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Time trials will make the difference
By John Wilcockson
Giro d’Italia race director Angelo Zomegnan would love to see a repeat of last year’s race — his first at the helm of the world’s No. 2 grand tour — when Paolo Savoldelli, Gilberto Simoni, José Rujano and Danilo Di Luca were all battling for the pink jersey only 24 hours before the finish in Milan. This year, Zomegnan has again placed one of the toughest mountain stages on the final weekend (as well as packing the final week with similarly challenging stages) in the hopes that the above four riders, along with Ivan Basso and Damiano Cunego, will again leave the outcome in doubt until the eleventh hour.
The race director might be disappointed.
There are a couple of reasons why. First, the last time that the Giro organizer packed the final week with impossibly hard mountain stages, in 1996, Marco Pantani was running away with the pink jersey — until a high hematocrit test on the morning of the penultimate stage ended his race. No one wants a repeat of that outcome, but there is a strong chance that one rider could again dominate.
Which brings us to the second reason why the 2006 Giro, just getting under way in Belgium, is unlikely to have a nail-biting finish in three weeks’ time. The reason is a man named Basso and a team named CSC.
The rider from Varese claimed this week that he shouldn’t be thought of as the top favorite, but that statement just reflected the diplomatic Basso’s desire to acknowledge the chances of his opponents — and an attempt by team boss Bjarne Riis to deflect attention from his leader.
But Basso could have the race locked up before the final week even begins. How come? Well, in the opening 11 stages, Basso has four days in which he can build an overall lead that could be as large as five minutes over the other top climbers. And once he has such a gap, he only has to defend in the final week — and not even Lance Armstrong could drop Basso on mountaintop finishes in the past two Tours de France.
This is where the five-minute lead over Cunego, Di Luca, Rujano and Simoni — Savoldelli should be closer — could come from:
Stage 1 (May 6): Basso could beat the pure climbers by 10-40 seconds in the opening 6.2km time trial at Seraing.
Stage 5 (May 11): The flat 38km team time trial from Piacenza to Cremona offers Basso’s CSC squad the chance of gaining between one and two minutes on Cunego’s Lampre-Fondital team, Di Luca’s Liquigas men and Saunier Duval troops — and even more on Rujano’s Selle Italia formation. Only two teams will be close: the Discovery Channel team of Savoldelli (and Tom Danielson) and the T-Mobile squad of Sergei Gontchar. The big time gaps will be created because the CSC lineup is stacked with TTT specialists Bobby Julich, Jens Voigt, Carlos Sastre, Nicki Sörensen, Giovanni Lombardi — and Basso.
Stage 8 (May 14): This 171km stage from Civitanova Marche to Maielletta ends atop the 11km, 9-percent Passo di Lanciano. Cunego and the other climbers will be bidding for the stage win, but this steep mountaintop finish looks made for a CSC team lead-out à la U.S. Postal Service that will stunt attacks and give Basso the opening to gain another 15-30 seconds (maybe more) on his rivals.
Stage 11 (May 18): Four days later, on a Tour de France-style time trial of 50km at Pontedera in Tuscany, Basso should take two or three minutes out of the pure climbers (only Savoldelli can restrict the damage to within a minute).
Once the race is into the big mountains, the Alps and the Dolomites, eight days from the finish, Cunego, Simoni, Di Luca and company will be trying to play catch up. But it’s likely they’ll all be vying for the last two podium spots behind Ivan Basso.
The contenders (in order of their likely finish in Milan)
1. Ivan Basso (I), CSC, 28
Last year, Basso looked to have the Giro in the bag until he fell sick over the Passo del Stelvio. He bounced back to win a mountain stage and the last time trial in the final week. His podium finishes at the past two Tour de France have given him (and his team) the confidence to control the Giro.
Previous Giro highlights: Two stage wins and two days in the maglia rosa in 2005.
2. Gilberto Simoni (I), Saunier Duval-Prodir, 34
Simoni was less only 28 seconds away from winning his third Giro last year, and that gives the veteran the motivation to believe he still has another victory in his legs. The brutal final week favors the experienced Simoni, who has the stamina to face challenge after challenge.
Previous Giro highlights: Two overall victories (2001 and 2003), four podiums (1999, 2000, 2005, 2005), six stage victories and 24 days in the maglia rosa.
3. Danilo Di Luca (I), Liquigas, 30
Di Luca has matured into a solid GC rider, and as the unconditional leader of Liquigas he has all the tools at his disposal. He was climbing stronger than Savoldelli at the end of last year’s Giro and he is totally motivated to challenge for the podium.
Previous Giro highlights: Four stage wins and five days in the maglia rosa.
4. Damiano Cunego (I), Lampre-Fondital, 24
Winner of the Giro del Trentino and Coppi & Bartali Week this spring, Cunego seems to be back to his best after being zapped by mononucleosis in 2005. He should be strong, but he doesn’t have any early summit finishes to make a statement. Instead, the team time trial and long individual time trial will work against him.
Previous Giro highlights: Overall winner, four stage wins and 11 days in the maglia rosa in 2004.
5. Paolo Savoldelli (I), Discovery Channel, 33
“The Falcon” came back from frequent injuries in 2003 and 2004 to ride a consistent race last year and survive the four-way shootout over the second-to-last stage. This year, he should be challenging Basso until the final week, but the multiple stages of giant climbs will probably see him fade.
Previous Giro highlights: Two overall victories (2002 and 2005), one podium (1999), two stage wins and 12 days in the maglia rosa.
6. José Rujano (Ven), Selle Italia-Diquigiovanni, 24
Rujano was close to the overall victory in his debut last year, but he won’t be able to sneak away in the breaks that gained him time in 2005. He’s being called the “Little Pirate” in honor of Marco Pantani and he can time trial surprisingly well for a skinny mountain goat. But a long-brewing spat with Selle Italia brass over money means he’s come into the race short of form.
Previous Giro highlights: One stage win, KoM title and third overall in 2005
7. Tom Danielson (USA), Discovery Channel, 28
With his growing time-trial strength and developing climbing skills, Danielson looks ready to match team leader Savoldelli, but his teamwork for his Italian leader will put him out of true contention.
Previous Giro highlights: An early injury forced him out of his debut Giro last year before the mountains.