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End Game Revisited

Giro09-main_mediumIt never fails to interest me. We look at the GC standings after a mid-Grand Tour stage and think they'll stay that way till the end. Of course they never do. There are always multiple big stages at the end which shuffle then reshuffle the GC. But still, we think in week two that we've seen it all. I'm as guilty as anyone in that regard.

By happy coincidence this year's stage 13 was basically the same as last year's stage 13: the last true flat sprinter's stage before the deciding mountain stages and final time trial. To top it off, Cavendish won last year's stage 13 also. So as an exercise, below I recap the last 8 stages to show how the GC kept changing every day to see how riders way back in the GC had great chances to move up while the front runners often fell flat. Let's start with the GC top ten after stage 13:

1. Visconti                           6. Bruseghin    7:52

2. Bosisio 5:50                    7. Savoldelli      7:56

3. Contador 6:59                 8. Di Luca        8:20

4. Kloden 7:41                    9. Larsson        8:31

5. Nibali 7:51                     10. Ricco          8:32

Now we begin...

Stage 14: Verona to Alpe di Pampeago

1. Bosisio                              6. Kloden          1:11

2. Contador 0:05                   7. Menchov     1:18

3. Bruseghin  0:28                8. Simoni        1:31

4. Ricco         1:02                 9. Pellizotti     1:32

5. Di Luca      1:07                  10. Visconti   1:35

What happened: SELLA!!!! was the first thing, beating 2nd place Kiryienka by 4:38. Meanwhile the GC pack splintered on the last climb with one rider then another trying to detonate the pack. Eventually it was one Dennis Menchov who proved the strongest with Save Ferris a few seconds behind and the others straggling in 45 seconds behind the Russian.


Stage 15: Arabba - Passo Fedaia - Marmolada


1. Contador                     6. Simoni 1:26

2. Ricco 0:33                 7. Pellizotti 2:27

3. Di Luca 0:55              8. Van Den Broeck 2:50

4. Bruseghin 1:18          9. Pozzovivo 4:40

5. Menchov 1:20          10. Sella 4:41

What happened: SELLA! again this time winning by over 2 minutes. Various breaks happened but the real GC move came with about 5 km to go when Ricco started his first of several accelerations, each time dumping a couple more GC guys until at last he lost Menchov and Contador. Ricco didn't gain much time and Bert lost some at the finish, but Contador takes the pink jersey. More importantly we see the final GC order start to come into focus-this after two huge mountain top finishes.

Stage 16: Plan de Corones ITT

1. Contador                     6. Di Luca 2:18

2. Ricco 0:41                 7. Menchov 2:47

3. Simoni 1:21               8. Sella 4:25

4. Bruseghin 2:00         9. Van Den Broeck 4:26

5. Pellizotti 2:05          10. Pozzovivo 5:25

What happened: Another Giro freakish ITT, that's what happened. Looking back, it wasn't particularly decisive though.

Stages 17-18: No changes to the GC

Stage 17 was the stage Greipel won, Stage 18 was a day for Jens!

Stage 19: Legnano - Monte Pora

1. Contador                     6. Menchov 2:47

2. Ricco 0:04                 7. Sella 4:25

3. Di Luca 0:21               8. Van Den Broeck 4:26

4. Bruseghin 2:00         9. Pozzovivo 5:25

5. Pellizotti 2:05          10. Simoni 7:18

What happened: Twas Killer who created the GC fireworks here. Kiryienka it was who won the stage but Di Luca attacked the GC crown on the downhill a good 55 km before the finish line. Then on the final uphill Ricco attacked and gained all but those 4 seconds then yelled at SELLA!!!! and CSF for helping Contador. This stage also saw Simoni's bonk.

Stage 20: Rovetta - Tirano

1. Contador                     6. Menchov 2:47

2. Ricco 0:04                  7. Di Luca   4:18

3. Bruseghin 2:00           8. Van Den Broeck 4:26

4. Pellizotti 2:05              9. Pozzovivo 5:25

5. Sella  2:35                 10. Simoni 6:40

What happened:  SELLA!!!!! again. I guess he took Ricco's tongue-lashing the day before to heart since he didn't drag Bert to the finish this time, winning by 1:04 over Simoni. Huge stage here but the real GC battle happened on the last climb, the Mortirolo, where Killer was dropped. Contador had "Fat" Toni Colom out ahead, waiting at the top of the climb with a banana which Bert showed to Ricco. Bert then got J-Rod to take the third place bonus seconds away from the Cobra.

Stage 21: Milano ITT

1. Contador                     6. Sella 4:31

2. Ricco 1:57                  7. Van Den Broeck 6:30

3. Bruseghin 2:54           8. Di Luca 7:15

4. Pellizotti 2:56              9. Pozzovivo 7:53

5. Menchov 3:37           10. Simoni 11:03

What happened: Odd ITT since you'd expect the top GC guys to be in amongst the leaders of the stage but a wind picked up as the race went along allowing Tony Martin Marco Pinnoti (thx, Steno) to win. Contador's 11th place finish however was easily the best time of the GC contenders and overall there was little changing of places as you can see.


