Lukas Pöstlberger’s Giro surprise is ‘life-changing’

OLBIA, Italy (VN) — ‘Go, Go Lukas!’ were the winning words. When Austrian Lukas Pöstlberger heard that over his earpiece from Bora-Hansgrohe teammate Sam Bennett, he accelerated to a Giro d’Italia stage win in Olbia, the first in the 100th edition, and the pink jersey.

The first stage wrapped its way into Olbia, in the northeast of the island of Sardinia. Pöstlberger led-out but looked back and found he had a gap over the bunch with 1.5 kilometers remaining. He held onto it for the victory.

“It means a lot for Lukas, it’s the biggest success in his career, we have to breathe and enjoy it and take it in,” said team sports director, Jens Zemke.

“He wasn’t normally on the plan to ride the Giro, but Leopold König had his knee problems and we decided to replace him, so we went with a young team. He was super-happy to ride the Giro and the dream came true in the 100th edition of the Giro.”

Pöstlberger had some idea that he could perhaps race the Giro. It was 50-50 that he would, but he still trained as though he was going to participate in his first grand tour.

The German team, this year in the WorldTour for the first time after it signed Peter Sagan, brought him to lead for sprinter Sam Bennett. The situation quickly changed when Luka Mezgec, Orica-Scott lead-out man for Caleb Ewan, unexpectedly eased off Pöstlberger’s wheel. Alone, he slalomed through the corners like a great Austrian skier Benjamin Raich and with more ease than the chasing group.

The 25-year-old became the first Austrian to win a Giro stage and wear the maglia rosa.

With his success, the sprinters lost one of the few occasions they have for stage wins in this mountainous Giro d’Italia.

“Chapeau to Pöstlberger,” André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) said. “He did a strong 1.5 kilometers, and I think he deserved to win.”

The name and even the pronunciation was new to most. Greipel was asked if he knows Pöstlberger. “Yeah, of course, that’s why I say his name!” added Greipel. “He was fourth or fifth in E3 Harelbeke [Pöstlberger was fifth in 2017 -Ed.], so that’s strong. For sure, that wasn’t the plan for them, but sometimes you have to make the best out of the situation and that’s what they did.”

“I don’t know anything about him,” said Orica sport director Matt White. “But good on him.

“It wasn’t that he wasn’t the strongest, he had a good moment and capitalized off of it. You need a bit of luck and he certainly had some, there wasn’t time for teams to get organized, but they can take nothing from him.

“The win is life-changing. The biggest win in his career and he’ll be lucky to win a bigger race ever.”

Pöstlberger began cycling at 10 when his school asked him if wanted to try mountain biking. Three years later, at a race, someone asked if he wanted to try on the road, and it went from there.

He trained as a carpenter. “And I can build you a kitchen if you need one,” he said with a laugh. “I just don’t have time now to do so!”

After today’s result, he may never need to work as a carpenter ever. His place in cycling seems secured.

“For me it’s the biggest result in my career,” he added. “Maybe I need some time and some weeks, and some glasses of wine to realize it. We went for the win today, it wasn’t planned for me, but that’s cycling.

“We have the stage and all the jerseys in the team. It’s the best day for the team and the Giro just started.

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Tejay Van Garderen ‘as good or better than he’s ever been’

OLBIA, Italy (VN) — Tejay van Garderen sat on the step of the BMC Racing team bus as a spring sun sunk in the Mediterranean Sea. Covered in grit and still pumping from the race-day adrenaline, he was no longer a Giro d’Italia newbie.

Mission accomplished. Van Garderen pushed through Friday’s hectic opening stage, avoiding a late-stage crash that swiped out his BMC teammate Laurent Didier, and crossed the line safely with the GC favorites in 39th. Well into his eighth pro season, in many ways, it was just another day in the saddle, but the first day of the 100th edition of the Italian grand tour was packed with significance.

“You get the feeling for the Giro,” van Garderen told VeloNews. “The crowds and the people and the atmosphere, it keeps you really positive.”

That will be the drumbeat inside BMC Racing for the coming three weeks: Stay positive, stay safe, and stay in the GC hunt.

Van Garderen’s Giro debut couldn’t be more loaded with anticipation. With BMC Racing fully backing Richie Porte for the Tour de France, the 2017 Giro is van Garderen’s chance to reassert his grand tour credentials.

“That’s his challenge right now, to show the doubters out there — I am not one of them, but I know there are some — that he can get this job done,” said BMC Racing manager Jim Ochowicz. “I think he’s as good or better than he’s ever been.”

Ochowicz said it’s wrong to cast van Garderen’s designation as the team’s Giro leader as a demotion.

“Not at all. The Giro has a lot of prestige, we have planned on this all year,” Ochowicz said. “His head’s in the game, the body is ready, and the team is ready. We will look at how it shakes out in three weeks’ time.”

