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By John Wilcockson
In order to challenge Denis Menchov and Danilo Di Luca for victory in this centennial Giro, Levi Leipheimer, Franco Pellizotti, Carlos Sastre, Ivan Basso and Michael Rogers have to go on the attack in the final week. But where and when they attack is all important because in the first two weeks they have been unable to out-climb race leader Menchov or runner-up Di Luca.
So if the challengers can’t gain the time they need on this week’s three summit finishes, at Monte Petrano on Monday, Blockhaus on Wednesday and Mount Vesuvius on Friday, what can they do? The short answer is: Tactics.
Basso and his Liquigas team did make a tactical move on Sunday in a bid to regain some of the three minutes by which he trails Menchov, but his opponents were too numerous and still relatively fresh when he attacked with Stefano Garzelli of Acqua & Sapone, and the chasers won the ensuing battle.
In today’s racing world of faster speeds and radio-linked riders, it seems that traditional tactics — some may say old-fashioned tactics — have almost been forgotten. But smart tactics can work as several winners of the Giro d’Italia can attest. Bernard Hinault in 1980, Stephen Roche in 1987 and Gilberto Simoni in 2003 all took the race leadership with well-thought-out attacks when their rivals were least expecting it.
With two days to go in the 1980 Giro, Hinault was trailing Italian climber Wladimiro Panizza by a minute going into stage 20, which went over the Stelvio, the highest mountain pass in Italy. Up against a coalition of Italian teams, Hinault’s chances of success seemed slim even if he managed to get clear of his rivals on the Stelvio because the climbs was followed by 85km of downhill and flat roads before the finish in Sondrio.
Hinault’s and his Renault team manager Cyrille Guimard’s plan was to put their youngest rider, Jean-René Bernaudeau, into the day’s early break and have Hinault make a solo effort on the Stelvio in an attempt to bridge to the break. Hinault did just that and he and Bernaudeau joined forces over the summit and rode a two-man team time trial to reach the finish four minutes ahead of a six-man chase group led by Panizza.
In 1987, the Irishman Roche went into stage 15, a 224km stage through the foothills of the Dolomites, with a 2:42 deficit on the race leader, his teammate and the defending champion, Roberto Visentini of Italy. It looked like the Giro was virtually over, but two-thirds of the way through the stage, Roche made a surprise solo move on a flat road between two relatively minor climbs.
This was years before radio links, and by the time the his Carrera team boss managed to drive past the peloton and talk to his rider, Roche was halfway to bridging up to an earlier breakaway. The Irishman refused to stop his effort and explained that he wanted to get to the break before s steep climb near the finish. Roche made it to the front and then worked with riders shooting for the stage win and took over the pink jersey by a few seconds.
Roche’s insubordination brought a storm of protest in the Italian press but he kept the maglia rosa to the end of the Giro after finding support from his team’s one other non-Italian rider, Eddy Schepers of Belgium, along with the Scottish climber Robert Millar, who raced for the Panasonic team. Visentini eventually pulled out of the race, while Millar moved up in the mountains to finish the race in second overall, 3:40 behind Roche.
A more recent example of smart tactics winning the race was Simoni’s bold (some said foolish) solo move on a 2003 Giro stage similar to this Sunday’s from Forli to Faenza. Simoni began the 212km stage 10 from Montecatini Terme to Faenza with a 31-second deficit on race leader Stefano Garzelli. There were four Cat, 2 climbs and half-a-dozen uncategorized hills on the stage, including two that the 2009 peloton faced this Sunday: the Colle Carnevale and Monte Trebbio.
Simoni broke away solo on a climb between those two peaks, and he wasn’t given much hope of success because, the critics said, the climbs were too short and the distance to the finish was too far. Well, Simoni bridged to the day’s small breakaway group on the 6km-long Monte Trebbio and finished the stage in third place behind Norway’s Kurt-Asle Arvesen and Italy’s Polo Tiralongo, 25 seconds ahead of the chase group.
That gap, plus time bonuses was enough to give Simoni the pink jersey by two seconds over Garzelli. Simoni kept the jersey for the rest of the Giro, which he eventually won over runner-up Garzelli by seven minutes.
Monday is D-Day
It’s said that today’s racers are not capable of making surprise moves a success when every movement of every rider is monitored by live television and the ubiquitous team radios. But in the third week of a grand tour when legs and minds are weary and the terrain is difficult, anything is still possible.
