Before the Giro I spoke to three men – three riders who have all won stages at the race but are more well-known as workers, or gregarios, for others.
Astana veteran Paolo Tiralongo helped Vincenzo Nibali win the Giro in 2013, as well as working for Alberto Contador during his now-nullified 2010 victory. He has also experienced personal triumph at the race, winning stages in 2011 and 2012.
Australian Adam Hansen is riding his fourth Giro in a row for Lotto-Soudal, his sixth overall. A key part of André Greipel’s sprint train, Hansen won a Giro stage back in 2013.
Cannondale-Garmin rider Ramunas Navardauskas was part of the squad that assisted Ryder Hesjedal’s unlikely Giro win in 2012. The Lithuanian wore the pink jersey for two stages that year, and went on to take a stage win of his own a year later.
Here’s what the trio had to say about La Corsa Rosa and their experiences with the race.
Memories of the Giro from before you became professional?
Tiralongo: This will be my thirteenth Giro. Cycling has changed a lot since I was young, before there was more room for personal initiative – now everything is focused on the team and the leader.
Hansen: Actually I didn’t follow the Giro, or any professional cycling, before I moved to Europe [In 2003 Hansen swapped mountain biking in Australia for racing at Continental level in Austria.]
Navardauskas: I remember Cipollini. I always heard about big names like that but when you’re a kid you never think that one day you’ll be there too.
Where does the Giro rank for you?
Tiralongo: For me, and every Italian rider, it’s the most important race of the season. It’s our home country and we are more visible, more popular than at any other race.
I think that everyone who can finish this race is a hero. Even if you don’t win, the climbs are equally long for all. Cold is cold, rain is rain – it’s the same for everybody.
Hansen: It’s definitely one of my favourite races. I’ve been a few times and every day you’re racing, every day you have a chance. It’ll be my eleventh Grand Tour in a row, and I think the plan is just to keep going.
Navardauskas: It’s been a lucky race for me and I have good memories of it. Sadly I’m not at the race this year but as always work is work – the Giro, Tour, Vuelta, wherever you go it’s always a big responsibility for the team.
Working for others vs winning for yourself?
Tiralongo: A real gregario is happy when a teammate or leader wins. You’re happy because you know you have contributed to the result. The team has to come first to achieve certain results – it’s the only way.
The victory at Macugnaga [in 2011] was my first. I arrived at the finish with my friend, Alberto Contador, who was my teammate at Astana the year before – we helped each other. The next year I desired the win at Rocca di Cambio [beating Michele Scarponi], and fought for it. They were special moments.
Hansen: For instance when Greipel wins it’s very special because the whole team is working, protecting him from the wind and so on. And you do feel proud of it, and I think that’s one of the good things about being a domestique.
As for my stage win, it was just all the years of riding, all the years of being a domestique – everything paid off in that moment. It felt like the small token or present you get for finally making it. The win was the greatest moment of my cycling career.
The day when I won – it was the kind of day where you want to be in the break because the weather is so bad. In the last ten kilometres I was thinking “the peloton will come or I’ll crash or flat any moment now.” It was an unexpected win.
Navardauskas: When your leader has a chance to win, it’s always bigger. A leader that wins the General Classification has made his career – in the future you can tell your friends, your kids that I was there, I helped that.
Anything is possible – when we started the Giro, Ryder was more of an outsider and then we started getting better as a team, every day more motivated. That win is like a personal win.
Giro vs other Grand Tours?
Tiralongo: The Giro is the hardest. Its climbs are long and steep, real climbs. Additionally, the weather is more uncertain and it can be really cold. On the other hand the Tour is hotter but the race is more controlled in comparison. The Vuelta is, of course, the hottest and the fastest.
Hansen: The Tour is where results count, where you have more sponsor pressure. At the Vuelta, they bring in young guys and it’s a good chance to build for the Worlds. It gives you more opportunities to have a go too, but it’s also more relaxed – you wake up later and start racing later.
As for the Giro, I think it’s the most traditional Grand Tour. They’re real cycling fans, whereas at the Tour there are more tourists – it’s a big circus. The Giro is more pure in that way.
In terms of racing, I think the Giro is the hardest but the Tour is the hardest to win at. It’s harder to finish the Giro than it is to finish the Tour. The ultimate goal is to complete the set and win a Tour stage too.
Navardauskas: I’ve never done the Vuelta but I think that some years the Giro is much harder than the Tour. The mountains are harder and it has difficult stages. Sometimes there’s really bad weather makes it even harder.
The Tour has a bigger name than the Giro but it’s very hard to do well in either. When you’re in the race you don’t think about comparisons though.
Best and worst Giro memories?
Tiralongo: My two victories are the best. The ugliest memory I have is the 2013 edition. Despite Vincenzo Nibali’s victory it was three weeks of agony for me because I was ill. I didn’t give up though.
Hansen: 2007 was pretty bad – I broke my hand. It was my first Grand Tour and I didn’t know what to expect.
I think the stage last year, going up the Gavia – that was pretty bad. It was a nightmare – we didn’t really know what was going on. There wasn’t really a race going on because you couldn’t see anybody.
Navardauskas: Obviously I had my first stage victory at a Grand Tour there, and I have worn the pink jersey. They are very, very happy memories. From the Grand Tours I have done I can say that every rider has his own very bad day.
I think the worst for me was in 2012, when I rode the Giro a month and a half after I broke my collarbone. On the third stage I crashed – it didn’t break again but for several days after every stage was really hard and exhausting.
The hardest Giro stage?
Tiralongo: I can’t say one stage but the 2011 edition, won by Contador. I have never seen so many tired riders. There was a lot of climbing despite the alteration of the Zoncolan stage [there was 409km of climbing on the original route].
Hansen: Definitely the Gavia stage. It’s one thing to be cold while you’re racing because you can get heat from that, but it was the descents. When you have fifteen-twenty kilometre descents, you’re just freewheeling and getting colder and colder.
Navardauskas: In 2012, when Hesjedal was our leader and he was in second place. It was the king stage – huge, huge mountains – and I remember it was very hard from the beginning with huge steep climbs. Yeah (laughs) it was just very hard.
Goals for 2015?
Tiralongo: In the Giro I will work for Fabio Aru – I have a lot of experience so that will help. We have a strong team and the aim is to win the Giro. I don’t know if it will be my last participation – it will be up to me to decide when I retire [Tiralongo’s contract runs out this season].
Hansen: It’s very new for the team because we have both Greipel for the sprints and Van Den Broeck as our GC guy. It’s going to be exciting. And, looking at the parcours, maybe there will be chances for me to go on the attack too.
Navardauskas: I was a reserve for the Giro so I had to be ready to race but seeing as I am not going to Italy this is my time to rest after Romandie. Next I will go to Germany [to the Bayern Rundfahrt] and then we will see from there. I just try to get good results and work for the team everywhere I go.