CERVERE, Italy (VN) – A pair of mountain stages this weekend might not crown the 2012 Giro d’Italia champion, but it will knock a few GC pretenders off the path to the throne.
Saturday’s 206km, two-climb stage, finishing atop Cervinia, is the Giro’s first major mountain test. That’s quickly followed up Sunday by an even more explosive four-climb, 169km 15th stage finishing atop the second-category Pian del Resinelli.
After more than two weeks of racing, a clear favorite has yet to emerge in what’s still a very packed GC picture. This weekend’s climbing stages should clarify things significantly.
“These first days in the mountains are always very important. There is a big change that you feel it in the legs,” said Roman Kreuziger, Astana’s GC hope. “These next stages will not decide the Giro, but it is critical not to lose time. If you cannot be at the level of the favorites, you can lose too much time.”
Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) carries pink into the Alps, nursing a narrow 17-second lead to Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Barracuda), but entering into the final chapters of the Giro with his confidence flying sky-high.
“I know the attacks will come,” Rodríguez said. “We have to be attentive, but I will have the support of my team. I am feeling strong. I know anything can happen: the stress, the cooler weather, a crash, a bad day. I am ready to fight to defend this jersey.”
Rodríguez remains a dangerous obstacle to the big Italian favorites such as Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD).
Thanks to time bonuses and Katusha’s unexpected performance in the team time trial in stage 4, when it stopped the clock just five seconds slower than winner Garmin, Rodríguez has opened up significant time gaps to his most threatening rivals.
It’s important to remember that the Giro has eliminated finish-line bonuses in the five remaining major mountain stages, so Rodríguez enters the final phase of the Giro firmly in the driver’s seat.
“With the advantage I have, I can ride a bit defensively,” Rodríguez said. “To be honest, of all the mountain stages, tomorrow is the one I fear most. It’s not a type of climb that suits me well. And with the cold, rain and first major climbs, anything can happen. If there’s a chance to take more time, I will.”
Kreuziger is closest of the Giro “big,” sixth at 52 seconds back. Basso is hovering in eighth at 57 seconds adrift, while Scarponi is 13th at 1:11 back. Those are not huge gaps, but it will be time that has to be erased one way or another, and no one can afford to wait until next week to make a move.
“Tomorrow is the first true high mountain stage so we are going to confront it with all the motivation to try to take advantage of any opening,” Basso said. “Things will change from here. The real Giro begins and I expect to be up to the fight for the maglia rosa.”
Giuseppe Martinelli, the veteran sport director at Astana, said that this weekend’s stages will be able to show who is in form to truly fight for the maglia rosa.
“Right now, it’s hard to say who is the true favorite for victory. I see Scarponi and Basso very strong, but we still must see how they react in the true climbs,” Martinelli told ”VeloNews. “The first contact with the mountains always reveals who the maglia rosa contenders truly are. For Roman to win? He needs to attack, attack and attack some more.”
Katusha remains confident with Rodríguez, who at least on paper should not have any major problems with either stage. Saturday’s stage is perhaps more dangerous for “Purito,” who will likely prefer the shorter, more explosive climbs that are on tap for Sunday than the long, 20-kilometer-plus climbs featured in Saturday’s stage.
Rodríguez will be able to count on the support of three compatriots for help in the mountains, with Angel Vicioso, Dani Moreno and Albert Losada. Katusha sport director has dubbed them the “three musketeers” and insists Rodríguez will have the help he needs in the high mountains.
Losada said that Rodríguez is stronger than ever.
“He’s demonstrating it day by day that he’s up to winning this Giro,” Losada told VeloNews. “These first mountain stages are very important. I think if Purito is in the pink jersey on the rest day (Monday), this Giro is much closer to being won. We must be careful to avoid mistakes.”
With all eyes on Rodríguez, Scarponi and Basso, the door could be open for an outsider to take advantage. First among those could be Domenic Pozzovivo (Colnago-CSF Inox), who hovers in 14th at 1:12.
Martinelli has already called Pozzovivo the revelation of this year’s Giro and even suggested that he could reach the final podium. Pozzovivo told VeloNews he’s ready to risk all for a chance to reach the final top-3 in Milano.
“I think the podium is possible for me this year,” he told VeloNews at Friday’s start. “The final time trial will not be as decisive this year as in other years. With the mountains that remain, we have to take the battle to Purito. I know the only way to win is to attack. I will not be afraid.”
One major question mark is Frank Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan), who was banged up after tangling his bike up with Alex Rasmussen (Garmin-Barracuda) in Wednesday’s stage (see Giro Notebook for reaction from Rasmussen). Although favorites such as Basso and Rodríguez continue to mark him a danger, Schleck – who sits 25th at 2:11 back – admits that he is not at his best as he goes into this weekend’s pair of climbing stages.
“My back and shoulder are pretty bad from my crash. My legs are not bad, but I am not comfortable on the bike,” Schleck said on Italian TV. “I am not 100 percent. We will see how I go tomorrow. I hope to make it to the rest day Monday still in contention.”
Behind him there are others who will need to make a serious move if they have any chance of turning the Giro upside down. Among those are John Gadret (Ag2r), last year’s third-place man, who finds himself at 31st at 2:55 back, and José Rujano (Androni Giocattoli), 34th at 3:05 back.
After two rough and tumble weeks, the real Giro is about to begin.