A pictorial look back at the first Grand Tour of 2016, a dramatic edition of the Giro d’Italia.
All photos supplied by RCS, courtesy of ANSA, Claudio Peri, Alessandro Di Meo, Luca Zennaro and Matteo Bazzi.
A pictorial look back at the first Grand Tour of 2016, a dramatic edition of the Giro d’Italia.
All photos supplied by RCS, courtesy of ANSA, Claudio Peri, Alessandro Di Meo, Luca Zennaro and Matteo Bazzi.
Russia and Italy have, in cycling terms at least, a close relationship. Over the years many Russians have moved to the Peninsula to start their careers in the U23 and pro ranks, while WorldTour team Katusha have always had an Italian flavour in the form of riders, staff and their service course in Brescia.
The relationship also extends to the biggest race in Italy, the Giro d’Italia. Since Soviet cyclists started racing in the West, only Spaniards and the natives have more Giro wins than Russia’s three, while Russia are also third in the stage win rankings with 25 during that time. What’s even more amazing is that these Giro successes can all be traced back to one team.
Back in 1988, Primo Franchini’s Alfa Lum team were enjoying the results of a young Maurizio Fondriest. The then-23-year-old was a star in the making, winning stages at Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour de Suisse as well as narrowly losing Milano-Sanremo during his second year as a professional.
A surprise win at the World Championships in Belgium at the end of the season meant he was off to Del Tongo the following season and Franchini was left with a rebuild job. Luckily for him, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika reforms saw the end of the amateur status of Soviet athletes as many moved abroad to compete.
With the Soviet economy collapsing, a new agency called Sovintersport was created. Overseen by friend of Vladimir Putin and ex-KGB agent Sergey Chemezov (who also had a role in creating the Russian Global Cycling Project and has served as chairman of the board at the Russian Cycling Federation), the agency brought in money by exporting Soviet athletes who were already professional in all but name.
Franchini took advantage of this, making a deal with Sovintersport and rebuilding his team entirely with Soviet riders. During the following two seasons, names such as Konyshev, Poulnikov, Tchmil, Soukhoroutchenkov, Ugrumov and Abdoujaparov would be introduced to western European racing thanks to Alfa Lum.
This starry alumni would go on to rack up nine Giro stage victories and four top-four finishes, as well as seven classification victories. Meanwhile two other riders who moved to Italy after Perestroika, Evgeni Berzin and Pavel Tonkov, won the race in 1994 and 1996, sharing twelve stage wins between them.
Now, twenty years on from those mid-90s glory days, Russians are back in vogue, with two teams racing La Corsa Rosa, a new star rider battling for the podium, and a stage win on one of the race’s toughest days. With an all-time high of seventeen Russians in this year’s race there’s a lot to talk about, so for this, the first in a two-part series, we’ll take a look at the biggest name of the lot.
Ilnur Zakarin, a lanky 26-year-old riding for Russia’s premier team Katusha, was an unknown to many cycling fans before the spring of last year. After serving his apprenticeship with Russian teams lower down the ladder, he hit the big time only a few months after joining Igor Makarov’s team.
A top ten finish at January’s Tour de San Luis showed his aptitude for stage racing but he really got going in April and May. The Vuelta al País Vasco, one of the hardest week-long races in cycling, concluded with Zakarin in ninth overall, which he followed up with overall victory at the Tour de Romandie. His first Grand Tour, the Giro d’Italia, came days later and with it his first ever Grand Tour stage victory, on a rain-sodden hilly stage that ended on the Imola racing circuit.
This seemingly ready-made stage racer emerging so suddenly was a boon for Katusha, a team who had yet to find a homegrown Grand Tour leader. And with long-time leader Joaquim Rodríguez recently turning 37, Zakarin’s rise has been timed to perfection.
2016 has seen him consolidate and confirm his talent, winning a stage and finishing fourth at Paris-Nice, taking fifth after an aggressive showing at a snowy Liège-Bastogne-Liège, also finishing in the top ten at the Volta a Catalunya and Tour de Romandie.
A Muslim Tatar hailing from the city of Naberezhnye Chelny, some 570 miles east of Moscow, Zakarin is Katusha’s leader this May, the first time he has ever led a Grand Tour team. The race has, so far, been a voyage of discovery for him.
