Friday, May 29, 2009

The Winner

How many races can you think back on where the performance you remember isn’t the rider who won, but the rider who animated the race? Was in every significant move. Shed the slackers, the pretenders. Chewed up worthy winners. And rolled in second or third.

Walter Benjamin wrote that history is told by the victor. It’s a truth as unfortunate as taxes or paparazzi. The history books don’t include a box for the legs that detonated the race.

But those performances are remembered by those who suffered. Nothing is remembered so well as suffering.

Most watchers of this year’s Giro d’Italia who know anything about Grand Tours will tell you that Danilo DiLuca has waged an excellent battle against Dennis Menchov, and for that matter, the entire field in this year’s Giro d’Italia. That said, they’ll also tell you that while the time gap to Menchov is close, the chances of him picking up the time necessary to overcome him by the end of the crewcut-short time trial range between supermodel and black hole.

It’s a shame. As an Italian who has focused his entire season on vanquishing all comers at this country’s equivalent to the World Series, his never-say-die attitude has kept the racing as active as a toddler on espresso. Think back on all the Grand Tours that ended with the ultimate yellow/pink/gold jersey wearer going unchallenged for the last three or four stages. And how often did you find the victor less-than-worthy because he went unchallenged. Put another way, how often didn’t we like a guy through no fault of his own?

The 2009 Giro is anything but over. But knowing Menchov’s strength in time trials, his superiority to Di Luca in the race of truth and the fact that he has a cushion of time—no matter how small—makes the probably victor Russian. The time gap is likely to be less than a minute, but we all know Menchov only needs a single second, and not even all of it at that, to win the Giro. But sitting on Di Luca’s wheel? It may be an intelligent calculation, but it does little to fill the ranks of the fan club.

And while we all think bi-partisan lawmaking more likely than an eventual Di Luca victory, we’re fortunate that his attacks aren’t based on American Idol-like audience voting. Our sense of the inevitable would have made the racing much less interesting.

That Di Luca keeps attacking could be the act of a clueless boy, the twit who doesn’t know when to quit. But with a previous victory under his belt, and as the most recent Giro-winner present, he possesses self-knowledge that most of the others can scarcely guess.

Di Luca’s ongoing attacks are nothing short of the voice of hope. As a former winner, he’s no dope. He knows that a second shy of victory is a loss as much as being 2:00 down. Losing is nothing other than losing. And he knows the math better than we do. He knows what the best-case-scenario is for a seconds-per-kilometer gain in the final TT. He also knows how many seconds he is more likely to lose each kilometer in the TT. And yet, he persists.

What does a champion do, other than try to win to his dying breath? Years from now, I hope that Di Luca is remembered as the moral victor of the 2009 Giro—the guy who actually raced every day, every stage, a guy who attacked even when no one believed he could gain enough to make a difference. That heart made all the difference.


strangelife said...

"Il Killer di Spoltore" well deserves his legions of new fans.

Menchov has earned his likely victory. No doubt. But the people's champion is surely Di Luca. He is the face of the centenary Giro.

Stefano Garzelli deserves a tip of the hat as well.


simon lamb said...

really good post i just hope that di luca can do it.

Hank said...

Danilo has rewarded the Tifosi with a heroic performance. This has been a gripping Giro and he deserves much of the credit.

Menchov said as much when he said that he didn't like having to ride DiLuca's wheel. But that conservative strategy has been a smart response to DILuca's never say die ferocity.

Jim said...

DiLuca has ridden with great flair. Tactically, what he is doing makes sense. He needs time. From where he was a week ago, it was worth thinking that perhaps he could make Menchov crack on a steep hill. Perhaps he rides the TT of his life and finishes 19 seconds ahead of Menchov's time - a slim chance but that's how LeMond won his first Tour. Perhaps Menchov crashes in the TT, however briefly, and loses the advantage we all expect him to have.

