Over halfway into the Giro d'Italia and just a shade over two minutes separates all of the principal contenders for overall victory. After the spettacolo that marked the opening half of the race in recent years, the 2012 edition has seen the pretenders proceed with a touch more caution, perhaps mindful of the brutal final week in the Dolomites.
As anticipated, the scattering of summit finishes in the opening 10 stages have seen the deck reshuffled every couple of days, but as yet, the pre-race favourites have been reluctant to show their hands.
Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) neatly summed up the prevailing air of prudence at the top table when he wheeled to a halt at the end of stage 11 in Montecatini Terme. "The first rule of winning this Giro is not to lose time or to lose as little as possible, and then look to gain it when you have a chance," he said.
The 255 kilometres from Assisi to Montecatini made it the longest stage of the Giro, but the day passed off scarcely a frisson in the main peloton, even if the race did fleetingly sparkle into life on the finishing circuit. In another Giro, the final climb of the Vico might have roused more than a flicker of interest from the contenders for top honours, but Basso reiterated the safety-first philosophy that has dominated to date.
"Today was a hard stage like every one that we've done in this Giro d'Italia," he said. "A few riders showed themselves in the finale but it wasn't anything major, and then it finished in a sprint marred by another crash."
One of the overall contenders who briefly seized the initiative on the finishing circuit was Roman Kreuziger (Astana), as the Czech rider hit the front on the descent of the Vico, bridging across to a move featuring Giovanni Visconti (Movistar) and Oscar Gatto (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia).
In keeping with the overall tenor of the Giro to date, however, Kreuziger told Cyclingnews that his short cameo had come about simply by circumstance. The intention was not to gain time but, as per Basso's maxim, simply to avoid throwing it away.
"No, there was nothing premeditated about it," Kreuziger said. "I just saw that the descent was dangerous and it was better to take it in front. I knew that the finale would be dangerous and fast."
Kreuziger rejected the notion that his move was a sort of response to Joaquim Rodriguez's victory and assumption of the maglia rosa at Assisi the previous day. Rather than engage in shadow boxing, Kreuziger seems keen to bide his time until the heavier blows are dealt in the Alps and Dolomites.
"The hard Giro is still to come, and that won't be decided by seconds," Kreuziger warned. "Still, it's certainly important for morale to be in front rather than behind."
Indeed, once the Giro enters the mountains in earnest on the road to Cervinia on Saturday, minutes should finally replace morale as the unit in which the overall contenders weigh up the success or otherwise of their days in the saddle.
That said, one of their number did suffer a tangible loss at Montecatini Terme. Fränk Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan) came in 46 seconds down after getting caught up in a crash in the finale, and while his injuries are not believed to be significant, he now lies 2:11 off the maglia rosa of Joaquim Rodriguez.
Nonetheless, Basso continued to preach caution. "I don't know if that means there's one rival less. Frank Schleck is a great champion and all of the big riders are all still in the fight for this Giro d'Italia."
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