Stage 16 of the 2015 Giro d’Italia has already passed into legend.
The mountainous, 174km drag from Pinzolo to Aprica contained five categorised climbs, including two of the most revered: the Madonna di Campiglio and the Mortirolo. The latter, a narrow, unremitting ascent of nearly 12.5km pitched at gradients ranging from cruel to merciless, had commanded much of the pre-race publicity. History is likely to record the events that unfolded on its broken surface on May 26, 2015 as pivotal to the outcome of the 98th Corsa Rosa.
Alberto Contador began the day in the maglia rosa, and with an advantage of 2’35” over the man still regarded as his principal challenger, Fabio Aru, the 24-year-old leader of a maligned Astana squad that had raced for more than two weeks with the intensity of riders suffering beneath a perceived injustice. Their actions in the kilometres immediately preceding the Mortirolo, and Contador’s response on its painful slopes, provided the principal drama of the entire race.
For Chris Juul-Jensen, a domestique on Contador’s Tinkoff-Saxo squad, the events of that day are unforgettable. LottoNL-Jumbo’s Steven Kruijswijk remembers leading the race over its summit as “an incredible feeling”. For Davide Formolo, the new darling of Italian cycling after winning stage four, even the first hour of a nearly five-hour stage was “incredible, full gas.” And Steven De Jongh, Contador’s DS, describes his man’s performance as “an epic thing”.
The perspectives of each helps to tell the story of the stage from the inside. They are testimony to the frequently dramatic events of a Grand Tour mountain stage and to the often delicate psychology of its protagonists. A Queen stage is more than the sum of its parts.
113, Tinkoff-Saxo, domestique
“Alberto had a mechanical before the climb,” Juul-Jensen remembers.
“Some teams chose to keep riding at the front, which can be debated whether it’s right or wrong: there are so many unwritten rules in cycling, that people have different opinions. But we were many at that point and we helped him back up.”
The Dane, riding his second Giro, describes chaos on the radio and among the race convoy. He was descending near the back of the bunch from the preceding climb when a torrent of radio traffic poured through his earpiece.
“You can’t really hear: it’s hectic and people were already very anxious about the Mortirolo, which people had been talking about for weeks. Then, all of a sudden, Alberto’s at the side of the road with all my team-mates, and I thought: ‘What’s happened now?’
“He’d punctured. I was expecting we’d get to the bottom and everybody would wait because he has the jersey, and he hadn’t been dropped: he had a mechanical. Then we could see the bunch was splitting in groups. It was crazy. Luckily, we worked incredibly well.
“Usually, I’m quite calm in the grupetto: I’m talking with the other Dane, Lars Bak, all the time – chewing the ears off each other – but this day on the Mortirolo was nerve wrecking.
“We could hear on the radio that our sports director Steven was incredibly calm. He trains Alberto and knows what he is capable of. They were still 45 seconds ahead of him at the bottom of the climb. Then they had 50 seconds. And then 40 seconds…”
Steven de Jongh, Tinkoff-Saxo, Directeur Sportif
For De Jongh, remaining calm was the only sensible strategy. “It doesn’t matter if you panic or not, they are not going to go any faster out there. I just gave them the information that was useful and pushed them to go as hard as possible up to the bottom of the Mortirolo. Then, of course, I started to coach Alberto with the time differences and so on.”
For a rider with the physical condition to remain in complete control of events, Contador suffered a disquietingly incident-packed Giro, brought down in a collision caused by a spectator with a camera on stage six, and by the domino effect of a touch of wheels ahead of him on stage 13. The first incident damaged his left shoulder, and the second, his left leg.
On stage 16, a puncture complicated an already demanding day. It was not this most commonplace of mechanicals that threatened his dominance however, but the response of his chief rivals. The Astana team, many of whom had ridden past the stricken Spaniard as he stopped to change wheel, attacked.
“We were not concerned when he punctured, because when you puncture and you are the leader of the race, normally nothing happens. But with Katusha already going full gas – and Astana saw all of that and they decided to go also – then, of course, there was a little bit of concern because the group was broken and Alberto wasn’t in the front group,” De Jongh says.
Astana’s acceleration places one of bike racing’s myriad of unwritten rules beneath the microscope. To attack a rival, much less the race leader, when he is stricken with mechanical issues, is frowned upon: considered against the spirit of the race. Contador himself was heavily criticised for the “chain-gate” affair of the 2010 Tour, where he appeared to attack Andy Schleck on the Port de Balès while Schleck struggled with an unshipped chain.
Did Astana’s aggression while Contador recovered provide the catalyst for the Spaniard’s inspired pursuit of his rivals and the subsequent demolition of Aru’s hopes? Only Contador can say. What is certain is that their rapidly declining advantage prompted a temporary change of leadership, with Mikel Landa freed to chase the stage victory and Aru left to fend for himself.
