Nairo Quintana was a deserving winner of the Giro d’Italia, but this Giro also told a broader story of the new generation of cycling’s elite pushing through and surpassing the old.
Quintana himself, at 24 also the winner of the best young rider classification, is arguably the most precocious GC rider of his generation.
A victory in the Giro seems like such a natural progression after his 2nd place in the 2013 Tour de France that it’s easy to take it for granted, but he had to shrug off a poor first half of the race, illness, and controversy over the way he took the maglia rosa from his compatriot Rigoberto Uran on Stage 16.
Fortunately the strength of Quintana’s rides in the Stage 19 time trial and the Stage 20 climb of Monte Zoncolan silenced any grumbles over the legitimacy of his victory. For perhaps the first time in his life, he was head and shoulders above his rivals.
On the really steep gradients Quintana is a virtuoso, all smoothness and light. Whatever emotion his stony face hides instead flows through his pedals. The contrast to Chris Froome, a man whose style is effective but has all the grace of a man fighting an octopus, is stark. It is a great shame that we’ll have to wait another year to see them resume their Tour de France rivalry.
But this Giro was about more than Quintana.
Cycling’s older generation is slipping inexorably out of the top echelon.
Of all the men who won stages at this Giro, only two are over 30: Michael Rogers (34) and Pieter Weening (33).
The average age of the stage winners was just under 26.
Of the top 10 on general classification, seven were aged under 30.
Rafal Majka (24), Fabio Aru (23) and Wilco Kelderman (23) are all young enough to compete for the best young rider’s jersey.
Rigoberto Uran, Pierre Rolland and Robert Kiserlovski are all 27. Still young, but no longer considered emerging riders, they are beginning to deliver on promise shown over a number of seasons as professionals.
Of course we can’t forget the performances of Michael Matthews (23), Marcel Kittel (26) and Nacer Bouhanni (23). Double stage winner Diego Ulissi is 24.
King of the Mountains winner Julian Arredondo is 25.
That’s a huge amount of success for a lot of young riders.
Of the others in the top ten overall, Cadel Evans is the oldest at 37. Ryder Hesjedal is 33, and Domenico Pozzovivo is 31.
Evans’ stellar career is clearly winding down (albeit I think he has a couple of good seasons and some more wins left in him); Hesjedal seems to be rediscovering his form from a couple of years ago (his effort to hold Quintana’s wheel on the stage to Val Martello was outstanding); and Pozzovivo showed flashes of brilliance but suffered from a lack of consistency.
Meanwhile, the old guard of Italian cycling, Ivan Basso and Michele Scarponi, had forgettable races. Basso finished 15th, but was rarely in contention when it mattered, and eventually finished 32 minutes behind Quintana.
Scarponi had a horror Giro after starting the race as designated leader, withdrawing after stage 16. He was never a factor in the race, but his Astana team was saved disappointment by his understudy Aru.
Of the other older riders who would have been considered amongst the favourites not many years ago, Michael Rogers was 18th (although two stage wins was an incredible achievement); Damiano Cunego was 19th; Samuel Sanchez 24th.
Yes, this was definitely a Giro for the new era. The riders who lit up the race are (with some obvious exceptions) almost all of the post-Puerto era, untainted by controversy.
These are the names we’ll be following for the next few years at the top level of professional cycling. Note them down.