By John Wilcockson
Rarely has a modern grand tour entered the mountains as early as does this year’s Giro. After a brief team time trial and two flattish stages disrupted by crashes (because of the maximum-size field of 198 riders racing on narrow, technical finishing circuits), the three-week race heads for the Dolomites on Tuesday.
That’s a brutal re-entry to the high mountains for Lance Armstrong, who hasn’t raced over a European peak since he scaled the Col d’Aubisque on July 16, 2005, during his seventh victorious ride at the Tour de France. That’s almost four years ago. No wonder the Texan, only six weeks after breaking his collarbone, is hesitant to make a forecast on his climbing form.
Judging by his performances on the first two road stages this week, Armstrong looks confident enough to stay with the main group of climbers on stage 3’s two challenging climbs — the 8.5km-long Croce d’Aune (that’s the gnarly ascent where, during a race in 1927, Tullio Campagnolo had his moment of epiphany and came up with the idea of a quick release mechanism) and the 13.75km-long haul to the finish at the ski resort of San Martino di Castrozza.
On the hilly run-ins to the Sunday and Monday stages, Armstrong’s old Tour domestiques Yaroslav Popovych and Chechu Rubiera paced him on the short climbs, which enabled him to stay comfortably in the lead group each day and ride into fifth place overall.
The climbs on Tuesday are of a different nature, though. And should Italian climbers Michele Scarponi, Gilberto Simoni, Ivan Basso, Damiano Cunego and Franco Pellizotti put on the pressure up the steeps of the Croce d’Aune (which has long stretches of 8-percent grade after a 12-percent starter), Armstrong may find that his lack of high-end power will be a problem.
The final climb immediately follows the Croce d’Aune, and although it is less steep, with mostly 6- and 7-percent gradients, it is the same length as the Tour’s L’Alpe d’Huez. It has been used twice before as a Giro stage finish: In 1954, the Dutch all-rounder Wout Wagtmans came out on top by five seconds over Italian Alberto Volpi, while in 1982 the tiny Spanish climber Vicente Belda out-kicked Italian Mario Beccia by three seconds.
However, both those stages came toward the end of the Giro when the top men showed little interest in winning the stage. That won’t be the case Tuesday, when the maglia rosa is in play — and current leader Alessandro Petacchi will be fighting the time limit rather than his fellow sprinters.
If we remove the sprinters and non-climbers from the GC after the three opening stages, it looks something like this: 1. Michael Rogers (Columbia); 2. Tomas Lövkvist (Columbia), s.t.; 3. Lance Armstrong (Astana), at 0:13; 4. Danilo Di Luca (LPR), at 0:22; 5. Levi Leipheimer (Astana), at 0:26; 6. Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas), at 0:40; 7. Damiano Cunego (Lampre), at 0:42; 8. Marzio Bruseghin (Lampre), s.t.; 9. Carlos Sastre (Cervélo), at 0:49; 10. Ivan Basso (Liquigas), at 0:53; 11. Denis Menchov (Rabobank), at 1:02; 12. Gilberto Simoni (Diquigiovanni), at 1:06; 13. Michele Scarponi (Diquigiovanni), at 1:19; 14. Stefano Garzelli (Acqua & Sapone), at 1:19; 15. Mauricio Soler (Barloworld), at 3:08.
In the slightly uphill finish to stage 3 on Monday, Cunego sprinted to fifth place and Rogers was eighth; perhaps that’s an indication of how the race will go on Tuesday at San Martino. But it’s clear that the strongest-looking teams to date are Basso and Pellizotti’s Liquigas team; Armstrong and Leipheimer’s Astana squad; and Di Luca’s LPR troops. And we shouldn’t forget that this stage finishes in Trentino, the home province of two-time Giro winner Simoni.
All of these factors point to a frenetic final 50km on Tuesday, with a likely sprint finish between a dozen guys, with fast finishers Cunego, Di Luca and Scarponi the men most likely to be on the podium. Rogers might take over the pink jersey, and Armstrong could drop as much as a minute or two on his return to grand-tour reality.