Even after a relatively quiet day in the peloton for the overall contenders in the Giro d'Italia, Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Doimo), Cadel Evans (BMC) and race leader David Arroyo (Caisse d'Epargne) all looked fatigued and in pain as they crossed the line in Pejo Terme, after the 17th day of intense racing.
After trying to hang onto the Liquigas train on the climb to Pejo Terme and then having to dig deep to go with Michele Scarponi's late surge, Arroyo looked like he had just climbed Plan de Corones for a second time. He needed help from his soigneur to make it up the final 100 metres of the climb and into the podium area.
Cadel Evans also went deep but looked far better than the Spaniard. However, he confirmed to Cyclingnews that the stage was anything but a so-called 'transfer stage' taking the race from one mountain range to another.
"It wasn't like a transfer stage at all. It was fast at the start because of the descent but it was a head wind all the way too, which made getting the break difficult," Evans explained.
"It was a bit strange at the bottom of the final climb too, there was all kinds of chaos going on. You spend more energy trying to get in a good position than you actually do in the finale. Liquigas rode a solid pace to hold back any attacks and they kept a pretty progression going all the way to the finish."
"I wasn't feeling comfortable. I don't know how the others were feeling but after the last couple of days we've had, meant it was anything but a transfer day."
Giro as hard as the Tour de France
After 17 stages of racing on testing roads of every kind, often in bad weather, Evans said it has been a tough Giro d'Italia, admitting this year's race was almost as demanding as the Tour de France.
"The thing with this Giro is that is that there have been so many hard stages, even the transfer stages have been difficult. It's not that the break goes or the sprinters' teams ride: it's been hot or with crosswinds, or something was going on. How many days in a row did we have above 200km? I've never raced that long in a three-week stage race," he said.
"I suppose in the Tour, the speed is a little bit higher all the time. Here there are moments when it goes a bit easier and you can relax for a few seconds or few minutes. In the Tour those moments are fewer."
Still third overall
Evans gained eight seconds on fellow Australian Richie Porte (Saxo Bank) after hanging onto Scarponi's attack in the finale of the stage. He is now only 25 seconds behind in the overall classification and so a little closer to taking third overall.
Evans is fourth, 3:09 behind Arroyo, with Basso second overall, 2:27 behind the Spaniard. Evans remains 42 seconds behind Basso with the two key mountain stages to Aprica and Ponte di Legno on Friday and Saturday, and then the final time trial to Verona on Sunday. Thursday's 18th stage is a flat day to Verona.
Considering the time Arroyo and Porte have lost during the key mountain stages raced so far, many people are convinced the Giro will be a two-way battle between Evans and Basso all the way to Verona.
Evans does not agree and refuses to rule out that Arroyo can hang onto the pink jersey. It maybe to keep Arroyo's Caisse d'Epargne team under pressure and make Liquigas show their hand but it is Evan's pragmatic strategy.
"As long as Arroyo is ahead us, we're racing for third, fourth, fifth at the moment," he insisted.
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