“It’s one of my big goals, along with the Olympics,” he says. “Plan A is to fight for a high place on GC, though I can’t say which exact place I want to reach. It’s the first time that I have ever gone for a high result so we’ll see.”
Coming into the final rest day he finds himself in sixth overall, 4:40 behind leader Steven Kruijswijk and 1:49 behind the man in third place, Vincenzo Nibali. With three summit finishes left to race, it’s certainly within the realms of possibility that Zakarin can finish on the podium.
“There is still a week ahead, with many important stages left,” he said after Sunday’s Alpe di Siusi mountain time trial. “I will go day by day, giving my best in every stage.”
A natural time trialist, Zakarin has been winning races against the clock for years, and was National Champion in 2013. Thanks to the three time trials on the route, this edition of the Giro was thought to suit him well (before the race he said: “I studied the course and saw things that I liked. We have three time trials, so no need to panic.”), but the 40km time trial on stage nine was a disaster for him.
Zakarin fell twice on the wet roads in Chianti, also stopping at one point to change bikes A ride which, through the first two checkpoints looked like making him the first Russian in pink since Denis Menchov in 2009, ended with him dropping out of the top ten.
Back in July of that year, when Menchov (a cycling hero of Zakarin’s) was basking in the aftermath of winning the Giro, Zakarin’s world was being turned upside down. Still just 19, he had tested positive for the anabolic steroid methandienone, and would be banned for two years.
Nowadays Zakarin doesn’t like to talk about it, brushing off questions with responses about looking to the future and not the past, but it left a stain on his record as he worked his way up through the Russian cycling pyramid.
Success came at every level, winning the GP Adygeya and finishing in the top ten at the U23 Giro in 2012 with Continental team Itera. He moved up to ProConti RusVelo for 2013, and the good results kept coming, with wins at the Tour d’Azerbaïdjan, GP Sochi and the GP Adygeya once again, as well as a second place in the Tour de Slovénie.
During this final season with RusVelo, Zakarin made a number of big changes in his life. First and foremost was a move – not to the usual pro cycling bases of Lucca, Nice or Monte Carlo, but to Limassol, a city on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus.
His wife Viktoria, a nutritionist, moved with him, and has been a major force behind his rise to prominence. Put on a special diet by her, Zakarin claims to have lost ten kilograms as a result – and the weight loss has done no harm at all his climbing ability since his move to Katusha.
“When I came to Katusha and to the WorldTour I wanted to get some strong results,” says Zakarin. “I felt like I was ready, but I saw immediately that the level was higher. I did not expect the big results, but then I gained confidence.”
He surely didn’t expect to end up where he is now when he first got on a bicycle either, but he tells the story of how he began, and how he looked up to Menchov, Viatcheslav Ekimov and Pavel Tonkov as he grew up.
“I had some friends in school who were in a cycling club, and they invited me to join,” he says. “It was nice to ride the ride, to compete with other guys. The results came quickly so I decided to continue.”
“My brother Aidar is also a cyclist – he’s with Gazprom-Rusvelo. When we were younger we wanted to be like the Schleck brothers. If we can get the same palmarés it would be nice.”
Matching the Schlecks is a distinct possibility if Zakarin keeps learning and developing the way he has so far with Katusha, but he will want to go one better than Andy’s second place at the 2007 Giro d’Italia.
For the man who was born seventy years to the day after the great Campionissimo, Fausto Coppi, this year doesn’t look like being the one he will take home the Trofeo Senza Fine. There’s time for Zakarin though, and from what we’ve seen of him a Giro win might not be far away. The motto of Tatarstan is, after all, Bez Buldırabız! – We Can!
Today the Giro exits the Netherlands after another successful foreign start, the third time the race has begun in the country. It was the twelfth edition of La Corsa Rosa to begin outside of the Peninsula.
In the early years the race always started in Milan, the home of the Gazzetta dello Sport – the newspaper which started the race in 1909. The only exception was in 1911, when Rome hosted the start and finish to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Italian unification. Since 1960, the start has moved around each year, occasionally outside of Italy.
So here’s a look at the past foreign starts of the Giro d’Italia, from the tentative move to San Marino, to more exotic climes like Belgium and Northern Ireland.
Giro organisers didn’t stray far from Italy for the first start on foreign soil in the history of the race. In fact, calling it foreign soil is somewhat charitable, given that the peloton set off from the enclaved microstate of San Marino.
