Michael Rogers (Tinkoff-Saxo) produced a commanding performance to win stage 20 of the 2014 Giro d’Italia at the summit of Monte Zoncolan and claim arguably the most prestigious victory of his illustrious career.
The Australian, a three-time world time trial champion, rode the final 3km alone over crippling gradients and through excited and sometimes claustrophobic support after his long-time breakaway companion, Francesco Bongiorno (Bardiani-CSF), had been pushed into a collision by a spectator.
Rogers, who claimed his second victory of this Giro after winning stage 11 in Savona, described the Zoncolan as one of cycling’s historic climbs and said he had dreamt of winning in such an environment since he was a boy.
“It’s one hell of a climb,” Rogers said. “It’s amazing. It’s always been a dream of mine to win a mountain top finish. It’s an absolute honour. It was our last chance of a stage win today and we did it.”
Nairo Quintana (Movistar) all-but sealed overall victory with another emphatic ride which ended with him outsprinting countryman and closest GC rival, Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma-Quickstep). The maglia rosa, who had ridden with an emotionless expression that formed a marked contrast with his gurning and exhausted rivals, crossed the line without fanfare.
Tomorrow’s flat final stage from Gemona to Trieste may wring greater emotion from this magnificent rider if, as expected, he is crowned champion of the 97th Giro d’Italia. Today, the suffering inflicted by one of professional cycling’s most demanding challenges was visible only on the faces of his rivals.
The surviving members of a daylong break passed beneath the 10km to go kite with a lead of nearly eight minutes in their jersey pockets. Tim Wellens (Lotto-Belisol) gritted his teeth and led his confederates onto the lower slopers of the Zoncolan, but even this ‘gentle’ introduction brought grimaces from the leaders.
Wellens flicked his elbow angrily after spending 1.5km on the front, but the Colombian on his wheel, Robinson Chaplaud (Team Colombia), showed little interest in working any harder than he had to with such brutalities ahead. Massive crowds cheered the riders through the first of the towns that stud the route to the Zoncolan’s terrible summit.
Behind, something resembling a bunch sprint had broken out at the head of the maglia rosa group as it passed beneath a homemade banner proclaiming, ‘La Porta Inferno’. None other than Quintana was leading the sprint in a frantic battle for position. Once beneath the banner and onto the lower slopes, the race leader momentarily found himself dropped by his team-mates. Quintana shouted urgently into his radio and the two men in Movistar jerseys ahead throttled back.
The rest of the peloton soon regained contact with the Movistar trio, and Pierre Rolland (Europcar), a constant presence at the head of the field this Giro whenever the road his risen, bounced casually on his pedals. The white jersey of Fabio Aru (Astana), third overall at the start of the stage, was also prominent.
Up ahead, the bearded Simon Geschke (Giant-Shimano), led the escapees further up the awful gradients of the Zoncolan, momentarily accompanied by a man in a white bridal dress. The German appeared in no mood for hilarity, however, even when confronted with the vision of a spectator in a Borat-style ‘mankini’ moments later.
With 6km remaining, the leaders’ advantage had been reduced to 6.36. Paolo Tiralongo dropped from the back of a vastly reduced peloton, no longer able to offer assistance to his Astana team-mate, Aru. Where one man cracks, however, another seizes advantage and Robert Kiserlovski (Trek), the Croatian national champion narrowly defeated by Diego Ulissi in the battle to win stage eight, surged forwards.
With road space at a premium, a squadron of motorcycles followed the riders further up the Zoncolan, some with pillions carrying spare bikes. Up ahead, the crowds pressed closer to the riders, but Rogers was unwilling to indulge their fevered interest and angrily pushed away those closest to him. Much as he had done en route to victory on stage 11, the Australian was quietly producing a brilliant ride, shedding all but Bongiorno from the band of escapees. Pellizotti toiled in their wake and would later become an undeserving beneficiary of Bongiorno’s misfortune.
Former maglia rosa, Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), dropped like a stone from the peloton as the gradient reached 22 per cent, but found himself in esteemed company, with the Colombian duo of Sergio Henao (Team Sky) and Jarlinson Pantano (Colombia) falling back rapidly too.
