A perennial contender for best supporting actor, Sylwester Szmyd (Liquigas-Cannondale) has taken centre stage for much of a Giro d'Italia in which the water-carriers have been to the fore more often than the stars.
Ivan Basso's most faithful lieutenant has been a constant presence on the head of the peloton every time the road has gone uphill, protecting the interests of his leader. Allied to Paolo Tiralongo's attacks in support of his Astana captain Roman Kreuziger, there is a sense that to date, this has been very much a Giro dei gregari, with caution the order of the day among the main contenders.
"For now, it's a Giro where the leaders have been hiding a bit. We haven't really seen them attacking apart maybe from Purito Rodriguez, who won where he needed to win," Szmyd told Cyclingnews in Savona on Friday. "But then again the terrain hasn't really been there for the leaders to show themselves either, it's been short climbs and it's been their gregari who've been controlling things. Tomorrow everything changes."
After facing a smattering of shorter climbs in the Apennines during the opening ten days, Saturday sees the first bona fide mountain stage of the Giro d'Italia as the race enters the Alps on the road to Cervinia. The gradients are not quite as redoubtable as those to follow in the Dolomites, however, and Szmyd does not expect the status quo to be disrupted from too far out.
"There'll still be gregari on the front tomorrow and for longer than their leaders," he said. "I really don't think anyone will go on the penultimate climb tomorrow [the Col de Joux – ed], it will be the gregari who will pull there too. I'm expecting a bit a battle between the leaders on the last climb, but only in the last 3 or 4 kilometres."
Given Basso's lack of explosiveness, Liquigas-Cannondale have repeatedly looked to squeeze the life out of the peloton and discourage changes in pace on the sinuous, hilly stages they have encountered to date. Thursday's stage to Sestri Levante was a case in point, as the lime green squad seized the initiative to ensure there were no significant moves on the final climb of Villa Tassina, even though Katusha and Joaquim Rodriguez held the pink jersey and the theoretical burden of controlling the race.
"The climb wasn't hard but the descent was a tricky one and it's our job to protect Ivan and ride to his strengths," Szmyd said. "He's not a scattista, so it's up to us to keep the tempo high so the others can't attack. We felt it's better to take the race in hand ourselves. Even if it means doing a lot of work, so be it. We don't look to Katusha because they have pink, we're only thinking of our own job and then we'll see in Milan how it's gone."
Domenico Pozzovivo's solo victory at Lago Laceno was one of the few occasions in the Giro where Liquigas-Cannondale's stranglehold was broken, but while Szmyd acknowledged the ferocity of Pozzovivo's acceleration, he explained that his first priority was to maintain an even tempo for Basso and that the Colnago-CSF rider was not considered an immediate threat.
"At that moment it was good for us that somebody took away the bonuses on that finish, as Rodriguez and Scarponi could have picked time on Ivan, so we figured it was better to let Pozzovivo and [Benat] Intxausti take them," Szmyd said. "That was a bit our tactic, but at the same time, Pozzovivo went very well. I was already going hard, but he went really, really fast and it would have been tough to bring him back."
Basso had endured such a troubled build-up to the Giro that his very participation was in serious doubt until late April, but Szmyd is confident that his leader put things to rights during a lengthy spell at altitude at Mount Teide. "Even at Teide he wasn't very tranquillo, but then when we were sharing a room at Romandie, he told me that he was back on the right track," Szmyd said. "After 14 years as a pro, he knows when he's going well or not. And he feels really strong enough to win the Giro."
Thus, the tactic for Szmyd and Liquigas will remain one of containment at least until the Giro's final salvoes in the Dolomites, where their hope is that Basso's diesel-like qualities can come to the fore. "We believe that Ivan can win the Giro, and if he does, he'll win it at Alpe di Pampeago or even the Stelvio."