10 May 2010

Vino's no dope as crashes gift him the maglia rosa

The race leader's pink jersey has been more patata calda (hot potato) than maglia rosa thus far in the Giro d'Italia. During three days' racing in Holland, the jersey has been worn on the podium by three different riders: Bradley Wiggins, Cadel Evans and now Alexandre Vinokourov.

Both yesterday and today, crashes on routes which have been narrow, twisty and full of road furniture have contributed significantly to the jersey changing possession.

On yesterday's stage between Amsterdam and Utrecht, major crashes in the peloton 40 and seven kilometres out brought down or delayed dozens of riders. Wiggins's Sky teammates were able to bridge the gap after the first crash, but not the second, allowing Evans to assume the race lead.

This afternoon, another crash on an extremely tight and dangerous turn ten kilometres from the finish in Middelburg brought down Wiggins, among others, and delayed Evans who, despite a heroic solo effort to regain contact with the chasing pack still finished 46 seconds down on the leaders, gifting the pink jersey to Vinokourov. In addition to his losses yesterday, Wiggins gave up another four minutes today, eliminating him from overall contention.

It is difficult to imagine a less popular - or more controversial - race leader than the 36 year old Kazakh. Less than a year after returning from a two year ban for blood doping at the Tour de France, Vino has already won Liege-Bastogne-Liege, one of the most prestigious Spring one day classics, and now leads the Giro, a position from which it may prove difficult to unseat him. Evans remains within striking distance, but Garmin's Christian Vande Velde was forced out today with a broken collarbone, and Wiggins is one of several other contenders now effectively out of reach.

Add to that the absence of the top three finishers from last year's race: winner Denis Menchov (who elected to miss the race to prepare for the Tour), Danilo di Luca (doping ban) and Franco Pellizotti (withdrawn due to ongoing investigation), not to mention Messrs Contador, Armstrong and Schleck (both of them), and the number of credible challengers to Vinokourov has already dwindled significantly.

It will be a sad state of affairs if Vinokourov is still wearing pink in Verona on May 30th. Not so much because of his original crime - for which he has served his time - but because he was so utterly unrepentant of an offence of which he was so clearly guilty, and for which he still protests his innocence. (When tests reveal you have another person's blood in your system, there isn't much of a defence.) And, even more than that, he betrayed cycling fans everywhere by shattering the illusion that his swashbuckling, kamikaze attacks we loved so much were fuelled by more than mere talent and determination.

Tomorrow is a rest day as the circus decamps back to Italy. Which, given the travails of the last couple of days, is probably just as well. I'll be hoping that the extra recovery time for some pretty banged-up teams will help someone depose Vino in Wednesday's team time trial.