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Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: The Giro battle has only just begun

Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: The Giro battle has only just begun

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With six stages completed (a time trial, three flat stages, a team time trial and Friday’s first semi-mountain stage), the 93rd Giro d’Italia has already produced more drama than anyone expected. It has also produced more crashes than anyone expected, which, unfortunately, have greatly affected the race for the maglia rosa.

Remarkably, only two riders were forced to quit in the “crash derby” in the Dutch stages. BMC Racing’s Martin Kohler fell and broke his collarbone on stage 2, while Garmin-Transitions’ Christian Vande Velde did the some thing on stage 3. But the many crashes — more than half the 198 starters were involved in pileups in the Dutch stages — caused an unprecedented number of riders to lose (major) time, including several pre-race favorites.

So, prior to this weekend’s two stages — a tricky one over the white roads of Tuscany on Saturday, and the first mountaintop finish on Sunday, where all the favorites will need to be at their best, either to consolidate their positions or attempt to get back time already lost — here’s the contenders’ scorecard.

Cadel Evans (currently 16th , 1:59 back)
The world champion took an excellent third place in the opening time trial, and earned the maglia rosa on stage 2 after leader Brad Wiggins was caught up in a crash 7km from the finish and lost 37 seconds. Ironically, Evans lost the jersey in similar fashion on stage 3, but the circumstances were different.

The Aussie was blocked by the crash that involved Wiggins and the rest of his Sky team, and Evans’s chain derailed when someone bumped him from behind. The then race leader had no teammates around him, and he had to chase solo to catch the second group on the road (that also contained Carlos Sastre). Up in the front group, according to reports, when Alexander Vinokourov heard about his rivals’ troubles he told his Astana teammates to crank up the pace. The result was Evans losing 47 seconds and the pink jersey — to Vinokourov.

Because of the time lost there, Evans’s BMC team started the fourth of the 22 teams in Wednesday’s team time trial (and with only eight riders, not nine). That first batch of teams had the worst of the wind conditions: during the opening 10km, they had to battle a fierce crosswind that switched to a tailwind for the later starters. All teams had to ride on wet roads and contend with short, heavy (sometimes violent) rain showers.

Critics have said that Evans was let down by his team, but what they have not recognized (besides the changing wind conditions) is that BMC Racing was the fastest of all 11 opening teams, including six UCI ProTour squads. This assessment was confirmed by intermediate times that showed BMC lost one minute to Team Sky in the first 18km, but conceded just eight seconds to the British squad over the final 15km. (Sky came in second after riding through a far worse downpour than the winning Liquigas team, which started half an hour later.)

So the 1:21 that BMC eventually conceded Liquigas would likely have been half that amount — probably more in line with Sastre’s Cervélo TestTeam, which took sixth place on the day, 38 seconds down.

In the climbing stages to come, Evans will have the support of Mauro Santambrogio, who was a last-minute replacement for the injured Steve Morabito. It was worrisome that Santambrogio was the only BMC rider to remain with Evans in the 88-strong front group on Friday after the Cat. 2 Passo del Cucco and Cat. 3 Foce di Ortonovo in the final 30km before the Marina di Carrara finish; but maybe reputed climbers Jeff Louder and Florian Stalder can come around before the more vital mountain stages begin.

Ivan Basso (second, 13 seconds back)
The top Italian contender was only 37th in the Amsterdam time trial, conceding 21 seconds to Evans in 8.4km, and losing 13 seconds to younger teammate Vincenzo Nibali. Since then, Basso has finished with the front group on all the road stages and helped Liquigas win the team time trial (see above).

Basso and co-team leader Nibali had three Liquigas riders with them in the front group on Friday’s climbing stage, which is comforting for the future days in the mountains.

Vincenzo Nibali (race leader)
Basso’s future at this Giro is intimately tied to that of his Liquigas teammate Nibali, who has the maglia rosa (and not Basso) thanks to his superior opening time trial (he was 11th in Amsterdam).

