El Mortirolo is Andrey Amador on the run, fed up with gels and protein bars asking José Luis Arrieta, please, Arri, give me something salty, give me some pringles, Whatever, I can’t take it anymore. The Stelvio is a narrow path between two ice walls, and Armand de las Cuevas lost his bike and for hundreds of meters he leaves his mark on one of the walls, and that is how Arrieta sees it, his memory.
15th stage. June 5, 1994, Sunday. Mikel Landa was 4 years old, Richard Carapaz was one year old, Jay Hindley had two years left to be born, and Joao Almeida had four.
De las Cuevas, Arrieta, and Indurain, at his wheel, and Indurain, 1.88m, 80 kilos, warmly dressed, almost wearing a fleece lining, fat, a garment that barely perspires, and the Navarrese sweats and sweats because when he gets to the top of the Stelvio, 2,758 meters, has stopped snowing, the sun is shining, and light, Pantani, 24 years old, 1.72m, 58 kilos, behind him, sharpens the knife. The Mortirolo awaits –12 kilometers of ascent, 1,300m drop at 11%, and 200 meters at 18%–, and also the Valico de Santa Cristina via Tresenda, 13.5 kilometers at 8%, the unknown monster. Although inaugurated by Chioccioli in 1991, its malignity breathed darkened by the Mortirolo stain, the narrow ascent of impossible slopes -and then followed by Angliru, Zoncolan, Loze, Gamoniteiru…- which could already enter cycling thanks to the technical advances, to the possibility of very agile developments.
That hot Sunday, Indurain wants to win the Giro, his third consecutive Giro. He is three and a half minutes behind the blond Berzin in the general classification, and he thinks that between Mortirolo and Santa Cristina he can recover everything he has lost, and that his ally would be Pantani, who is not yet the Pirate, but a hairless young man who is beginning to amaze for its audacity and its ability to climb.
Pantani passes with a 50s advantage over Indurain at the top of Mortirolo, then promoted by his Mazzo slope, the hardest, not Monno, more smooth (962 meter drop in 12.6 kilometers at 7.6%, and a landing and 200 meters at 16%), that of this Giro. The Navarrese makes the descent of his life and reaches the Italian before the Valico, and shoots like a man possessed. At the foot of the last ascent, Berzin is already two minutes away. The rose approaches, Indurain feels invulnerable. As soon as you enter the forest of Santa Cristina, the fullness becomes empty. Pantani attacks. Indurain stays.
That day, Indurain suffered a bout in the Valico that made half of Spain think that his end was near, that the three Tours he had already won were going to be everything, but the final bout would only come in the ’96 Tour, and he lost the turn.
“That day, the cold, the patient, the calculating Miguel let himself be carried away by passion and, for once, went beyond his limits”, recalls Eusebio Unzue, its director, together with José Miguel Echavarri, at Banesto. “He got emotional at Mortirolo, where Pantani had attacked and where Berzin had already started to stay, and, instead of going up at his pounding and safe pace and continuing to open a gap with Berzin, he went for Pantani… And the dehydration that he suffered from climbing the Stelvio so warmly it didn’t help much either”. Echávarri, more enigmatic, preferred to tell it with a metaphor: “The best perfume comes in a small bottle… You have to spend it very little by little…”
Instinct attacks a la Pantani
Carapaz and Landa, and between the two of them they would, perhaps, live the fantasy, a kind of Pantani, attacks of instinct, of madness, which begin by ripping the earpiece out of the ear so as not to have to put up with the tostón of directors frightened by the audacity They would prefer that neither Almeida nor Hindley, and between the two they would be half Indurain, knew the story and also let themselves be carried away by emotion until they lost consciousness on the way to the Santa Cristina forest on Tuesday. Among the first four of the Giro, from Carapaz to Landa, fourth, and between Hindley and Almeida, there are 59s. There are six stages left. Four in the mountains –two very hard, two hard, on Saturday, the Marmolada–, a sprint, and a 15-kilometre time trial. “Pull off your little earpiece?” says Landa, who remembers Landa and wants to remember Ocaña. “That is the symbol of instinct. Climbers are more impulsive. Sometimes we allow ourselves to be guided more by impulse or instinct than by a direct order. You find everything with the directors. Sometimes they encourage you, sometimes they want to slow you down. It depends on how big the madness is. The director’s brake as an accelerator? Sometimes the greatest victories come from such madness, from genius”.
