My Italian bias is in full cry of late, but I think Lampre are my favorite team these days. They have perfect riders for every occasion. Danilo Napolitano's feisty, furious sprint today (and near miss Saturday) shows that, along with the more heralded Daniele Bennati, Lampre have two elite closers they can alternate throughout the season. Damiano Cunego is the odds-on favorite in the Dolomiti this year, as well as a contender for any part of Ardennes Week to which he applies himself. And with all apologies to Stuart O'Grady, my rider of the Cobbles was Alessandro Ballan, who powered away from the cream of the field at De Ronde and won a sprint on pure guts -- this tops O'Grady's escape from the steamy confusion of Paris-Roubaix IMHO. Even the Tour won't be a total loss if they build around Bennati to take a shot at the maillot vert.
What they lack is deep depth. I'm sure guys like Bruseghin and Errandonea will give the Kid some assistance in the mountains, but like Ballan at Flanders, Bennati in spring and Napolitano today, the job will be done with little teamwork. (OK, Benna set up Ballan nicely on the Muur, but that's it.) Still, does it matter? Is it time to defy convention and say that, in certain circumstances, teamwork is not that important?
Look at it this way. Saunier Duval brought a huge climbers' squad -- Ricco, Mayo, Piepoli, etc. -- but given Simoni's status and temperament, Cunego knows with some certainty that these guys will all be pulling for Gibo. So if SD control the tempo on the mountain stages, and Cunego is no more or less comfortable with that tempo than Simoni is, why does he need teammates? To chase breaks? Saunier Duval will work to control every other team's attempts, and even when they try sending someone up the road, it probably won't sell: if Simoni thought Piepoli were about to take the overall lead, he'd chase him down personally. I don't see why Cunego needs teammates when he can simply match Simoni until the final slope, where the strongest guy wins.
Anyway, so far Lampre and Saunier Duval have put themselves in the position they expected to be in today, with regards to the overall, and Napolitano's exploits are merely a pleasant sidebar. Simoni has complained a lot about how Saunier Duval have had to work to chase breaks, but for someone who wants to be il Patrone he seems overly disdainful of the actual job. Anyway, at 6.12 Simoni is exactly two minutes behind DiLuca and 1.06 in arrears of the Kid... gaps that won't matter much if one of these guys really is the strongest.
Liquigas did well for themselves this week, leveraging DiLuca's classics style and post-Ardennes fitness into a slight advantage, which was essential to Il Killer di Spoltore's chances going forward. They too will probably let Saunier Duval take the initiative in the mountains, though DiLuca has some strong guys around to pitch in here and there.
Discovery have been pretty silent, and there was some speculation here that Hincapie and Chechu's leads over the contenders might move them into captaincy. But that's the panic move, and Yaro-Pop is currently planted between the Kid and Simoni at 5.55 back, so he too is more or less where he needs to be. If Popovych can rekindle his 2002 Giro magic, he's still on the short list for the podium, and Hincapie and Chechu will make fine lieutenants.
Paolo Savoldelli wishes he were in DiLuca's position, having pocketed some precious time in the early going, but if his performance (at 5.19) reflects a conservation of effort, then he too is where he needs to be right now. And like the others, he should have enough support to get by. As for other power squads, this photo contains proof that Rabobank are in attendance. Look closely, second row from the back, on the left.
One last point... the points competition is still very much up in the air. Alessandro Petacchi has a 24-point edge over the nearest pure sprinter (McEwen, who's about to DNS), but Paolo Bettini has seemingly shaken off the effects of his crash and was back in action the last two days. Assuming he can breathe properly in the mountains, he may be able to chip away at his 26-point deficit over the next week, while Petacchi struggles to survive (an uncertainty in itself). If Petacchi is OK after the Zoncolan, and Bettini isn't well in front, then Petacchi will sew up the maglia ciclamino in the week 3 flats, but the door is definitely open.