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Giro GC clear as mud after two weeks

The race for pink is wide open as the final week begins and the Dolomites loom

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BRESCIA, Italy (VN) – After 15 stages, 2,558.9km and more than 65 hours of racing, the Giro d’Italia overall classification is as clear as mud.

The GC picture is still wide open with six days of racing left, with 10 riders still packed within three minutes of the pink jersey. The hardest, most decisive stages are still to come and the legendary climbs such as the Giau, the Mortirolo and the Stelvio will decide this Giro.

Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) carries a 30-second lead to Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Barracuda) ahead of a tightly bound GC battle, but nothing is settled as far as the fight for the maglia rosa is concerned. A year after Alberto Contador all-but-locked-up the race on the ninth stage, this is exactly what organizers hoped for when designing the 2012 route.

On a rainy, soggy rest day Monday, the Giro’s “big” took stock of what lies ahead. Everyone agrees that pain is in the forecast and the maglia rosa is still prime for the taking.

“I am satisfied with the situation,” said Ivan Basso, who sits third overall, at 1:22 back. “The Giro will be decided in the final week. The hardest part is still to come. We are in good position.”

That sentiment of holding back the firepower runs through the top GC contenders, who seem intent on saving their matches for three punishing climbing stages across the Dolomites that will be the final battleground for the overall victory.

So far, only Rodríguez and Hesjedal have been the top GC contenders to open up serious attacks. Rodríguez pounced at Assisi in stage 10 and again in Sunday’s finale, both times up short, explosive climbs that suit him perfectly. And both times succeeding in wrestling the pink jersey away from Hesjedal.

The Canadian attacked Saturday, putting in a fierce, 3km surge at the end of the 27km climb up to Cervinia to reclaim pink, only to cede it back to Rodríguez a day later. That effort cost Hesjedal on Sunday, when he struggled to match Rodríguez’s equally fierce acceleration with 1.3km to go.

Hesjedal and Rodríguez are both still enjoying advantages earned during the team time trial back in stage 4, when Garmin won and Katusha surprised with second place, at just five seconds back. Rodríguez has also taken advantage of finish-line time bonuses, taking back 28 seconds against his rivals. With no more bonuses in the three remaining mountain stages, that difference could prove critical.

For Rodríguez, he knows what he has to do.

“I can ride defensively because I now have the maglia rosa and some important time gains. I need to avoid mistakes,” he said. “If the opportunity is there to attack, I will take it. What lies ahead is brutal, so the measuring of the efforts will become important.”

That sense of gloom and doom, with 11 major climbs and two summit finales still to be contested, seems to have marked this Giro. Everyone seems to sense that the Giro will be decided on those final punishing climbs, especially the back-to-back summit finishes at Alpi de Pampeago and the Stelvio on Friday and Saturday.

Basso has been the most cautious of the major contenders, putting his Liquigas-Cannondale team on the front to set a brutal pace to force the other teams to work hard, yet so far easing off the accelerator in the pair of uphill finales over the weekend.

The two-time Giro champion knows that the Dolomites will crown the Giro champion and he’s been playing rope-a-dope, waiting for his moment to boldly step into the fray.

“These climbs have not been appropriate terrain to attack. Right now, we have been avoiding trouble and limiting our losses,” Basso said. “What is seconds of difference now will be minutes in the final week. The key to this Giro is to be strongest in the final week.”

With six stages still to contest, here are the key factors to watch on the road to Milan:

Team strength Liquigas, Astana and Lampre-ISD have been the strongest teams so far. Liquigas’ eternal worker, Sylvester Szmyd, is Basso’s loyal “last man” in the mountains and once again should play a key role in shredding the legs of his captain’s rivals. Szmyd’s digs on Sunday quickly saw Hesjedal and Scarponi without much help, something that should only become more critical on the longer climbs in the Dolomites.

Astana, meanwhile, seems to be waiting to see how long Paolo Tiralongo can hold on. Right now, Tiralongo and Roman Kreuziger, fourth and fifth, respectively, at 1:26 and 1:27 back, give Astana two GC options. “It’s better to have two cards to play than one,” Kreuziger said diplomatically. “We can use that to our advantage. One attacks, the other counters.”

Rodríguez has the help of the “three musketeers,” with Alberto Losada, Dani Moreno and Angel Vicioso ready to step up this week to defend the pink jersey. Rodríguez, who has been known to crack over three weeks, will need the help. “I have the pink jersey, so I am the strongest right now,” Rodríguez said. Whether he still has it Saturday remains to be seen.

