Wednesday, May 13 in Alpe di Siusi will go down as the day the favourites at the Centenary Giro were reduced to no more than six.
We can now count stage winner Denis Menchov (Rabobank), new maglia rosa Danilo Di Luca (LPR Brakes-Farnese Vini), Swedish revelation Thomas Lövkvist (Team Columbia-Highroad), Ivan Basso (Liquigas), Levi Leipheimer (Astana) and Carlos Sastre (Cervelo TestTeam) as our six firm favourites.
Michael Rogers (Team Columbia-Highroad), Franco Pellizzotti (Liquigas), Gilberto Simoni (Serramenti PVC Diquigiovanni-Androni Giocattoli), Damiano Cunego (Lampre-N.G.C.), Lance Armstrong (Astana) and Stefano Garzelli (Acqua & Sapone-Caffe Mokambo) all showed signs of weakness on the 24.9-kilometre-long, 1,844 metre-high summit finish, losing 0:22, 0:47 (Pellizotti and Simoni), 2:39, 2:58, and 5:24, respectively. While still early in the peace, if one were to see any of these aforementioned names return to the top end of the leader board come May 31 in Rome, it will require a significant change in form and possibly an audacious move or two in the second or third week.
And if any had the ability to do so, it would be one 37-year-old, seven-time Tour de France winner who goes by the name of Lance Armstrong - though it's likely he and Chris Horner will sacrifice their own chances for that of fellow American teammate Leipheimer, who only seems to be getting better with age, and is perhaps Di Luca's most serious threat.
"I can't jump with Di Luca. He's really explosive," said Leipheimer, fourth overall at 43 seconds behind Di Luca. "Lance, I think he's doing very well; I saw him two weeks ago and I think he's doing much better."
Said Armstrong of his goal Wednesday, "We just had to ride our tempo and limit our losses to maybe two minutes - it turned out to be three [minutes] but that's okay. Like I said in the beginning, the first half [of the race] is not going to be my half. I can't expect to be in the front."
Conversely, Menchov, Di Luca and Sastre were very much in their element, the trio some margin better than the rest in the final kilometres of the Alpe di Siusi. As the former two engaged in a long, uphill drag race to the line after 125 kilometres, it was the 31-year-old Russian's power that won him the day.
"I knew before the Giro we had two important stages [in the first week]; my preparation was such that I knew I had to be strong in the beginning," said Menchov, now 50 seconds off Di Luca in fifth overall.
"The stage was like I expected. Liquigas and LPR were very strong; Liquigas forced a really hard tempo in the beginning of the climb as Basso isn't a rider who can change his rhythm often, and it wasn't a surprise to see him sit on the front for the last five kilometres.
"I'm in better condition than last year," said Menchov, who finished fifth overall in 2008, 3:37 behind Alberto Contador. "The [stage 12] time trial, I will have to be at 150% - there's going to be massive time gaps after racing one hour and forty minutes."
He wasn't far off after victory yesterday, but actually wearing the maglia rosa provides confirmation of Di Luca's intention to repeat his dominant Giro performance of two years ago. The 33-year-old from Abruzzo said, "I have the same condition of 2007 and when I have these feelings I can win any race I want.
"I'm used to coming to the Giro very strong in the beginning because I like riding the Classics. After I rode the Giro del Trentino and won a stage, I knew I was ready; I'd knew I'd be competitive.
"I checked out these climbs and knew there'd be gaps. Today, I chose to use a 39x27 gear and pedal at a cadence of around 100 rpm - maybe I'm the only one who used such a small gear."
And what about Lövkvist, his closest adversary on GC, who has so far bested his team captain and looks set to continue that way?
"Lövkvist is very young. He's a great talent but this year, I don't know...we'll have to see if he can [continue to] be competitive," Di Luca said. "Still, we have to be very watchful, because we don't know what he can do in the final days [of the Giro]."
A pinch before the punch...
Wednesday's short, U-shaped stage allowed the peloton, now 195 riders strong, to begin later than usual, the official kick-off time at 1:50 p.m. from yesterday's finish in San Martino di Castrozza.
It began with a pinch: up the Passo Rolle a septet went clear, and by its crest Eros Capecchi (Fuji-Servetto), Francesco Gavazzi (Lampre-N.G.C.), Daniele Pietropolli (LPR Brakes-Farnese Vini), Jose Serpa (Serramenti PVC Diquigiovanni-Androni Giocattoli), Mauro Facci (Quick Step), Giovanni Visconti (ISD) and Thomas Voeckler (Bbox Bouygues Telecom) were the men in the move.
Bombing the descent and crossing provinces from Trento to Bolzano, the break's lead steadily grew to around four-and-a-half minutes in the valley separating the two mountain regions; Visconti becoming the leader on the road, 2:49 down on the maglia rosa of Lövkvist at the start of the day.
The large portions of false flat combined with the natural momentum of a larger group, led by the jerseys of Team Columbia-Highroad, kept the lead group's advantage in check until the start of the 24.9-kilometre climb to Alpe di Siusi, a climb that no one was expected to enjoy in only the fifth day of the Centenary Giro.
Not particularly steep with an average gradient of 6.1% and a maximum 11% coming in the final three kilometres, our front seven stayed together on its lower slopes, Fuji-Servetto's Capecchi doing much of the pace-setting. Unfortunately for them, the pace in the Liquigas-led peloton was increasing inexorably and less than a minute separated break from bunch 15 kilometres from the finish. Unless their machines turned into motorbikes, one might impolitely say they were screwed.
Flying through the remnants of the break at 30 km/h, the early leaders could only watch the arrow-shaped peloton - still Liquigas-electric green at its tip - forge its merry way to the finish.
Basso was then left to do what he's done many times before: turn the screws until there were no more than seven with three kilometres remaining: Di Luca, Leipheimer, Horner, Menchov, Sastre and maglia rosa Lövkvist the only names to hold his wheel. But in a strange twist, it was the 2006 Giro winner who found himself caught out.