Six days from Rome, Menchov, Di Luca still top two on GC
Exactly one week ago, defending Tour de France champion Carlos Sastre (Cervelo Test Team) told Cyclingnews that he was a man "that can decide in the moment". After 230 kilometres and close to seven hours in the saddle, that moment happened Monday during the sixteenth stage of the Centenary Giro d'Italia.
On a 10.4km ascent that from bottom to top never really let up, the flyweight Spaniard chose his moment very carefully indeed. Six kilometres from the line, he broke free of maglia rosa Denis Menchov (Rabobank), Danilo Di Luca (LPR) and Ivan Basso (Liquigas), who had earlier tried his own attack. The remnants of two early breakaways were all that stood between Sastre's 60-kilo body, with his sub-seven kilo Cervelo bike, and victory.
But Sastre wasn't thinking so much about the stage win. He was thinking he could win the whole shebang. "I'm here to win the Giro," he said.
"I wanted to take this opportunity. It was a very long stage, very difficult for the legs. Menchov was pedalling well; Basso seems to be good, Di Luca was also aggressive and combative. I took this opportunity to take as much time as possible."
Starting the day 2:52 down on Menchov, the 34-year-old Madrid native had a chunk of time to make up and Astana's Yaroslav Popovych and Damiano Cunego of Lampre still to catch if he were to gain a further 20 valuable bonus seconds for crossing the line first.
His face, squinting not because of the luminous afternoon sun glowing bright, but with each turn of the pedals and short breath exhaled, Sastre began the arduous though not impossible process of riding himself back into contention.
On the slopes behind him that averaged a savage 7.9 percent, the quartet that preceded him on the classifica generale to begin with – Menchov, Di Luca, Astana's Levi Leipheimer and Franco Pellizzotti of Liquigas – were all losing time, the latter two in greater difficulty with Leipheimer worst off; the American pre-race favourite was loyally paced by seven-time Tour champion Lance Armstrong but lost 2:51 by the day's end, dropping to sixth overall.
Time being all important, there was little of that left for a victory salute atop the 1,101 metre-high Monte Petrano. Finishing 25 and 26 seconds ahead of Menchov and Di Luca, respectively, Sastre leapfrogged from fifth to third overall, but is still 2:19 behind the Russian maglia rosa.
In reality, Sastre needed another 10 kilometres or so to take pink.
On Stage 17 to Blockhaus and Stage 19 to Vesuvio, an evil pair of savage mountaintop arrivals that he hasn't yet previewed, Sastre will have 36.5 kilometres to claim the jersey he came here for. Surely, that's more than enough?
"Man, honestly, I would like to know," Sastre told Cyclingnews in his friendly, casual style and with his friendly, casual smile, belying the motor and mind that lies beneath. "I would really like to know. If I feel okay, I will try it [to take the maglia rosa]. I came here for a fight, and I will fight to the end."
Still three in with a chance, but not the three we first thought
Despite previous third overall Leipheimer now 3:21 behind and seemingly out of contention, curiously, the Giro d'Italia continues with three riders still in a position to win, with just six days until the finish.
How does the maglia rosa feel about this new top three? Will it be the same top three coming into the final 14.4-kilometre race against the clock in Roma, and as the superior time trialist, does he grow more confident about his chances?
"At the moment, I feel confident, but I think it's too early too to say," Menchov told Cyclingnews. Menchov extended his lead over Di Luca by five seconds, courtesy of finishing second on the stage and gapping the 2007 Giro champ by a single second on the line.
"The most important [thing today] were the legs," he said, asked if Monday's stage was more a case of mind over matter. "At the end of the climb, I was trying to follow Danilo and Sastre and by the end, I think I did well. I was in the right place.
"We still have two important stages [before the final time trial]. Sure, I could stay on the wheels [of Di Luca and Sastre] and wait 'til Rome, but before that, we still have to race really hard. The condition's even better than the beginning of the Giro, so I can be very confident about the next days," said Menchov.
And while Pellizzotti and Basso both lost time, the former kept his fourth place overall to lie 3:08 behind the maglia rosa, whereas the incessantly aggressive 2005 Giro champion Basso moved up one spot to fifth, 3:19 in arrears on the overall leaderboard.