DiLuca has won my respect with this race. I've always liked him but thought him a typical Italian star - awesome when he shows up, absent when things don't go his way. He's turned out to be really gritty though.

Sastre and Pellizotti deserve praise too, if you're going to talk about riders who have animated the race. They single handedly eliminated the guys who were hoping to ride conservatively to a win.

WheelDancer said...

There are few things as inspiring as a competitor with heart and the drive to stay in the fight. Podium-class writing like this is as rare as DiLuca's relentless spirit.

...chances of him picking up the time necessary to overcome him by the end of the crewcut-short time trial range between supermodel and black hole.Thanks for the great post!

Unknown said...

Wonderful Giro this year. Many legs adding brilliantly to the narrative.

Sadly, for me anyway, still a lot of PED clouds hanging over the GC.

If everyone contesting the GC rode with the brand of fire Di Luca has been riding with, the results of many races would be shuffled.

Bet there are legions of Moby fans who wish they could inject him with some of Di Luca's fire.

Unknown said...

great race. but for all the attacking spirit you point out, its a shame Di Luca is one of the top of the list of riders who seem to be highly suspect dopers who've used legal loopholes to avoid serious charges.

Hell they even had video evidence on him from the reports you read... not sure a win from him would be something to write home about.

Hope the vienna investigations on DM dont turn up such compelling evidence..

Anonymous said...

I believe that a Grand Tour is grand, not because of it distance and duration, but rather because it is sufficiently grand and generous to accommodate more than one winner. Of course the four traditional jersey winners, but heroic stage winners, the combative animators, and the heroic "triers," or even simply a crowd favorite that shows courage, flair, or class.

So, yes, hats off to Menchov. His ITT performance was amazing and makes him a worthy winner. But, also to Di Luca, Jens Voight (the cyclist's cyclist), Popovich and Smydz in the moutains, Cavendish and Petacchi in the sprints, Armstong for demonstrating his come-back is for real, and even Gilbert for silencing the critics.

Of course, there are many more that I have named. And, there are many more also to look forward to in July!

Tacissimo said...

The Killer has animated this Grand Tour with syle and ferocity. My only fear is watching a "dog in a hat", as he torched his team mates and continued to demand total worship at the alter of pain. If he survives unstained, my undying gratitude to him for challenging a worthy winner. I tremble at the thought of the alternative.

Padraig said...

Thanks everyone for the great compliments and even better comments. The suspicions about PEDs are problematic. Both Di Luca and Menchov have been the subject of some allegations; the unfortunate part of an allegation of doping is cycling is that it--right or not--carries the weight of fact.

And on the subject of Garzelli, Sastre, Pellizotti and Basso, yes, they all deserve big credit for making the event truly Grand. One of my personal favorite moments was seeing Di Luca chase Armstrong on a descent.

Ah, to be able to strike fear into the heart of a faster guy.

Old Fonzie said...

I'm all for passion, but how much time did DiLuca lose in the 60k time trial for not using a more aero set up?

Sure the course had climbing, but it seems that he could have retained the maglia rosa if he had been a bit more passionate about bicycle tech. LeMond made up 50 seconds over a 20 k course to win the '89 Tour primarily to the innovative use of aerobars. At the time the tribar was spurned by the pro peloton but since that convincing time trial they've been standard equipment.

What was he thinking rolling up to the start on a normal bike? Did he passionately believe the laws of physics not apply to the killer because gravity is only a theory?

Mathematically, he would have won the Cinque Terre time trial by a good half minute if he realized a 50 second improvement each 20 k. More realistically, if DiLuca had been able to gain just a third of the tribar advantage realized by Lemond, and cut just 50 seconds off over the 60 k course, he would have still lost the time trial but kept the jersey and the empowerment that being the leader bestows. He probably would have won the Giro.

Anonymous said...

