Last year’s Giro d’Italia started with a star-studded field, with the 2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins of Team Sky rolling up to the start alongside the eventual winner, Vincenzo Nibali of Italy.
Mark Cavendish took five stages and the Points Classification, becoming only the fifth rider to win the competition on all three Grand Tours. Wiggins limped out of the race after Stage 10, complaining of a chest infection, though anyone who witnessed any of his rides could see that he was suffering from more than just that.
In any case Nibali rode majestically, finally coming of age and proving himself a player on the biggest of stages. Even the weather turned up to play a part, making the race one of the hardest in years.
In addition, Carlos Betancur won the Best Young Rider competition and two stages; Cadel Evans put right a few doubters to take third overall, even though the Tour was his stated objective; and Rigoberto Uran had the best Tour for Colombia since 1995, finishing second to Nibali.
An Italian had won and we saw some great performances – especially from the anti-doping testers, who busted Mauro Dantambrogio and the reprehensible Danilo Di Luca.
The race had been following the upward curve set in motion by its then-director, Michele Acquarone, who had taken over in 2011 and done a decent job of revitalising a proud event that had suffered in the years and decades before.
Whatever one may think of his being replaced after being accused of helping millions in funds disappear – which he denies – he brought to the race a freshness and charisma that had been on the wane.
Things haven’t started out so well for new director Mauro Vegni, with a definite lack of star quality for the 2014 edition.
“I’m not going to pretend that that’s not the case,” he said when asked about this recently.
Richie Porte of Sky was said to be attending but his team decided he would be required to help Christopher Froome defend his Tour de France title, something neither Porte nor Vegni are overly thrilled about.
For Porte, the Giro 2014 offered his best chance yet to claim a Grand Tour to his palmares, and the decision may force him to leave Sky in search of that elusive title in 2015.
Vegni made his thoughts on the move crystal clear, though there was little he could do about it.
“Sure they had some problems but in terms of moving someone who was supposed to ride the Giro to the Tour, to be honest I didn’t like that very much,” Vegni said.
The fact that Vegni is ruing the absence of Porte, who though a decent candidate for the Pink Jersey is not yet considered a rider in the class of the established contenders, speaks volumes about the lack of big hitters in the 2014 edition.
Despite Evans being in the line-up (with a decent chance this year, it must be said), the two main contenders will be Nairo Quintana and Joaquim Rodríguez, neither of whom has ever won a Grand Tour.
Specialisation (for which Mr. Armstrong has a lot to answer for) has not helped either, with riders eschewing the traditional method of racing whenever possible for focused training. Someone needs to tell these guys though that winning once a year does not a legend make, even if it is the Tour, and that pertains not just to the Giro but a host of other races on the calendar.
One major factor in the lack of household names is that the Tour of California, which starts two days after the Giro on May 11, has attracted its strongest field ever. Taylor Phinney and Greg Van Avermaet of BMC will be there, as will Tom Boonen, Cavendish, Thor Hushovd, Bradley Wiggins, Peter Sagan, John Degenkolb and Niki Terpstra.
Others such as Froome and Contador will be away preparing for the Tour de France.
These things do go in cycles, but the fact that the Giro now has competition from California and that the race often lacks the top names for successive years cannot be avoided.
Two other factors that make the race less appealing to those focusing on the Tour are the length of the race and the scheduling. The Tour of California features just eight stages over 1156km, whereas the Giro runs at 21 stages over 3446km. Recovering from the American race is therefore far less taxing.
“We need to revise the schedule to ensure that the best riders are racing the biggest races,” Vegni said. “With the calendar as is, that will never be possible.
“As it stands now, for the most part whoever rides the Giro doesn’t ride the Tour, and vice versa. We’re moving forward with the reforms but with great difficulty.”
So is the solution to move the Giro ahead, so it is run at least partly in April? Vegni points out the impossibility of that from his point of view, as that could result in even more adverse weather conditions than were witnessed in 2013.
A shorter race? Do that and you lose the essence of the Giro, and it is then in danger of no longer being a true Grand Tour.
Reading between the lines, it seems that Vegni is seeking a move for the Tour of California not the Giro, which makes sense.
Why not have the California race sometime around the Vuelta a Espana?
Then the riders will have the option of racing a shorter event and we won’t have to see the big names drop out of the Vuelta midway through to rest before the Worlds. Those who want to win the GC in Spain will still have the opportunity with a decent field to ride against.
Sure, even if the Tour of California was moved, the big GC guys for the Tour would in all probability still skip it to prepare more selectively for France. But at least the sprinters and all-rounders – men like Hushovd, Boonen and Van Avermaet – would probably make an appearance at the Giro.
It would be a travesty if the Giro were to go the way of the Vuelta, with dwindling crowds, severely diminished fields and a drop in interest from the television companies.
I feel the Giro is the best Grand Tour of the lot, far more robust than the Vuelta and with less of the circus feel that permeates the Tour. If it needs a helping hand to attract the bigger names, the UCI could do far worse than to provide that.