You can bet that the Liquigas brain trust has their calculators out tonight and are studying when and how they can wrestle away the pink jersey from the stubborn David Arroyo.
The scrappy Spanish climber defied his doubters and exited the Dolomites with a formidable 2:27 lead on Ivan Basso and 3:09 on world champion Cadel Evans.
Those two favorites need to get rid of Arroyo in two epic days of climbing over the Mortirolo and Gavia or they might run out of road when the Giro ends with the Verona time trial on Sunday.
“We’re getting one day closer to Verona. I don’t want to say I can win this Giro, because I know there are others who are stronger than me, but anything is possible,” said Arroyo, who finished safely in the pack Thursday. “I have a strong team and I will give everything to defend the pink jersey. The podium can become the goal, but why not dream of more? This has been a hard Giro and everyone is very tired, so no one knows what can happen.”
Arroyo’s growing confidence comes in part from knowing he can count on the support of a strong and motivated Caisse d’Epargne team, which knows how to defend a leader’s jersey. With the team’s future in doubt and the pride of having its first pink jersey since Miguel Indurain won the 1994 Giro, the team won’t go down without a fight.
“We told David not to bury himself to try to stay with Basso up Zoncolan because it would have been a risk of blowing up,” said Caisse d’Epargne sport director Neil Stephens. “The margin we have in our favor is something we can use to our advantage. They still need to take the jersey away from us. It’s always better to have the jersey than to try to take it away.”
Thursday’s rolling stage to Brescia was a last shot for the sprinters and gave the GC contenders their last chance to cool their jets before Friday’s assault of the Mortirolo and Saturday’s charge over the Gavia.
There’s a sense of confidence and patience in the Liquigas camp. They know they have the strongest team and the strongest rider, so they don’t want to panic now with the two hardest mountain stages poised to catapult them into pink.
Basso is quietly self-assured that he will be able to turn the screws and drop the pesky Arroyo for good on the Mortirolo. Its long, unrelenting grades make it one of Europe’s most demanding climbs, ideal for Basso’s piston-like consistency to drop the haggard Arroyo. Or so he hopes.
“If Basso can do like he did at Zoncolan, he could have the jersey (Friday). If not, then we want it Saturday,” said Liquigas team manager Roberto Amadio. “The team will be working 100 percent for Basso. We want to make it as hard as possible before we arrive at the decisive climbs. We are not underestimating Arroyo.”
Evans finds himself in an even more complicated situation.
Not only does he need to ride Basso’s coat-tails as Liquigas tries to isolate and drop Arroyo (and third-placed Ritche Porte), but he needs to recover lost ground to Basso. Evans cannot count on much team support once the climbs hit, so the world champion will try to stay with Basso, and attack if he can.
Even with Sunday’s final time trial in his favor, Evans will want to trim the difference to Basso even if he cannot manage to drop him.
“Evans doesn’t need to attack. He should stay with Basso and then try to drop him in the final kilometer and aim for time bonuses. Then he can take back a few seconds here and a few seconds there,” said two-time world champion Paolo Bettini. “Evans will take some time on Basso in Verona, but probably not more than 20 seconds.”
With Basso and Evans eying each other in their collective interest to try to eliminate Arroyo, some are quietly hoping that would open the door for someone further down on GC to go on the attack. Michele Scarponi (Androni), Carlos Sastre (Cervélo) and Alexander Vinokourov (Astana) are all still within shot of the podium and need to attack if they hope to get kisses from the podium girls in Verona.
That could disrupt the best-laid plans by Liquigas and Basso, and potentially blow apart the Giro in what should be a dramatic and nail-biting finale to what’s been one of the best Giros in modern history.