Situated near Rimini on the eastern coast of Italy, the 61km2 of San Marino doesn’t have enough roads to on which to stage an actual road stage, so the country only hosted the start of the race. 198km after starting the 48th edition of the Giro there, the peloton arrived in Perugia.
Molteni’s Michele Dancelli, who would go on to win La Flèche Wallonne the following year, took the win on the hilltop finish, beating Adriano Durante and Italo Zilioli to the line.
1965’s start in San Marino must have been a success as the Giro’s second foreign start came the following year. The Principality of Monaco, located in the south of France, was the destination as Giro organisers got a little more adventurous, venturing 12km away from Italian borders for the race start.
The race’s French sojourn didn’t last long though, as the peloton were soon back in Italy, on the road to the Ligurian seaside town of Diano Marina. The Colle San Bartolomeo, situated close to the finish, meant that it was no stage for sprinters though, as double mountain classification winner (1961, 1963) Vito Taccone triumphed over Bruno Mealli and Dino Zandegù.
After six years of keeping the race in Italy, the Giro branched out in 1973. Long-time race director Vincenzo Torriani, having learnt that the Tour de France was planning to visit Great Britain (Plymouth hosted a stage in 1974), resolved to visit each founding member state of the EEC.
With Eddy Merckx having won the race three times at that point (in 1968, 1970 and 1972), his native Belgium hosted the Grande Partenza. The Walloon town of Verviers was the start point before heading on to the Netherlands, Germany, Luxembourg, France and Switzerland before finally making it to Italy on stage five.
The opening day, a two-man prologue, set the tone for the rest of the race as Eddy Merckx and teammate Roger Swerts took the win over the short 5.2km run, pipping Brooklyn’s Roger De Vlaeminck and Patrick Sercu by two seconds. Merckx would remain in the leader’s pink jersey until the race’s end in Trieste, becoming on the third man ever to do so.
Merckx won the first road stage too, from Verviers through the Netherlands to Cologne in Germany, before De Vlaeminck took the win on stage two to Luxembourg. Fellow countryman Gustaf Van Roosbroeck triumphed on the next stage, from Luxembourg to Strabourg, while Merckx completed the early race domination on stage five from Geneva to Aosta in north-western Italy.
Only five stages would be won by Italians that year as Belgians took thirteen of the twenty-one stages. Merckx himself won three further stages, in the end taking the overall win by 7:42 from Felice Gimondi.
As it did in the 1960s, the Giro stayed out of Italy for the start for the second successive year in 1974. Like the first ever ‘foreign’ start though, the destination was another enclave, this time the Vatican City, the tiny city-state situated entirely within the Italian capital Rome.
Of course, the race didn’t stay there for long, with there being no room in the 110 acres of the Vatican for a prologue, never mind a full road stage. Like the previous year, another Belgian came out on top, this time neo-pro Wilfried Reybrouck. It was a surprise victory, by far the biggest of his short-lived pro career, as Reybrouck shocked the sprinters with an attack 400 metres from the finish in the coastal town of Formia.
The Vatican start was to be Torriani’s last as race director. He stayed on as race director until 1989 (his fortieth year in the position), but wouldn’t see the next foreign start, passing away weeks before the 1996 race.
New race director Carmine Castellano took the race to Greece, perhaps the oddest start location yet considering the country’s hardly-substantial relationship to road cycling. There was a method behind the madness though – 1996 was the centenary year of both the Gazzetta dello Sport and the Olympics.
There were three stages in Greece, the first of which was run in chaotic conditions in Athens, with bad roads, cars in the road and flooding causing a multitude of crashes. Saeco’s Silvio Martinelli won the stage, while the following day’s 235km were ridden at slow speed in protest at the conditions.
Swedish neo-pro Glenn Magnusson took a surprise sprint win on stage two, the first of three career Giro stage wins. The next day saw Polti’s Giovanni Lombardi won the sprint to Ioannina before a presumably grateful peloton travelled back to Italy.
There would be another challenge for the peloton to overcome before reaching Italy though. Florence police, having gotten wind of a Tuscan pharmacy selling vast quantities of EPO to cyclists, travelled down to Brindisi in southern Italy ready to surprise the teams as they departed the ferry from Greece.
However, the carabinieri’s plans were leaked via a CONI official – every team knew of the planned raid – and so team cars were loaded with drugs before going the long way around, driving over 2000km through the Balkans in order to avoid the police. Other teams on the ferry dumped their stashes overboard.
