Simoni’s gamble: Colle delle Fenestre – Giro d’Italia 2005

As the old cycling adage goes, the Tour plus mountains equals the Giro. Which is not always the case, of course (although the 2007 route of Le Tour is less than adventurous in the mountains), but the Giro d’Italia has two factors in its favour as the race of choice for seeing exciting climbing action.

Firstly, the Giro can still be won by a genuine climber. Previous winners have included names more likely to be listed as specialised climbers – Ivan Gotti, Gilberto Simoni, and Damiano Cunego – although a genuine grimpeur does not always win, as Miguel Indurain and Paolo Savoldelli have proved twice each.

Much of this has do with teams not bringing their strongest riders to the Giro, often leaving their maglia rosa contenders without the sort of team support seen in the Tour de France. Challengers for the podium cannot always rely on a bevy of teammates to defend them in the mountains, and pure climbers can make real time differences without being chased down by a strong team. For riders such as Ivan Basso, Paolo Savoldelli, and Danilo Di Luca, competent climbers but not always dominant (last year’s Giro excepted for Basso, perhaps), they must defend on the tough mountains and minimise the losses to time gained on more rolling terrain.

This also gives lesser-known climbers a chance to shine, and to often race to solo glory as Italian rider Leonardo Piepoli showed last year.

Secondly, the Giro organizers are not afraid of the mountains and not afraid to add exciting and unconventional climbing stages to the course. The Italians love their mountains and their climbers, and have often sought to add colour, excitement, and spectacle to the typically mountainous final stages of the event.

One such spectacle was stage 19 in the 2005 Giro, on the 88th anniversary of the event. To showcase Torino, ahead of the 2006 Winter Olympics, and the Sestriere venue, as well as to add some drama to the penultimate stage, the organizers added the never-before-climbed Colle delle Fenestre. As if two climbs up to Sestriere, from both sides at either end of the 190 kilometre stage (see map below), was not enough, the 18.5% stretch on the penultimate climb to the summit of the Fenestre included 7.9 kilometres of gravel road, reminiscent – as many commentators pointed out – of the Golden Age of Coppi and Bartali.

Stage 19 Giro
Stage 19 in profile, thanks to La Gazzetta dello Sport

The success of this stage may have inspired the inclusion of the 5 kilometre, 24% gradient, stretch to the summit of Plan de Corones in stage 17 of last year’s Giro, but which had to be abandoned due to inclement weather.

No such problem in 2005, however, in what proved to be a titanic battle of climbing prowess. The early stages of the race suggested that the overall title would be a battle between a confident Ivan Basso and a resurgent Paolo Savoldelli, looking to repeat his 2002 win where he held off Tyler Hamilton by 1’41”. The two looked the strongest in the early climbing stages, although Danilo Di Luca – having a blinding season – was riding strongly.

Gilberto Simoni also looked dangerous and seemed to have resolved the issue in his Lampre team of who would ride as team leader, given the upset of the previous year when Damiano Cunego had out-ridden his team leader and everyone else for the 2004 overall.

Simoni on the attack

At least Simoni was able to rely on some team support from Cunego. In stark contract to Discovery’s raison d’etre at the Tour de France, Savoldelli rode mostly on his own (not helped by the withdrawal of Tom Danielson after stage 9) and was isolated on the toughest mountain climbs. Basso fared better, with Frank Schleck riding strongly, but had to rely on his own pace-making for his attacks.

Despite Di Luca’s confidence, Savoldelli grabbed the maglia rosa on stage 13. And when Basso cracked on the Passo dello Stelvio on stage 14 (after battling stomach trouble for several days), losing the sort of time that only Floyd Landis could have made up, it seemed like Savoldelli’s lead of around 1’40” over Simoni would be enough of a buffer all the way to Milano.

But Simoni kept chipping away, showing his climbing class on stage 17 to slip away from the leading group on the final ascent with a chasing Savoldelli and Di Luca unable to match his accelerations – and taking 42 seconds from Savoldelli’s lead. Basso was also back in top form on this stage, taking the stage win in a fine attack and showing a remarkable comeback from the Stelvio disaster.

“I began this race almost three weeks ago with an ambition to win,” he told Cycling News. “That wasn’t meant to be, and a stage win can’t change that fact – but that’s all behind me now. This victory says a lot about how much I’ve developed as a rider.” Basso went on to thank team director Bjarne Riis, foreshadowing his remarkable win last year but giving no hint of the fall out that would follow.

After Basso also won the time trial the next day, there were certainly a lot of ‘what ifs’ surrounding his performance. Savoldelli looked even more certain to hold the maglia rosa over the final two days of racing having put in a very strong ride to lengthen his lead over Simoni to 2’09”. Simoni’s only hope was for a miracle in the mountains.

“Tomorrow, anything could happen,” he told reporters. “I’ll wait for the right moment.”

Indeed, it did look like a miracle could happen. Simoni has been outspoken throughout his career, gaining somewhat of a reputation for ‘trash talk’. On the climb to the Fenestre summit, around 1,600 metres of climbing, however, his bravado seemed justified as he and the maglia verde climber jersey leader Jose Rujano opened a gap, and were joined – remarkably – by Danilo De Luca.

Simoni makes his break

It was clearly a punishing climb, with the road barely wide enough for the support cars and the tifosi fans crowding the riders as they hunched over their bikes, struggling with the gradient.

Savoldelli had talked down his performance all week, and whether he was now panicking as Simoni opened up a gap of over 2 minutes was difficult to tell as he remained, as he had for all the race, impervious to external scrutiny behind his dark, racing glasses.

Over the summit, with the dust of the gravel road whipped up by the riders and the wind, the gap was 2’23”. There was still 36 kilometres to go to Sestriere, and while Simoni was effectively in pink on the road, there was still time for more drama to unfold.

Commentators make much of Savoldelli’s descending skills (although they were not enough to catch Santiago Botero, himself a very capable descender, down the Col d’Izoard into Briancon in the 2000 Tour de France: but that’s another story). In this case he was able to put them to good use, clawing back 1 minute over the 8 kilometre descent.

On the climb to Sestriere, Simoni had to reclaim more time to secure the race, but the flattish 5.1% gradient for the final 10 kilometres, ridable in the big chain ring, would not favour his specialized climbing skills. Di Luca dropped away from Simoni and Rujano at the bottom of the climb, his face a mask of agony with his exertions. Simoni was not in much better shape, hiding nothing without sunglasses and showing the strain and all-to-visible pain of a man that had spent too much effort seeking victory.

On the final stretch to Sestriere, Simoni’s pain was clearly visible

With 4 kilometres to go, Rujano left Simoni behind – not so much an attack, just the latter unable to match the diminutive Venezuelan’s pace. At the line, Rujano was all clenched fists and celebrations, but at 26″ back Simoni knew that he had needed to do more. Having been able to count on the pace-making of a bunch of other riders, Savoldelli was only 1’29” behind Simoni. At the start of the stage, Savoldelli’s lead had been 2’09”; Simoni had cut it to 28″ – but, even with the 12″ second-place time bonus, it was not enough.

For Simoni, disappointment and agony after an epic climbing performance, but a credible second to add to his previous two wins and three thirds. For Savoldelli, the victory, even if he was modest in his accomplishment. “I’m more of a regular rider,” he told reporters. “And I have to calculate a lot, because I know what my limits are.”

The 2005 Giro was won by the strongest all-around rider, but not a grimpeur in the classic sense. It was a contest, however, that saw the climbers shine and provide dramatic tension-filled mountain stages in the true Giro tradition.

Savoldelli in the maglia rosa, with a rare smile