7 talking points from the last week of the Giro d’Italia

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The first Grand Tour of the 2015 season is now over after three throughly engaging and memorable weeks of racing. Here’s what we’re talking about after the final week of this year’s Giro.

If you haven’t already, be sure to check out our ‘Talking Points’ from the first two weeks of the Giro here and here.

Ryder Hesjedal deserved a stage win

If you look at Ryder Hesjedal’s progress through the general classification in this year’s Giro there’s a very clear trend. He finished the stage 1 ITT in 133rd place, moved to 70th on stage 2, up to 49th on stage 3, 30th on stage 4 and kept improving from there. The stage 14 ITT pushed the 2012 Giro winner up into 15th ahead of the final week, and it was in this final week that the Canadian really came to the fore.

He improved his standing on five of the last seven stages, moving up to fifth overall by the time the race finished in Milan. And as great as his overall result was, it was the way Hesjedal rode in the final week that was most impressive.

He was in the day-long breakaway on a mountainous stage 16 before attacking solo with 80km to go, building a lead of two minutes. He was caught before the hardest climb in the race, the Passo del Mortirolo, but battled his way up to finish sixth.

On stage 18 Hesjedal put in another stirling ride to catch Alberto Contador on the Monte Ologno climb and gained some time in the process. On stage 19 he took a spirited second-place finish on the summit finish to Cervinia, with only Fabio Aru ahead of him (see video above). That feat would be repeated the following day on Sestriere when Hesjedal again rode away to take more time on his GC rivals and move to fifth overall.

Hesjedal didn’t win a stage in the end but he certainly deserved to. His tenacious spirit throughout the race — particularly in the third week — won him plenty of admirers.

Fabio Aru will win a Grand Tour

When Fabio Aru was dropped by his teammate Mikel Landa en route to the latter’s victory on stage 16, it looked as if the young Sardinian was on a backward slide that would see him drop off the overall podium. He lost more than two minutes on Alberto Contador that day, and nearly three minutes on Landa, who moved into second overall while Aru slipped to third. It appeared that the illness that plagued him before the Giro had possibly caught up to Aru.

But on that difficult 16th stage, Aru showed great spirit to battle through the mountains and minimise his losses. And then, three days later, the tables turned.

Aru would go on to win two consecutive stages, both of them thanks to a blistering attack in the closing kilometres of an uphill finish. In doing so he moved back to second overall, a position he would hold through to the finish in Milan.

We’ve known since last year’s Giro that Fabio Aru has the potential to win a Grand Tour very soon. There’s no reason to think otherwise after the past three weeks. Second overall, two stage wins: the signs are great for the future. And importantly for fans, Aru is entertaining to watch — he’s frequently on the attack and when he’s suffering, that wide-mouthed grimace of his provides a great indication of just how hard he has to push himself.

We can only hope that rumours about Aru’s biological passport turn out to be just that and that the 24-year-old continues to race in an aggressive and entertaining fashion in the years to come.

Despite his brilliance, Contador’s Giro-Tour double remains a very lofty goal

Not since Marco Pantani’s stellar 1998 has a rider won the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France in the same season but Alberto Contador has made it well known that’s what he’s aiming for in 2015. Having won the Giro yesterday he’s half-way there, in theory, but in practice the harder challenge awaits him in July.

Many riders have already spoken about how hard this year’s Giro was and one would assume that Contador will be feeling the effects for some weeks.

Perhaps the bigger issue is the quality of the opposition. While Contador faced Richie Porte, Fabio Aru, Mikel Landa and Rigoberto Uran at the Giro, he’ll likely be under greater pressure from Vincenzo Nibali, Nairo Quintana and Chris Froome at the Tour, all of whom didn’t race the Giro.

And then there’s the question of Contador’s Tinkoff-Saxo team. He was isolated many times when the road tilted up in the Giro, often being surrounded by Astana riders. This could be an even greater issue at the Tour with Sky, Movistar and Astana all likely to field top-notch squads.

All that said, if anyone can do the Giro-Tour double it’s Alberto Contador. He’s undoubtedly the best three-week rider of the past decade and has seven Grand Tours to his name: three Vueltas, two Giros and two Tours. Whether he can add another Tour de France title to that list remains to be seen.

Philippe Gilbert’s second stage win was a masterclass

Philippe Gilbert got himself in the day-long breakaway on stage 18 with the intention of riding for a stage win. When the group reached the day’s final climb, he was one of many riders that couldn’t hold the pace of the stronger climbers in the bunch, but he didn’t panic. He simply rode his own tempo and backed himself to catch the leaders by the time they were all further up the mountain.

He did exactly that, reaching the lead group with 19.4km to go before attacking straight away. It was an obvious and ultimately very dangerous move, and yet the other riders in the group didn’t seem particularly worried.

