With the dust beginning to settle on Ryder Hesjedal's wonderful victory in the 2012 Giro d'Italia, Saddles takes a look back at the 95th edition of the race and divvies out his retrospective awards.
Best team: Liquigas were disciplined and well-drilled throughout the race — and although they failed to pick up a stage win, they finished with a full quote of riders for the 10th grand tour in succession. Both Vacansoleil and Farnese Vini shone throughout the race (quite literally in the case of the Italian team). But Garmin-Barracuda deserve this award for setting up their man Ryder Hesjedal with victory in the ITT in Verona — and then supporting him relentlessly through the mountains. Special mention goes to two Americans at contrasting moments in their careers — youngster Peter Stetina and veteran Christian Vande Velde — who did their jobs till the last. Ramunas Navardauskas also became the first Lithuanian to wear the pink jersey — giving race commentators a right work-out in the process.
Worst team: For all their hard work, Liquigas finished the race empty handed — but at least they can say they had an active role in proceedings. French teams FDJ and Ag2r both had largely fruitless Giros — but expectations were about as high as they were for former President Nicolas Sarkozy getting a second term. Omega Pharma-Quick Step, NetApp and Saxo Bank all failed to deliver, while Lampre failed to impress on their home tour despite Adriano Malori's one day in a lighter shade of pink. But the most witless teams were clearly RadioShack and Rabobank, who gave new meaning to the term R&R.
Most generous team: Not only were Farnese Vini content in lighting up most of our days with their garish day-glow outfits, they also made one unlikely fan's day when, following a mechanical, the team car drove off leaving a man wearing nothing but a pair of underpants as the new owner of Alfredo Balloni's bike. Although if your frame was that luminous, you'd probably give it away too...
Best Ryder: The only one named Hesjedal, who became the first Canadian to win a grand tour — and did so despite having about as much style while climbing as an Euskaltel rider going through a feeding zone on a fast descent. There haven't been more elbows in a sporting event since Alan Shearer played for England. But who cares — he may not look good on a bike going uphill, but it's precisely there that Hesjedal set up his overall win, before keeping his cool and delivering in the final time trial — much like Cadel Evans in last year's Tour. Perhaps next year he may even win a stage...
Best Norwegian: With the former world champion Thor Hushovd leaving the race early on, Norwegian fans had little to shout about — until they were reminded of Hesjedal's Scandinavian ancestry...
Best breakaway: In any ordinary grand tour this prize would have gone to Matteo Rabottini after the Italian youngster's heroics en route to Pian dei Resinelli (and the blue jersey). But this Giro d'Italia was no ordinary grand tour — and Belgian Thomas De Gendt saved his best till last with an historic (almost Merckxian) ride to Passo dello Stelvio. At one point, he was a few seconds away from the virtual pink jersey — and his victory set him on course for an unlikely podium (the first for any Belgian in a grand tour for 17 years).
Best unsung escape artist: It's not always the winners who stick in our minds, so spare a moment for Olivier Kaisen (Lotto Belisol), Jan Barta (NetApp), Alessandro De Marchi (Androni Giocatolli) and Stefan Denifl (Vacansoleil-DCM), who all attacked with verve and gusto. But the victor, hands down, goes to another Vacansoleil Dutchman, Martijn Keizer, who was involved in seven major breakaway attempts throughout the three-week race — attacking in Denmark and Italy, on the flat and in the hills.
Best lookalikes: Third place goes to Joaquim Rodriguez and Adam Sandler. Second place goes to Rigoberto Uran and Benicio del Toro. But the stand-out winner is Roman Kreuziger and Christian Bale (provided we're talking the emaciated Bale from The Machinist or The Fighter, and not the buff Bale of the Batman films or American Psycho).
Best nickname: Benat Exhausti. Movistar's Intxausti was in the top six until the final two mountain stages — after which he dropped to 38th in the GC, almost an hour-and-a-half down.
Best Tweet: After a brutal stage 20 that featured the famous Mortirolo climb, our man Intxausti tweeted (almost an hour after stage winner De Gendt) one telling word: Muertirolo...
Biggest disappointment: Third last year, John Gadret's Giro was about as empty as his head of hair, while the less said about Ivan Basso, the better. Roman Kreuziger's implosion on the Passo Giau led to his Astana team-manager ripping apart the Czech's paltry returns since joining from Liquigas in 2010. A superb solo win atop Alpe di Pampeago may have saved Kreuziger's Giro, but DS Giuseppe Martinelli still complained that the 26-year-old had not been brought to the race for stage wins but for the GC (where he ultimately finished 20 minutes down).
Still, it could have been worse: Venezualan climber Jose Rujano won two stages last year but suffered in the cold weather this year, eventually leaving the race under a cloud. But even Rujano got further than RadioShack's Frank Schleck, who hurt a shoulder after a stupid collision with Garmin's Alex Rasmussen and then chose the day of team manager Johan Bruyneel's visit to throw in the towel. There's now talk that Schleck may fail to make the RadioShack squad for the Tour — although to be honest, if the squad's picked on merit, Bruyneel will be hard pressed to find anyone to race alongside Fabian Cancellara this July.
Biggest surprise: Italian youngster Andrea Guardini upset the script when he beat Mark Cavendish in the stage 18 bunch sprint, while Andrey Amador became perhaps the biggest Costa Rican of Russian descent in world sport after his win in Cervinia. But the biggest curveball came from Thomas De Gendt with his double attack on both the Mortirolo and Stelvio passes in stage 20, the second of which saw the Belgian youngster distance seasoned climbers Mikel Nieve (on his 27th birthday) and Damiano Cunego, plus take the illustrious Cima Coppi prize.
