False Kings

Once upon a time, the people of the Dolomites worshipped the Marmot. Weird, but true. The first queen of the Fanes was adopted by a water goddess who raised her with the rodents until she learned their language and developed the ability to turn herself into one.
With that kind of lineage, you’d think that her ancestors would have been able to smell a rat – sorry – but they’re eventually undone when a princess married a foreign wrong ‘un who tried to trade his children, turned the peaceful kingdom into a war state and then betrayed his daughter and his people in search of riches. He was eventually defeated and turned to stone, and his crown is said to make up the peaks of the Falzarego – False King in the local lingo.
Alejandro Valverde and Andrey Amador didn’t quite turn to stones on Stage 14’s 210km meander through some of northern Italy’s most spectacular mountains, but they certainly dropped off the back like them. Tasting blood in the water, Vincenzo Nibali sank his teeth in and set his Astana squad to attack. Movistar were butchered. But there was no time to celebrate – other predators lay in wait to tussle with Italy’s Shark. In terms of plot twists and excitement, it was a stage for the ages. And the scenery wasn’t half bad, either.
The Dolomites equal drama. Sweet, sweet, bike-racing drama. It’s not for nothing that the Gazzetta dello Sport once dubbed this place La Maracanã Rosa, after Rio de Janeiro’s great stadium. Having apparently been made from myths, these mountains have a habit of making them, too.
In the first Giro after WWII, Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali played out one of their most famous battles on these slopes, with the Tuscan in the Maglia Rosa and the Piedmontese hot on his wheel. Legend has it that Ginettaccio had enjoyed a heavy night on the town after retiring from the race. He’d left in a fit of pique at having been banned by the Italian cycling federation from competing in the profitable Tour de Suisse, only to be told the next morning that the president had changed his mind. He could go to Switzerland – but he was also back in the Giro. How’s that for a nasty hangover surprise.
Not unlike in 2016, 1946’s Stage 14 was a monster: 203km from Auronzo di Cadore on the Austrian border to Bassano del Grappa on mostly unpaved roads.
Only Il Campionissimo knows if it was wine or weakness he smelled from Bartali that day, but he attacked his great rival at the base of the Passo Falzarego, showing how premature everyone had been in writing him off earlier in the race when he’d been laid low by stomach pains. By the time the race entered its final 40km, Bartali was more than five minutes behind.
In the end, Gino the Pious’ prayers were answered and thanks to a scrappy alliance cobbled together on the hoof, he limited his losses to Coppi, the stage winner, and kept the pink jersey all the way to Milan for his final Giro title. But the win aside, the message from the Dolomites was clear, Bartali had been dethroned. All hail King Coppi.
This time around, it’s still too early to crown Nibali, but the Sicilian certainly sent a message on those slopes. Unable to respond to the heroic – pyrrhic?  – attack from Steven Kruijswijk and Esteban Chaves on the final kilometres to Corvara, the Astana leader’s performance felt oddly like defeat, but it might yet prove to be a triumphant moment come Turin.
It will be interesting to see how much that assault took from the Dutchman and the sensational young Colombian, but this much is sure: it’s Adios Alejandro. Arrivederci Andrey. The Shark bit, but was bitten too. After two weeks of racing, this year’s Corsa Rosa is only just taking shape. Il Giro è apertissimo.

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