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Giro d'Italia

The challenges of the Cinque Terre TT

With the centennial edition of the Giro d’Italia at its halfway point, and with less than three minutes covering the top 10 riders on GC, doing well in Thursday’s ultra-tough Cinque Terre time trial is the key to overall victory. But besides the expected challenges to Danilo Di Luca’s pink jersey by Denis Menchov (Rabobank), Michael Rogers (Columbia-Highroad), Levi Leipheimer (Astana) and Ivan Basso (Liquigas), a handful of other TT specialists will by vying for the prestigious stage win.

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By John Wilcockson

Thursday's time trial is key.

Thursday’s time trial is key.

Photo: Graham Watson

With the centennial edition of the Giro d’Italia at its halfway point, and with less than three minutes covering the top 10 riders on GC, doing well in Thursday’s ultra-tough Cinque Terre time trial is the key to overall victory. But besides the expected challenges to Danilo Di Luca’s pink jersey by Denis Menchov (Rabobank), Michael Rogers (Columbia-Highroad), Levi Leipheimer (Astana) and Ivan Basso (Liquigas), a handful of other TT specialists will by vying for the prestigious stage win.

These “other” candidates include a slowly-returning-to-form Lance Armstrong (Astana), the Italian strong man Marzio Bruseghin (Lampre), Britain’s Brad Wiggins (Garmin-Slipstream), Jens Voigt (Saxo Bank) and perhaps U.S. national champion Dave Zabriskie (Garmin). Olympic champ Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) told VeloNews he has no plans to bid for the win on a course that includes “too much climbing.”

The course
A look at the profile shows that this stage is as hard as a true mountain stage, with 4,157 feet of elevation gain over the Cat. 3 Passo del Bracca and the Cat. 2 Passo del Termine, along with a one-kilometer kicker to the finish in Riomaggiore. These stats suggest that the 60.6km (38-mile) course is custom made for a climber, but it’s much more complex than that.

The uphills are long, but not especially steep. The 2,024-foot Bracca starts just 1km from the start in Sestri Levante and goes uphill for almost 15km. The steepest pitch is 8 percent, on the opening 4km that average 6.3 percent, while the other steep part (2km at 6.5 percent) comes after the 10km point. The twisty road then drops more than 2,000 feet in 8.4km (just over 5 miles) at an average of 7.3 percent to the little town of Levanto, back on the seashore.

As for the 1,798-foot Termine, it climbs for 8.8km, with consistent grades of 8 percent and a steepest pitch of 10 percent 3km from the summit. This peak comes with 16km still to race, mostly downhill, except for the short uphill to the finish line.

The contenders
Because of the long uphills, the constant twists and turns on the narrow roads and the vertiginous descents, power riders like Armstrong, Leipheimer and Rogers are favored to do well. Both Armstrong and Rogers have scouted the course, as has Basso and Di Luca, which should give these riders a distinct advantage. But other factors that will come into play are general time-trial skills (especially mental ones on a course of this length), bike-handling skills (that’s why they are all using regular road bikes with clip-on aerobars), good climbing form, ambition, and good time-split information during the race.

There are three official intermediate time splits — at the Bracco summit (18.6km), in Levanto (34.5km) and on the Termine summit (44.5km) — but the top riders will also have the benefit of more frequent splits set by their team “rabbits.”

For Astana, the rabbit will probably be Jani Brajkovic, who starts half an hour before Armstrong and almost an hour before Leipheimer. For Columbia, Marco Pinotti starts 90 minutes ahead of Rogers, and Rabobank has Laurens Ten Dam starting about a half-hour ahead of Menchov. As for race leader Di Luca, he will just have to key off his rivals — and should he begin losing time in the early kilometers it could be the start of a demoralizing day.

The history
This time trial over the steep escarpments of the stunningly beautiful Cinque Terre area is the longest in any grand tour for a dozen years. Not only that, but the constantly twisting course makes it perhaps the most technical in cycling history.

In the Giro’s 100-year history, there have been only nine TTs longer than 60km, starting with a flat 62km stage won by overall winner Alfredo Binda in 1933 — which was the first TT in any grand tour. The Giro’s longest TT was a hilly 81km between Perugia and Terni in 1951 that was won by Italy’s campionissimo, Fausto Coppi, who defeated French great Louison Bobet by 1:07, with Swiss legend Hugo Koblet in third — those three men won 12 grand tours between them. Coppi also won the following year’s Giro TT on an even hillier 66km course between Erba and Como, but by only 15 seconds over second-place Koblet.

The most dominant performance in a longer-than-60km Giro TT came from Spain’s incomparable Miguel Induráin, who in 1992 raced to a 2:46 victory over Italian Guido Bontempi on a flat 66km course from Vigevano to Milan. That stage victory helped Induráin win the Giro the first of two times, while his five Tour de France titles included wins in four time trials over 60km — the longest was a 73km TT in 1991, when the Spaniard defeated defending champ Greg LeMond by eight seconds.

The longest TT in any grand tour since World War II was the 1987 Tour’s stage 8, over 87.5km from Saumur to Futuroscope, which was won by the eventual overall winner Stephen Roche.

Who will win?
The longest time trial ridden by Armstrong in his career was the 64km stage 9 of the 1994 Tour de France when he was only 22 years old. He was caught by Indurain for two minutes about 15km into the stage, and he admits he made a mistake by trying to match the great Spaniard’s pace — and then struggling to finish.

The Texan was 13th in that time trial 15 years ago, 6:23 behind Indurain, which was not a bad performance considering the time lost by specialists at the height if their careers — Tony Rominger lost two minutes in finishing second and Chris Boardman conceded 5:27 in placing fifth.

Right now, Armstrong is in ascendant form, as he showed by riding at the front of the peloton on the long and steep Mont Cénis climb in the Alps on Tuesday. Also climbing well are Di Luca, Carlos Sastre (Cervélo) and Gilberto Simoni (Diquigiovanni) — but those riders are not especially strong time trialists. The men in good form who are also capable of riding a strong long time trial are Menchov, Rogers, Leipheimer, Basso … and Armstrong.

Beside all the various parameters at play on Thursday, the current heat-wave temperatures could easily cause riders to get dehydrated. The smart riders will start the race with two water bottles and they will get more water handed up to them at the official feed zone in Levanto (bottles cannot be handed up to riders from their follow car).

Given all the factors, the likely stage result is 1. Leipheimer, 2. Armstrong, 3. Rogers, 4. Menchov, 5. Basso. A more certain forecast is that the time gaps will be huge!