“He [Contador] did an epic thing on the Mortirolo to chase back 50 seconds. That was a key moment, chasing back to Landa and Aru,” De Jongh recalls. “From the car, we coached him to keep a good steady pace, but then of course we had information also that Aru had not been well and that Mikel Landa was away at the front.
“He was really determined to bring them back,” De Jongh concludes. “He did it really well. He didn’t blow up to get them back. He paced himself the whole way up.”
Steven Kruijswijk, LottoNL-Jumbo, pure climber
“I think for the last hour, from the bottom of the Mortirolo, I was at the front of the race. To come up over the top first is an incredible feeling, especially with the crowd at the side of the road in the final kilometres.”
Steven Kruijswijk had ridden a fearless Giro, even before his heroics on the Mortirolo. Frequently the only member of his team at the sharp end when the road spiralled upwards, LottoNL-Jumbo’s distinctive yellow and white jersey was often surrounded by a phalanx of turquoise-clad Astana riders. Only the maglia rosa was as frequently isolated and as notable.
Racing alongside Contador in the high mountains is no small matter, even for a campaigner as experienced as Kruijswijk. “He certainly has respect for what he did in the past with all his Grand Tour wins. When you look back on the climb and you see the pink jersey behind you and he’s fine with the pace you’re riding, that must be pretty good.”
Kruijswijk had witnessed Contador’s difficulties and was aware of the challenge that lay ahead, having raced up the Mortirolo to a finish in Aprica in the 2010 Giro, his first Corsa Rosa. He describes the ascent as 45 minutes of effort, one that reduced him to speeds of eight or 9kph, straining to push a 36-28 gear. “There’s never a part where you can just take a breath… otherwise you’ll just fall down.
“When we turned onto the climb, I knew a lot of guys would struggle with the pace, and then I found myself with only the two Astana guys after only 500m of climbing. Then I saw that Aru was struggling as well. I felt really good. I chose to go at my own pace and just accelerate a little bit and together found Contador on the climb. I was always in front of him, but I knew he came back. He never attacked me, so I knew my pace was pretty good. He just stayed on the wheel to recover a little bit.”
Kruijswijk describes his performance on this most savage climb as one of his best so far. “To come off the Mortirolo at the top and be fighting with Contador and Landa, two podium contenders – that’s definitely one of my better days.”
Davide Formolo, Cannondale-Garmin, Italian hope
“We had Ryder in the front and he had an amazing stage.”
Exactly two weeks before the Mortirolo, 22-year-old Davide Formolo had placed the cycling world at his feet after riding with panache to remain clear of a pursuing pack headed by the pre-race favourites on the hilly and twisting roads of the Ligurian coast. By stage 16, the old order had been renewed: Ryder Hesjedal, winner of the 2012 Giro, was up the road for Formolo’s Cannondale-Garmin team.
The Mortirolo, however, would provide a sterner test even than the demanding parcours of the fourth stage, where the 22-year-old began an affair with his home Grand Tour that he hopes will last throughout his career.
“It was really incredible,” Formolo remembers of the sixteenth stage. “On the first climb, we had six hours to do, but it didn’t matter – we started at full gas. ‘The first hour, full gas? Okay!’”
He chuckles at the memory, but the five-and-half-hours spent in the saddle that day are likely to be among the most valuable of his young career.
“We went really, really fast already on the first climb, the Madonna di Campiglio. The start line was something like 300 metres before the beginning of the climb. We went on the first climb, like 14 minutes climbing full gas, and then descending, and after, the Tonale.”
Formolo finished 69th, some 31’37” after stage winner Landa had salvaged something of the day for his Astana team, whose aggressive strategy had temporarily unmanned its leader.
Queen Stages and signature climbs
Race organisers return to the signature climbs with such frequency for their ability to all but guarantee drama. The Mortirolo is a relative newcomer, but has featured in the Giro 15 times since its debut in 1990.
Its apperance during the Giro’s 98th edition will be remembered as much for what happened immediately prior to its ascent from Mazzo di Valtellina as for the action on the slopes, which was compelling.
Astana’s action in attacking Contador while the maglia rosa suffered a mechanical will forever remain a point of debate: opportunistic and unsporting in the eyes of some, fair game in the opinion of others. Contador may one day share his motivation for his ferocious pursuit of Aru and his men on arguably the hardest climb of the race, but it does not seem unreasonable to assume that anger was at least part it.
The Queen stage of a Grand Tour is a nebulous concept, usually agreed upon, if not actually defined, by the frequency and severity of the climbs. A third factor holds sway too, however: the presence of a signature climb, which by reputation alone is believed to hold the power to turn the race. The Mortirolo – narrow, winding, and quietly ferocious – has that reputation. It was enhanced by the events of the 98th Corsa Rosa.