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Leipheimer ideally placed for the ‘real’ Giro

By John Wilcockson

Leipheimer has never been in such a promising position in a grand tour.

Leipheimer has never been in such a promising position in a grand tour.

Photo: Graham Watson

In one of his latest Twitter entries, Lance Armstrong said that the “real” Giro begins after Monday’s rest day. And his Astana teammate Chris Horner confirmed in his blog for The Oregonian, “the real battle to become the winner of the … Giro will begin to build” with Tuesday’s epic stage 10 through the Italian Alps.

A sneak preview of what we can expect to see on the crucial upcoming stages came last Saturday, on the short but challenging Colle del Gallo, 27km from the stage 8 finish in Bergamo. That’s where the still-dangerous Damian Cunego of Lampre launched an attack he hoped would bring him a stage win.

Instead, he was marked by Horner, and these two were soon joined by the understated Mick Rogers and his dynamic Columbia-Highroad teammate Eddy Boasson Hagen, the feisty Italian GC contenders Stefano Garzelli (Acqua & Sapone) and Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas), and Spanish “sleeper” David Arroyo (Caisse d’Épargne).

It was potentially a crucial move and anyone who had ambitions for the maglia rosa needed to be there. But neither race leader Danilo Di Luca, nor any of his overworked LPR teammates, could respond to the attack. But Astana’s Levi Leipheimer (who was being paced by Armstrong up the first part of the climb) suddenly bolted across to the leaders. His move was seen as so significant in the context of the overall race that the illustrious French sports newspaper L’Équipe headlined its day’s story with the words: “Leipheimer finally moves.”

That Horner-led attack (his uphill effort caused Cunego, Arroyo and Boasson Hagen to get dropped from the break) took almost a minute’s lead over the short Gallo climb’s summit; but it was eventually brought back because Pellizotti wouldn’t work with the others (he was a shadow for top race favorite Ivan Basso), and because Di Luca’s squad got help from three other teams in their pursuit of Leipheimer and company. But that action was a snapshot of what can be expected in the days ahead.

Leipheimer has never been in such a promising position in a grand tour. When he took his first podium, at the 2001 Vuelta a España, he rode in support of the U.S. Postal Service team leader Roberto Heras — until the closing time trial, where he leapfrogged Heras into third overall. At the 2007 Tour de France, Leipheimer raced for Discovery Channel team leader Alberto Contador in the mountains — then won the closing time trial to finish the Tour in third only a half-minute behind Contador. Then, at last September’s Vuelta, the quiet American again helped Contador on the climbs, and he again won the final time trial — to finish the race in second overall only 46 seconds adrift of his Spanish teammate.

In contrast to those three grand-tour podiums, Leipheimer goes into the final two weeks of the Giro as the undisputed team leader, with a powerful support cast headed by Armstrong and Horner. What’s more, his specialty is still to come: the two individual time trials, along the Cinque Terre coast this Thursday and on the final day in Rome.

What’s more, Leipheimer always gets stronger in the third week of a grand tour. So far he has been modest in his twitter statements, where he rarely talks about his form. He writes things like “We are still in the game. Day by day, so far so good,” which he posted last Wednesday, following the initial two mountain stages.

In concrete terms, Leipheimer is lying in fourth place overall, 51 seconds behind race leader Di Luca, 38 seconds behind Columbia’s ever-improving Swede, Thomas Lövkvist, and seven seconds down on Rogers. Interestingly, Monday’s Agence-France-Presse report on the state of the race did not list Rogers as one of the race favorites — a huge omission for the big Aussie who is back to his best after a couple of seasons ruined by injury and sickness.

It’s possible that Rogers, who lives in Italy and is married to an Italian, will be Leipheimer’s biggest challenger for this Giro — if he finds the form that took him to three world time trial titles.

Leipheimer is sitting seven seconds ahead of the other TT specialist who could challenge him at this Giro, Rabobank’s Denis Menchov, while the other favorites are also behind the American. He has 23 seconds on 2006 Giro winner Basso, 33 seconds on 2008 Tour champ Carlos Sastre (Cervélo TestTeam), 1:18 on two-time Giro winner Gilberto Simoni (Diquigiovanni) and 2:46 on Cunego.

The climbers Basso, Sastre and Simoni can’t wait to show their true form; otherwise, should Rogers or Leipheimer take over the pink jersey by several minutes in this coming Thursday’s TT, they will have a hard time regaining time in the mountain stages of the final week. That’s why this Tuesday’s marathon mountain stage through the Italian Alps is so important.

Its great length of 262km, which could take as long as eight hours to ride, is a bigger factor than the stage’s three categorized climbs. All the favorites and their lieutenants are likely to still be together going into the final climb, the Cat. 2 Pramartino, which is only 10km from the finish. It should trigger a dramatic ending to a long, long day. And judging by what happened on the Colle del Gallo a few days ago, Leipheimer and Horner should be at the center of the action.

But the most critical stage is Thursday’s 60.6km TT. Di Luca says he is prepared to lose two minutes to the specialists Leipheimer, Rogers and Menchov, but judging by his performance at his last major Giro TT, the LPR team leader could lose a lot more than that. In winning the 2007 Giro, Di Luca placed only eighth in the 43km TT through the northern Italian win country between Bardolino and Verona, eight, finishing 1:57 behind Paolo Savoldelli, and Savoldelli was not as impressive a time trialist as Leipheimer or Rogers. The only good news for Di Luca from that test two years ago is that he did finish ahead of Cunego by 20 seconds, and took 47 seconds out of Simoni.

Over 60km, and on a course in the Cinque Terre that has 3,000 feet of climbing and descending, Leipheimer could gain as much as five minutes over his Italian rivals — and then the fight for the maglia rosa might be between just him, Rogers and Menchov. But knowing the cautious Leipheimer, he’ll still be taking it day to day.