Should le grimpeur de l’année award be added to the UCI’s list of accolades, Leonardo Piepoli would surely be a strong contender for trophy honours. In doing so, he would beat two other major contenders from the 2007 season: Michael Rasmussen and Mauricio Soler.
Rasmussen almost achieved the dream in this year’s Tour de France by proving that a pure climber can contest for overall victory, by dominating in the mountains and defending on the flat. News of missed drug tests and whereabouts confusion saw him ejected from the his Rabobank team whilst wearing the yellow jersey, in a case that has seemingly slipped from public attention despite many unanswered questions.
As already discussed in a previous post, Mauricio Soler claimed back glory for Colombia’s legacy of great climbers with a spirited and passionate Tour that saw him win the KOM award.
But it was the year of the Italian and Piepoli who showed courage, flair, and a dramatic climbing presence, along with selfless team spirit – and achieved the results appropriate for his talent.
Despite being a professional since 1995, 2006 was his breakout year for the Grand Tours, with two stage victories in the Giro d’Italia riding for his team since 2004, Saunier Duval. This year he followed up with one stage win at the Giro, the mountains jersey, and the appreciation of team captain Gilberto Simoni, for who Piepoli worked so hard. Absent the Tour, he returned to again show his attacking skills at the Vuelta a Espana, taking victory on the long climb to Estación de esquí Cerler on stage 9.
“Let’s see if we can win again,” he was reported saying at the finish.
The next day there was controversy, however, with Carlos Sastre accusing Piepoli and Rabobank’s Denis Menchov of forming an alliance on stage 10, payback for the previous day. In the Spanish heat, it seemed that emotions were running high over what most saw as business-as-usual in the peloton.
But despite being in a position to threaten for the mountains prize, and perhaps take another stage win, Piepoli was forced to abandon the race to attend to his wife, who had complications during the delivery of their first child (both later reported to have recovered).
Piepoli has made his home in Spain for a number of years and the mountains there have been good to him with a number of victories in many of the tours of the Spanish provinces, such as Catalonia, Burgos, and Aragon.
It was in the Subida a Urkiola one-day race in the Durango area of the Basque area of northern Spain where he has consistently shown his love of climbing.
The route has varied over the years, since the race was first held in 1931 as a hill climb. In has been consistently staged since 1984, with the route settling on its current format of 160 kilometres since 1993.
Despite being only on the Continental Tour under the UCI system, it has consistently attracted top riders and the 1993 edition was won by Tony Rominger over Claudio Chiappuchi and Andrew Hampsten.
From the city of Durango it loops almost through Bilbao, before returning nearly to its start location, taking in one category 1 climb on the way, and another category 1 climb to finish. The two tough climbs, with double-digit gradients, usually make this race one for the mountain men.
Piepoli first won the race in 1995, his first year as a professional. Remarkably, his winning time of 3h 47’25” was 15 minutes faster than the previous year’s winner, Spanish legend José Maria Jimenez. The Italian had arrived.
The next year Jimenez took his revenge, but Piepoli returned later to win the race again in 1999, 2003, and 2004 (and placing second in 2000). He never rode it faster than in 1995 and the fastest time for the race was recorded by serial doper Dario Frigo in 2002 (coming off his six month ban from the 2001 Giro), which leaves a question mark over its veracity.
This year, Saunier Duval teammate José Angel Gomez Marchante took the honours, while Iban Mayo kept local Euskadi hearts beating fast with the win in a mostly Spanish field in 2006.
So, graduating from the Spanish mountains to the peaks of Italy, and then back again this year, Piepoli has delighted the fans with his attacking style, seemingly propelling his impossibly-slight 114 pound frame up the steepest gradients at breathtaking speeds.
The black spot, though, was his positive drug test during the Giro d’Italia. The non-negative was for excessively high levels of salbutamol, taken by Piepoli and many riders as part of asthma medication. Although ultimately cleared, it raised a number of issues around the use of asthma medication and at what levels it might morph from medication into a performance-enhancing drug.
Still, it has been an exciting year of racing action for Piepoli. For a racer born in 1971, he has been going strong for so long that perhaps this season we have seen his pinnacle. A fitting summit for a true grimpeur.