BMC doesn’t line up as the top favorite — the weight of the race will fall on Movistar and Bahrain-Merida — so the team is looking to follow the wheels, avoid mishaps, and guide van Garderen into the second half of the Giro as close as possible to the sharp end of the leaderboard.

This Giro could serve as the 28-year-old’s grand tour revival. After twice finishing fifth in the Tour de France, van Garderen diplomatically accepted BMC’s Tour bet on Porte, and fully embraced the challenge of the Giro as a chance to remind everyone of what he’s capable of during three weeks of intense racing.

“I am feeling very good. It’s been a gradual progression, and I hit my form at the right time. I am happy with the work I’ve put in,” van Garderen said at the start. “I grew up during the Lance [Armstrong] years, and the Tour seemed very methodical and scripted, and the Giro is anything but. Every day you’re going to have to be on your toes, and expect the unexpected.”

The marching orders inside the BMC bus are: Get off these islands with GC options fully intact. Three days of racing across Sardinia, and two more on Sicily are on tap before a transfer to Italy’s boot. The team will focus on ushering van Garderen and BMC’s GC lieutenant Rohan Dennis safely around the booby traps. On Friday, Joey Rosskopf and Manuel Quinziato were designated to guide van Garderen through the stage. One down, four to go.

If van Garderen survives the first half of the Giro in strong GC position — key stages include summit finales at Mount Etna and Blockhaus and a long time trial on stage 10 — the final half of the Giro is ideal for his diesel engine in the high mountains.

“We think he’s ready for the Giro,” Ochowicz said. “This is a special race. Heck, I’d love to be the guy who wins the 100th edition of the Giro.”

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Hesjedal returns to the Giro as fan

ALGHERO, Italy (VN) — It didn’t take long for one of Italy’s tifosi to spot Ryder Hesjedal on Friday morning at the opening stage of the 2017 Giro d’Italia.

“Grande campione!” one called out as they grabbed Hesjedal’s arm to pose for a photograph. Dressed in a white T-shirt, jeans, and sandals, Hesjedal was more than happy to stop. For the first time in more than a decade, Hesjedal was on vacation in May instead of racing in Europe.

“It feels funny coming back here not racing, but I am happy with my career,” Hesjedal said. “It’s great to be back here to watch the racing and cheer on the guys from the sidelines.”

Still looking racer fit, Hesjedal is visiting the opening days of the Giro with a VIP credential slung around his neck. He was cheered during the team presentation Thursday night, and glad-handed at the start Friday morning, chatting to former rivals and old friends in the peloton. The days of racing cleats, helmets, and kit are long gone.

“There might be a moment when the race is really on that I might miss not being in the Giro, but I am enjoying life after racing,” said Hesjedal, who retired at the end of last season. “It was the right time to leave. I tried to win one more Giro. Now I am enjoying the bike in a different way.”

Hesjedal, who became Canada’s first grand tour winner with his 2012 Giro victory and in 2014 admitted to doping early in his career, said the transition to retirement has come fairly easily. He’s been able to do those simple things he couldn’t do in two-decade career of racing mountain bikes and road — spending time with family and friends, and hanging out at his favorite haunts in Maui and British Columbia.

“I started riding a bike because it was fun,” he said. “I started racing because I wanted to get to the ultimate level, and I did that for 20 years. Now it’s full circle, and I can go back and just enjoy.”

He’s been cycling in places like Iceland and revisiting some of his favorite mountain bike and road routes. In April, he rode La Redoute on the Liège-Bastogne-Liège route, and enjoyed a few Belgian beers instead of suffering during the classic. He’s visiting the Giro as part of an Italian trip with Italian apparel company Castelli, which included a detour to the Passo di Pampeago, a climb that was critical to his 2012 Giro victory.

“I rode it a little slower this time,” he said with a relaxed grin. “I head back to Canada, and I will watch the Giro from a bar just like everyone else.”

Hesjedal might be once again walking among the mere mortals of the world, but his name will be forever etched on the Giro’s unique, golden trophy. He proudly pointed out his name in a photo of the trophy.

“It’s nice to see your name on the trophy,” he said. “If you try to predict things too early, that’s when people get proven wrong. That’s the beauty of the Giro. Just like with my win.”

The rider long known as “Easy Ryder” can now really take it easy. It looks like he’s enjoying life.

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Bardiani fears Giro expulsion after drug suspensions

ALGHERO, Italy (AFP) — The sport director of the only all-Italian team invited to the 100th Giro d’Italia said he fears Bardiani-CSF will be thrown out following a doping scandal involving two of its riders.

“It’s a possibility,” Stefano Zanatta told AFP prior to Friday’s opening stage between Alghero and Olbia on the island of Sardinia. Zanatta said he cried when news broke of the positive doping tests.

“That’s why we’re really angry. This has caused a lot of problems for all of us. Not just for the seven guys who are still here.”

