The Secret Pro: Nibali, the Giro d’Italia and the importance of respect

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I know, I know. I said last year I wouldn’t return to the Giro d’Italia but sometimes you just have to. To my surprise, I came away feeling much better about this year’s race.

Last year I said the Giro was a bit of a joke, full of fireworks, and dominated by one team. This year’s edition was jam-packed with exciting and unexpected twists and turns as well, but the the huge difference was that this year’s race wasn’t an Astana vs Contador extravaganza.

Sure the race still lived up to what it is known for — being an outrageously tough Grand Tour — but this year we had enough team leaders on a level playing field that allowed a battle that was just as explosive, but a whole lot less frustrating.

Let me start on a really positive note: the hotels. It’s not often that as a rider you can say your hotel experience was pleasurable, if not excellent. Whoever RCS put in charge of booking hotels needs a pat on the back.

If you’re not aware, when it comes to housing teams for a race — be it a stage race or a single-day event — it’s rare that every team is housed in the same hotel. Races like the Abu Dhabi Tour or the Tour Down Under, where everyone’s together, are an exception. Usually you’ll find teams scattered across a town or region in any number of hotels. So it can be pot luck. One night you may be in a Hilton the next you’ll find yourself in some flea-ridden dive.

But at the Giro we struck the jackpot. We had a comfy bed each night, good food at every meal and even WiFi that worked as you’d want it to — it all has an impact on how people race the next day. And let’s not forget the coffee — it was first class, as you’d expect from an Italian race.

Out of the nearly four weeks we were away I think there was only one night where we were holed up in a crappy hotel. Surprise, surprise it was the stage that finished in Risoul, France. Typical French hospitality, along with typical French coffee … or dirty water passed off as coffee.

On to the race action. As we all know Vincenzo Nibali took home the leader’s jersey but in the eyes of many in the peloton, he’s not the true champion we’d want from a Grand Tour. I won’t go too deep on the details, but he’s one rider that needs to realise that to get respect, you have to give respect.

Unfortunately when you’re a winner and have as many UCI points as he does you can get away with being a dick — you don’t have to worry about teams not wanting you for being disrespectful and difficult. It doesn’t teach you to be respectful.

When Nibali took the leader’s jersey, I think the majority of the peloton was rooting for Esteban Chaves, or hoping for a miracle from the strongest man in the race, Steven Kruijswijk.

Nibali not stopping after Kruijswijk crashed was, in my eyes, out of order. I read somewhere that he was already planning to attack on the descent, but either way, you respect the race leader, and he didn’t. If it hadn’t been for Kruijswijk’s crash Nibali never would have won. It’s not just fair to say that, it’s downright true.

In an ideal world it would have been great for teams to have banded together and stopped Nibali from taking the win, but this isn’t an ideal world, and teams or even riders working together for the “greater good” doesn’t happen very often. And that’s not just in a race-winning situation, but with regards to how the whole infrastructure and safety of our sport is set up.

Let me expand on that a little.

Take the guys at Tinkoff or IAM this season. They know they’re on the lookout for contracts for next year, and with two WorldTour teams pulling the plug it makes it a buyer’s market. This doesn’t just affect the guys on those two teams but the whole peloton.

Rider prices plummet, and this is a sport that’s not exactly well-paying as it is (when compared to other sports). Sure the top guys get a healthy wage, but the lower-end guys and neo-pros aren’t earning big bucks. Why do you think many of the Italian riders still live with their mums?

It’s also a dangerous job, as has been highlighted with the recent spate of accidents involving moto drivers.

As riders we should be able to unite, and demand how many vehicles there are in the peloton at any one time. We should also band together to demand better job security. Teams like IAM that only offer one-year contracts don’t bring much to the sport. Why would anyone want to ride on a team where you know everyone is looking for a contract the following year? You’d be mad not to race for yourself in that position.

But it’s been like that in cycling since the start, and is unlikely to change. There’ll always be small teams (and the French) willing to just turn up and race in any situation or condition. These riders only look after themselves and are far too shortsighted to see the bigger picture. And yet again this all comes down to respect for one another.

For example, a few years ago at a Grand Tour, we riders were ready to strike over race radio rules, but the smaller teams who had wildcard inventions didn’t stand by us. They were scared they wouldn’t get an invite the following year.

There’s a point where you have to stand up and be united. Fingers crossed we can come to that point in the near future. How many dangerous — and in some cases fatal — situations do we need to see before something is done?

Back to the Giro, it’s a race that always throws up some oddball moments. For one particular oddball moment I have to doff my cap to the Katusha team.

My “favourite” rider in the peloton, Alexey Tsatevich, decided to ride like a muppet on the stage 9 time trial and slipstream his minute man. The organisers penalised him heavily, but the team went one step further, deciding to send Tsatevich home.

The team must like the guy as much as the rest of the peloton does. It was an odd choice by the team and maybe a bit harsh, but it sure sets a precedent for future idiots who want to take liberties in racing. So well done to Katusha, for once.

Speaking of Russian teams, I was ready to rip in to the Gazprom-Rusvelo team for this article — as a wildcard team I expected them to ride like a bunch of wannabes and chop everyone up. But I can report they didn’t, which was nice to see.

This year’s Giro started on a Friday, so even though it’s classed as a three-week race, we riders are actually away for just a day shy of four weeks. It’s always great to get home to family and friends, but the turnaround to the next race is pretty damn quick. Ahh, the life of a pro can be quite manic at times.

How nice was it to see Marcel Kittel back in action and at his very best? You can’t help but be impressed by his sprinting prowess — five or six pedal strokes and he’s surging past everyone, leaving the rest in his wake. After a year out due to what we’ve all been told was an illness (but who knows if this is true), it’s nice to see him back in the peloton and showing his true class again.

While I’m upbeat I’ll tell you about my favourite stage win: stage 18 where Roger Kluge took a spectacular victory. I can’t remember when I last witnessed a win like that, taking on the peloton at 65km/h with 700m to go and pulling off the win, especially at the WorldTour level. It must have been a great pick-me-up for the IAM riders after news of the team’s closure was dropped on them just a few days before.

There we go, my round-up of the Giro. Same super-hard racing as last year, same beautiful Dolomites, same attacks from the word go for 80km, another slimy winner, but a different feel in general. With the jersey changing hands more often, it made for an exciting race, and on top of all this we finally stayed in some good hotels.

I came away from the race feeling a little more positive than last year. Onwards and upwards.

Until next time …


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