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Androni Giocattoli-Venezuela was making headlines for all the wrong reasons the past few days in the wake of Roberto Ferrari’s disastrous sprint in Monday’s third stage at the Giro d’Italia.
The scrappy Italian team, captained by flamboyant team manager Gianni Savio, is hoping to be earning some positive ink later in the Giro when the GC battle heads to the Dolomites.
Savio is hanging his hopes on his highly unpredictable protégé José Rujano to pull a surprise against the well-heeled super teams and make a run for the final podium.
Rujano escaped the three rough-and-tumble stages in Denmark without problem and hopes to remain off the radar screen until the Giro hits the first serious climbs in the second half of the race.
“The Giro started off in a good manner. I have good legs. I want to limit my losses in the first half of the race,” Rujano told VeloNews. “If I can arrive to the mountains in good position, anything is possible.”
Now 30, Rujano is one of the most enigmatic riders in the peloton.
He burst onto the scene in the dramatic 2005 Giro, when he won stage 19 into Sestriere over the gravel-road climb up Finistere, and secured the King of the Mountains jersey and third-place overall.
Rujano, who once picked coffee beans to be able to buy his first bicycle, had a hard time dealing with the subsequent fame and the big-money contracts that came in the wake of his 2005 Giro revelation.
He bounced from Quick Step to Unibet to Caisse d’Epargne from 2006-2008 without making much of an impression. Three subpar seasons were enough for the European teams to consider him as a one-off and he returned to South America in 2009 with hopes of reviving his career.
The pint-sized Venezuelan, who tops out at 5-foot-4 and tips the scales at a bird-like 48kg, says he’s back in fighting shape after a few years of wandering in the wilderness.
“I think the podium is a real possibility this year,” Rujano continued. “If I can avoid mishaps going into the final week, I believe in my chances. I want to win a stage and aim for a high placing in GC. The podium is within my grasp if things go my way.”
Savio, who scours the Latin American market looking for young, up-and-coming talent, spotted Rujano as a promising espoirs and signed him to his first contract in 2003, on the former Colombia-Selle Italia squad.
After his European misadventure, Rujano returned to the familiar roads of South America, winning the Tour of Colombia – the continent’s most important stage race – in 2009 and Venezuela’s most important stage race, the Vuelta a Táchira, for a third time in 2010. He also won the Tour of Langkawi and a stage in a season that saw his fortunes revive.
Last year, back with Savio, Rujano won a stage and finished seventh overall at the Giro. With Alberto Contador’s disqualification, he was also awarded victory in stage 9 up Mount Etna and bumped to sixth.
Rujano started the 2012 season off on a good foot, riding to second at the Tour de Langkawi, 30 seconds behind teammate and winner José Serpa.
Savio is enthusiastic about Rujano’s chances.
“I believe he can be a protagonist in this year’s Giro,” Savio said. “He’s back in the best form, better than last year’s Giro. But you never know with Rujano. We hope to see the same Rujano we saw in 2005.”
If Rujano can indeed lift his game to his 2005 level, he would certainly pump some life in the fight for the pink jersey.
Despite the final-day time trial weighing against him, this year’s course favors Rujano even more so than last year’s race of attrition. Coupled with Serpa, and without Contador in the race, Savio’s one-two South American punch could cause some serious damage against the European powerhouses.