimination of the Crostis meant a very tough 172km instead of the super tough 210km which was originally on the cards, but whichever way you cut it there was no avoiding what was coming at the end.

Groundhog Day
Can I just cut and paste yesterday’s intro or get you to re-read stage 13 please? Let’s just say it was another one of those “Sunburned at the start, Frozen at the Finish” (maybe #SSFF) kind of days.

With the late evening notice of the shortening of today’s stage, there was also the added bonus of a delayed start. The extra hour gave us some time to wander the start village and also grab some breakfast at a nice cafe that I usually find myself at, on my regular family holidays to the sports-mad Austrian town.

The scale of the race is not always evident until you see all of the various scouts, marshals, police, VIP and press vehicles, all at the start together.

The area immediately after the start line is full of the vehicles that are necessary to make a big race like the Giro run as smoothly as it does.

With the changes to the stage finish, it was also necessary to make sure that everyone was clear about exactly what needed to be done an exactly who was going to be responsible.

There were plenty of the pink route guides attached to the marshal’s motorbikes, but not a lot of the riders appeared to have added the pink stage guide to their bars today. Of course, when your legs are like road maps, like Katusha’s Kuschynski, maybe it isn’t necessary at all.

Vacansoleil director, Hilaire Van der Schueren spoke to us about the elimination of the Crostis and said that for his team, the shortening of the stage wouldn’t make a big difference in terms of providing an advantage, but did say that it would eliminate some risk.

“We have Carrara in 9th place on GC so without the Crostis we eliminate the risk of losing that position if he has a mechanical problem and the team cars cannot get to him.”

When asked about the safety aspect, Van der Schueren replied that it wasn’t really a big issue, and especially not in comparison to the issue of possible problems with access to riders needing assistance.

“We have 9th place that we want to protect, but think of Riis and Saxo Bank. If they have a problem with Contador on the descent, they could lose the Giro d’Italia because the team car cannot get to him. That would not be good for the race and it would not be good for the public to see the Giro lost like that.”

HTC High Road director Valerio Piva spoke to us again at the start following the decision to remove the final climb. I asked him if it was pressure from the riders from a safety point of view or if it was the teams that had made the case due to the service and access.

Piva confirmed it was the more a question of the second rather than the security, but added that if a serious incident happened, then the only access would be via helicopter, which would effectively close the road and the race for however long the rescue would take.

Irrespective of the arguments for or against the climb and the basis of those arguments (and by the end of the stage there really would be arguments) the riders would be riding the Zoncolan to conclude today’s stage. A climb this steep requires some special equipment, as even the best legs in the world can’t get up a climb with parts at 22% with a gearing of 39X25.

Over at the Saxo Bank bus, SRAM’s pro team liaison, Jason Phillips explained the set up that their teams would be using for today and tomorrow’s stages.

Both the Saxo bank and Garmin Cervelo team bikes were fitted with the Apex group’s rear derailleur and cassette. The front combination of 52×34, combined with an 11-32 cassette at the back would cover all possibilities that might be required over the next two days.

As the riders from the race leader’s team started to make their appearance, we grabbed a few quick words with Richie Porte and asked him what had changed for him from last year to this, in terms of his own personal stress and expectations in the race.

“It’s very different this year, that’s for sure. There is still pressure for the team result, but I only came to this race to help Alberto win it, so I don’t look at the time sheet at the end of the stage and worry about how much time I have lost. Really, If we can get him to the bottom of the climb in the right place, my job is done and I can just ride in.”

And what about the Zoncolan? Has last year’s experience helped you to prepare for today?

“Well I wont be racing up it full gas like last year, but it is still an incredibly hard climb. Possibly the hardest climb in cycling. I really don’t think people at home can appreciate just how hard it is to ride and even how good the guys are who are arriving at the top in the last group.”

Mateo Rabottini was ready to go at the start and would be one of the riders who spent the majority of the day riding ahead of the race in the breakaway.

A day of climbing, even without what would be one of the key climbs, brought some enthusiasm to be I the breakaway and maybe get a head start on the GC men at at the foot of the Zoncolan.

Around 20km from Lienz, in the direction of Silian, the break was forming and reforming as the peloton the rode the uphill drag through the first real pinch at Strassen.

Looking at then faces of some in the group as they raced past, maybe “pinch” is an unfair armchair analysis, as it was the speed the hill was being attacked at, combined with its steepness that was presenting problems for a few riders in the group.

As today was one of those days where the start and finish were actually quite close, we turned around, drove to Lienz and drove part of yesterday’s stage in reverse to make our way to the top of the Zoncolan. Just like yesterday, the question would be, would we beat the weather? Unfortunately, this time around the answer was going to be, No!

Back On Top
The easiest way to access the top of the Monte Zoncolan is to take the climb up through Sutrio to the back off the mountain and then jump the chairlift and then walk the last few hundred metres. I was camped out up here last year and even walked down to 1.5km to go and back up.