Quintana continued to dance up the climb, his impassive expression revealing nothing to his rivals. Wout Poels (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) snatched the glasses from the face of a spectator and threw them into the undergrowth in a gesture of exasperation at the proximity of some of the fans. Moments later, when a spectator draped in a Colombian flag ran alongside Quintana and among the riders even the ice-cool race leader cried out and pushed away his well-intentioned pursuer.
Igor Anton (Movistar), stage winner in 2011, the last time the race visited the Zoncolan, screwed his face into a mask of pain as he set the pace for his impassive leader. When he was spent, Poels took over, suggesting that his leader, Uran, had not entirely given up hope of overall victory. The Belgian’s efforts caused a split in the maglia rosa group. Aru, sensing his chance of snatching second place overall from Uran slipping away, launched a desperate bid to close the gap, but was unsuccessful.
With a little over 3.5km to go, Bongiorno launched a bid to rid himself of Rogers, but with the gradient still at a crippling 15 per cent, his attempt failed. Rogers didn’t deign to stand to reel in the Italian and continued his remorseless rhythm. Behind, Quintana was equally impressive, the odd one out among a three-strong group in which the other two members were comprised of Omega Pharma-Quickstep’s Uran and his right hand man, Poels.
With just 3km to go, Bongiorno was pushed behind from a spectator who succeeded only in propelling the Italian into the rear wheel of Rogers. The Bardiani man wobbled and unclipped and watched Rogers disappear into the distance. He regained his pedals but wobbled on up the climb, his rhythm shattered.
What might be described as the supporting cast to the central dramas of this year’s Giro – Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r-La Mondiale) – attempted to clawback the leading men, Quintana and Uran, but the Colombians were now some 15 seconds up the road with their Belgian helpmeet. The Omega Pharma-Quickstep cause received a further boost when Pieter Serry, shelled from the breakaway, joined Poels in pacemaking duties for Uran.
Up ahead, Rogers added invective to his limited defences against the closing crowds when pushes and angry gestures with his head failed to drive home the message. He headed into one of the Zoncolan’s tunnels with a look of relief on his face. Moments later, he passed alone beneath the flamme rouge and into the second tunnel, with a seemingly insurmountable advantage over his rivals.
Rogers emerged into a corridor of security guards holding back thousands of fans in a striking vision that might become the defining image of this Giro. Remaining defiantly seated, Rogers rounded the final corner and raised one hand to the sky. Pelizzotti crossed the line some 38 seconds later, followed soon after by Bongiorno. Nicolas Roche (Tinkoff-Saxo) finished fourth.
More than four minutes later, Quintana and Uran emerged from the tunnel and the race leader even deigned to rise from the saddle. He sprinted to the line to see off the fading challenge of his countryman, but showed no emotion as he all but sealed his first Grand Tour victory.
Giro d’Italia 2014: stage 20 – result
1) Michael Rogers (AUS) – Tinkoff-Saxo – 4.41.55
2) Franco Pellizotti (ITA) – Androni-Giocatoli +38″
3) Francesco Bongiorno (ITA) – Bardiani-CSF +49″
4) Nicolas Roche (IRE) – Tinkoff-Saxo +1.35
5) Brent Bookwalter (USA) – BMC Racing +1.37
6) Robinson Chalapud (COL) – Team Colombia +1.46
7) Georg Preidler (AST) – Giant-Shimano +1.52
8) Maxime Monfort (BEL) – Lotto-Belisol +2.12
9) Dario Cataldo (ITA) – Team Sky +2.24
10) Simon Geschke (GER) – Giant-Shimano +2.37
1) Nairo Quintana (COL) – Movistar – 83.50.25
2) Rigoberto Uran (COL) – Omega Pharma-Quickstep +3.07
3) Fabio Aru (ITA) – Astana +4.04
4) Pierre Rolland (FRA) – Europcar +5.46
5) Domenico Pozzovivo (ITA) – Ag2r-La Mondiale +6.41
6) Rafal Majka (POL) – Tinkoff-Saxo +7.13
7) Wilco Kelderman (NED) – Belkin +11.09
8) Cadel Evans (AUS) – BMC Racing +12.00
9) Ryder Hesjedal (CAN) – Garmin-Sharp +13.35
10) Robert Kiserlovski (CRO) – Trek Factory Racing +15.49