Bardiani, a second-division team composed exclusively of up-and-coming Italians, was overjoyed several months ago when it was handed one of four wildcard invitations for the Italian grand tour.

On the eve of the race Thursday, shortly after a glitzy team presentation, Bardiani was left “shocked” after the UCI notified it that Stefano Pirazzi and Nicola Ruffoni had tested positive for banned growth hormones. In accordance with UCI rules, both riders are now suspended facing further investigation.

If their “B” samples are also positive, the entire team could be suspended for 15-45 days, which would end Bardiani’s Giro before the race finishes in Milan on May 28.

Pirazzi, 30, won the best climber’s competition at the 2013 Giro and won a stage to Vittorio Veneto in 2014. Ruffoni, 26, is in his fourth year as a professional.

Although both are suspected of using the same product, Zanatta played down suggestions they had colluded in the affair.

“No, they’re not [good friends],” Zanatta said. “One lives in Brescia, one lives in Roma. Pirazzi is quite a closed guy, not very expansive, while Ruffoni is a good guy, good company.

“But this isn’t important. Now we have a big problem for the team, for the sponsors, for the whole race.

“I’ve been working as a sports director for 20 years, I put my face to this project to develop a young Italian team, so for me it’s very hard.”

Asked what his emotions were on Thursday, Zanatta said: “I cried. In this moment, it’s possible that everyone’s talking badly about the team. That’s not good.

“The organizers believed in our project, a team of young Italian guys with an Italian sponsor.

“Cycling in Italy isn’t going really well. One thing we need is for more young Italian guys to be joining WorldTour teams.

“But like this, we go right back to the bottom step. I think there’s been a real change in mentality [in terms of doping], but obviously not sufficiently.”

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Studying the Giro: How Mount Etna affects GC race

The opening week of the Giro d’Italia features an early showdown on Europe’s only active volcano, Mt. Etna, which is located on the island of Sicily. How will the hulking mountain impact the race? Let’s take a close look at this climb and the impact it has had on recent editions of Italy’s biggest race.

Mount Etna by the numbers: 17.45km, average gradient of 7 percent, with a max of 14 percent, which riders reach after 8.69km of climbing.

Previous Giro stages: 2011, stage 9; 1989, stage 2; 1967, stage 7.

What history can teach us: In 2011, Alberto Contador used Mount Etna to catapult himself into the Maglia Rosa, which he held until the finish for a whopping 12 stages. He was subsequently stripped of his title, as well as the two stage wins along the way, due to that pesky Clenbuterol violation from the previous year’s Tour de France. Scandal aside, Mt. Etna was a decisive climb that year.

During the Giro’s two prior visits to Etna (1989 and 1967), the mountain failed to produce the decisive battle. In 1989, Portugal’s Acacio da Silva won atop Etna on the race’s second stage. He wore pink for a day and held the points jersey through stage 6, but after that he was a relatively anonymous player in the race. At the end of the three weeks, he was fifth overall in the points classification. Stage 2 was the last of his five stage wins in the race.

In 1967, it was Italy’s Franco Bitossi who was the opportunistic victor on Etna on stage 7. Again, Bitossi did not win the overall or even claim the KOM jersey. He held on to finish third in the mountains classification and was never considered a grand tour threat (he did win the Italian national championship in 1976).

In both the 1989 and 1967 Giri, the eventual Giro winners kept their powder dry, opting to ride at the front — but not win the stage or seize pink — on the slopes of the volcano. In short, Etna’s explosive reputation did not blow them from the race. Laurent Fignon was sixth in 1989, on the same time as da Silva; Felice Gimondi was seventh in 1967, 26 seconds behind Bitossi.

What will we see this year? It is likely that the 2017 trip up Mount Etna will be similar to that in 2011. Riders will be fresh, so the time gaps might be small. When Contador won (err… “won”) stage 8, the top-15 riders were all within 1:13 of each other. Though they climbed a different road to the Rifugio Sapienza finish that year, the stage is very similar to stage 4 of the 2017 route: a category 1 climb halfway through, the 1,631-meter northern shoulder of Etna in 2011. This year, the peloton will ride the 1,524-meter Portella Femmina Morta, whose finishing climb is about the same gradient (6.6 percent) but slightly shorter at 17.95km.

Although the 2017 Giro’s final week is piled high with major climbs, it seems the eventual winner must finish within about a minute of the victor on Mount Etna. All three prior examples bear this out.

Top favorites Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) might not win stage 4. Perhaps they won’t want to defend the jersey so early in the race, either.

No matter who claims the day’s honors, any legitimate team leader should be near the front on the first summit finish. If a GC hopeful such as Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) or Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) loses more than a minute on Etna, they might consider hitting the panic button and asking their team PR person to distribute the “He’s going for stage wins” press release. Aspiring climbers who come to the bottom of the final climb with the lead group might have an opportunity to shine if the overall contenders choose to ride defensively and mark each other’s moves.

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