Comment: the ascent of Pozzovivo

One small rider. One big climb. Why Domenico Pozzovivo is attracting attention at the Giro d’Italia

Words by Kenny Pryde

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Tuesday May 15, 2012

We’re almost halfway through the 2012 Giro and nobody knows who is going to win. That’s good going. By this point in the race last year, Alberto Contador had already killed the race stone dead. But there’s no Contador this year, so to speak.

It’s a case of so far, so Giro. Which is to say that sprint chaos occurs when nobody is conducting a big train and that those weird transitional days inevitably turn out to be much tougher than anyone had predicted. Those ‘transitional’ days in the route book, which were studded by a multitude of tiny sharks teeth, have battered the riders and eaten into reserves. You can’t have an easy day in the Giro.

And if there has been a surprise, nobody is quite sure if it’s a pleasant one. Stage eight, which finished after the 10-kilometre Colle Molella climb above Lago Laceno saw Domenico Pozzovivo take a solo win. He’s a small guy (53kg and 1m 65cm), in a small team (Colnago-CSF Inox) but his performance was super-sized. It was one of those climbing performances that saw lots of journalists scurrying for information that would explain what they had just witnessed. The 29 year old piano-player (true!) from southern Italy put a not inconsiderable 27 seconds into the bunch which wasn’t exactly dawdling. There was nothing piano about this stage.

Impressive! But this being Italy, it seemed a bit too impressive for some observers to simply applaud and move on to the next stage. There were even some of his peers in the gruppo who smiled and pointed out that Pozzovivo’s rhyming nickname is ‘Positivo’ – although we’re sure he got that moniker on the basis of his perpetually positive outlook on life. Either that or being unlucky enough to have been in the same 2008 team as formerly-banned CERA user Emanuele Sella and supplier Matteo Priamo.

Pozzovivo has been turning in impressive performances already this season, with pre-Giro sharpener the Giro del Trentino suggesting he would show in the corsa rosa. Sure enough, on the toughest stage of Trentino, which finished on the Punta Veleno climb, Pozzovivo chipped off the front and left the rest of a good field (Cunego, Kreuziger, Basso) looking a bit slow, winning the stage and, effectively, the overall classification.

And now here comes the science. An Italian Cycling Federation physiologist, Fabrizio Tacchino, calculated that Pozzovivo’s VAM (velocita ascensionale media) [average climbing speed] on the Punta Veleno climb was close to the limit of what has been calculated for other world-class riders. Ironically the VAM equation had first been elaborated and used by Dr Michele Ferrari who used it to calculate his client riders’ form.

Essentially the calculation is done by timing the rider up a climb of known length and vertical height, to work out the VAM in metres per hour. Steeper climbs naturally result in slightly higher figures because at the lower speeds, there is less wind resistance. Power output can also be estimated based on a rider’s weight.

According to those credible Italian sources, Pozzovivo’s VAM on the Punto Veleno climb was 1,886 m/h and he managed to generate an average power output on the 8.5km climb of 329 watts or 6.1 watts/kg for the 29-25 minute duration. Not quite the 6.8watts/kg the late cycling coach Aldo Sassi estimated Marco Pantani was expressing in his heyday, or the 6.7 that Lance Armstrong’s former coach Ferrari claimed was essential to win the Tour.

But even 6.1 watts per kilo is a big number. Sassi was reported in the New York Times in 2010 to say that in the entire 2009 Giro, only one rider, winner Denis Menchov, produced more than 6.0 watts/kg on a climb. Contador and Andy Schleck were estimated on the Science of Sport website at 5.9 watts/kg on the Tourmalet at the end of the 2010 Tour, although that was a longer effort than Pozzovivo’s.

With lots of mountains to come and a relatively short time trial to finish the race off in Milan, might Pozzovivo turn out to be this year’s Contador?

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