Two years later came a shorter trip outside Italian borders, this time to the south of France. A 7km prologue around the city saw Festina’s Alex Zülle edge out Cantina Tollo’s Sergey Honchar by a single second. Stage one ran from Nice to Cuneo in Piemonte, a sprint finish won by Mariano Piccoli of Brescialat-Liquigas.
Fourteen years ago saw the Giro’s first Dutch start and, as was the case in 1973, the opening stages visited a number of countries. The city of Groningen played host to a twisting 6.5km prologue, won surprisingly by Phonak’s Juan Carlos Dominguez.
Next came a trip to Münster in Germany where Acqua e Sapone’s Mario Cipollini triumphed, having suffered a puncture in his tiger skinsuit the day earlier. Stage two travelled from Cologne to Ans in Belgium and finished with the Côte de Saint Nicholas/Ans one-two cribbed from Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Mapei’s Stefano Garzelli won, but was later kicked out of the race having tested positive for a masking agent.
Cipollini came out on top on stage three to Esch-sur-Alzette in Luxembourg, on a day which took in a lap of the Spa Francorchamps racing circuit. He looked all set to take another win on the final day abroad, but Lotto-Adecco’s Robbie McEwen derailed the Cipo train to take the first Grand Tour victory of his career.
After a thirty-three year break the Giro started in Belgium for the second time, as Angelo Zomegnan’s reign as race director got underway. A short 6km time trial in Seraing was the opener as reigning champion Paolo Savoldelli of Discovery put in a dominant performance to beat FDJ’s Brad McGee by eleven seconds.
Rather than travel to nearby countries as it had in the past, the Giro stayed in Belgium for the next three stages, two of which came down to bunch sprints won by Davitamon-Lotto’s Robbie McEwen. In between the Australian’s wins came a hilltop finish at Namur which saw points jersey favourite Alessandro Petacchi crash out and break his kneecap. Gerolsteiner’s Stefan Schumacher was the victor on a wet day.
Six years ago was the last time the race visited the Netherlands. Like this year, it started with a time trial. Bradley Wiggins, Team Sky’s new signing, won the day, beating out BMC’s Brent Bookwalter and Cadel Evans to take pink.
Then came a stage to Utrecht, a straightforward sprint win for Garmin-Transitions’ Tyler Farrar, but one which would see Wiggins lose the race lead thanks to a mass crash 7km from the finish. More crashes marred the final stage in the Netherlands, from Amsterdam to Middelburg. QuickStep’s Wouter Weylandt won the sprint from a split peloton, and was later angrily accosted by André Greipel for a perceived lack of work.
Earlier in the year, Zomegnan had publicly courted the American city Washington DC, with the city’s mayor expressing an interest in hosting the race. A ridiculous idea, it came to nothing and Zomegnan was gone by the time the Giro next started abroad.
Michele Acquarone was the man in charge in 2012, taking the Giro to its northernmost start yet in Denmark. 21-year-old American Taylor Phinney of BMC took the opening stage, an 8.7km time trial around Bjarne Riis’ hometown of Herning.
Sky’s Mark Cavendish, who had won the World Championships in the country the year before, won stage two, navigating a crash-marred finale to beat Orica-GreenEdge’s Matt Goss. The Australian would take stage three, though only after Lampre’s Roberto Ferrari moved across Mark Cavendish in the sprint, taking out the Manxman as well as race leader Phinney.
Acquarone’s spell in charge of the race didn’t last long – he was sacked in late 2013, blamed for the missing €13m from RCS accounts. Now settled into the two year pattern, new race director Mauro Vegni took the Giro to Belfast for the 2014 opening – the farthest from Italy the race has ever started.
Orica-GreenEdge took advantage of an early start on dry roads to win the opening team time trial around the Northern Irish capital, putting Canadian strongman Svein Tuft in pink. Day two, another wet one, saw Giant-Shimano’s Marcel Kittel take victory in a mass sprint, while the German doubled up on stage three, edging out Sky’s Ben Swift at the line in Dublin.
Everything changed on May 3rd, the last day of the Tour of Turkey and the now-customary Istanbul circuit race that saw the peloton cross the Bosphorus, hopping between the continents. Davide Rebellin, the 43-year-old Italian riding for Polish squad CCC Polsat Polkowice, was primed for a podium spot few would have expected at the week’s start.
