Eyewitness: Silence of the Lambs

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Photographs: Paolo Ciaberta

Silence. The Colle dell’Agnello is swarming with people, but you wouldn’t know it.
This climb, cresting right on the frontier between Italy and France, is stunning, but today, Stage 19 of the 99th Giro d’Italia, it’s blanketed in an obscure, grimy mist. A few bike lengths worth of visibility in every direction, and then a wall of white, with just the vaguest silhouette of a lonely photographer in the haze.
Michele Scarponi, from the ether. Gregario cum laude, riding solo, a bend away from the Cima Coppi, the Giro’s highest point. Being the first to the summit is an honour, but this isn’t a selfish exertion, this is self-sacrific … on a climb that translates as the Hill of the Lambs. The 36-year-old is earning every cent of his contract today by forcing everyone else’s hand.
Now, the quiet cracks. Horns, screaming fans, Vincenzo Nibali. Down, but not out. Steven Kruijswijk on his wheel. Even for them, the pace looks gruesome. They’re gone again, into the murk, in an instant. More riders come and go, occasionally marked out by distant shouts. Dai, Pirazzi! Forza, Domenico! Sei un grande, Giovanni… From the side of the road, there’s no rhyme or reason to a bike race.
Then, the cloud broke. Chaos. We can’t have been more than a few hundred metres away, but it might as well have been another continent. Through the fog, through the madding crowd, the congestion of team cars and motorbikes and the rolling dead of the gruppetto, masticated by three weeks of racing but still slaving away, there was no way of knowing. Kruijswijk, hitherto so bullish, had crashed.
For a rider like Nibali, it was a gift from God. As the Dutchman scrambled to pick himself up, struggled to fix the damage and ultimately resigned himself to waiting for a mechanic and a bike change, the Sicilian did what he does best. He attacked, for the sake of his pride as much as his Giro.
We struggled for details from from passing team cars and from phones struggling for signal. The frustration of not knowing in an age accustomed to knowing it all only added to the excitement. And back in our Skoda, we huddled over the radio. The race, all but won on Friday morning, was unravelling on the road to Risoul.
They call Nibali the Shark. They might change that to the Phoenix. At the line, he collapsed onto his bars and gave way to tears. And on the side of the road, just over the border, two 1 journalists punched the air. What a rider. What a race.
A 4’43” deficit to Kruijswijk wiped out in one stroke. Only a 44 second gap to the new maglia rosa, Estaban Chaves. The Colombian in pink, but Italy’s hero in control. Objectivity be damned. We didn’t have to see it. We knew. The radio sketched it out and imagination did the rest. This was a masterpiece.

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