Brought back to earth gravity award: A day after Guardini's maiden win in his first ever grand tour, the youngster was part of the breakaway en route to Alpe di Pampeago. Guardini was dropped on the second of five climbs and finished the stage in last place (and in tears), more than 45 minutes down. The next day, Guardini was one of four riders disqualified for allegedly holding onto team cars on the ascent of the Stelvio.
Unluckiest but pluckiest: Mark Cavendish held the red jersey for a week before losing it to Joaquim Rodriguez on the penultimate stage. While most of his sprinting counterparts had packed their bags as soon as the race hit the high mountains, Cavendish rode through a week of hell in the Alps and Dolomites in a bid to reach Milan in red — only to miss out by one slender point. But Cav's determination to make it through the race was nothing short than remarkable — he also wasn't one of four riders kicked out of the race for allegedly hanging on to cars on the brutal ascent of the Stelvio.
Biggest controversy: Cavendish would have picked up more than a point on stage three to Horsens had he not been taken out in dramatic fashion by the reckless swerve of Italy's Roberto Ferrari. There were good grounds to eject the Androni Giocattoli sprinter from the race, but instead the out-of-control and wholly remorseless Ferrari was simply relegated to the back of the field. A week later — in stage 11 to Montecatini, where Cavendish has a second home — Ferrari picked up his maiden win in the Giro. Of course, Cav will know full well that his missing out on the red jersey was not simply Ferrari's doing and could have been avoided had he beaten rookie Guardini in stage 18 — but remember that by now, the world champion had already suffered two huge falls and survived a string of gruelling mountain stages.
Best bike handling: Elia Favilli's bunny hop over a prone Cavendish following the Ferrari hit-and-run.
Best headline: "Cavendish: Someone key that Ferrari"
Worst crash: That Ferrari high-speed spill aside, there were a number of zingers — including a frightful collision between a RadioShack rider and a man warning riders about a piece of road furniture in Denmark. But the award goes to Paolo Tiralongo's face-plant on the penultimate stage, which came on the small section of downhill two-thirds up the Mortirolo — ie. the bit which is meant to give the riders a bit of a break.
Best duel: The sprint battle between Cavendish and old team-mate Matt Goss looked good on paper — until you realised that the Australian only ever got the better of the Manxman when a rogue Ferrari got in the way. For the best two-way battle, look no further than the fight for pink. Hesjedal's first three days in the maglia rosa were undone when Rodriguez won in Assisi, but the Canadian took the pink back four days later after his attack to Cervinia. J-Rod fought back instantly at Piani dei Resinelli before adding another stage in Cortina d'Ampezzo and some seconds on the Stelvio. If only he'd added 16 more seconds on stage 20 — that way both riders (champions in their own right) would have been tied at the top in Milan after more than 3,500km of riding.
Best stage: J-Rod's stage 10 win in the world heritage site of Assisi was spectacular for the armchair fan but the ramped climb through the paved streets of the Tuscan hilltop town was short and sharp. A more drawn-out affair was stage 15 to Pian dei Resinelli, which saw lone escapee Rabottini caught inside the final 500m by Rodriguez, only to summon the power to take the win. But the final Saturday's stage to the Stelvio was a complete gem. Not only was the setting brilliant and the course full of history, we also saw one of modern cycling's greatest rides in De Gendt's attack, plus it was a day which proved decisive for the pink, red and blue jerseys.
Youthful vigour award: Team Sky's inseparable Colombians Rigoberto Uran and Sergio Henao had solid, if unspectacular, races while showcasing their credentials for Brokeback Mountain II. Although the jury is still out on Uran, who looks as if he may have got his birth certificate issued by the same guy that does the Nigeria and Cameroon football teams. Colourful Farnese Vini youngsters "Rambo" Rabottini and "Giddy" Guardini had memorable races. But one rookie stamped his name all over the race: Taylor Phinney. Whether it was winning the opening time trial with experience beyond his tender years, picking himself up after crashing heavily in the pink, or trying to find love in Italy (mainly via Twitter), Phinney was in the thick of things and came across as one of cycling's great new personalities. Plus now he knows that when riding behind motorbikes he should make sure they're going the right way...
Don't forget: Phinney's blunder may have stopped the American from bookending his Giro with time trial wins, but BMC still managed this feat when Marco Pinotti won the Milan ITT by a convincing 39 seconds over Geraint Thomas. It was a superb win for the Italian (who crashed heavily a few stages previously) on a day when most people will only remember the battle for pink.
Food for thought: Bradley Wiggins left Garmin two years ago to join a "bigger" team and achieve his dream of winning a grand tour. But through Hesjedal — one of Wiggins' lieutenants on the 2009 Tour — Garmin have got their first. As one internet commentator put it: looks like Wigan beat Manchester United again.
Pub discussion: The Giro was all the better for the lack of an out-and-out favourite. Should Alberto Contador be thrown out of more races in the future just to keep things fresh?
Next stop: It's the Tour de France from 30 June and so Saddles will be back with a daily blog from the world's most popular cycling race. Before then, Saddles will bring you all the built up to the Grande Boucle — plus interviews with Bjarne Riis, Ian Stannard and Matt Goss. Anything you want to ask the above three? Then contact Blazin' Saddles on Twitter: @saddleblaze.