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Giro d'Italia

John Wilcockson takes a look at the Giro’s five tough remaining stages

An exhausted Michael Rogers was speaking from experience on Monday after the Giro d’Italia’s gigantic stage 16 to Monte Petrano when he said, “I have just spent the toughest day and the hottest day I have ever experienced in the saddle.”

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By John Wilcockson

Denis Menchov on Monday's stage.

Denis Menchov on Monday’s stage.

Photo: Agence France Presse

An exhausted Michael Rogers was speaking from experience on Monday after the Giro d’Italia’s gigantic stage 16 to Monte Petrano when he said, “I have just spent the toughest day and the hottest day I have ever experienced in the saddle.”

Levi Leipheimer, who faded from third to sixth overall on Petrano mountain’s final 8km at the end of the 237km, seven-hour stage, also knew what he was saying when he wrote on his Twitter account Monday evening: “Lance (Armstrong) and I are discussing the fact that today may have been the hardest ever!! 2004 TdF Plateau de Beille is up there.”

Five years ago at the Tour de France, Armstrong won the 205km, six-hour Plateau de Beille stage 13 that crossed seven Pyrenean peaks, with Leipheimer in 19th, 6:39 back, and Rogers 27th at 8:21. After finishing that stage on a day of blazing heat — just like Monday’s stage in Italy — Rogers told VeloNews. “There wasn’t an easy climb the whole day. I was thinking it’s so long and so many climbs. There’s no end to it. It’ll go down in history….” In turn, Leipheimer said, “Little by little I ran out of gas. I had nothing left … It was probably the hardest stage I’ve ever done.”

Each of these stages had more than 15,000 feet of climbing, which combined with the heat-wave conditions and the intensity of the competition made them days that stick in the memory. Thankfully for the riders, who had a chance to recuperate on the Adriatic coast on Tuesday’s second rest day, there are no more stages as physically demanding in the Giro’s remaining five days. Not that they are easy.

Stage 16 winner Carlos Sastre, who replaced Leipheimer in third overall, says he is still shooting for overall victory on the mountaintop stage finishes this Wednesday and Friday. And race leader Denis Menchov knows he has the concluding time trial in Rome Sunday to make up for any time he may lose to Sastre or runner-up Danilo Di Luca on the two climbs.

Armstrong won stage 13 of the 2004 Tour de France, which he compared to Monday's Giro stage.

Armstrong won stage 13 of the 2004 Tour de France, which he compared to Monday’s Giro stage.

Photo: Graham Watson

The stages to come:

WEDNESDAY: At 83km, stage 17 from Chieti to Blockhaus is the shortest road stage of the race, so the entire peloton is likely to arrive intact at the foot of the 18km-long, 7-percent-grade climb to the finish. Winter snows damaged the upper reaches of this one-way road to a World War II, German-built military structure, and so the climb is 5.5km shorter than planned — which will be a relief to the non-climbers.

Several stages of the Giro have finished on this narrow, zigzag mountain road, most recently in 2006, when Ivan Basso won the stage and took over the pink jersey at the Passo Laricano, which is 5km short of Friday’s finish. Basso won that stage by 30 seconds over runner-up Damiano Cunego, while Di Luca was in eighth, 1:32 back.

Di Luca, who lives in the area, is keen to give his fans a better show this time. Winning the stage, with its 20-second time bonus, would halve his 39-second deficit on Menchov, but if Sastre can repeat the climbing form he showed Monday, the Spaniard could make up a big chunk of the 2:19 by which he trails the race leader.

When the race finished at the same point on the Blockhaus climb in 1972, another Spanish climber, José-Manuel Fuente, won a similarly short stage by 1:35 over another Spaniard Miguel-Maria Lasa and 2:36 over third-place Italian Gianni Motta. The other Blockhaus winners were Eddy Merckx in 1966 (his first-ever mountaintop stage victory), Franco Bitossi in 1968 and Moreno Argentin in 1984.

THURSDAY: Stage 18 from Sulmona to Benevento starts with 22km of steady climbing, but the remaining 160km are downhill or undulating, with an uphill finish at the end of a 7.5km circuit in Benevento. In Giro history this stage has proved favorable to sprinters. Robbie McEwen won here in 2002, Giuseppe Saronni in 1978 and Roger De Vlaeminck (ahead of Felice Gimondi and Merckx!) in 1973. But this week, with more than a dozen teams still in search of a stage win, it’s unlikely that the LPR team of top sprinter Alessandro Petacchi (and race leader Di Luca) will want to chase down breakaways on another day of temperatures in the 80s.

FRIDAY: After an opening 33km mostly downhill to the Mediterranean coast at Salerno, the next 100km of this 164km stage 19 circles an exquisitely beautiful peninsular on hilly, twisty roads through the beach resorts of Amalfi, Positano and Sorrento before heading toward Naples and the spectacular climb of Mount Vesuvius — the volcano that erupted and buried Pompeii in Roman times.

This is the first time that the full 13km of the Vesuvius climb has been tackled in the Giro. The two previous editions that came this way ended at the 8km mark by the Vesuvius Observatory. In 1959, climber Charly Gaul won the 8km uphill time trial at an average speed of 21.083 kph (on a steel bike probably 10 pounds heavier than today’s carbon fiber machines); he defeated runner-up Guido Boni by 37 seconds. And in 1990, long-distance-breakaway specialist Eduardo Chozas of Spain hung on to win a 190km stage by 26 seconds over race leader Francesco Moser.

The Vesuvius climb average 7.4 percent, but this includes the opening 4km at only 5 percent, while the final 5km (being raced for the first time) averages 8.7 percent, with the final 1.5km at a grueling 10 percent. It’s certainly a climb (the same length as L’Alpe d’Huez) where Sastre could win again.

SATURDAY: The 203km stage 20 is mostly flat, running north along the coast from Naples, but it then heads inland and the finish is on an 18.2km circuit that features two passages of a Cat. 3 climb to the finish line in ancient Anagni. This climb rises 413 feet in 2.7km and could again be fought out by a successful breakaway — unless Di Luca is still in contention and wants a try at picking up another 20-second time bonus.

SUNDAY: Just as this Giro opened with a spectacular team time trial in Venice, so it’s finishing with a prestigious individual time trial in the Italian capital of Rome. This almost flat 14.4km circuit, which features 23 sharp turns, takes in many of the city’s historic sites and finishes with a loop around the 2,000-year-old Coliseum.

Menchov would love to finish off a winning Giro by taking this stage, but it’s more likely to favor a rider like Olympic pursuit champion Brad Wiggins of Garmin, Columbia-Highroad’s Rogers, or the Astana team leaders Armstrong and Leipheimer. Armstrong would certainly love to win prior to shooting for an eighth victory at July’s Tour de France.

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