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My Premature Danilo DiLuca Valentine

I have this habit in life of being dead wrong at first about most of my firmest beliefs. My first ever vote was cast for Ronald Reagan, for example, and I spent years making fun of Springsteen. So if I spent the last 18 months insisting that Danilo DiLuca give up on grand tours and stick to the Classics, well, I think there's a Seinfeld episode about instincts like mine.

Nonetheless, it gives me great pleasure to sit down and write about how great DiLuca has been in this Giro. I've become a huge fan, partly for frivolous reasons (common ancestry in Abruzzi), but largely for his style of racing. The nickname came from the press in recognition of his determined manner... which has been on flagrant display throughout this Giro: on the bike he looks, not really angry, but teeth gritted, dead-serious, and aggressive. He never looks good, or relaxed, or like he's having any fun, but plenty of athletes thrive on the intensity, and DiLuca appears to be one of them.

More to the point, that image is met by his actions on the bike. Since Amstel, DiLuca has shown an amazing mix of determination and aggressiveness that has enlivened virtually every race he's been in. At La Fleche Wallonne, DiLuca led the chasers in bringing back Joaquim Rodriguez, a massive effort that limited his final km before he revived for third. At Liege, he clawed his way onto Frank Schleck's wheel during the latter's blistering attack, formed a two-man break in which Schleck placed him under constant pressure, and still managed to kick away from the field in the closing straight.

When he won aggressively at Montevergine and took second after Piepoli's lone escape at Nostra Signora Della Guardia, I (and others) speculated that he and his team were hedging their bets against what looked like a hard time in the bigger mountains. But Classics studs are poker players, and in retrospect, DiLuca was using a completely different tactic. Now, these early shows of strength look like efforts to demoralize his competition. Surely his attack at the top of the Izoard wasn't for time gaps -- Simoni, a top descender, caught up on the downslope with ease. Rather, DiLuca attacked Simoni to send a message, one the proud Simoni -- who himself said he wanted to make a statement on the Izoard -- must have received.

Now, after confirming his prowess in the "real" mountains with today's time trial, DiLuca is in control of the race. The biggest challenges still lie ahead, Sunday and Wednesday, and the steeper sustained grades may yet uncover a weakness somewhere in il Killer's form. A crack on the Zoncolan can unravel those 2-3 minutes he holds in hand in just a few km. But cyclists often say simply that the strongest guy wins, regardless of the course, and so far there is no doubt who that describes.

One question, besides can he really do it?, remains: will DiLuca shelve his Classics pedigree and take advantage of his lead, following his rivals, shutting down attacks rather than launching them? Can he adjust to the role of Grand Tour leader and minimize his risks between here and Milan? Or will he whither and wilt if he isn't blitzing the front of the field?