Menchov tightens grip on pink - but still room for a crisis or two

In reality and barring disaster, Rabobank's wily Russian Denis Menchov has just the 13 kilometres of a still active volcano left to ride before he can be assured victory in the Centenary Giro d'Italia.

That appointment with Mount Vesuvius comes two days from now, so there is time to rest, recuperate, and then defend.

The last half-kilometre of Alpe di Siusi aside, where he gapped arch-rival Danilo Di Luca of LPR Brakes-Farnese Vini to claim the fifth stage almost a fortnight ago, Menchov's riding to date hasn't been particularly spectacular, exciting, or extraordinary.

The Russian doesn't ride that way.

Not equipped with one of the strongest teams at this race - or other Grand Tours he's ridden or won, for that matter - he rides with his head and his legs, filled to the brim with hardness and natural strength that could provide the foundations for some of the world's tallest skyscrapers.

That's how he rode Wednesday on Blockhaus. In short, an 83-kilometre race to the top of a mountain, won by Liquigas' Franco Pellizotti in a shade under two and a half hours.

"The situation as it stands now is a good situation for me," Menchov told Cyclingnews.

"I'm in front on GC. [Stage 19 to] Vesuvio is the last important stage for us. He [Di Luca] will try something there; my objective is to follow him."

Pellizotti goes for it, waits not for Armstrong

Fifteeen kilometres out from home, Pellizotti, a danger man but not Menchov's most serious threat, was allowed to ride away. Astana's Armstrong tried to follow but couldn't. And on a climb that perfectly suited his characteristics, the curly-haired blond stayed away - not only to win the stage, but displacing Cervelo TestTeam's Carlos Sastre as the current third overall, the Spaniard a surprise loser and dropping to fifth by the day's end.

"Two days ago I had a difficult day because of the hot weather, so the rest day was really important for me. Today was good climb to establish a nice rhythm, and I was in good shape," said 31-year-old Pellizotti, now a flat two minutes behind the maglia rosa.

In contrast, Menchov didn't give Di Luca an inch till the final three-hundred metres of the 18-kilometre ascent. Conceding just five seconds to the 2007 Giro champion who finished third on the stage, a second behind Acqua & Sapone's Stefano Garzelli who crossed the line 42 seconds after Pellizotti, the maglia rosa still enjoys a 26 second buffer heading into the last mountain leg finishing atop Vesuvius.

Asked if he let Di Luca go in the final metres, Menchov said, "No - the most important thing today was to stay with Di Luca. What happened is fairly normal; a change of rhythm. Also, I didn't know this finish. I'm okay; it's nothing to worry about.

"It was a long climb, and after a rest day, you have some doubts how your body will react. But today I had good sensations, good feelings, and good legs. If on Vesuvius I achieve what I did today, I will be very satisfied," he said.

There, Menchov could lose an unlikely two minutes and still be fine before the final 14.4-kilometre time trial in Rome; such is his strength in this discipline which invariably is Di Luca's Achilles Heel.
A rearranged top five

So it's the same names in the top five overall, just slightly rearranged.

The way this rather unpredictable Giro's gone so far, though, it could well be rearranged again. "I came here to win the Giro," said Pellizotti

"But," said the Italian, "the level is very high, so if I were to take one stage and third overall, it would be better than last year. If I finish fourth or fifth, I won't be satisfied. With this team, we wanted to win with Ivan [Basso] or myself, but not racing for two years, we weren't sure of his form. So now, our target is the podium.

"On Vesuvius, Basso and I will try to attack again. Like Sastre today, the others can also have a bad day," Pellizotti told Cyclingnews.

A short suffer-fest of the Blockhaus kind

The shortest road stage of the 92nd Giro commenced on a very warm mid-Wednesday afternoon in Chieti, a small though bustling town in the Abruzzo region and about 50 kilometres away from the disaster zone where the April earthquakes struck, ending the lives of 300 in one fell swoop.

With the Blockhaus climb chopped from 23.5km to 18km, the seventeenth leg was tipped to be more explosive than before; its altimetry indicating the ascent's gradient increased in line with its length. A posse numbering 172 riders left around 3 p.m., well up on the same stage last year but regardless, with only 6 out of 22 squads still fielding all nine men, the Giro is as all Grand Tours are a race of attrition, where the strength of one's team can often decide the winner.

Less than half an hour into proceedings, a group of 10 attempted to get a head-start on the beast that lay ahead, with Acqua & Sapone and Xacobeo Galicia the best represented having a pair of men each in the break. In the move were: Ruggero Marzoli and Giuseppe Palumbo (Acqua & Sapone-Caffe Mokambo), Félix Cardenas (Barloworld), Thomas Voeckler (BBox Bouygues Telecom), Giovanni Visconti (ISD), Matteo Bono (Lampre-N.G.C.), Riccardo Chiarini (LPR Brakes-Farnese Vini), Mauro Facci (Quick Step), and Gonzalo Rabunal and Delio Ferandez (Xacobeo Galicia).

These men enjoyed a maximum advantage approaching the three-minute mark after 50 kilometres of racing. Not long after, however, the Cervelo TestTeam squad of Sastre, resembling a deadly clutter of black widow spiders, came to the peloton's fore and set a tempo that prevented any counter-attacks against their seemingly fearless leader, soon wiping a minute off the break's lead.

Approaching Blockhaus, the front 10 whittled away to six. Then, on its lower slopes, just Cardenas was left 15 kilometres from the line. Back in the peloton, Liquigas' Pellizotti was one of the first to try his luck with teammate Sylvester Szmyd, Armstrong the next to go no more than a minute later, and so far, no reaction from the group of GC favourites.

Said Pellizotti, "I didn't want to attack so soon, but then Szmyd attacked and I saw the others weren't so good, so I tried to go on my own.

"I knew Armstrong was behind. For a moment, I hesitated [on whether to wait or not]. But it was an easy climb to pedal, and I decided to turn the climb into a time trial, and gave it everything."

Pellizotti soon left Szmyd and Armstrong, looking strong and supple but not quite his old self, was unable to catch the Italian. With 10 kilometres to go, the fourth-best rider on GC at the start of the day stood 35 seconds in front of a three-strong gruppo maglia rosa, Di Luca showing a turn of speed that left only Basso and maglia rosa Menchov in his wake.

Sastre was notable by his absence, the Cervelo TestTeam captain clearly not finding the legs he hoped for and receiving no help. Likewise Team Columbia-Highroad's Michael Rogers and Levi Leipheimer of Astana, these pre-race favourites having another bad day and their hopes for a podium finish swirling down the drain.

The steep though steady gradient of Blockhaus enabled the curly-haired Pellizotti to find a rhythm worth watching, relishing his new-found status as co-leader Basso trailed behind. Acqua & Sapone's always aggressive Stefano Garzelli was also in good touch, bridging to Di Luca, Basso and Menchov to form a select group of four, the quartet 51 seconds behind Pellizotti 3 kilometres from home.

Unbeknown to our lone leader, Di Luca then split the four in half with a vicious move that only Menchov could follow – though less than a kilometre later, Garzelli obstinately tacked back on and found a sixth gear to beat the pair at the line, 42 seconds behind a jubilant Pellizotti

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