The most defining characteristic of this year's Giro d'Italia is how completely unlike last year's race it is. By this point in the 2006 race, Ivan Basso had a 1.34 lead over J.E. Gutierrez, the largest spread between any two riders on the list... as well as 1.48 on Cunego, 2.34 on Savoldelli and 3.20 on Simoni. Not game over, but there was little doubt where things were headed.
Today, things could scarcely be less clear. The climb to the Santuario Nostra Signora Della Guardia put the top riders to the test, for real. I've never seen so many guys dismount or keel over in sight of the line. All that was missing was David Millar screaming at the race organizers. The gaps were predictably small, but lend some insight nonetheless. Let's look at today's top 10.
- Leonardo Piepoli: Gibo's super-domestique from here on out. Well, not necessarily; if Ricco can follow a bit better, Gibo may let Piepoli go stage-hunting one more time. But that's about it.
- Danilo DiLuca: Let's face it, the argument against him winning this year is really just that he hasn't won a grand tour yet. Can anyone say for certain he won't have the strength to survive the higher mountains? If anything, his ride in 2005 shows that when he's really peaking, he probably can survive the biggest tests. Plus we're in a mini-era of first time grand tour winners: you have to go back to the final day of the Lance Era to find a repeat winner anyplace. Maybe the best parallel is Vinokourov: he'd been hanging around the grand tours but really just looked like a classics stud... until he won the Vuelta. DiLuca still looks like an explosive Classics rider to me, and I'm not picking him to win, but you can't dismiss his chances.
- Andy Schleck: everyone's darling of the race. At 21, that's a hell of a ride. But IMHO, nobody would be in bigger trouble if tomorrow was another mountain stage. Schleck left it all on the hill, and sorta blew a gasket in the last KM. He'll be sore tomorrow.
- Gilberto Simoni: Nobody looks smoother on the climbs than Gibo. He says he has some sort of debt to pay at the Izoard Thursday, so maybe we will see him on the attack at last. Who knows... I tend to ignore everything he says. He is, at best, a clumsy interview given to overdrama... and at worst a truly strange person. But when his mouth is closed and the roads of the Giro turn up, he consistently rides like a true champion. I can't buy DiLuca's show of force today, but I am definitely buying Simoni's.
- Riccardo Ricco: everyone thought today would be his day. He's a domestique from here on out, I think. He looked like he suffered a lot out there, and it's going to get much worse.
- Paolo Savoldelli: Simoni singled him out as riding especially well. It's still not a good course for him, but I rated him as someone who could be sinking fast by now, and that clearly hasn't happened.
- Damiano Cunego: Some food for thought. He sounded conspicuously happy about today's results, for a guy who watched his main rival steal 11 seconds from him. Perhaps Cunego just didn't care much for contesting this odd stage, or maybe his strategy is to ride his own tempo rather than chasing attacks from Simoni and co. But it has to be asked: why would you let Simoni go if you didn't have to?
- Franco Pellizotti: Plan B if Danilo does flop out. Until then, he's a helper on a good ride.
- Yaroslav Popovych: Limited the losses today, and erased any doubt about who Discovery's strongest rider is. If he can stay within 15-20 seconds every day, he just might win it all back on the last ITT. He's in good position.
- Andrea Noè: Another domestique, here thanks to Sunday's gift. Won't be in pink for long. Best hope is that someone gives him an honorary PhD this week so we can spend the rest of the Giro calling him Dr. Noè.
- (bonus!) David Arroyo: moves up to third overall with today's very competent climb. Every good grand tour has a heretofore unrated dangerman appear, and Arroyo is it for this year's Giro. Simoni will be watching him like a hawk, anxious to take back the time gift he got Sunday, before Arroyo becomes the next Caisse d'Epargne rider to have a grand tour fall into his lap.