But then, just thirty kilometres from the end of the race, it happened. In the crowd there was a moment of inattention, a dog running free from the lead, unwittingly causing chaos in the massed ranks of the peloton.
Rebellin’s teammate, the equally divisive Stefan Schumacher was the first to go down. Rebellin followed, hitting the road hard. His shoulder was dislocated, his race over, a victory gone.
Three weeks later he was back. Seventh overall at the Tour of Norway was followed up with a fifth place at the Italian National Championships in June. But Rebellin was still dwelling on Turkey and an opportunity missed.
“I’m still recovering from the disappointment,” he says. “The shoulder doesn’t hurt when I ride though, but I will have an operation at the end of the season.”
“Last week it popped out as I turned over in bed. I’ll have to be careful to avoid falls too.”
Earlier in the race there was a surprise win on the tough summit finish of Elmalı, beating eventual winner Kristijan Durasek and moving into the leader’s jersey. The remainder of the peloton was spread over forty minutes, with only one other man within a minute of a thrilled Rebellin.
Despite this mountain-top success, among others, Rebellin has been more renowned for his ability in the classics, rather than stage races. Maybe his drift towards success in the latter is a product of aging – when there is less explosivity in the legs for the short, sharp classics-style hills.
“Compared to previous years I feel that I’ve improved in the long climbs but have lost a bit in the sprint,” says Rebellin. “Something that has changed is that nowadays I have to do more races to find a good condition.”
One stage race that Rebellin was forced to miss out on was his home Grand Tour, the Giro d’Italia. There were suggestions that race organisers RCS Sport had barred him and Schumacher from riding, with race director Mauro Vegni commenting in January, “I’d like to have a Giro start without riders who stir controversy.”
It’s a stance that has opened Vegni up to accusations of hypocrisy, with numerous other riders who had served doping-related bans allowed to ride. At the Giro this year were Ivan Basso, Franco Pellizotti, Ilnur Zakarin, Alberto Contador, Diego Ulissi, Giovanni Visconti and Tom Danielson.
When asked about it, Rebellin had a different view. “I would’ve wanted to do it but the choice not to take me was down to the team,” he says. “I have the right to participate in races, just like others who have served doping bans. It wasn’t the case that there was discrimination against me, even if others have been in that situation.”
Whatever went on, it eventually turned out that he wouldn’t have been able to participate anyway, thanks to his shoulder injury.
The controversy Vegni talks about, and something that many still hold against Rebellin, is his ban after testing positive for CERA during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. The Veronesi took silver in the road race, a result that was later rescinded as he was banned for two years.
“There are people who believe in my innocence. I’m clear that some justice has been done though, even I’ll never have what they took from me – the medal, the races I was forced to miss, and then there have been the moral an economic damages,” Rebellin says. “The judge’s ruling earlier this year has declared my innocence of doping with a full acquittal.”
That’s not quite the whole story – a court in Padova found he had no criminal case to answer after the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI) had sought €500,000 damages and a year’s imprisonment for his positive test. The sporting sanctions remain, however.
Enough about the past though, what does the future hold for Rebellin?
“I started racing when I was ten years old, with my father’s team. At the moment I don’t know when I will stop,” he says. “I’ll decide during the course of the season whether to do another year.”
“I still want to race, train, I still have the determination. What keeps me in this condition is the life I live. My diet, rest and recuperation are all better than they were ten years ago. That’s where my results come from.”
After twenty-three years involvement with the sport, there are no plans to forget about cycling once he retires as a professional. “Training young cyclists is an option – both amateurs and professionals,” says Rebellin.
“I’ve already decided to arrange training camps with amateurs, and ride with them on the French Riviera. I can give them advice, share my experiences and just be among those who love cycling.”
Rebellin has been based in France for over a decade now, living in Monaco with his wife of just over a year, Françoise, and their pet cats. It’s clear that his whole outlook on life has changed in those years spent in France. “I thought I was only able to pedal before Françoise,” he says. “I was like half a man. Now I’m less insecure, more focused on doing things I love.”
Expat life hasn’t all been plain sailing though, with the Italian authorities accusing him of using his Monaco property to avoid €6.5million in taxes while supposedly still living in Italy. Rebellin was eventually cleared this year, with the case thrown out alongside the CONI charges.
