As the 95th Giro dItalia reached the end of its opening week, the upcoming battle for the maglia rosa looks as open as it did when the first man rolled down the starting ramp in the stage 1 time trial last Saturday in Herning, Denmark. Thats because (1) the early stages across the flatlands of Jutland didnt produce the wind-blown echelons expected, and (2) the time gaps in the opening time trial and Wednesdays team time trial were smaller than predicted. This has left the major overall contenders all within a minute of each other, while the pure climbers deficits of between 90 seconds and three minutes will look insignificant when the race reaches the Alps next weekend (see Virtual general classification below).
What looks most likely to happen at this weekends two summit finishes in the south of Italy is for the race leadership to move from the broad shoulders of Lampre-ISDs Adriano Malori to the much slimmer body of Katusha Teams Spanish climber Joaquim Purito Rodriguez. Like the little cigar (or cigarillo) hes named after, Rodriguez can smoke up the small, steep gradients that await the peloton at the end of this Saturdays and Sundays stages. Just a 20-second win bonus will be enough for him to overtake the virtual race leader, Canadian Ryder Hesjedal, whos the first of three Garmin-Barracuda men in the current top 10.
Garmin riders are near the top of the current general classification because of their excellent team time trial victory at Verona; but that win and the prize of the pink jersey for its Ramunas Navardauskas could well have gone to rival U.S. team BMC Racinghad its race leader Taylor Phinney not been badly injured in a nasty stage 3 pileup.
That crash was indicative of the unruly nature of bunch sprints in the modern Giro. When Mario Cipollini was taking his record of 42 stage wins a decade or so ago, his team would give structure to the stage finishes, where the top sprinters had more respect for each other. The sprints this past week have been more like free-for-alls that even Mark Cavendishs Sky team has not been able to control.
In the stage 3 sprint at Horsens, after Italian sprinter Roberto Ferrari crazily dived for a gap and sideswiped the front wheel of world champ Cavendish, the Brits Pinarello flew across the road in front of then race leader Phinney. The American T-boned Cavendishs bike, with some part of it (Phinney thought it was a spoke, but it could have been anything sharp) cutting into the young Americans right ankle.
So, instead of a relaxing two-hour charter flight from Denmark to Italy and a good nights sleep, Phinney was ferried in a wheelchair through the airports and by the time the team found a hospital outside Verona that would perform x-rays and put three sutures in his wounded ankle, it was the early hours of Tuesday morning. Luckily, that was a rest day, but the physiotherapy and medical treatment kept him from joining his teammates on a scouting trip around the team time trial course. And even when he was on the starting line Wednesday, no one knew how much pressure Phinney would be able to put on his badly bruised ankle and surrounding tendons.
In the team time trials opening 9 kilometers, completely flat alongside the Adige River, Garmin was the fastest in 9:56 (thats 54.4 kph), with Katusha seven seconds slower and a slow-starting BMC at 15 seconds. Then came a 12.8-kilometer loop that included 330 feet (100 meters) of climbing to the hilltop village of Castelrotto, where Garmin again made the fastest split of 15:14 (50.4 kph), just two seconds better than Katusha, while BMC conceded another 21 seconds mostly because of an incident caused by Phinneys not having pre-ridden the course.
When he was following 2010 world champion Thor Hushovd around a fast, sweeping right bend, Phinney found he had too much speed to make the turn. He later told reporters that he was on the outside of the wheel in front of him and just got kind-of pushed off the road. The BMC rider managed to keep his TT bike upright as he bounced through some thick, newly cut grass, while Swiss teammate Mathias Frank and Italian Alessandro Ballan were also forced to leave the road. That delay, along with Phinney almost stopping to dislodge some muddy grass from his bike and the team then slowing to let Phinney catch back on, probably cost them at least the 13 seconds by which Phinney lost the maglia rosa that day to Garmins Navardauskas.
Indeed, BMC was the fastest team on the flat run-in to the ancient heart of Verona, rocketing through the final 11.4 kilometers in 11:52 (an average of 57.6 kph!), one second faster than Katusha and five seconds better than Garmin. At BMCs Giro del Trentino team-time-trial victory last month, Phinney was the strongest rider, so if he hadnt been riding with three stitches in a severely bruised heel on Wednesday, the team might well have won again. That would have kept Phinney in pink, but though Navardauskas held it for a day before he lost it Friday to breakaway rider Adriano Malori of Lampre-ISD, the news of the week was the unexpectedly fine team time trial by Katusha that established Rodriguez as the man most likely to wear pink through week 2 of this absorbing Giro.
It has been significant in the two stages since the Verona team time trial that two-time winner Ivan Bassos Liquigas-Cannondale squad has flexed its muscles whenever the roads have pointed uphill. The other teams helping control the breakaways have been Hesjedals Garmin team, Michele Scarponis Lampre-ISD squad and Roman Kreuzigers Astana men. As for the other race favorites, RadioShack-Nissans Frnk Schleck is riding a patient role, always near the head of the peloton, while the climbers such as Rodriguez, Domenico Pozzovivo (Colnago-TK), Jos Rujano (Androni), John Gadret (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and Mikel Nieve (Euskaltel-Euskadi) have been content to wait until the real climbing begins.
Virtual general classification (main contenders after week 1)