Hesjedal, Rodríguez come out on top of TTT sweepstakes

Canadian and Spaniard take the biggest gains on the overall favorites for the Giro in Verona

Two riders came out on top of the team time trial sweepstakes at the Giro d’Italia on Wednesday: Ryder Hesjedal and Joaquim Rodríguez.

Both men rode the coattails of their respective squad’s dominating performance in the team race against the clock, with Garmin-Barracuda living up to its favorite status with victory while Katusha surprised just about everyone, including its team boss, Hans Michael Holczer.

“We’re not expecting much today,” Holczer said at a Canyon TT bike launch in the morning. “If we are in 15th, don’t blame the bike! We are only shooting for the top 15. We did not bring a strong time trial team.”

Katusha did a lot better than that and nearly rode away with victory, posting an early fast time that withstood all challengers except Garmin, who shaved five seconds off the Russian squad’s time for the win.

Powered by Mikhail Ignatyev and Gatis Smukulis, the respective national time trial champions in Russia and Latvia, the Russian-backed Katusha squad delivered a huge ride that will go a long way toward bolstering the GC hopes of Rodríguez.

“The team rode a spectacular time trial,” said a happy Rodríguez, who climbed into 10th overall, at 30 seconds back. “I am very content for the time we gained over the other favorites. This makes me even more motivated and is a big boost of morale.”

Thanks to the hot ride, Rodríguez took valuable time on his primary GC rivals, including 17 seconds over Roman Kreuziger at Astana; 21 seconds on Ivan Basso’s Liquigas-Cannondale team and 29 seconds on Michele Scarponi and Lampre-ISD.

Behind Rodríguez, the other GC favorites took stock after two time trials inside four days of racing.

Scarponi, who inherited the pink jersey in the wake of Alberto Contador’s disqualification, has been struggling so far in the early stages against the clock.

Scarponi has dug himself the deepest hole among the GC favorites — 85th overall, at 1:22 back — but as he said after Saturday’s time trial, “the Giro will be decided in the mountains. The differences will be minutes, not seconds.”

Two-time champion Basso settled into 33rd at 47 seconds off the pink jersey, just 17 seconds off Rodríguez’s time of reference among the pre-ordained “big” in the Italian media.

Liquigas, which has won TTTs before at the Giro, was seventh-fastest at 26 seconds off Garmin’s winning time.

“It wasn’t an easy course to get through and the final result is what we more or less expected,” Basso said. “It’s another step forward and the ‘special’ classification among the GC favorites largely didn’t change. Only Rodríguez took some seconds, but now is not the time to start making judgments. We need to keep building the Giro step by step.”

Continued to be overlooked by just about everyone is Hesjedal, who comes to this Giro with the intention of taking aim for the final podium.

The Canadian, who was sixth overall in the 2010 Tour de France, has enjoyed a solid opening to the 2012 Giro.

Hesjedal, now fourth at 11 seconds back, is poised to slip into the pink jersey and defend the ground he’s opened up against his rivals, who might find themselves caught unaware later in the race.

Garmin can play hot-potato with the pink jersey, with Tyler Farrar sitting in second place at 10 seconds back. Time bonuses can bounce him into the leader’s jersey if he’s in the top-two in Thursday’s stage, if it comes down to a sprint.

“We do not mind that no one is looking at Ryder,” said Garmin-Barracuda sport director Alan Peiper. “We are going to have fun. We are going to go about defending the pink jersey. We are going to die for Tyler at the end. We will make the most of it.”

Garmin’s position is enviable, especially if everyone is looking past them.