Pierre Rolland has attacked the Giro d'Italia's mountain stages to date with all the insouciance of a man who decided to line up almost on whim, but as the race enters its endgame in the high mountains, the Europcar rider is beginning to take serious strides in the general classification.
"It's simple. I did Tirreno-Adriatico and I liked it a lot, so I took a look at the parcours of the Giro and I said to myself, ‘that's the race for me,'" Rolland told Cyclingnews in Agliè at the start of stage 14, when asked about his decision to make his Giro debut this year. "There are 10 summit finishes with an uphill time trial and another tough time trial, and, besides, I didn't just want to be a rider who only does the Tour de France every year."
A long-range attack on the road to Montecopiolo went unrewarded last weekend but, not to be deterred, Rolland was again on the offensive on Saturday's stage. With almost 50 kilometres remaining, the Frenchman jumped clear of the pink jersey group on the climb to Bielmonte, with teammate Bjorn Thurau for company.
Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) bridged across later to provide a welcome reinforcement to the Rolland group, and while their alliance was not enough to reel in the early escapees on the final climb to Oropa, the pair did gain almost 40 seconds on maglia rosa Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma-QuickStep).
"I had really good legs, and I decided that I'd try something a bit crazy again, but luck was on my side," Rolland said at the summit, after changing into a long-sleeve jersey and a skull cap for the ride back down the climb to his team bus."
"I gained a bit of time today. I had the luck to have a teammate in the break in front [Perrig Quemeneur] and Bjorn Thurau did great work for me too. It's not often you get close to winning a WorldTour race, so it's a pity the break had so much time, but now, like everyone else, I'll look to defend myself."
Rolland's display moves him up to ninth place overall, 5:07 down on Uran, but as he pointed out before the stage, the time he has conceded to date has come against the watch - in the opening team time trial, where Europcar finished second last at 1:48, and in the Barolo time trial, where he conceded 3:46.
With five summit finishes still to come in the final seven stages of the Giro, the terrain is certainly to Rolland's liking, although he admitted that he was undecided as to whether he should continue to risk all for stage victories or ride more conservatively in search of a high overall finish.
"I find it hard to just sit around and wait, I like to go on the attack and I like it when the race breaks up. That's my way of riding," was Rolland's tactical stance in Agliè on Saturday morning, but his current overall position - and its consequent haul of WorldTour points - may yet curb the Frenchman's instincts.
"I'm going to see what happens," Rolland said at the finish in Oropa. "We're coming into the stages where you can't hide, you either have the legs or you don't. You'll need good legs to be in the top ten overall but winning a stage is something else altogether."
While Rolland admitted that he was blissfully oblivious to the difficulties of the mountains of the corsa rosa "I don't know any of the climbs, I know nothing about them," he said - Tuesday's stage over the Stelvio to Val Martello has a special resonance for Europcar manager Jean-René Bernaudeau.
At the 2011 Tour, Rolland claimed a resonant victory at Alpe d'Huez, where Bernaudeau was narrowly beaten by Peter Winnen in 1983, and next week, he has the chance to lead over the Stelvio, which his manager famously conquered in a two-up break with Bernard Hinault at the 1980 Giro.
"I know that Jean-René won there, so it's going to be nice. Of course, he has spoken to me about all of his history in cycling, about Alpe d'Huez where he was beaten and about the Stelvio where he won," he said.
Before then, Rolland faces Sunday's summit finish at Montecampione, where he will seek to strike a balance the objectives of chasing a stage victory and firming up a high overall finish in Trieste. "I'm sort of caught between two stools right now," Rolland said. "I came to the Giro to see how it goes, and right now it's going pretty well."
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