On Sunday’s stage 15, Basso did indeed try to elude the leaders like Simoni did six years ago on the same roads, but there were too many rivals willing to chase — including Di Luca’s strongest LPR teammate Alessandro Spezialetti. The LPR squad has been overworked for most of the Giro in defending Di Luca’s lead for a week. Besides Spezialetti, only his teammates Gabriele Bosisio and Jure Golcer have the legs to ride hard in the mountains, and when they have to pull the peloton — as they did for much of Saturday’s stage — even these three folded and ended the day seven minutes back.
Menchov’s Rabobank team appears to be even less capable of supporting their leader on major climbs. None of them was able to help Menchov on Sunday during the Basso-Garzelli attack and only three of them have helped the Russian on the early parts of the mountain stages: the Colombian Mauricio Ardila, Dutchman Laurens Ten Dam and Russian Dmitry Kozontchuk.
So Menchov and Di Luca are likely to be left to their own devices on the latter part of this Monday’s mountainous stage 16, which will give their challengers a better opening — especially as the heat-wave conditions look likely to continue.
Basso and Liquigas teammate Pellizotti have a tactical advantage in that one of them can break away and the other can either bridge across or counterattack, depending on how Menchov and Di Luca reacts. But Leipheimer, only nine seconds down on Di Luca and 43 seconds back of Menchov, is the best placed of the challengers, especially as he has at least four teammates capable of riding for him on the climbs: Lance Armstrong, Yaroslav Popovych, Jani Brajkovic and David Navarro.
Monday’s 237km stage 16 from Pergola to Monte Petrano has four categorized climbs, including the finish up to Monte Petrano, as well as four uncategorized climbs, through the Apennines. The highest point on the itinerary is only 4,649 feet (1417 meters), far lower than the mountain passes in the Alps or Dolomites, but the total amount of vertical climbing is a grueling 15.407 feet (4,696 meters).
The marathon length, the huge amount of climbing and the mountaintop finish potentially make this the toughest and most spectacular stage of the 2009 Giro. In French, this is called the étape-reine (an expression that has been mis-translated into English as the queen stage; it simply means the dominant stage), and it’s one that has all the ingredients to make it a great one.
There’s barely a stretch of flat or straight road on the intricate, twisting course that loops around the peaks of the Apennines, in similar country to where this year’s Tirreno-Adriatico had its toughest day of climbing. There will be no place to hide as the stage climbs 950 feet right from the start to the Colle della Serra that peaks after just 6km. The subsequent undulating road has two other significant uphills at 30km and 60km before the first categorized one: the Cat. 2 Monte delle Cesane, which opens with 2km of 11.4-percent grade including an 18-percent pitch, the steepest of the day. The remaining 5.75km of the Cesane has three false flats between steeper pitches of 10.4, 8.8 and 8 percent.
The Cesane, which tops out at 81km, has a fast descent before 30km of flatter roads until the climbing recommences 123km into the stage, There are five climbs in the final 114km: the 2.3km Rocca Leonella (with 117km to go), the 13.3km Cat. 1 Monte Nerone (with 70.2km left), the 3.7km Moria (58.5km to go), the 11km Cat. 1 Monte Catria (34.6km to go) and the 10.4km finishing climb to Monte Petrano.
Monte Nerone has two dozen switchbacks and has a fairly even grade of 8 percent, with a steepest pitch of 12 percent near the start. Monte Catria has a dozen switchbacks and is consistently steep, with a 10-percent section 2km into the climb, and a 13-percent maximum 2km from the summit. As for the finish to Monte Petrano, its steepest stretch is straight out of the town of Cagli at 13 percent and has log stretches at 8 percent except for short false flats in the middle and over the final kilometer.
Should this stage be ridden in the modern way, with a process of attrition prior to a race up the climb to the finish, then Menchov and Di Luca will hold strong. But if their challengers learn anything from history they know they will have to improvise, putting teammates in early breaks to help them later, or isolating their opponents with strong team efforts on the Nerone, Moria and Catria climbs until their leader emerges in the final hour or what could be a seven-hour stage.
Leipheimer, Sastre and Basso have all won or finished on the podium of grand tours, so they know they can expend a major effort in a long stage like this — especially as it precedes a rest day on Tuesday. As for Pellizotti and Rogers, this is a big test of their endurance and ambition.
Should Monte Petrano simply eliminate two or three of the leaders, those left in contention have the summit finishes Wednesday and Friday, and the closing time trial next Sunday, to pull something out of the hat. It promises to be a scintillating Monday stage and a fascinating week of racing. And maybe smart tactics will win the race.