There were no clouds of white dust to engulf the riders as they hit the strade bianche, the Tuscan farm tracks, today. Instead, the rain bound the dust together to form a slick, slippery mess that covered the riders in a film of brown slime.
The mud masks worn by the riders as they arrived at Montalcino after five hours of racing partly hid the pain of a brutal day that turned the Giro d’Italia on its head. Angelo Zomegnan, the race organiser, no doubt hoped for drama when he included two off-road sections, adding up to 19.5 kilometres, towards the end of the stage. But even he could not have predicted the damage it would do.
This evening, after the riders have showered and while the mechanics put in a long shift cleaning the filth off the bikes, they will sit down and study the general classification and, with a shake of the head, reflect on one of the craziest days any of the grand tours have served up in recent years.
It was a former mountain biker, Cadel Evans, the current road world champion, who called on his old off-road skills to win the seventh stage. The Australian produced an impressively powerful sprint to pull away from four other riders who managed to get clear with him in the closing stages. The Australian is now right back in contention after losing ground in Monday’s crash and the team time trial.
And Alexandre Vinokourov, who lost the race lead in that team time trial to Cuneo when he blew his Astana squad apart towards the end, is back in pink and now has more than a minute’s lead over Evans. Britain’s David Millar was 11th on the stage to move up to third place overall.
But the big losers of the day were the Liquigas team, who surrendered their iron grip on the overall classification.
At the start of the day they had Vincenzo Nibali in pink, followed by his team-mates Ivan Basso and Valerio Agnoli.
Nibali lost 2-00 and Basso a little bit more but they could not blame the rough roads for their downfall. They came unstuck when they came down together on a right-hand bend on a descent 33 kilometres from the finish.
AN EPIC DAY
When the riders awoke to dark skies and rain, they must have feared the worst. A stage that headed into the Tuscan countryside, covering some of the dusty roads made famous by the Monte Paschi Eroica one-day race, was always going to provide some beautiful images. Everyone was anticipating pictures of riders fighting through the dust.
The rain changed everything. The Voltera climb at the 117-kilometre mark was taken out of the route and the peloton sent round it because of a landslide caused by the rain. The diversion trimmed only two kilometres off the planned 220-kilometre route.
An early escape containing 16 riders was shut down by the bunch, who were not keen to let anyone get away in case they enjoyed too great an advantage when they hit the rough stuff.
Rick Flens of Rabobank and Nicki Sorensen of Saxo Bank attacked after 80 kilometres and, although their lead reached more than five minutes, they were closed down rapidly when the bunch decided they’d had enough.
Just as the pair were about to be caught, with 41 kilometres to go, Dario Cioni of Team Sky attacked on a climb, and flew past Flens and Sorensen, abandoning them to their fate.
No one was in any mood to let Cioni go away either and the pace was furious for several kilometres.
Then came the moment Liquigas would rue. There was a wide right-hand bend on the descent which must have had a patch of oil on the corner because several Liquigas riders, who had been on the front of a bunch that had now fractured into several pieces, hit the deck. Nibali and Agnoli went down in the first spill, then Basso went down a few seconds later in a separate crash.
Thomas Rohregger of Milram pressed on, followed by his team-mate Linus Gerdemann, Stefano Garzelli and Vladimir Miholjevic (both Acqua & Sapone), Vinokourov and Jan Bakelandts (Omega Pharma).
Vinokourov refused to work, respecting the unwritten rule that you don’t take advantage of the race leader’s misfortune.
However, the pattern was already set. They hadn’t even reached the gravel sections yet but it was already a case of every man for himself.
When they did hit the tracks, they were wet and dangerous. The corners were slippery and it was difficult to maintain traction. And within a couple of minutes everyone was covered from head to toe in mud. This was what the Giro d’Italia must have been like before the war.
Damiano Cunego was one of the first to attack but he was caught. Then a group formed at the front, with Evans, Vinokourov, Garzelli, David Arroyo (Caisse d’Epargne), Marco Pinotti (HTC) and John Gadret (Ag2r) in it.
Nibali, desperate to defend his pink jersey, was stranded. He waited for Basso – Liquigas’s best hope for final overall victory – and the pair tried to close the gap, but it was never going to happen.
