Cadel Evans wins Stage 7 of the 2010 Giro d’Italia in Montalcino. Photo: Luk Beines/AFP/Getty Images.

What with being deprived of, for various reasons*, Contador, Menchov, Valverde, Pellizotti, di Luca, the Schleck brothers, Armstrong and Cancellara you could have been forgiven for thinking that this year’s Giro d’Italia might be a disappointment.

Not a bit of it. In fact, I wonder if these days the Giro doesn’t often provide better racing than the Tour de France. It certainly did today. On paper the stage from Carrara to Montalcino was interesting but not obviously threatening even though it included some 20km over the Tuscan strade bianche – that is, gravel and shale roads that offer a small reminder of the conditions the giants of yesteryear battled every day.

But it turned into an epic and a stage during which the comforts and accoutrements of modern cycling proved almost worthless. This was an old-school day and all the better for it. Racing through heavy rain and in freezing temperatures the stage became a hideous test of fortitude and skill.

And luck: Vincenzo Nibali, resplendent in pink this morning, crashed, lost two minutes and the Maglia Rosa too. His team-mate Ivan Basso also tumbled and lost ground – though not so much as poor Carlos Sastre who limped in five minutes off the pace and now lies seven minutes back, his dreams of adding a Giro to his palmares surely shattered before we even hit the mountains. 

No, it was miserable and brutal in Tuscany today and so it was thrilling too. Mud-caked and soaked and freezing, the riders endured more than five hours of hard, horrendous cycling before Cadel Evans held off Vinokourov and Cunego to cross the line first for a famous triumph at the end of a day so tough and exciting that it was as though a one-day classic had been dropped into a three week Grand Tour.

All this, mind you, reminded one of the moral quandary that comes with following cycling: can it really be wholly proper to find pleasure amidst other people’s suffering even if that suffering is well-rewarded and voluntary? Perhaps, but there’s a sadism to and demanded by cycling that might be thought ethically dubious in other circumstances. But if the riders aren’t tested to and beyond breaking point then the glory is diminished too. In this cycling and boxing have something in common and share a certain monastic quality.

Sure the riders are racing against each other but in one sense they also race against the tifosi too and the fans are also, in some sense, the enemy since it’s we who demand their suffering. And yet the aficionados are happy to forgive too – hence the willingness to forgive, if not always forget, those who have confessed their doping sins and returned, penitent, to the peloton.

A word on Evans: like many others I’ve criticised his lack of panache and been infuriated by his timid style and reluctance to seize the initiative. Such complaints are now out of date. The turning point – at least the turning point I recall – came in last year’s Dauphiné Libéré in which Evans, though finishing second behind Valverde, repeatedly attacked his rival on the road to Briancon and then again on the Galibier the following day. Next came a terrific triumph in the World Championships and, this spring, another fine ride in La Flèche Wallonne. Evans, suddenly, is a man transformed and it’s been wonderful to see.

So, with the first mountain stage on Sunday this year’s Giro is already a remarkable race even if, after the first week’s racing, slightly more favourites have fallen by the wayside than might be considered ideal. But tomorrow, the first proper mountains. And the forecast warns of snow…

I love the photo of Evans arriving in Montalcino too: taking the applause yet also seeming to acknowledge that, today, the conditions really beat everyone. There’s relief and gratitude and then, I suspect, the disconcerting realisation that they’ll have to do it all again tomorrow. "No more, no more" and yet there’s always more, right up to the final time-trial in Verona.

*Some of them are taking part in the Tour of California. And while one can see why, for the weather if nothing else, this could be more attractive than the Giro it seems somewhat disrespectful too. May is for the Giro just as July is for the Tour and just as you wouldn’t schedule a major – or wannabe major – race against the Tour I’m not sure you should against the Giro either.

Tags: Cycling, Italy