By Andrew Hood
Just moments after the dust settled from Thursday’s decisive time trial that saw him lose the maglia rosa, Danilo Di Luca said he wants it back as soon as possible.
The 2007 winner said aggressive tactics can still win the Giro, but just as quickly added that he didn’t expect to see that from Levi Leipheimer.
“I’ve never seen Leipheimer attack,” Di Luca said on RAI television. “He’s going to have to now if he wants to win this Giro.”
Leipheimer – who finished safely in the pack in Friday’s stage to remain third overall at 40 seconds back – might be ready to surprise the Italians.
The Astana captain said when the time is right, he will be the one charging up the road. And this time he won’t be waiting for anyone else.
“If I feel good enough, I will attack, I promise you that,” Leipheimer said before Friday’s stage. “We have to take it day-by-day. It’s a long, hard race. Tomorrow is a day for Di Luca. I will try not to lose time to him because the stage is tailor-made for Di Luca.”
The 35-year-old Leipheimer was hoping to take control of the Giro in Thursday’s decisive Cinque Terre time trial, but Denis Menchov got in the way.
When the sphinx-like Russian pulled the double, winning the stage and snatching away the pink jersey, it undermined Astana’s strategy for this Giro.
Leipheimer is renowned for his tremendous grit and staying power in the high mountain climbs and his stubborn ability to stay with the leanest of climbers and then nail it in the decisive time trials.
That successful strategy has served him well and delivered him three victories in the first three races he’s started in 2009.
His wins at the Tour of California, the Vuelta a Castilla y León and the Tour of the Gila were paved with dominant victories in each event’s time trials.
With that strategy off the rails, the team will now have to modify its tactics if the squad hopes to crown Leipheimer as just the second American to win the Giro when the race ends May 31 in Rome.
“Obvious, it would be better to be 40 ahead than 40 behind, but there are still a lot of hard stages to come,” said Astana manager Johan Bruyneel. “We’ll just have to see and maybe take advantage of a bad moment of Menchov or one of the other favorites to attack and gain some time.”
Leipheimer said the Petrano mountain stage on Monday would be his best chance to make a mark.
“I think Monte Petrano is the biggest day we have between now and the finish,” he told reporters Friday morning. “And there’s two uphill finishes with Blockhaus and Vesuvio, but Petrano is a long day and it’s probably going to be hot. Some guys can just crack.”
Menchov’s aggressive rider is winning over many within the peloton. Most insiders predict that the Russian will be able to fend off any attacks that may come from Leipheimer, Di Luca or the Liquigas tandem of Ivan Basso and Franco Pellizotti.
“I was picking Levi to win before the Giro started, but with what we’ve seen from Menchov, he’s impressive,” said Saxo Bank sport director Lars Michaelsen. “I like the way (Menchov) won on Alpe di Suisi with that show of aggression. I’d rather see a GC rider go and earn his victory like that, rather for them to follow the wheel and just wait for the elimination. It’s nice if you win, but it’s more spectacular if you take that victory and make it your own rather than just win by elimination.”
Others said the experience and depth of the Astana team, however, could tip the favor toward Leipheimer.
Despite losing Chris Horner to injury, Astana still has the strongest team of the top-three contenders. The presence of an improving Lance Armstrong will complement the spindly legs of Janez Brajkovic, Chechu Rubiera, Dani Navarro and Yaroslav Popovych.
“This Giro doesn’t have the big, hard mountains in the final week like we normally do in the Giro, so without the Dolomites or the Alps, tactics and a strong team will become fundamental,” said Silence-Lotto sport director Roberto Damiano. “The big mountains are better if you’re strong, because it’s a process of elimination. But with these short, explosive climbs, teammates are essential. Astana is very strong and that will be a tremendous advantage for Leipheimer.”
Leipheimer said the presence of Armstrong and Bruyneel will bolster his confidence heading toward the final, decisive week.
“We definitely miss Horner, but as you can see, Lance has gotten a lot better,” Leipheimer said after the time trial. “The entire team is very impressive, all the way to the young (Andrey) Zeits has very much impressed me this week, so I’m confident in the team.”