There are, of course, many obvious positives of living on France’s south coast for a cyclist – the weather, the roads, easy travel to races and, last but not least, the company.
“There are many professionals based here. Sometimes I train with Niccolò Bonifazio, Oscar Gatto or my new teammate Sylvester Szmyd,” he says. “My favourite climbs are the Col de la Madone and the Col de Turini.”
For Rebellin there was another, rather more unexpected advantages – a stroke of luck that led him to join CCC in 2013.
“A Polish friend of mine, who works in Monte Carlo put me in touch with Piotr Wadecki (team DS), so he’s the man I have to thank,” he says. “We talked, found an agreement and now here I am.”
Moving to the Polish ProContinental squad was a bold move, but one that has paid off, as the team grows in stature with every passing season. “We’re improving every year, with better riders and better organisation, as well as invited to bigger races,” says Rebellin. “I think we are growing to become one of the best in the world.”
CCC is the ninth team of Rebellin’s career, and having spent three years in the distinctive orange kit, it’s also his second-longest stint at a team. German-based squad Gerolsteiner was his home from 2002 to 2008, the prime years of his career, during which time he became the first ever rider to complete the fabled Ardennes Triple in 2004, as well as winning Paris-Nice four years later.
Despite his many successes, Rebellin still laments one race he missed out on. “Being a classics-style rider, my failure to win the World Championships is my biggest regret,” he says. “My favourite victory was Liège, but the Worlds is the race I miss most from my palmarès.”
His best result at the Worlds remains his fourth place in 2008, as teammate Alessandro Ballan took victory. It’s a result he will never improve upon, due to the Italian Federation’s policy of not selecting riders who have served doping bans.
At the moment he’s leading CCC at the Tour de Pologne, his third time racing there with the home team. “I will be seeking a stage victory,” he says. “As for the general classification – I will take it day by day.”
While Rebellin may not be universally popular, it’s hard not to admire his ability to keep going. Comfortably the oldest rider in the professional peloton, he still competes for wins regularly.
There’ll be a rest period after Pologne and then he’s on the hunt again, heading back to Italy for the Autumn Classics, with the Giro di Lombardia the major goal. Look out for the man in orange, still hungry to make his mark, and with perhaps only a few more chances to do so.
If you were paying attention to the crowds lining the road in Milan today, you would’ve noticed a Costa Rican flag on the finishing straight. It’s a long way to come to show your support, but these have been a historic few weeks, with the country’s only professional riding to a surprising fourth in the General Classification.
Amador is his name, Andrey Amador Bikkazakova to be precise. It’s a strange one, thanks to his uncommon lineage. His mother, Raisa, is Russian, while father Rodolfo is of Galician heritage.
The youngest of three sons, Andrey turned to cycling in his teenage years. He followed in the footsteps of middle brother Ivan, who he would later ride with in three editions of the Vuelta a Costa Rica.
Amador started off racing both on the road and on mountain bikes, and was successful almost immediately, winning nine gold medals at the National Games. Junior National road race and time trial Championships followed, before joining Ivan at one of the top teams in the country, BCR-Pizza Hut.
He quickly overshadowed his older brother. As an eighteen-year-old he finished on the podium at the Vuelta a Costa Rica, as well as coming second in Panama’s Vuelta a Chiriquí later in the year.
With his mind set on turning professional he was advised that moving to Spain would give him the best chance of doing so, and midway through 2006 he did just that. Continental team Viña Magna-Cropu was his destination, where he linked up with future Movistar teammates Sergio Pardilla and Jose Herrada for the first time.
His results there, including a string of podium places at the Vuelta a Costa Rica, saw him noticed by top Spanish amateur team Lizarte. Costa Rica’s first professional, José Adrián Bonilla, helped Amador make the transition, introducing him to team boss Manolo Azcona, whom Amador would later describe as a second father.
Based in Pamplona in the Basque Country, the heartland of Spanish cycling, Lizarte have been a steady provider of cyclists to the pro ranks for twenty-three years.
Joseba Beloki is the biggest name to have raced for the team before turning pro, while other notable names include Claus Michael Møller, Isidro Nozal and Benjamín Noval. More recently Movistar riders Marc Soler, Enrique Sanz and Nairo Quintana’s brother Dayer have made the jump.
