Alexander Vinokourov (Astana), along with just about everyone else in the peloton, breathed a sigh of relief with Tuesday’s relatively routine stage at the Giro d’Italia.
The rolling, 230km stage unfolded to script, with the sun breaking out and an early three-man breakaway getting reeled in by the sprinter teams before a mass gallop. Vinokourov could ride their coattails and came in safely to keep the maglia rosa for another day.
With each passing stage, Vinokourov is quietly gaining confidence that he can win the Giro.
“I am feeling good. The legs are good and the team is motivated. The race will be very difficult in the final week,” Vinokourov said post-stage. “The question of fatigue and who can hang on the longest will be very important in the final week.”
Vinokourov has been one the big surprises of this Giro d’Italia, coming back from his two-year racing ban for blood doping during the 2007 Tour de France to roll into the second half of the Giro with a promising lead on his GC rivals.
Luck has been a huge factor so far in the first half of the Giro and Vinokourov, one of the best bike handlers in the field, has been instrumental in making his own luck and avoiding trouble.
Of all the top GC riders, he’s the only one who has not crashed or lost time due to another type of mishap caused by narrow roads, winds, rain and nerves.
Liquigas co-captains Vincenzo Nibali and Ivan Basso lost more than a minute and ceded the pink jersey to Vinokourov in their disastrous crash on the mud roads to Montalcino last weekend.
Cadel Evans (BMC) lost the pink jersey in stage 3 when he got caught up behind a crash involving Bradley Wiggins, who’s also seen his GC chances torpedoed with falls.
Carlos Sastre (Cervélo) has had nothing but bad luck so far, with three crashes and two late-stage punctures that’s left him nearly 10 minutes behind in GC.
So that leaves Vinokourov in an enviable position — now 1:12 ahead of Evans — as the Giro switches gears and moves into the decisive second half that’s laden with steep climbs.
“This is my best chance to win the Giro right now,” Vinokourov said. “I am stronger than I was five years ago and I also stronger mentally. The first 10 days have gone pretty well. We’ll see how the legs hold up in the big mountains.”
That’s the big question mark for Vinokourov, who’s been untested in steep, long-distance climbs since returning from his ban late in 2008.
Vinokourov was never able to stay with the pure climbers, but he’s hoping he’ll have the legs to stay with the likes of Nibali, Basso and Evans when the attacks come next week.
“I am thinking now about the next 10 days of the Giro. I don’t know what to expect in the big mountains. I hope the legs are good,” he said. “The team is strong and they’re doing a good job at protecting me. They’re very motivated for this Giro.”
Astana could be Vinokourov’s ace in the hole. Only Liquigas has a team as strong for the final week. But as just about everyone says, when the Giro turns into the Dolomites, it will be a mano-a-mano dogfight all the way to Verona.
Vinokourov is quietly confident he’ll be the last man standing.