Rodríguez not the TT underdog so many say he is; Cav wears lost points jersey; four expelled for towing


PASSO DELLO STELVIO, Italy (VN) – The 95th Giro d’Italia is coming down to the wire with a nail-biting finale Sunday on an urban time trial course in Milan that will decide everything.

All eyes are on the 31-second difference between Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) and second-place Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Barracuda). The 30km route favors the specialists and anyone who still has gas in the tank.

Nearly all pundits seem to think that it’s a slam-dunk that Hesjedal is going to erase the difference to Rodríguez, but as everyone knows, nothing is assured in cycling, especially when there’s a leader’s jersey on the line. And history doesn’t fully support the idea either.

Garmin refuses to count its pink chicken before it’s hatched.

“Everyone thought Fignon was going to win the 1989 Tour and that Evans was going to win the 2008 Tour,” said Garmin sport director Charly Wegelius. “Will it be enough? It’s hard to say. It’s no longer a question of analysis anymore. It’s a question of Ryder and the clock. You can throw the calculator away at the end of three weeks. He’s going to wake up tomorrow and ride his best time trial, and then we’ll see if he won the Giro.”

Hesjedal will have take back just over one second per kilometer on Rodríguez to become the first Canadian to win a grand tour.

Though it’s like comparing apples to oranges, a closer look at historical time trial results between the two reveals that Hesjedal and Rodríguez are often not that far off.

In fact, it is normally Rodríguez who is taking time on Hesjedal in previous time trial confrontations.

It’s often difficult to reach conclusions when comparing historical time trial results. Many factors come into play, depending on what’s at stake for the respective rider. Neither is a specialist, so they often ride a time trial depending on how they are fairing in the GC picture. Obviously, if there’s a GC placing in play, the time trial becomes more important.

The time trial earlier this year at the Vuelta al País Vasco is a perfect example of that. With Rodríguez riding for a GC placement (he was runner-up to winner Samuel Sánchez), and he took 1:23 out of Hesjedal, who did not want to take risks on the hilly, 24km rain-soaked course.

In 2010, it was a similar story: Rodríguez took 48 seconds out of Hesjedal on a 22km course, with “Purito” riding to third in the Basque tour.

Perhaps the closest comparison to what they will both face Sunday in Milan came during the 2009 Vuelta a España, when Rodríguez took 35 seconds out of Hesjedal on a 30km flat course at Valencia. That was quite a few years ago, however, and both riders have progressed significantly.

Rodríguez seems to be scarred by two horrible time trial experiences.

The first was in the 2010 Tour de France, when Hesjedal actually passed him on course and took 3:35 out of the Spaniard on a 52km power course. His other TT debacle came during the 2010 Vuelta later that season, when he was holding the red leader’s jersey only to lose more than six minutes to eventual winner Vicenzo Nibali on a flat, 40km course.

Based on those two losses, Rodríguez has worked hard to improve his time trialing skills since he moved to Katusha.

“We have worked on his position in the wind tunnel and the track. We have changed his position and we have a new TT bike,” said Katusha sport director Valerio Piva. “Of course, he is not Cancellara, but he is better than people think. We cannot compare the Joaquim Rodríguez of the past years to what he can do tomorrow.”

And what of Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM), who surged into contention for the pink jersey with his heroic ride up the Stelvio? Now fourth, at 2:18 back, De Gendt is probably the best time trialist of the three.

Last year, on a 42.5km course in Grenoble, De Gendt stopped the clock for third, 1:29 behind world champion Tony Martin in the final time trial at the Tour de France. Rodríguez didn’t race last year’s Tour, but Hesjedal was 61st, at 4:56 back.

Again, circumstances played a role. De Gendt was not riding for GC and was saving his legs for the final effort. Hesjedal, meanwhile, rode to top-10s up the Galibier and Alpe d’Huez in back-to-back mountain stages that helped secure Garmin’s team prize in last year’s Tour.

