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Giro d'Italia

Giro favorites ready to throw down in Dolomites

Confidence exudes from Giro big on the eve of the major battle

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FALZES, Italy (VN) – After more than two weeks of slow simmer, the Giro d’Italia is about to boil over.

Everyone knows that the pink jersey will be won and lost over the coming days and all the favorites are quietly expressing confidence on the eve of the first major skirmish of the 95th Giro.

“I feel good about defending the pink jersey,” said Katusha’s Joaquim Rodríguez after riding through Tuesday’s transition stage to the foot of the Dolomites. “These next few days will decide everything. I will try to take more time if I can.”

With the first of three high-altitude climbing days set for Wednesday’s 17th stage, the Giro’s “big” are ready to battle.

Rodríguez carries a slender, 30-second lead to Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Barracuda). Behind the Canadian, the major GC challengers are stacked up in quick succession.

Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) is third at 1:22; Paolo Tiralongo and Roman Kreuziger, both Astana, are fourth and fifth at 1:26 and 1:27, respectively. Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) is poised in sixth at 1:36.

Scarponi, who inherited last year’s Giro title from the disqualified Alberto Contador, knows there’s only one way for him to win the Giro.

“If I expect to have the pink jersey in Milan, I know I need to attack,” Scarponi said at the finish line in Falzes. “I feel surprisingly fresh after nearly three weeks of racing. I am in good position. The legs are ready. I also know I can expect to really suffer.”

Basso agrees that everything will be decided in the coming stages. Liquigas has been setting a brutal pace every day, in part to tire out Basso’s rivals before these decisive final mountain stages. The two-time Giro champion insists he’s up to the task of winning a third maglia rosa.

“These next terrible days will decide everything. I believe that the final time trial will not be so important this year,” Basso said on RAI TV. “Yes, we have been riding at the front, to steer clear of trouble and avoid crashes. The team has not worked too much. We will be ready to take control of the race in the Dolomites. I am confident.”

Hesjedal finds himself in excellent position and he has the most to gain in the final-day time trial in Milan, something that most of the favorites say will not be a major influence on the final outcome of the Giro. Hesjedal typically rides well in the final week of a grand tour, so the others know they need to distance him if they hope to have a chance at the final podium.

Hesjedal made it safely through Tuesday’s stage, sprinting to fourth in the field to avoid risking losing any time in case the bunch split apart in the final run to the line.

“I feel I’m in a good spot. I think Sunday was my bad day. I like the longer climbs, the long days,” Hesjedal said. “It’s a big difference when you do a climb after 200km or after 170km. We’ll see how the others ride in these stages. I am just focusing on my race. I am just doing my thing and that’s it.”

Tiralongo, meanwhile, shot down suggestions there is a rift between him and Astana captain Kreuziger. Tiralongo has won a stage and attacked in the finale up Cervinia, something that raised more than a few eyebrows.

“There are no problems between Roman and I. Since the beginning of this Giro, I have been at the service of Roman,” Tiralongo said. “When I won the stage, I got the OK from Roman before attacking. And it was the same story at Cervinia. He said he was fine, so I sprinted to the line. I will be riding for Roman in these coming stages.”

As Rodríguez said, the seconds that divide the GC contenders can quickly turn into minutes up the grueling climbs of the Dolomites.

Wednesday’s stage features a fast downhill run to the finish line in Cortina d’Ampezzo while Friday’s and Saturday’s stages end with major climbs at the Alpe di Pampeago and Passo dello Stelvio, respectively. Rodríguez says he has no doubt where the Giro will be won or lost.

“The Giro will be decided on the climbs, not on the descent to Cortina,” he said. “The Giro is always decided on the climbs.”

Hesjedal will be looking to change the ending to that story. If he can stay within a shot of Rodríguez and the other climbers in the next three mountain stages, more than a few pundits might be forced to eat their words in Milan.