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Analysis: Can Sky’s suffocating, controlled style deliver a Giro win?

  • By Gregor Brown
  • Published May. 9, 2013
  • Updated Oct. 30, 2014 at 1:39 PM EST
Sky has shown early in this Giro d'Italia that it intends to try and control the race the way it did in France last July. Photo: Graham Watson | www.grahamwatson.com

MATERA, Italy (VN) — Sky’s heavy, controlled style of racing delivered the team a record run through 2012, a Tour de France title, and overall victories throughout the spring, but can that methodology transfer to pink at the Giro d’Italia this month?

The names were mostly different, but Sky’s suffocating presence in the mountains on Tuesday mirrored what fans had seen over the last year and a half since Bradley Wiggins became a dominant stage racer. Just as it did in the Tour last year, among many other races, Sky lined its riders up at the front on the final climb for its leader and set an infernal pace. The effort burned out rivals and placed team leader Bradley Wiggins in winning position.

If you just woke up and turned on the television during Tuesday’s stage to Serra San Bruno, perhaps you would have thought you were watching the finish to La Planche des Belles Filles or La Toussuire in last year’s Tour.

Sky’s tactic of controlling the peloton when the road tilts up has been successful over the last 15 months, delivering overall wins at the Critérium du Dauphiné, Paris-Nice, Tour de Romandie, and Tour of Oman, among others, but will the method work in Italy, and above all, at the Giro?

“Their team principal, David Brailsford, said himself that in the Giro it is harder to get organized because there are many teams that want to do their own races,” Giuseppe Martinelli told VeloNews. “In France, at some point one team will take the race in hand and the others know from that day forward, that’s the way it is. Here the small teams always try to invent something; you saw that with Vini Fantini’s Danilo Di Luca yesterday.”

Martinelli worked with the late Marco Pantani and Alberto Contador, directing them to win grand tours. Now he is the manager at Astana and is trying to do the same with Vincenzo Nibali at the Giro. Nibali could only follow Wiggins and teammate Chris Froome at the Tour in 2012, managing just one truly dangerous attack over the race’s three weeks. He has already been a protagonist this week in Italy and will almost certainly continue to attack.

“It’s harder for them because the racing is more variable than in France; in Italy, anything can happen in any moment. Here there are potholes and roads that seem similar to what you’d see in Belgium, especially in the south of Italy,” Stefano Zanatta, an Italian sports director for Cannondale, said. “What they did up Serra San Bruno was worth it, but of course, you have to have the good riders to take control and to continue it. And you’ve got to spend energy to do that. But it’s worth it to spend the energy and stay safe at the front.

Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), the 2011 Tour de France champion, knows the Tour/Giro divide well. Evans made his grand tour debut with a two-day run in pink in the final week of the 2002 Giro and rides in his third Tour of Italy this month.

“In the Giro, there are so many stages where, just to stay out of trouble, you have to expend a lot of energy — small roads, a big group,” he told VeloNews. “And when you are there, it’s not like you can take it easy. I took it easy for a moment [during stage 3] after the feedzone and [laughing] found myself lying on the road. That is what taking a little respite costs you.”

Racing by numbers

Sky’s strategy is based partly around strength in numbers. Not only can Wiggins rely on climbers like Rigoberto Urán, Sergio Henao, Kanstantsin Siutsou, and Dario Cataldo, but he can also rely on the wattage they produce.

When they are riding at the front, attacks are hard to maintain. A Di Luca, as he did Tuesday, can shoot off the front, but it has proven impossible to produce higher watts than the black-and-blue train for long periods. The days of multiple and sustained attacks appear to be fewer and farther between since the glory days of EPO and blood doping.

“It’s that way, it looks scientific, but it’s that way,” Martinelli said. “With 360 watts on the climb, one can only continue for one or two kilometers, take 50 seconds, but after that, that’s all they can do. I hope that this is not cycling’s future, because it’ll be too easy. You sit at the computer and you program it all. I hope that someone has something else to disprove their theory, but for now, though, it’s that way.”

But Zanatta sees opportunity in the Giro’s wide-open racing.

“It’s not a golden rule that if you can ride at X watts you can win,” he added. “They are strong riders that are able to do that, and not everyone can do it. However, if you have one rider, then another, a Contador and then a Nibali, and then another, like Michele Scarponi, it draws out the leader. Wiggins, if he follows, I don’t think he’s just reading watts.”

A good chance

Sky’s riding prompted critics during Tirreno-Adriatico to refer to its riders as robots, cyclists who follow power meters instead their feelings.

“People get carried away with the whole machine/robot kind of thing and at the end of the day, they are human beings,” Brailsford explained.

They are human beings who are able to maintain control of the race and who protect a focused captain in Bradley Wiggins. With similar tactics, and luck on Italy’s roads, Wiggins may be unstoppable in this Giro d’Italia.

“When Sky takes control,” Martinelli said, “they are the strongest team with the strongest leader.”

FILED UNDER: Analysis / Giro d'Italia / Road TAGS: / /

Gregor Brown

Gregor Brown

Bikes kept Gregor Brown out of trouble growing up in Oklahoma — BMX, freestyle and then watching Greg LeMond's Tour de France wins on CBS television's weekend highlights shows. The drama of the 1998 Tour, however, truly drew him into the fold. With a growing curiosity in European races and lifestyle, he followed his heart and established camp on Lake Como's shores in 2004. Brown has been following the Giro, the Tour and every major race in Europe since 2006. He will tell you it is about the "race within the race" – punching out the news and running to finish – but he loves a proper dinner, un piatto tipico ed un vino della zona.

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