Nibali may have been at his parents’ home in Messina, Sicily, when he got the call to replace the disgraced Franco Pellizotti (whose biological passport indicated EPO use last year), but he wasn’t on vacation. Nibali was about to fly out to the Tour of California, for which he was fully prepared after riding the Tour de Romandie and the Ardennes classics following a two-week altitude training camp in Tenerife with Basso and other teammates.

When Basso was asked about his teammate in pink, who was seventh overall at the 2009 Tour de France, the 2006 Giro champion said, “I don’t see why he can’t keep the maglia rosa all the way to Verona. After all, who knows his true limits?”

Carlos Sastre (20th, 2:13 back)
The Spanish climber was 42nd in the opening TT, two seconds slower than Basso and 23 seconds behind Evans. But Sastre was caught behind crashes on both of the Dutch road stages, losing 37 seconds on the first and 47 second on the second one. Afterward, he said, “My team did the maximum to help me limit the time gaps and not lose the Giro here.”

Sastre’s Cervélo team did well in the TTT, finishing sixth, on the same seconds as Astana. And on Friday’s hilly stage he had three Cervélo teammates with him at the finish.

Alexander Vinokourov (fourth, 33 seconds back)
Vinokourov knows he may struggle on the steeper climbs that await the Giro in its third week, and that’s why he has done everything to gain time in the opening week. He did an excellent opening TT, fourth fastest, just three seconds behind Evans, and he instructed his team to split up the race in the crosswinds of stage 3.

Controversially, he is said to have taken advantage of the troubles experienced by Evans and Sastre toward the end of that stage. He claimed not to have known that Evans was chasing alone after being delayed by a crash, but Vinokourov’s Italian teammate Enrico Gasparotto apparently told the press that they heard of Evans’s predicament with 10km to go and that his team leader “shouted at us to pick up the pace.”

Vinokourov took the pink jersey after that stage, and he was hopeful his Astana team would help him keep it in the TTT; and that’s why he gesticulated in frustration and anger when he had only the minimum four teammates with him at the end — and the last of those men (whose time counted as the team’s time) was gapped.

Astana suffered an important loss Friday when climber Paolo Tiralongo crashed on a slick descent and was forced to quit – he’ll be missed by Vinokourov in the upcoming mountain stages. But the team leader still had five teammates with him at the end of the day.

The remaining pre-race favorites haven’t fared as well, while some others have ridden into contention. This is where they stand:

Vladimir Karpets (fifth, 39 seconds back)
The big Katusha rider from Russia has finished top 10 at the Giro (in 2005) but he doesn’t have the climbing legs to go with the best in the final week.

Richie Porte (sixth, 45 seconds back)
This confident Australian rookie has so far been Saxo Bank’s surprise weapon, but it’s a big step up from riding amateur distances last year to the heavy demands of this Giro

David Millar (seventh, 45 seconds back)
Losing Vande Velde early put Millar into the Garmin team’s leadership role, but the mountains of the Giro are much steeper and higher than the ones he conquered in Corsica when he placed second at the Critérium International in March.

Linus Gerdemann (ninth, 1:04 back)
The enigmatic German rider and his Milram team have ridden below the radar to date, but Gerdemann always rides strongly in Italy and he has won a mountain stage of the Tour, so let’s wait and see….

Marco Pinotti (17th, 2:01 back)
The seriousness of the HTC-Columbia rider’s credentials were shown Friday when he got into an early eight-man breakaway that was quickly squashed by the Liguigas team.

Michele Scarponi (21st, 2:35 back)
He has been outstanding on the climbing stages of the early-season Tirreno-Adriatico the past two years, but his Androni-Diquigiovanni team has yet to show it can support a shot at the maglia rosa.

Stefano Garzelli (23rd, 2:49 back)
The 2000 Giro winner is one of the dark horses this year, but his Acqua & Sapone team has been disappointing so far; maybe a stage win on Sunday would put some pep in their riding.

Damiano Cunego (26th, 3:45 back)
The 2004 winner has said he’s only shooting for stage wins, although his struggling Lampre-Farnese team would love him to play a major role in the GC stakes; but the time he lost in the Netherlands will be hard to make up.

