Ivan Basso may be over a minute off the overall lead of the Giro d'Italia, but he and his Liquigas-Cannondale team continued to ride as though they were in possession of the maglia rosa on the first bona fide mountain stage to Cervinia on Saturday.
Banking on his belief in his ability to endure the hardships of three weeks of racing better than his rivals, Basso has made no secret of his strategy of containment in the opening two-thirds of this Giro. Once again, on the Col de Joux and on the final climb to Cervinia, Liquigas set a stiff tempo at the front of the peloton, looking to dissuade any sudden changes in pace rather than prepare the ground for an attack from their leader.
"As a team, we took the reins of the race so that we could control any attacks," Basso said. "Ours was a strategy of containment, albeit a sustained rhythm. Seeing as it's the first mountain stage, my rivals were at more or less equal strength, so for this reason, I preferred to control things rather than to force it.
"We knew that it was going to be a hard stage, and then the weather made the climbs even harder."
The sheer length of the final haul to Cervinia (27km) meant that, one by one, Basso's teammates began to drop away from the group of favourites, and with a shade under 5km to go, his gregario di lusso Sylwester Szmyd swung off and Basso was alone.
It was at this point that the contenders finally began to crackle into action, with Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Barracuda) jumping away. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), Domenico Pozzovivo (Colnago-CSF Inox) and Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) were among the riders to try and steal away on the final ramps before the road flattened out, but Basso was again happy to maintain a watching brief.
"I wouldn't have been able to make the difference that I wanted. It was better to save a bit more energy for tomorrow's stage," he said. "Today, we tried to contain the race as per the instructions from the team car, and then in the finale, I preferred not to try anything."
Sunday brings the race to the shore of Lake Como and into the heart of Tour of Lombardy country on the road to Pian dei Resinelli, near Lecco. The climbs are shorter and sharper than those Basso faced on stage 14, but he was hopeful that the weather conditions might turn the stage into something of an endurance contest. "It should rain tomorrow, so I expect it should be even tougher than today," Basso said.
As he looks to add a third Giro title to those of 2006 and 2010 (which bookended his suspension for his implication in the Operacion Puerto blood doping investigation), Basso remains happy to play a long game. Time will tell if the strategy is the correct one.
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