Hanging on For Hesjedal, hanging on will be absolutely critical to his podium chances. The tall Canadian suffered Sunday, but the longer, steadier climbs of the Giro’s final week suit him better. “I am always my strongest in the final week of a grand tour,” Hesjedal said. “If I have the legs, I should be able to stay close to those guys.” Hesjedal will have the ever-steady legs of Christian Vande Velde and young climber Peter Stetina, who suffered Sunday, but should rebound in Monday’s rest day.

Vande Velde cautioned that Liquigas is ready to lay down the gauntlet: “That’s Basso’s style — to just grind it out. He’s so strong, he can just drop people without even attacking,” he said. Rodríguez, too, can play it defensively, marking wheels and putting in late stage attacks if he has the legs.

Erasing the differences While Rodríguez and Hesjedal can ride to survive, Basso, Kreuziger and Scarponi all need to change their mentality if they hope to win this Giro. Each is nearly one-and-a-half minute behind Rodríguez and about one minute behind Hesjedal. With no finish-line time bonuses, those three will need to ride aggressively if they hope to have any chance of taking the pink jersey.

Scarponi, who inherited the 2011 Giro crown from the disqualified Alberto Contador, says he’s ready. “The only rider who has been better than me so far is Rodríguez,” said Scarponi, sixth at 1:36. “Cunego attacked and our team didn’t have to work, so that’s a big advantage for us. We will be ready to attack when it counts.”

Of the three “bigs,” Scarponi has the most explosive punch to open up true differences. Basso and Kreuziger are typically more diesel-style, at their best with a hard, consistent pace, while Scarponi seems to be patiently waiting for his moment to throw down a race-changing attack.

Weather Cold and rain is forecasted through the final week, so weather is sure to play a major factor in deciding the Giro winner. Bigger riders, such as Hesjedal and Basso, tend to hold up better against smaller, compact riders like Rodríguez and Scarponi in the cold and wet. Basso and Rodríguez are both renowned to despise rain and cold, but even riders like Hesjedal, who typically endures the rain and cold better than most, can suffer, as he did Sunday. Avoiding crashes, staying well fed and focusing on post-stage recovery are small details that will tip the favor toward the eventual winner.

Outsiders Behind the Giro’s “big,” there are a few riders poised to upset the apple cart. Most dangerous is Sky’s pair of young and largely unknown Colombians, Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Urán, eighth at 1:55 and 11th at 2:56, respectively. Urán suffered in Sunday’s cold and rain, but Henao is hanging tough, moving into the white jersey of the best young rider.

The Colombians relish the long, grinding climbs and may well try a long-distance attack that will force the GC favorites to ditch their steady-march approach and improvise. Domenico Pozzovivo (Colnago-CSF Inox) saw his podium chances take a dive when he lost 2:05 to Rodríguez on Sunday, but the pint-sized climber has nothing to lose, and vows to gamble everything for a miracle.

The loss of Frank Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan) to injury, who abandoned early in Sunday’s stage, eliminates a major threat to the Italians. Beñat Intxausti (Movistar), seventh at 1:42 back, will unlikely want to risk his solid GC position with high-risk attacks. Then there’s the always unpredictable José Rujano (Androni Giocattoli-Venezuela), now a distant 22nd, at 7:50 back. A stage win would salvage what’s been a disappointing Giro, and if he finds his legs in the final week, he will not be afraid to attack.

Final time trial With all eyes on the Stelvio, many are already overlooking Sunday’s 31km final time trial in Milan. Most expect the differences to be so big that the final TT will be little more than a formality. The one GC rider who stands to gain the most from Milan is Hesjedal. While he’s not a TT specialist on rank with the likes of Denis Menchov or Levi Leipheimer, Hesjedal should be able to take back time on the climbers. Vande Velde estimates that an on-form Hesjedal could take two to three seconds per kilometer against Rodríguez.

“Ryder could take two minutes out of Purito in Milan,” said Vande Velde.

That’s something that Rodríguez is acutely aware of, saying that he is not looking past the Garmin captain. “Ryder is very dangerous. I remember in the 2010 Tour, when he was fifth and I was eighth, he took [almost four minutes] in the time trial,” he said. “I expect he could take two minutes out of me in Milan. If he continues like he is, he will be the maximum rival for final victory.”

That’s a scenario that just about everyone is hoping to avoid. Everyone, that is, except Hesjedal and his Garmin teammates.

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