This weekend's racing at the Giro d'Italia is almost too good to be true: three days of absolute mountain madness, each completely unique from the others, and falling conveniently over the long Memorial Day sojourn. Who knew RCS was so concerned about catering to the American audience? Is this a sign of the Podium Cafe's influence on the sport? I'd have to assume yes. [Ahem...] Anyway, with just one straightforward, flat stage to get out of the way, and the generally hazy atmosphere that sets in on a holiday Friday, I thought today would be the time to start looking ahead to the high mountains.
One purpose of this weekend about which there is little debate is the Giro's intention to blow the general classification standings to smithereens. By Monday at the latest, we'll either have a wide-open, all-time classic grand tour shootout... or Astana will have sucked all the life out of the final week. Something in between remains possible, if less likely. And no matter how you slice it, Giovanni Visconti will be back in his tricolore kit. Stages so full of intrigue are impossible to handicap, even for people far more seasoned than me... so I'll get it started. First, remember these?
Passo Manghen: 23.5km at 7% avg, max 15%. Warmed up yet?
Alpe di Pampeago: 8.9km at 9.5%.
Passo Pordoi: 11.8km at 6.6%, max 10%.
Passo San Pellegrino: It's the other side from what was used recently: 11.8km, 6.4% avg, max 14%.
Passo Giau: 9.8km at 9.4%, max 14% and absolutely no breaks.
Passo Falzarego: 16km at 5.5%.
Passo Fedaia: 13.3km at 8%, max 18% and again, no easy portions. Plan de Corones: 16.9km at 7.5%, max 24% and a few other ramps in the 20% range.
Right. The biggest factors in the race, in order: the three-headed Astana train of terror; double-stage-winner and all-around-great-guy Riccardo Riccò; Gilberto Simoni; LPR's oddly effective troika; and Denis Menchov.
Astana are most likely to control the race on Sunday. While Bruyneel's Postal Boys were notorious for launching Lance on the last climb of the first mountain stage, I'd say their standard approach is a bit more nuanced. First, Lance was Lance. Secondly, by the end of their reign they concentrated less on demoralizingly early attacks and more on methodically destroying the peloton. I am not convinced they can do that on Saturday, with only two major (OK, devastating) climbs. They can certainly winnow the field by racing well, but if I were them I'd go conservative and let the pretenders to the throne exhaust themselves -- as they almost certainly will. Sunday is tailor-made for the Astana/Bruyneel/Postie-style train, where everyone slowly gets shelled on climb after climb. This should be when the hammer comes down.
Saturday, however, will look like a perfect opening to the more anxious Italian teams who know the terrain and can send someone up with the leaders. So, while Leo Piepoli's injuries have diminished Riccò's chances, he still probably won't be able to resist trying something. Riccò has come out smoking; he also has a chip on his shoulder the size of Capri when it comes to Astana's presence in the race. No way will he show patience.
Nobody faces more of a dilemma than Simoni, who races through his home region of Trento Saturday, over a course where he could almost certainly do well. But Simoni's Giro approach almost always exudes patience, and this year's course will reward patience (Mortirolo, anyone?). So while saluting his neighbors with a dramatic attack Saturday might sound nice, I say he calmly follows wheels both days and waits to see what he can do on the Plan de Corones.
LPR are completely screwy. The only certainty is that at some point they'll have a rider up the road and DiLuca will order an attack. None of their guys have the pure mountain class that Sunday will require (except maybe Bosisio, whom I don't know well), and DiLuca is not above making statements. Look for them in the thick of things starting -- and possibly ending -- on the Manghen.
Denis Menchov may be a grand tour double-champion, but he's not an especially flamboyant attacker, something that won't change this weekend. My bet is that he's a healthier Soler: one eye firmly fixed on July. If so, look for him to follow wheels until he either decides he feels great and should try something, or til the pack falls apart inexplicably... or more likely, til he determines he can't win and toggles over to training mode.
The other teams we've becomed accustomed to discussing (CSF, Liquigas, High Road, Tinkoff) will all look at Sunday's profile and decide Saturday is a good day to try something. If one or more have the nerve and good timing, there's definitely a stage win to be had. But reality will soon catch up. Maybe Petrov or Siutsou will graduate to the head of the race, and maybe Pellizotti or Nibali will gamely challenge the establishment, but I wouldn't hold my breath.