Correction on the history of tri-bars:

When Lemond used Scott clip-on bars, they were patently in violation of the UCI rules, which required pnly five point of contact between rider and bike -- saddle, pedals and two hands on the bars. The tri-bars used by Lemond allowed for 7 points of contact by adding elbow rests. This allowed Greg to obtain the radically forward position on his bike that theretofore was only seen in Triathlons.

By all rights, Greg should have been DQ'd as he knowingly and intentionally broke a very clear rule. But, he cleverly tricked the TdF organizers by "innocently" asking whether his Scott clip ones were OK. The organizers, not the UCI, gave the OK, apparently not wise to the unfair advantage Greg was getting over Laurent Fignon. In short, Greg use his New World wile to gain a (dishonorable) victory.

The UCI still might have intervened and stripped Greg of his undeserved win, but with the complication of the organizer's improper authorization, apparently decided not to step into that hornets nest. Poor Fignon thus went down in history as the only rider to be blatantly cheated of victories in both the TdF (Lemond) and the Giro (Moser).

In all events immediately subsequent to Greg's historical steal, the UCI suddenly found its backbone and forbad the use of tri bars, instead only allowing the "bull horn" TT bars that were already in use before Lemond's stunt -- the bull horn bars did not all the rider to rest his elbows them but did give a lower rider profile.

As we all know, by due process and not by devious shenanigans, the rules were eventually changed to allow 7 points of contact and the tri-bars that we all see in TTs.

* * * * *

Whether Di Luca might has done faster with clip on bars, as some riders choose to use, is debatable because they require the rider to change the set-up into a partial TT position, which doesn't usually suit Di Luca.

In any event, under the old rules that such greats as Eddy Merckx had to follow -- TTs on normal bikes -- I think we can be fairly certain that Di Luca would have won. So, yes, one might say that Menchov owes his victory to technology, not traditional, classic cycling ability.

Erik W. Laursen said...

I know this was written before the end of the race, but did you see Menchov's emotion at the end. We've never seen that from him before. I hadn't been a fan of him until seeing that. Similarly, when Sastre attacked I became a fan of a rider who I always thought was a boring wheelsucker. As for DiLuca, I don't think he's a egomaniacal blowhard anymore.

This Giro changed my mind about a lot of people. It was a great race this year.

bikesgonewild said...

...a giro ridden as a giro should be ridden..., aggressive & w/ "grande passione"...a thoroughly enjoyable odyssey through the beautiful italian countryside...

...& in the old story of "stars & watercarriers", hats off to so many who stepped up to their respective challenges...

Old Fonzie said...

DB, very interesting insight on the LeMond bars. Twenty years later, however, the aero gear is standard.

Di Luca was thirteen when LeMond changed racing. I can't see why anyone making a bid to win a Grand Tour in this day and age wouldn't put in the time to learn how to use a time trial bike.

Di Luca uses other recent tech changes. He adapted to using clipless pedals, indexed shifting, modern jersies and helmets. He's not out there in leather soled shoes and wool shorts with a cabbage leaf under his hat.

I can see how the UCI wants to make it about the racers and not the bike, but I kind of wonder what the world would be like if the bike had been unleashed from these regulations. Would we all be driving around at 60 mph in aeroshelled HPV's rather than cars because UCI racing proved bikes were faster and more efficient?

Even still, I really wanted to see Di Luca or Sastre win. Their rides were inspiring. But I was also happy to see Breukink's team bring it up a few notches to support their leader. Especially after their disappointing Spring campaign.

Unknown said...

There are wheelsuckers but Menchov sure isn't one, and there are moral winners but di Luca sure isn't one!

I would have agreed if you had said that years from now this Giro will be remembered more for the battle di Luca gave to Menchov than for Menchov's victory - but it is absolutely wrong and eminently silly to claim any sort of moral victory for di Luca.

mhandsco said...

Not to in any way diminish Menchov's outstanding effort, but Vincent Hendriks = PRO.

bikenerd said...

"Perhaps Menchov crashes in the TT, however briefly"

nice call, Jim!

jza said...
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