Where the soleus meets the calf
Monday's sixteenth stage was centred in the middle of the boot that is Italy; in anatomical language where the soleus meets the calf muscle, or geographically, in the Apennines on the eastern Adriatic side and beginning in Pergola.
With an expected riding time close to the seven-hour mark, an early start of 10:45 was in order. Such was the heatwave being felt across Western Europe, for the fourth day running it was hot enough to fry a bistecca alla fiorentina (grilled steak) on the hood of a car – not that we'd recommend that.
175 Giro-numbered lycra bods rolled out for their 237km ride into the storm – being two first category climbs – Monte Nerone and Monte Catria – in the final century of kilometres before the Mother of Monte Petrano in Cagli, where the race would end 1,101 metres above sea level.
Not long into the stage, it became a situation of 20/20 as 20 riders established a lead 20km into proceedings, the two most dangerous being Astana's Yaroslav Popovych and 2004 Giro champion Damiano Cunego of Lampre, respectively 9:00 and 9:43 down on Menchov, in 14th and 15th overall.
The other 18 were: Renaud Dion (AG2R La Mondiale), Francesco Bellotti (Barloworld), Matthieu Sprick (BBox Bouygues Telecom), Arnold Jeannesson and David Lopez Garcia (Caisse d'Epargne), Angel Gomez (Fuji-Servetto), Kjell Carlström (Liquigas), Gabriele Bosisio (LPR Brakes), Dario Cataldo (Quick Step), Mauricio Ardila and Maarten Tjallingii (Rabobank), Michele Scarponi and Francesco De Bonis (Serramenti PVC Diquigiovanni), Pavel Brutt (Team Katusha), Jens Voigt (Team Saxo Bank), Delio Fernandez (Xacobeo-Galicia), and Tom Danielson and Bradley Wiggins (Garmin-Slipstream). Strangely, the latter pair of Garmin-Slipstreams was dropped on the first climb of the day, the 7.7km Cat. 2 Monte delle Cesane unexpectedly reducing the members to 18.
Into the business end of the bike race and 100km from home, 6:50 separated break from bunch as the lead group began the 13.4km climb of Monte Nerone. On its steady, medium-steep slopes that averaged 7.6 percent, four had dropped off up front leaving 14 by the KOM, taken by De Bonis ahead of Scarponi, while the peloton that included the maglia rosa of Menchov trailed 3:42 in arrears.
At this point, Menchov was in good position: sitting behind three of his Rabo crew setting tempo at the head of the bunch, and in Ardila and Tjallingii, a useful duo saving their biscuits in the break.
Up and over the penultimate climb of Monte Catria, 14 became three; Lampre's Cunego leading Popovych (Astana) and Bosisio (LPR Brakes), followed by the remnants of the breakaway, scattered and suffering, and the gruppo maglia rosa, 3:15 behind with 34.6km remaining. It seemed we'd gone back to racing 21st century style, leaving the situation status quo till the final climb to Monte Petrano.
On a descent made for the brave, Popovych attacked and continued solo onto Monte Petrano. Cunego then gapped his remaining companions in an attempt to catch Popo. And when the gruppo maglia rosa arrived, Basso shot out of an already thinned out peloton, repeating the effort 'til he was free, and leaving bits and pieces in his wake.
Menchov and Di Luca continued to watch each other, the Russian sticking to the Italian's wheel like super glue. Sastre lurked behind. Leipheimer and Columbia's Michael Rogers went AWOL.
Things didn't stay that way for long.
New young man in white
Quick Step's Kevin Seeldraeyers, 22, took over the white best young rider leader's jersey of the race after Thomas Lövkvist (Team Columbia - Highroad) experienced some difficulty and fell to fifth in that classification.
"Today, the entire team rode the stage in support of my efforts," said Seeldraeyers. "Yesterday, we noticed that Sweden's Lövkvist was having some trouble on climbs, but we also had to watch out for [Francesco] Masciarelli [Acqua & Sapone - Caffe Mokambo. Now in second in the classification - ed.]."
"I tried to stay among the best for as far as I could. This is a very important result for me."