Evans and Vinokourov each tried to drop the rest and for a while they were out in front with Arroyo, pursued by Pinotti, Cunego, Garzelli and Gadret. As they approached the town of Montalcino the two groups came together.
There was a section of cobbles in the town, including a short stretch downhill. They weren’t great big brutes, but they were wet and with mud still clinging to the tyres, there was the potential for a spill. Evans gambled that if he led it out, no one would be able to come round him, and he was right.
In the finishing straight Evans opened up his sprint and by the time he got to the line he was actually powering away from Cunego, who was second.
Over the next 25 minutes the riders continued to come in, all with their own epic tale to tell. The Giro had witnessed a day of incredible drama but the toll it will take on the rest of the race remains to be seen.
For Nibali and Basso it is not over, although they suffered losses. But for Carlos Sastre of Cervelo, it may be. The Spaniard had a torrid day and spent much of it chasing to get on terms. He lost five minutes.
This was the sort of challenge laid down by the one-day Classics. Tomorrow (Sunday) it’s back to more familiar grand tour territory as the riders tackle the first uphill finish of the race, at the end of a 189-kilometre stage to Monte Terminillo. The riders have been through a muddy hell and now they have to start climbing. And there’s still over a week until the next rest day.
There will be something troubling the Italians too. A week into the race and they are still without a stage win.
Stage seven: Carrara – Montalcino, 220km
1. Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing in 5-13-37
2. Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre-Farnese Vini at 2sec
3. Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz) Astana same time
4. Marco Pinotti (Ita) HTC-Columbia at 6sec
5. David Arroyo (Spa) Caisse d’Epargne at 12sec
6. Stefano Garzelli (Ita) Acqua & Sapone at 27sec
7. John Gadret (Fra) Ag2r-La Mondiale at 29sec
8. Michele Scarponi (Ita) Androni Giocattoli at 1-01
9. Cayetano Sarmiento (Col) Acqua & Sapone at 1-07
10. Jan Bakelandts (Bel) Omega Pharma at 1-11
11. David Millar (GB) Garmin-Transitions at 1-11
17. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas at 2-00
18. Ivan Basso (Ita) Liquigas at 2-05
24. Dario David Cioni (Ita) Team Sky at 2-59
34. Bradley Wiggins (GB) Team Sky at 4-30
35. Michael Barry (GB) Team Sky at 4-30
37. Carlos Sastre (Spa) Cervelo at 5-20
45. Morris Possoni (Ita) Team Sky at 7-58
67. Greg Henderson (NZ) Team Sky at 14-04
69. Mat Hayman (Aus) Team Sky at 14-04
103. Daniel Lloyd (GB) Cervelo at 20-34
109. Chris Sutton (Aus) Team Sky at 20-34
124. Charly Wegelius (GB) Omega Pharma at 24-10
126. Adam Blythe (GB) Omega Pharma at 24-10
132. Chris Froome (GB) Team Sky at 24-10
144. Steve Cummings (GB) Team Sky at 24-16
153. Daniel Martin (Irl) Garmin at 24-27
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1. Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz) Astana in 24-09-42
2. Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing at 1-12
3. David Millar (GB) Garmin-Transitions at 1-20
4. Vladimir Karpets (Rus) Katusha at 1-30
5. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas at 1-33
6. Marco Pinotti (Ita) HTC-Columbia at 1-40
7. Linus Gerdemann (Ger) Milram at 1-50
8. Ivan Basso (Ita) Liquigas at 1-51
9. Thomas Rohregger (Aut) Milram at 1-56
10. Richie Porte (Aus) Saxo Bank at 2-00
11. Stefano Garzelli (Ita) Acqua & Sapone at 2-47
12. Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre at 3-08
24. Carlos Sastre (Spa) Cervelo at 7-06
25. Dario Cioni (Ita) Team Sky at 7-21
26. Bradley Wiggins (GB) Team Sky at 8-39
Points competition Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions)
King of the mountains Matthew Lloyd (Omega Pharma)
Young rider Richie Porte (Saxo Bank)
2010 Giro d’Italia coverage in association with Zipvit