Amador won an impressive nineteen races with the team, including the Vuelta a Bidasoa and Vuelta al Goierri stage races as well as numerous classics and stage wins at the Vuelta Navarra and Vuelta al Palencia.
His finest result as an amateur was still yet to come though, going to September’s Tour de l’Avenir as part of an international selection alongside current pros Jarlison Pantano, Mitch Docker and Jacques Janse Van Renseburg.
Having already penned a pro contract with Spanish squad Caisse d’Epargne in August, Amador could ride without pressure. He won the opening 7.5km prologue by seven seconds, something of a yawning chasm considering the distance.
He was rarely out of the top ten for the rest of the race, riding a strong time trial and finishing ahead of future Tour de France contender Tejay Van Garderen on the summit finish at Guzet-Neige. He would end up fifth overall, with future teammate Rui Costa a few places above him.
His first pro season didn’t start off too well, with a broken collarbone in March impeding his progress. Before long though, he would settle into his assigned role at the team – that of a dependable role player, helping Luis León Sánchez to win Paris-Nice.
The next season saw him turn history maker, becoming the first Costa Rican to ride a Grand Tour, something Bonilla had never managed during his three seasons with Kelme. The 2010 Giro d’Italia was one of the more exciting GTs in living memory, with Amador’s teammate David Arroyo coming close to taking the overall win thanks to a mid-race breakaway.
Amador ended up forty-first in that race, with Arroyo hanging on for second. The Costa Rican had proven worthy of a new contract, but an incident in the New Year saw both his life and career hang in the balance.
While out training in his home country, Amador was mugged for his bike by a gang. He was left for dead, lying in a riverbed unconscious for six hours before he was found. Cuts and bruises were the initial diagnosis, but it was later found that one of his kidneys had shut down due to the severity of the beating.
Miraculously, he was back on his bike the following month, going on to finish fourth at the GP Llodio and Vuelta La Rioja in April before disaster struck again. This time it was another broken collarbone, putting him out of the Giro squad. Another landmark came later in the season as he became the first Costa Rican to ride the Tour de France.
After the annus horribilis of 2011, the following season, for the newly-sponsored Movistar team, was his best yet. Ninth in January’s Tour de San Luís was the strongest stage race result of his pro career, but it was nothing compared to what happened in May.
The fourteenth stage of the Giro was the first summit finish. Amador was in the breakaway for the second time in three days, having finished third into Sestri Levante on stage twelve.
On the road to Breuil-Cervinia he was not to be denied though, beating Jan Bárta and Alessandro De Marchi to the win, the first of his career. A solid twenty-ninth on GC showed a glimpse of his future potential.
A strong start to the following season, including an eighth overall at Tirreno-Adriatico, was cut short in April. Another broken collarbone (his fifth), caused by a crash in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, meant it looked like it might be another year to forget.
He returned to racing after a month out and was showed enough form to make the Tour squad, helping Nairo Quintana to second overall. Later on bad luck struck again, as a bout of mononucleosis interrupted the second half of his season.
He was back at the Giro last year, part of Quintana’s triumphant campaign, while a team time trial victory at the Vuelta a España was another high point. This year’s edition has seen him break out as a big-time rider in his own right though.
A strong fifth-place finish in the team time trial was followed up by hanging with the big names on the early summit finishes at Abetone and Campitello Matese.
The windswept mid-race time trial around the Prosecco-producing Province of Treviso saw him finish fifteenth, catapulting him into the podium places. The next few days featured more mountain-top finishes, with Amador limiting his losses admirably on the stages to Madonna di Campiglio and Aprica.
For all his efforts, Astana’s Mikel Landa managed to wrest third place from him, but Amador managed to hold off a resurgent Ryder Hesjedal in the final trio of mountain stages to hold on to his fourth place.
Even Amador has been surprised at what he has achieved this month. He put his improvement down to weight loss, claiming that he’s five kilograms lighter than he was at Cervinia three years ago. But while he may be getting slimmer, his pay cheque won’t be – his contract is up for renewal at the end of the season.
Something else to note is the absence of team leaders Quintana and Alejandro Valverde. With the duo both focused on the Tour, it’s the first opportunity Amador has had to race a Grand Tour for himself.
According to journalists in the small Central American country, one of whom made the trip to Milan for the final stage, Amador has risen to the status of national hero back home. His is a star on the rise, and for a man who has so many firsts under his belt already, you have to wonder what his next might be.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.