As they warn anyone who buys a stock: Do not assume future performance based on historical data.

With the pink jersey on the line, the only thing that is assured is that everyone will give everything they have.

Cavendish loses red points jersey by one point

World champion Mark Cavendish (Sky) was crushed at the finish line atop the Stelvio to learn that he had lost the points jersey to Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) by just one point.

Rodríguez dashed to fourth to try to gap GC rival Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Barracuda). With the effort to open up more time and defend the pink jersey, Rodríguez also took the red jersey with just one stage to go.

Had Rodríguez finished fifth or worse, Cavendish would have become the first British rider to win the Giro points jersey. Team Sky sent Rigoberto Urán and Sergio Henao on the attack late in the stage in part to try to finish ahead of Rodríguez in order to defend the jersey for Cavendish.

There are points available to the top 15 finishers in Sunday’s time trial, but Cavendish doesn’t expect to be anywhere near the top of the leaderboard in the race against the clock.

To add insult to injury, Cavendish will actually have to race in the red jersey because Rodríguez will be racing in the pink leader’s jersey. The second-place rider of a classification wears the jersey when one rider leads more than one category. Unfortunately for Cavendish, he will have to take it off when he crosses the line in Milan.

“I think I lost the red jersey when I crashed in Denmark,” Cavendish said earlier this week. “I want to make it to Milan to honor the rainbow jersey and honor the Giro.”

Cavendish finished in the gruppetto, at 46 minutes back, but he likely will not earn a spot on the Giro podium to complement his points jerseys at the Tour and Vuelta.

Hunter, Guardini, Velasco, Rollin kicked out of Giro

Dominique Rollin (FDJ-BigMat), Robbie Hunter (Garmin-Barracuda), Ivan Velasco (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Thursday’s stage winner Andrea Guardini (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia) were all kicked out of the Giro by the race jury for what appeared to be taking pulls from team cars early in the race.

Though the jury didn’t identify the infraction — it cited a UCI rule that states a rider “who commits a serious fault” can be removed — it appears that riders were spotted holding on too long to “sticky water bottles.”

Velasco, Rollin and Hunter had all crashed this week, with Rollin getting hit by a Vacansoleil team car on Wednesday and Hunter sliding into a barrier Friday. Guardini, meanwhile, was struggling through the mountains, finishing last on Wednesday and Friday.

“I do not want to comment until I know all the facts,” said Garmin sport director Charly Wegelius. “Robbie Hunter shouldn’t have gotten back on his bike (Friday) in all reasonableness. He smashed a wooden pole, but he stayed in the race today because he was so dedicated to the team and to Ryder.”

Race Notes

The jerseys
Stage winner: Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil-DMC) attacked out of the day’s main breakaway to win and climbed to fourth overall, at 2:18 back
Pink leader: Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) attacked in final kilometer to extend his lead to 31 seconds with one stage to go
Red points: With fourth on the stage, Rodríguez earned just enough points to take the jersey away from world champion Mark Cavendish (Sky). Had he been fifth, Cavendish would have defended
Blue mountains: Matteo Rabottini (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia) rode into the day’s main break to secure the KOM jersey
White young: Rigoberto Urán (Sky) all but secured the white jersey by riding to eighth on the stage

Weather: Spring fling in Milan
Ideal conditions are on tap for the Giro finale, with temperatures in the low 70s F, light NE winds 5-10kph, with sunny skies.

Tomorrow’s stage: TT finale
The 95th Giro ends Sunday with everything still to be decided. The final-day time trial barely varies 10 vertical meters, so it’s going to be decided by power and technique. Anyone who has anything left in the legs will be able to fight for the stage win and the final podium. TT specialists still in the race will likely be battling for the stage win, but all eyes will be on the tightly packed GC battle. The route is fairly straight forward, with long, wide-open stretches, but there are plenty of technical corners and other urban obstacles that will demand 100-percent concentration for one final hard effort.