#Giro2021 Stage 19: A Day for the GC Battle in the Alto Piemonte Villages of Gattinara, Ghemme and Lessona

Before we can discuss Friday’s race, we’ve got to talk about the craziness that took place on Thursday morning. As I mentioned last time, Stage 18 was a day for the breakaway: a long, flat course with little to sweeten the pot for the GC contenders. There were, however, a few enticements for the sprinters: two intermediate sprints – races within the race, where the first riders through a designated checkpoint win points that accumulate toward the maglia ciclamino, ultimately awarded to the man with the highest overall total.

As of Thursday morning Peter Sagan, perpetual fan favorite, was comfortably ensconced in said jersey. Comfortable but not invincible: Davide Cimolai of Team Israel Start-up Nation and Fernando Gaviria of UAE Team Emirates were technically within striking distance of the maglia ciclamino. A combination of interim sprint points and/or a stage victory (worth 50 points) by either rider – and a shut-out of Sagan in both categories – could have changed the standings for the sprinters’ competition. With no significant sprint opportunities remaining in this year’s Giro (Friday and Saturday are mountain stages; Sunday is an individual time trial) Thursday’s points would decide the final maglia ciclamino standings.

Commentators were of like mind on what Sagan’s race day strategy should be: ride comfortably at the front of the peloton, policing any attempted escapes to the breakaway group. Anyone close to him in the standings would be chased down and brought back to the main group, where they’d pose little threat.

Peter Sagan in the maglia ciclamino (photo: Eurosport)

I’m cool with that plan, if it’s the Bora-Hansgrohe team’s strategy and they commit their riders to executing it. What I thought was particularly unsporting was the “agreement” of the other teams to support this strategy. By “agreeing” to hold their riders back, they created an unsavory alliance with Bora that prevented any challengers to Sagan’s maglia ciclamino.

The use of quotes around the word “agree” in 100% intentional.

Let me be clear: I’m a big fan of Sagan’s, have been since he joined the world tour. I think he’s a great ambassador for the sport and I like seeing him on the podium. I’m no hater.

But I hate what happened this morning. It took the teeth out of what should have been an exciting battle among the stronger sprinters in the group. As a sports fan I felt deprived of what makes me get up at dawn to watch these races: grit, good sportsmanship, and a few shoulder bumps on the way to the finish line.

Apparently I’m Not Alone . . .

After the race, the Giro’s commissaires fined Sagan 1000 Swiss francs and docked him 50 UCI points for “intimidation and improper conduct against other riders” during Stage 18. For which incident(s) the officials did not say; more importantly, the penalties do not affect his standing in the maglia ciclamino competition. Bora-Hansgrohe’s team manager insisted Sagan and the other riders were merely carrying out the team’s strategy, saying no foul play was involved.

Perhaps. But, as a fan, I now feel cheated by the team and the officials: by acknowledging improper actions without specifying them, then serving up a meaningless punishment, the commissaires have just muddied the waters. I feel that Cimolai and Gaviria (and anyone else up to the task) should have been allowed to ride. If Sagan can’t win the jersey without strong-arming his competitors, he’s already lost. In my opinion.

By the way, excellent rides by Frenchman Remy Cavagna of Deceuninck and Alberto Bettiol of EF Education Nippo: they took the sour taste of the sprint competition out of my mouth. Cheers to the both of them!

Turning the Page to Stage 19

Stage 19 Profile (www.giroditalia.it.en)

Race organizers made a minor change to the route out of respect for the victims of the cable car crash that happened a few days ago in Stresa, one of the towns on the original plan. It will still be a difficult day for the GC contenders, who are running out of time to dislodge Egan Bernal from the maglia rosa. As tough as the race will be, Saturday’s challenge will be even worse. Terrible for the peloton; awesome for us.

Nebbiolo Wines for the Impatient Wine Lover on a Budget

Just about every oenophile who has tasted the red wines of Piemonte, in northwest Italy, becomes smitten with the elegant elixirs of Barolo and Barbaresco.  With their enticing aromas of cherry and rose petals, it’s easy to understand their appeal.  But, as with any product whose demand outweighs its supply, a bottle of Nebbiolo from either of these communes can be an expensive proposition. 

So where to search for a wine with similar charms, but with a more attractive price tag?  Look no further than Alto Piemonte, a collection of small towns nestled in the foothills of the Alps, in the far northeast corner of the Piemonte region.   As you might expect, the climate here is a little cooler and the vines are planted at higher elevations than in Barolo or Barbaresco, resulting in wines that, in comparison, tend to be lighter in color and less tannic, with more delicate aromas and flavors.  More suitable for early drinking, they indulge the impatient Nebbiolo drinker, one who doesn’t want to wait years for his wine to mature.  And because these wines come from relatively lesser-known areas, they are a bit easier on the pocketbook.

The Villages of Alto Piemonte

Map: Skurnik Wines

A group of small villages clustered around the Sesia River, Alto Piemonte was once the epicenter of Nebbiolo production in Italy.  But after phylloxera wreaked havoc on the vineyards and World War II gave way to the industrialization of Northern Italy, there was not much incentive for growers to continue.  Fortunately, for us wine lovers, that is no longer the case.  As we’ve seen in other parts of Italy, there is a groundswell of support for those who want to replant ancient vineyards and rescue indigenous varieties from the verge of extinction.  And that means new wines for us to discover!

2012 Proprietà Sperino Uvaggio; Coste dell Sesia DOC ($31.50 retail; 13% abv)

A century ago, Felice Sperino, a Lessona doctor, grew Nebbiolo and made some of the most highly acclaimed wines in Italy.  Following in his great, great uncle’s footsteps, Paolo De Marchi moved to Tuscany during the 1970s, and founded the Isola e Olena estate, which has been credited with helping jump-start the renaissance of Chianti Classico.  About 10 years ago, he returned to Lessona and, with his son Luca, began to revive the traditions established by Felice Sperino, restoring the vineyards and renovating the winery.

Nebbiolo for early drinking – and it won’t put a hurtin’ on your wine budget.

Soils in Lessona are composed of marine sands from the Pliocene Period, and are rich in minerals like iron, manganese, aluminum and zinc which, according to some, you can taste in the wine.  I didn’t really pick up any one of those in particular, although there is a distinct mineral component on the palate.

Consistent with most red wines made in the Alto Piemonte regions, this wine is a blend dominated by Nebbiolo (80%), with a little Vespolina (15%) and Croatina (5%) thrown in.  It is deep red/garnet in color, with orange-gold glints at the rim.  Notes of cherry and rose waft from the glass, giving way to an herbal component that makes me think of herbes de provence.  On the palate there are notes of dried bitter cherry, strawberry, and spice, with a definite mineral finish.  Acidity is bright, tannins are fine:   It’s a beautiful wine of exquisite balance, and serves as a wonderful complement to long-simmered dishes like osso bucco.

This rosato (also made by Proprieta Sperino) is long gone; wish I had a few bottles left in my stash. Delish!

Enjoy the mountains on Friday; I’ll be back with some wines for Saturday. Hopefully I’ll also have stepped off my soap box. Until then, cheers!

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