Carapaz, who, with the privileges of a leader, made the transfer to Brescia from the Aosta mountain by helicopter, is where he wants to be, in pink, because with his great Ineos, and the resurrected Castroviejo, he masters perfectly the art of defense and kickback. “Having the jersey is very important,” says Carapaz, who also started in pink the last week of the Giro del 19, the one he won. And he also reached it on Saturday, in the 14th stage, and Mortirolo was also on Tuesday, the 16th stage, like this year, and rain is also expected this year and thermal inversion, heat at the top, at almost 2,000 meters, and cold in the valley, and also the Giro ends in Verona, in the Arena of Aida, with a short time trial. “It’s important and not only because it repeats the steps from back then, but because, as we’ve already seen, it’s a very strong motivation for the team”.
And Landa, staying at a Hilton, what less, the third day of rest, does not complain either. He tells the press: “I feel very good, I recover well every day, my health is good, the team is fine. I am happy. I’m ready. Finally comes the best of the Giro. We are entering the third week. We are one minute away from the pink jersey. Everything goes according to plan. I am facing a great opportunity. Hopefully I can take advantage of it until the end. I have dreamed many times of winning the Giro. Let’s keep dreaming. We are going to aspire to the maximum”.
And he tells his friends that he is as good as ever, even better than in 2015, when he won at Madonna di Campiglio and Mortirolo, attacks condoned in a certain way, because he was five minutes behind the leader, Contador, but he also attacked at Le Finestre the last Saturday and did not win the Giro against Contador because his director, Italian, stopped him so that his Sardinian teammate Fabio Aru could finish second.
“This year, if I were five minutes away, my goal would not be to fight for the general classification. From then to here things have changed a lot and tomorrow no matter how far away I am, when I move they are going to try to follow me yes or yes…”, warns the man from Alava. “It’s not a question of whether they let you or not. You have to have legs to go. If you have them, you leave, if not… And then Almeida and Hindley are very regular runners, who know how to pick up their rhythm, and, if you don’t crush them, at the end of the climb you have them on the back of your neck again. And having someone close behind, someone close, when you are giving your best, always makes you doubt and makes you suffer more”.
Max Sciandri, the director of Movistar, guided Carapaz to his Giro del 19, -“a magical Giro”, he says, “the whole team was as if touched by a wand, everything turned out as we had dreamed” – and the Ecuadorian helped him Landa, his teammate, and finished fourth, 8s behind third, Roglic. But Sciandri bets on Carapaz, with an attack capacity, to surprise, he says, an instinct, that he has only seen Nibali. “Well, and maybe Landa a little too,” says the coach.
And Landa does not know if what he knew Carapaz that Giro will help him to defeat the Ecuadorian. “The more you get to know someone and their strengths, the harder it is to find a weakness,” he explains. “Richi and I know each other, maybe not very well but well enough, because we share the Giro, but it is difficult to interpret him, to know when he is bluffing or playing cards. He is a rider who maintains his pedaling very well, whether he is going well or not. In The Tour, we have already seen, that he plays a little with the picaresque of trying to deceive, even if he is doing well, of making gestures of not being able to. Pretty hard to figure out, really. If he has some gesture, some tic, when he goes wrong, I haven’t found it, really”.
Add the Basque cyclist, the one with the most extraordinary appearance among climbers on a bike, who does not know if he has any telltale tic that he is not doing well. “I’m sure I’ll have something, but I can’t figure it out…” he says. And, of course, he hopes that Almeida and Hindley, and that they, so cold, will also be betrayed and mistaken by emotion, like Indurain.