Gilbert benefited from the presence of his teammate Amael Moinard in the group behind, who chased down a handful of attacks when the others finally realised the danger posed by Gilbert.

The Belgian took plenty of risks on the descent to the finish but made it to the line safely for a second stage win. Terrific, instinctive bike racing, properly rewarded.

The race organisers put together a fantastic course

In any given Grand Tour you can usually bank on half a dozen ‘boring’ stages; stages that, for those of watching here in Australia, maybe aren’t worth staying up late for. But this year’s Giro seemed to have barely any of those days.

From as early as the stage 1 team time trial along a coastal bike track, the parcours were interesting and engaging. The first week had some decidedly un-first-week-like stages, including a super lumpy stage 4 (won by Davide Formolo in the breakaway; see video above) and the uphill finish to stage 5 (won by Jan Polanc in the breakaway).

The addition of the brutally steep Passo del Mortirolo provided a welcome spectacle for viewers on stage 16 (the riders were probably a little less enthused) and the unsealed ascent of the Colle delle Finestre on stage 20 added another dimension to an already exciting mountain stage.

Add to the great course design some exciting and unlikely wins on stages 10 and 21 — both of which were supposed to be won in a sprint but weren’t — and you had the makings of a thoroughly exciting race. But more on that in a moment.

Astana was the strongest team by far but could have achieved even more

It was clear in the first week of the Giro that Astana was the strongest team in the race. They had numbers at the front of the peloton at most of the decisive moments and they were well represented in the lead groups when the road went up. And that dominance was translated into significant success by race’s end.

Milano - Italy - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme -   Luis Leon Sanchez Gil (Team Astana), Fabio Aru (Team Astana) pictured during  Giro d'Italia 2015 - stage-21 - from   Torino to Milano - photo Sabine Jacob/Cor Vos © 2015

Second and third on the GC, five stage wins — the most of any team — and a thumping win in the teams classification — it was a dominant display by the Kazakh squad. And yet it could be argued that Astana threw away a real chance at winning the biggest prize of all.

On stage 20, on the unsealed climb to the Colle delle Finestre, Alberto Contador cracked for the first time in the entire race. He was dropped by a whole bunch of riders and there were no fewer than three Astana riders ahead of him on the road at one point: Fabio Aru, Mikel Landa and Tanel Kangert.

But rather than giving it everything to put as much time into Contador as possible — and potentially win the Giro — Astana seemed more concerned with intra-team politics and winning the stage. Mikel Landa, at the front of the race with Ilnur Zakarin, spent much of his time berating Zakarin (unfairly) for not contributing to the pacemaking when he should have been focused on burying Contador.

In the end Landa ended up waiting for Fabio Aru in the group behind, presumably because Aru was second on GC, ahead of Landa in third. Aru, meanwhile, wasn’t really contributing to the pacemaking in the chase group, presumably in an attempt to give Landa a greater chance at a stage win.

In the end, Aru’s late attack from a re-grouped lead bunch saw him finish more than two minutes ahead of Contador, but who knows what might have happened had Astana given it everything when they had the chance.

This year’s Tour de France has a lot to live up to

The Tour de France is undoubtedly the biggest bike race in the world but for many cycling fans, it’s the Giro d’Italia that offers up the best racing. Given the drama and excitement of the past three weeks, the Tour de France will need to be thoroughly interesting if it’s to come close to this year’s Giro.

San Benedetto del Tronto  - Italia - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - No Christopher Froome (Sky) - Vincenzo Nibali (Italy / Team Astana) and Alberto Contador Velasco (Spain / Team Saxobank - Saxo Bank - Tinkoff Bank) pictured during the Tirreno - Adriatico 2013 stage ITT Time Trial from San Benedetto del Tronto to San Benedetto del Tronto - photo RB/Cor Vos © 2013

In some ways it’s surprising that the Giro held our attention as long as it did — Contador took the overall lead way back on stage 5 and only relinquished it for the one day en route to Milan. By the end of the stage 14 ITT (if not before) it was almost certain that, barring a serious crash, Alberto Contador was going to win the 2015 Giro d’Italia.

Despite that, there was more than enough drama to keep viewers interested: two crashes to Contador — one of them in the first week leading to a reasonably serious shoulder injury; #Wheelgate with Simon Clarke and Richie Porte on stage 10; Porte’s demise and withdrawal after crashing on stage 13; Katusha and Astana attacking when Contador punctured on stage 16; Contador’s payback two days later … and much more. In short, it’s been a thoroughly dramatic and captivating race.

The good news for fans of the Tour de France is that, at this stage, the best GC riders in the world are going to be there. Alberto Contador, Vincenzo Nibali, Nairo Quintana, Chris Froome — it’s an impressive line-up and one that, hopefully, will deliver some fascinating racing come the start of the race in Utrecht on July 4.

So, what have we missed? What else will you take from the 2015 Giro d’Italia?

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