The final podium to be decided...
Five days ago on the road to Livigno, it appeared Ivan Basso was down for the count. A lingering stomach problem saw him lose almost three-quarters of an hour in a single stage, and knock him out of contention for overall race honours.
When his directeur-sportif Bjarne Riis asked him if it wouldn't be better to abandon the race, Basso said at the time he just couldn't - "it would be better to climb in the ambulance." He also told the Dane, a former winner of the Tour de France, he already had set his mind on a stage win.
Whether or not Riis believed in that statement at the time, one can only speculate. But after his stage win to Limone Piemonte, and again yesterday, Basso's actions spoke even louder than his words.
In yesterday's 34 kilometre race against the clock, the 27 year-old was the fastest at each time check, and by the finish in Torino, a city busily preparing itself for the 2006 Winter Games, Basso sent a chill down many a spine as he finished nine seconds clear of Vladimir Karpets (Illes Balears) and 20 in front of team-mate Dave Zabriskie to claim his second successive stage win.
"Today represents more than a stage victory. It is a milestone in my career," said a delighted Basso.
"Previously, time trials have always been my Achilles heel, but now I have evolved to the extent that I'm able to win in this discipline. I have taken a great leap forward both physically and mentally, and all the hard work I've done together with Bjarne, has yet again paid off. I still have a lot to learn as a rider, but at least now I can say, that I'm moving in the right direction."
Added an equally ecstatic Riis: "Ivan is developing into a complete rider, and the victory today is going to mean a great deal to him in the future.
"He pedaled to perfection in this time trial, and once again showed how great a time trial rider he has become. Now he's managed to retaliate for the second time, and from the way he's riding at the moment, it's possible he might just go for a hat-trick in the tough stage tomorrow."
Basso said, "Tomorrow the finestere is going to be the hardest climb of the Giro. its a tough climb, constantly all the way. And it's close to the finish, so it's going to make a big difference, it's going to open up big gaps. It's going to be a very spectacular stage, because it comes straight after a climbing stage and time trial. So it's something quite special that will keep the race open right to the end. "
Maglia rosa Paolo Savoldelli (Discovery Channel) rode very well to finish fourth, just 23 seconds behind Basso, and was the best of the contenders. Gilberto Simoni (Lampre-Caffita), Serguei Gonchar (Domina Vacanze) and Juan Manuel Garate (Saunier Duval) were also very solid, all finishing in the top 10 and all holding onto their second, fifth and sixth positions overall respectively.
Savoldelli said that taking 1'11 out of Simoni was what he expected. "I took about two minutes on the other time trial stage, which was 45 km, so it was more or less the same order. I took it fairly steady on the first stretch because I didn't want to kill myself on the climb, so I had something left in order to give everything in the final stretch."
As for tomorrow's crucial stage to Sestriere, "Tomorrow is going to be a hard race from the start, like the other day. The pressure's going to be on the first time up Sestriere to try to weaken the opponents. I think someone at the top of the classification will try to jump away on the Colle delle Finestre. I'll ride on the defensive as I always do and try to lose as little time as possible."
Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas-Bianchi) and mountains leader Josè Rujano Guillen (Selle Italia-Colombia) did okay, but not great, placing 14th and 16th, with Paolo Bettini (Quick.Step) the day's biggest surprise packet in ninth.
As a result of a largely unchanged leaderboard, today's penultimate stage from Savigliano to Sestriere bears even more weight; if Simoni, Rujano, Di Luca and Garate want a piece of pink, they must ride on the offensive, and take the challenge to Il Falco Savoldelli.