Giro d'Italia
Purito could repeat this celebration tomorrow in...

Rodriguez can only have faith and try

After a brutal day that ended higher than any Giro stage in history, is a 31-second advantage enough for Purito?

PASSO DELLO STELVIO, Italy (VN) – After three weeks, 20 stages, and 3,485.9km of intense racing, a mere 30 kilometers of Milanese asphalt will crown the winner of the 2012 Giro d’Italia.

Saturday’s epic day of racing, with climbs up the Mortirolo and the snow-bound Stelvio summit, didn’t tip the GC into anyone’s favor with Sunday’s final time trial left to play the Giro’s kingmaker and executioner.

Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) marked the wheel of Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Barracuda) all the way up the legendary Stelvio switchbacks and pounced with less than one kilometer to go to earn 12 seconds and extend his grip on the maglia rosa to 31 seconds.

Add Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil-DMC) into the fray — who won the stage and bounced to fourth overall, at 2:18 back — and this Giro is still up for grabs.

“I hope it’s enough,” an exhausted Hesjedal said at the 2,700-meter summit of the snow-choked Stelvio climb. “Everyone seemed to be racing for me to lose today. The whole day, they stuck it to us. I was proud of how we rode.”

Garmin took control of Saturday’s epic battle over the Giro’s most famous climbs, putting Christian Vande Velde into an early breakaway that saw De Gendt surge to the stage victory. Vande Velde later waited in the valley after coming over the Mortirolo to help pace Hesjedal up the grueling, 24km Stelvio climb.

“The plan wasn’t to be in a break. I was just following the other teams. They were pushing the pace and I said, ‘OK, I will go with you.’ I ended up having three-and-half-minutes and I had to wait forever for them to come up,” Vande Velde told VeloNews. “It worked out great. I was able to help out on the Stelvio for 45 minutes to keep a constant tempo. De Gendt was surprising.”

The Belgian made an already complicated situation even more troublesome for Garmin. With the other teams refusing to set the pace, Garmin had to take control of the race. Vande Velde and Peter Stetina, who rode his heart out once again, helped Hesjedal keep De Gendt on a short leash.

De Gendt pulled more than five minutes clear with just 5km to go, putting Hesjedal and Rodríguez’s pink jersey into peril.

“They left all the responsibility on our doorstep,” Garmin sport director Charly Wegelius told VeloNews. “We had to balance the threat of an attack from Rodríguez, the threat from De Gendt. We were getting time checks at 5km to go and he was on the verge of taking the pink jersey. It was a little bit delicate and we had to leave it as late as we dared to eliminate De Gendt as a threat.”

The GC favorites were intent on putting Hesjedal under pressure. The Canadian looked solid all the way up the Mortirolo and then the Stelvio. Rodríguez could only manage to get away with 800 meters to go.

“Ryder did everything on the Stelvio,” Vande Velde continued. “He was obviously stronger. I don’t know what to say (of the other teams’ tactics). They knew they had to watch out for Ryder and they know he is going to take a lot of time out of him in the time trial.”

Just how much time can Hesjedal expect to take back on Rodríguez on Sunday? That’s the million-dollar question going into the final stage of the 2012 Giro.

“Normally, on paper, it’s not enough for ‘Purito’. When you look at 30km and 30 seconds, normally, that’s not enough,” Katusha sport director Valerio Piva told VeloNews. “Purito has the jersey. He is super-motivated. He is better in the time trial this year. Maybe Hesjedal can have a bad day. Anything is possible. Why not believe?”

Rodríguez says he can only give his best and hope for the best. Without Hesjedal, Rodríguez probably could have ridden into Milan with a comfortable lead on the cusp of his first grand tour victory. But despite attacking throughout the Giro, Rodríguez has been unable to shake the stubborn Canadian.

At 52kg to Hesjedal’s 70kg, Rodríguez knows he will likely be out-gunned on the flat, but sometimes technical urban course.

“I can only have faith and try my best,” Rodríguez said in a press conference. “I know Ryder is a better time trialist than me. Of course, I would like to have a bigger lead. I would like to have minutes! I can only hope that I can surprise some people. Riding with the pink jersey will only motivate me more.”

For Hesjedal to win, he needs to take back about one second per kilometer, something that is realistically within his reach, but certainly no guarantee (see Giro notebook for TT comparison between him and Rodríguez).

Garmin sport director Allan Peiper believes that Sunday’s finale is a fitting conclusion to what’s been a tightly fought, even Giro.

“Rodríguez is going to have the pink jersey on his back and he’s going to be highly motivated to ride above himself,” Peiper said. “And I think Ryder will be doing the same thing. It’s a second per kilometer to take back. After three weeks of racing, you never know how tiredness comes out. After the last couple of days, he could be as tired as (Laurent) Fignon in 1989.”

That classic Tour de France ended with Greg Lemond’s miracle finish in the smallest margin of victory in race history.

The 95th Giro should see an equally thrilling finale on Sunday. Who will play the role of Lemond and Fignon, however, remains to be seen.

Editor’s Note: This story originally referred to De Gendt as Dutch. He is Belgian, riding for the Dutch team, Vacansoleil-DCM.