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John Wilcockson/Yuzuru Sunada

In a perfect cycling world, the sun would always shine, nobody would crash, and the prerace favorite would always win. But that’s not how cycling became both the most beautiful and the most unpredictable of modern sports. I remember the closing day of the 1989 Tour de France. Most of the European press corps had already written their wrap-up stories in which Laurent Fignon comfortably defended his yellow jersey over Greg LeMond in the short final time trial into Paris to win the Tour for a third time. Some of the Dutch and Belgian journalists even took off early, headed for home, but came scurrying back when they heard that LeMond had overcome his near-one-minute deficit and won the Tour by eight seconds. Nothing quite as dramatic happened this week at the Giro d’Italia, but the shocks that reverberated through the race were no less important.

After the 2013 Giro, when Vincenzo Nibali coped best with the persistent rain, cold winds and even snow to win the race ahead of Rigoberto Urán and Cadel Evans, pundits said that conditions couldn’t be as bad again this year. Not so!

Wet weather, slick road surfaces and a nervous peloton have both wrecked and built the race scenario through the first week of this 97th Giro. It began with the first-day team time trial in Belfast, Northern Ireland. One of the stage favorites, Garmin-Sharp, was racing at 60 kilometers per hour in a single line 14 kilometers into the 21.7-kilometer TTT when (as seen on the overhead video shots) Dan Martin, the fifth of the eight riders in the line, hit the edge of a manhole cover, wobbled, then slid and crashed on a second wet manhole cover right after. Martin and the three teammates behind him all hit the deck, while the front four waited (the stage time was taken on the fifth rider to cross the line). The result for Garmin was bad: Martin, with a broken clavicle, was out of the Giro, and co-team-leader Ryder Hesjedal would start the remaining 20 stages with a three-minute deficit.

It rained again on the first two road stages, finishing in Belfast and Dublin, Ireland; and all three stages of the race after it reached southern Italy were peppered with crashes on the slick road surfaces—“like cycling on soap,” one rider said after stage 4 into Bari. Because of the conditions, the race was neutralized by the peloton until one lap to go on the 8.3-kilometer finishing circuit, which featured a dozen turns. The stage time was taken at the bell, leaving the daredevil sprinters to contest the finish lap between them. The one who took the biggest risks was French rider Nacer Bouhanni.

The team rider had to change bikes on the penultimate lap, and it took him a lap to catch the peloton with help from his teammates—a risky proposition on such a slick, technical course. After catching his breath and avoiding a number of crashes, Bouhanni almost fell a couple of times, and then, inside 3 kilometers to go, he came to a halt in avoiding a fallen rider. He chased back again with a teammate to the diminished peloton, and inside the final kilometer he jumped across a 50-meter gap to a six-man split led by three Giant-Shimano riders. Finally, on a two-part left turn, inside 500 meters to go, he felt his bike almost slide from under him. After regaining his balance he had to chase hard to close a 20-length gap on Giant’s Tom Veelers before sprinting to the stage win.

The rain returned for the finale of stage 5, where a Cat. 4 climb followed by a long, slick descent left only 30 riders to fight out the uphill finish. All of the pre-race favorites were in that group, including Evans of BMC Racing and Urán of Omega Pharma-Quickstep; the top two from the 2012 Giro, Garmin’s Hesjedal and Joaquim Rodriguez of Team Katusha; former Giro winners Ivan Basso of Cannondale and Michele Scarponi of Astana; and the top favorite, Colombian climber Nairo Quintana of Movistar.

Conventional wisdom pointed to a stage win by Rodriguez, the summit-finish expert, and that’s the way it looked to be going when his teammate Dani Moreno closed down a last-kilometer attack by Tinkoff-Saxo’s Nicolas Roche and then led out Rodriguez for the expected stage win. Two factors changed that outcome. First, unknown to everyone except his entourage, the Spanish veteran was nursing two broken ribs from his crash at the Amstel Gold Race on April 20 and still searching for top form; and, second, Moreno didn’t have the power to make his usual lead-out, leaving Rodriguez out in the wind too long—and the talented Italian Diego Ulissi of Lampre-Merida jumped clear for the stage win ahead of an impressive Evans, who always excels in such challenging conditions.

And so we came to the Giro’s first true summit finish on Thursday—preceded by the sort of mass pileup that often happens in the first week of a grand tour. Normally (if that’s the right word), such huge crashes occur at a non-strategic phase of the race. Remember the crashes on the greasy descent of the Côte de Stockeu in the Ardennes stage of the 2010 Tour de France that involved Andy Schleck and other race contenders? That happened 33 kilometers from the end of the stage and when Schleck’s teammate Fabian Cancellara encouraged the front peloton to slow down and allow the dropped riders to catch back on, the only effect it had on the race (besides helping the crashed riders) was allowing breakaway rider Sylvain Chavanel to stay away for a solo stage win.

Such a slow-down was implausible on Thursday on the wet roads of southwest Italy. The peloton in stage 6 of the Giro had already been in the saddle for more than six hours and 246 kilometers. The riders were in the streets of Cassino, a tailwind blowing them at speeds of 70 kilometers per hour as Evans’ BMC team and Urán’s Omega Pharma troops led the race toward the finishing climb, which was just 2 kilometers away. As they made the now familiar slalom through the right side of a roundabout, what would have been the 13th rider in line (the first 12 riders went clear) either skidded or hit the curb and chaos ensued.

By the time the first dozen riders began the 8.5-kilometer climb to the finish on Montecassino, it seemed to be clear that the Katusha riders leading Rodriguez were among the first to hit the deck: Angel Vicioso (later diagnosed with a multi-fractured femur) and Giampaolo Caruso (massive contusions added to the scaphoid he fractured in Ireland) went to the hospital, while Rodriguez managed to finish the stage, almost eight minutes back, before x-rays showed he’d broken his wrist and another rib.

Evans said he heard the crash, but with the race full on, neither he nor those with him, including race leader Michael Matthews of Orica-GreenEdge, were thinking about waiting. They were racing. Racing hard. Significantly, the 20 chasers who reached the foot of the climb 40 seconds after the Evans-Matthews group closed to 30 seconds, mainly led by Urán and teammate Wout Poels, the AG2R riders Maxime Bouet and Domenico Pozzovivo, along with Quintana—but when Evans went to the front for the last kilometer he opened up the gap to 49 seconds, with only Matthews (who won the sprint), Italian veteran Matteo Rabottini and Belgian youngster Tim Wellens managing to stay with BMC’s Aussie leader.

Some said after the stage that Evans and Matthews were lucky to avoid the big pileup; but they were out front, out of trouble, and deserved their success. It’s still early days in this Giro, and the first true mountaintop finishes don’t happen until this weekend. If it’s assumed that the finish climbs this Saturday and Sunday will be too long and steep for Matthews to hang on to his maglia rosa, Evans is now the virtual race leader with 57 seconds lead on Urán, 1:30 on Astana’s upstart climber Fabio Aru, 1:45 on Basso, 1:47 on Quintana, and 4:39 ahead of Hesjedal—who still can’t be ruled out from the podium.

Besides, with favorites such as Martin and Rodriguez already out of the race, we can expect that this Giro will produce a lot more of the unexpected in its final two weeks.

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