This year, it was a matter of staying close to shelter, as even the partisan cheering of the crowd every time Nibali’s name was mentioned by the announcer, couldn’t compete with the claps of thunder that were becoming steadily louder as they rolled closer to the top.

The picture of Ivan Basso rounding this bend last year has become one of the defining images of the Giro on the Zoncolan. There were plenty of photographers this year to make sure that a similar moment was well and truly captured.

Igor Anton’s efforts were almost an afterthought to the crowd, and while he did receive a cheer as he emerged from the tunnel to enter the final phase of the climb, it was what was occurring with Contador, Nibali and Scarponi – being relayed over the speakers at the finish – that was making the crowd more and more vocal.

Anton’s win moved him up from 7th to 3rd, 3minutes 21sec behind Contador in the GC

Whenever Contador’s name was mentioned in the final stages of the climb, there was a lot of whistling from the crowd at the top. When the maglia rosa finally came into view, it may have been the presence of the aura of the pink jersey or maybe just the presence of the other Italian riders to distract the crowd, but the cheering just about drowned out the jeering that was coming for the for the Spaniard.

Contador arrived 33 seconds behind Igor Anton but increased his lead in the GC over Scarponi by more than a minute. Scarponi arrived fourth across the line and dropped one place to fourth overall.

And The Heavens Opened Up
As the top five riders of the stage crossed the line, the thunderstorm that had been threatening all day, finally arrived and in the space of a few short minutes, the rain turned to hail and it seemed everyone up there had the same idea: Get off the mountain.

For the riders, the first job was to get up the hill and with the rest of the group now needing to complete the final kilometres of the climb under an icy rain, it was not going to be a nice way to end a day at the office.

Jesus Hernandez rode in at 5min 23. His job was done and his team leader stayed comfortably in pink.

With the rain pouring down, there was no need to worry about a bit of vino on the camera lens as Igor Anton celebrated his first win of the year and his 11th as a professional.

Sky’s Peter Kennaugh arrived together with team mate Michael Barry as Alberto Contador was readying himself to spray some sparkling white of his own.

The man who smiled his way across the line on Grossglockner was a bit more serious today, but like the rest of the Saxo Bank squad, his job had been done because their team leader was still the race leader.

A Very Social Race
For fans of the various social media platforms, this year the Giro d’Italia has really put in a big effort to make sure that it connects with the fans. The race has their own Twitter address, @giroditalia and as well as providing information in the lead up to the event, engaging their followers and fans in competitions with prizes, asking questions and re-tweeting fans answers they have generally been doing all they can to get the public involved in the corsa rosa. All of it too, is done in both Italian and English.

It was on my Giro “to do” list to find out exactly who was responsible for the Twitter updates and then as is often the case, quite by chance I bumped into him.

Back in the shelter of the press tent at the finish line, was a man I had previously seen wielding an phone and checking updates out on the climb. Luca is the man behind the tweets so I thought I had better introduce him to all of his fans and followers out there in twitter land.

With the members of the press clearing out, the riders took over the tent at the finish line, with the SaxoBank boys having the added advantage of being able to re-watch the key moments of Contador’s day on the television inside.

Finishing Off The Day
Once the freezing riders had rugged up for their trip down the mountain to the team cars, it was necessary for us to think about how we would get back to the press room and at what hour we might actually make the hotel.

The one thing about being soaked to the skin and freezing, is that is isn’t actually possible to get any wetter. I decided to join the hoards and head back down to the chair lift while it was still raining.

Of course, because this had turned into the day to remember for all the wrong reasons, the chairlift was closed due to the lightning. By chance, sheltering under the same piece of chairlift that I was, I met former Pez Man Bob Cullinan who was chatting to a group of Italian ladies, who were referring to him as l’Americano. After a bit of chat, we both decided that walking down was probably going to be faster than waiting for the rain and storm to pass.

Bob’s bad knee was immediately a problem for him on the descent, so like any good team mate… I left him to his own devices on the slippery grassy ski slopes of the Zoncolan.

Bob. I hope you made it down in one piece and please forgive me for my “Every Man For Himself”!

It has been a mixed bag for the Pez team this week, with The Boss flying into Milan two days ago, while his luggage took an unexpected layover somewhere in the US and then a detour to Brussels. He was supposed to be joining me on the Zoncolan today, but instead was driving from Milan to Venice to colllect his things. He should have caught up on his sleep, changed his clothes and be on his bike and on the Giro by Sunday.

Jered was also on the lower part of the climb today and when the hail hit, he was in the process of riding back down the hill with his two cameras tucked away carefully out of the weather. He spent a good half hour shivering under a tree but eventually made it home to some warmth and put together all the pictures that I happily snapped today.

A big thanks to the guys for pulling all of the parts together to help me bring my rather late (I’m typing in the car and we wont be at the hotel until 11.30pm), abbreviated (frozen fingers do not type so well) but hopefully interesting insight into how the Pez team passed the time, along the roadside at the 14th stage of the 2011 Giro d’Italia.

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