Russian juggernaut's pedals pound their way to pink

Menchov heads a heady three

By Anthony Tan in Riomaggiore, Italy

Denis Menchov. So much raw power. And as of Thursday evening in Riomaggiore, the new maglia rosa of the Centenary Giro d'Italia.

The Russian from Rabobank began the day 1:20 behind overnight leader Danilo Di Luca. He expected to go well. Three days prior, he forewarned Cyclingnews, "You have to be in top condition for that one special day, even if it is not really a day for specialists."

At each of the three time checks along this sinuous, undulating, tough-as-nails percorso that measured 60.6 kilometres - the profile of which we've never seen before in modern Giro d'Italia history - the 31-year-old, two-time Vuelta a España champion showed his condition was indeed ottima (the highest); out of 187 riders, the fastest after 18.6, 34.5, 44.5 kilometres, and, of course, by the finish.

To succeed, it required not just superlative form to tackle the climbs of Bracco and Termine, that together amounted to more than 1,100 metres' elevation, but an equal dose of nail-biting descending that would have burned through those rubber brake blocks that differentiate between life and death, finesse as well.

Thursday in Cinque Terre, Menchov had both in spades.

"I'm a big tour rider, so it's very important to have the maglia rosa. It's a great personal satisfaction, and it's good for Russian cycling," said Menchov.

"I knew the time gaps were going to be close between the best riders [after the time trial] because Di Luca is in very good condition. I thought I'd have the [pink] jersey by a few seconds," he said, 40 seconds separating the current top three on the classifica generale - although from 4th to 10th, the gaps are wider, ranging from Liquigas' Franco Pellizzotti at 2:00 to Thomas Lövkvist of Team Columbia-High Road, 5:53 in arrears.

"It's true, I came here better than last year. But even though today was a great day, it was more or less what I expected," Menchov told Cyclingnews.

It appears we have a maglia rosa quietly confident.

Is he, like many describe his pink-suited predecessor Di Luca, a cold-blooded killer? Is he out for blood in this Giro, Cyclingnews asked him a few days ago?

"Am I dangerous?" said Menchov rhetorically.

"I think I am a simple person, just a cyclist and not so dangerous," he said, smiling.

Perhaps smiling at the thought of being an assassin in another life, a profession he'd probably excel in. Because the way things stand now and with nine stages to Rome, Menchov is very dangerous indeed. Perilous, even.

"Now, at least, I'm in a good position on the general classification; I'm getting better each day and I'm now in a position to fight for [overall] victory."

Leipheimer: More than a contender; Di Luca still in the hunt

Only 20 seconds behind the Russian juggernaut, one can say Astana's Levi Leipheimer is more than just a contender for the 2009 Giro. The 35-year-old from Santa Rosa, California is now a favourite - not the favourite, but a favourite.

"Twenty seconds [from the stage win], it's hard to take," said Leipheimer, who moved up one place to third overall, 40 seconds behind Di Luca. "But," he said, "I think it'll be a close third week."

Speaking of Di Luca, the 2007 champ proved his form is far from waning. As he predicted and as he expected, the 33-year-old lost 1:54 to Menchov against the clock, though importantly made time on many of his rivals who showed signs of weakness. And with three mountain finishes in the final week, "Il Killer di Spoltore" is, for many, still the hot tip for the final maglia rosa in Roma.

Said Di Luca, "I am happy. The race is never finished until it's over. We will wait."

The guy expected to do so much in Cinque Terre, Team Columbia-High Road's Michael Rogers, fell short of the day's best marks - 1:37:13 seeing the Australian with only the 14th best time and by consequence, he lost three places on GC to sit sixth overall. Cervelo TestTeam's Carlos Sastre wasn't overwhelming, either, but moving up a rung to fifth overall still makes the Spaniard dangerous.

Never seen anything like it

Not since the 1992 Giro - 17 years ago, Spaniard Miguel Indurain dominated in a 66km time trial en route to the first of two overall victories - have we seen a time trial of this length, and late Thursday morning, the weight of expectation in the seaside town of Sestri Levante felt heavy as the combined mass of the publicity caravan.

Cyclingnews chose to follow the rider who left twenty-first and expected to do well, American David Zabriskie of Garmin-Slipstream, who left the start house at 12:25. But the goofy lad from Salt Lake City, Utah, could only manage the tenth best time when he finished in 1:45:11, some way behind Alessandro Bertolini's early best time of 1:39:50.

Another Anglophone TT specialist who bore the first name David was Millar, Zabriskie's Garmin-Slipstream buddy knocking Bertolini off his perch - though his time at the top was equally temporary, with Team Columbia-High Road's Marco Pinotti and Edvald Boasson Hagen soon displacing the Scot, the latter in 1:37:56.

With Astana's Lance Armstrong now out on the road, ISD's Giovanni Visconti took the top spot, lasting all of 15 minutes before the best 30 riders on the classifica generale took their turn to supercede the Italian, beginning with Bradley Wiggins (Garmin-Slipstream), then Janez Brajkovic (Astana), then Stefano Garzelli (Acqua & Sapone), a virtual stage winner after clocking 1.35.32.

When Armstrong came in with 1:36:55 - 1:23 off Garzelli - the seven-time Tour winner's time was rather appropriately good enough for seventh at that point.

Still, no-one could best Garzelli until Leipheimer, when the fourth-last rider to leave put 43 seconds into the 2000 Giro champ.

And then there were three: Rogers, Menchov and the maglia rosa of Di Luca.



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