Yesterday’s Giro stage was epic.
The Finestre, the penultimate climb of the day, is insane – something like 11 miles at nearly 10 percent grade, with nearly the last half on rocky dirt road. All the players – race leader Paol Savodelli and the three riders most closely trailing him (Simoni, Rujano and Di Luca) arrived at the bottom of the climb together. This was, for all practical purposes, the last day of serious racing. Sunday’s ride into Milan is just formality. The Giro d’Italia would be decided on its final two climbs.
There were no surprises to be had, no subtle tactics. It’s like a batter facing Mariano Rivera in the bottom of the ninth inning: you know you’re going to see the cut fastball. Simoni is a great climber, and was only 2:09 down on Savodelli. Everyone knew Simoni would attack. The only question was who would be able to go with him.
Simoni went early in the climb. It wasn’t one of those blistering attacks we’ve seen Armstrong or the late Marco Pantani do so many times, where they slip away from near the back of the pack, jump out of the saddle, swing wide and go. Simoni just started pulling away, slowly, steadily. Rujano, the kid from Venezuela with ears sticking out like an elephant’s (“Pantani was a big hero of mine. I wear an earring because I want to be like him.”) went with him, and the remarkable Di Luca – who knew he could climb?
Savodelli could not match the move.
By the top of the climb, Savodelli’s lead of 2:09 over Simoni had been erased. But perhaps this was not like the ninth inning. Perhaps it was more like facing Mariano Rivera in the eighth, because on the back side of the Fiinestre, on the descent toward the base of the final climb into Sestriere, Salvodelli had his one more at bat. He descended like a madman, like a man trying to salvage victory from the grip of defeat. And when the reached the foot of the Sestriere climb, Salvodelli had his pink jersey back.
But Rujano! He and Simoni dropped Di Luca on the descent, and the two appoached the final climb together: Simoni, one of the sport’s great climbers, and Rujano, the kid from Venezuela whose team made the Giro at the last moment on a wild card entry. Together they climbed, until the moment Rujano sensed victory and jumped. There is a beauty in the fluid movement of a truly great climber, pedaling perfect circles, out of the saddle, the fixed gaze, the ease. He did look like Pantani. And then there was Simoni, unable to respond, his body rocking to side to side as, broken, he uncomfortably muscled the bike up the final hill.
Rujano tore up to the finish line with a look of agonized ecstacy (is such a thing possible) on his face. Simoni limped in next, then Di Luca, then a powerful but clearly spent Savodelli amid a group of helpers, close enough to his rivals to ensure victory.
Savodelli, Simoni, Rujano and Di Luca threw it all down on those final two climbs. The result: after three weeks of racing, just 45 seconds of total time separated the three. Sport does not get any better than that.