Brad Wiggins (31st, 4:36 back)
His Amsterdam TT win was a great start for Team Sky in its first grand tour; now he’s out of the GC picture because of crashes, perhaps Wiggo can win a mountain stage. Wouldn’t that be something!

Domenico Pozzovivo (81st, 12:17 back)
Colnago-CSF’s Pozzovivo is one of the best climbers in the race, but so far he’s spent more time picking himself up off the deck than anything else. He could still surprise a few people once the longer, higher, steeper climbs begin in the final week.

Gilberto Simoni (138th, 22:10 back)
This is his last Giro at 39 years old, and he’s not going to repeat his overall victories of 2001 and 2003, but it would be great to see him take one of the Dolomite stages.


Saturday May 15, Stage 7: Carrara—Montalcino (220km)
With rain in the forecast, this difficult 220km stage 7 through Tuscany (shortened slightly due to road work near the halfway mark) will be even messier than predicted — mud rather than dust on the strade bianche, the unpaved white roads made famous by the Montepaschi Eroica race. The stage marks the 10th anniversary of Italian legend Gino Bartali’s death with a course that visits many of the places where he trained and raced from his home in Florence. After a first couple of hours racing down the Tyrrhenian coast, the peloton will head inland through Pisa and climb to Volterra before a hilly finale that takes in two 10km-long stretches of strade bianche. The second of these sectors is almost entirely uphill and ends only 8km from the finish in Montalcino — where Filippo Pozzato of Katusha will be a stage win favorite.

Sunday May 16, Stage 8: Chianciano—Monte Terminillo (189km)
Although the first 170km of this stage has plenty of significant uphills and steep descents, all the focus will be on the Giro’s first mountaintop finish at Monte Terminillo in the Abruzzese Apennines of central Italy. The finish line will be at 1,672 meters (5,485 feet) elevation, not at the mountain’s 2,216-meter (7,270-foot) summit as has been erroneously reported. Even so, the 15km, 8-percent climb is extremely tough. Commenting on the Terminillo, Basso said, “You have to watch out for that stage; it’s the first summit finish but it could well be decisive!”

Monday May 17, Stage 9: Frosinone—Cava de’ Tirreni (187km)
After a weekend of challenging stages, the peloton will be happy to return to the plains, and this rolling 187km stage 9 south of Rome will give both the breakaways and sprinters a chance of success.

Tuesday May 18, Stage 10: Avellino—Bitonto (230km)
The sprinters will get a second bite of the cherry on a second rolling stage, this one across the foot of the Italian peninsula to Bitonto, near the Adriatic city of Bari. The forecast of cool, showery weather favors the sprinters.

Wednesday May 19, Stage 11: Lucera—L’Aquila (262km)
With temperatures still on the cool side, this marathon stage of 262km — likely to be the longest time-wise since the 2000 Giro when Axel Merckx won a 265km stage to Prato in 10 minutes short of eight hours! — will give everyone painful memories as they reach this Giro’s halfway point. The finish town of L’Aquila was near the epicenter of the 5.8-level earthquake in April 2009 that killed more than 300 people, left 65,000 homeless and caused an estimated $16 billion in damage. Seven or more hours in the saddle over a course featuring three difficult climbs in the Apennines almost guarantees that a breakaway will succeed.

Thursday May 20, Stage 12: Citta Sant’Angelo—Porto Recanati (205km)
This transitional stage travels north up the flat Adriatic coast for 100km before heading inland for a loop that ends with a lap and a half of a hilly 24km circuit at Porto Recanati. This stage should be a last one for the sprinters before this Giro starts getting really tough.

Friday May 21, Stage 13:Porto Recanati—Cesenatico (223km)
The whole race and its entourage will be pleased that for the first time in two weeks a stage will start at the same place as the previous one finished. And the good vibrations should continue for a good four hours up the coast through Rimini before stage 13 takes in two steep climbs and then descends for the final 35km into Cesenatico — hometown of the late Marco Pantani. A stage for the aggressors.

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