Summary- and a look ahead.

Going into stage 14, Contador had a good-sized cushion on the other big GC threats due to the stage 10 Urbino TT, and he milked that to the end, using the last two time trials to his advantage.  Still, by the end of stage 19, Ricco had gained back all but 4 seconds of a 1:33 deficit, Di Luca all but 21 seconds of a 1:21 deficit. In theory they could have won but probably Killer was too exhausted from his stage 18 big breakaway while Ricco just never quite got enough advantage on any stage to nose in front of Contador. Still, Contador always had that ace in the hole over those two guys, the ending time trial. Simoni had also gained back a lot of time but that stage 19 blow-up killed his chances.

Also note that there was an initial reshuffling of the GC with the first two mountain stages and overall things got relatively stagnant in the last three stages.

Finally note that all the major contenders didn't get much teammate help. Especially on the final climbs it was mostly one of each team. The main exceptions were Astana, with Colom and when Kloden was not sick, CSF with SELLA!!! and Pozzovivo, and LPR with Salvodelli helping Killer. Still compared to the teams we have this year, especially Liquigas and Astana, the teams last year were much less involved in deciding the GC. It was strictly GC guy vs GC guy out there. Notice also last year Ten Dam was present, but never at the final climbs.

The point of this exercise is to see how volatile things can be in the last week. Think of other recent Grand Tour races (08 Vuelta, 08 Tour, etc.) you get the sense that this here 09 Giro is not nearly decided yet.

Any lessons for looking ahead this year? What? You think I'm the Oracle at Delphi?  Geez.... Let's start with our top 10 right now:

1. Menchov                     6. Rogers  2:59

2. Di Luca 0:34               7. Basso  3:00

3. Leipheimer 0:40           8. Simoni 4:38

4. Pellizotti 2:00              9. Brushegin 5:26

5. Sastre  2:52                 10. Lovkvist 5:53


1) A quick recap of the remaining stages. There are four decisive stages yet to come. Stage 16 (Monte Petrano), 17 (Blockhaus), and 19 (Vesuvius) are all uphill and 21 (Rome) is the TT. 

But tomorrow's stage 14 (Bologna) has a nasty uphill finish, the Giro dell'Emilia finish, that could hurt one of the GC guys too. Let's look a little closer:

Stage 15, I can't see a decisive move. Riders will be too aware of Di Luca to let him decend to victory.

Stage 16, Monte Petrano. 1st serious uphill finish. Splits will happen at the bottom of the last climb probably. This is the stage I'm thinking that Menchov is most likely to control and we could see a long procession over the last three climbs. BUT this stage is quite complicated and a deep team that wants to attack now could really make Menchov make decisions that he might regret later. 

edit: The more I look at this stage, the more complex it gets. Having teammates attack early, or by the second climb I think would be worthwhile. Both Astana and Leeky can do that with one of Pellizoti/Basso or Armstrong/Popovych/Brajkovic going early. On a stage like this, a break could make up 7-8 minutes easy if Menchov isn't careful. This stage is exactly not the type of stage to defend your lead on. If I were Denny, I'd send Ten Dam up the road early.

Stage 17, Blockhaus, comes after a day off, but from his past, days' off don't seem particualrly good for Menchov. Gavia wonders if the Blockhaus stage is too short, and she might be right. It will depend on how the riders attack there or what they did two days before. I think we''ll see attacks, especailly if the Leeky duo are still relatively far back. Decisive? That's why they race.

Stage 18 is not much. Maybe a sprinters stage or one for a break.

Stage 19, Vesuvius. This one will definitely hurt. No way is there a procession to the top. Read Pez's preview and one can imagine this climb becoming legendary.

Stage 20: another flat stage.  Breakaway as the GC teams will be exhausted.

Stage 21: the Rome TT. Technical and short, 14.5 km. Advantage Levi, even over Denny. The other contenders will need 30 seconds advantege over those two to feel comfortable here so in essense tack on 30 seconds to their present deficits.


2) Especially with the first two mountaintop finishes on stages 16 and 17, if not before, we should see a shaking out of the pretenders for the GC. Last year that was Kloden, Nibali, Savoldelli, Larsson, Bosisio, and Visconti. This year? Most likely to me are Lovkvist, and Rogers and Brushegin. I just don't see them climbing so well so far and the climbs soon to come are all tougher. Likely top-10 replacements? Arroyo, Valjevec, Armstrong, and Garzelli maybe. We'll see if I'm right or something else but regardless of who, probably a couple of the current top 10 will drop out to be replaced by a couple others.

Also those couple of others might be real threats. Remember Simoni wasn't in the top 10 at this point and he made up all but 1:30. Ricco was 10th, 8:30 back and he made up all by four seconds.

3) Now let's focus on Denny Menchov. Last year Menchov was tough in the first set of mountains, stages 15 and 16, but tailed off on 19 and 20. He was also no better than Pellizotti or Brushegin in the final ITT. Clearly he tailed off in form the last three days, though not so bad as to lose real time. He followed Contador in the mountains, not attacking him, and did fair in that TT. Stages 14 and 15 was where he tried to do some damage. That's where his peak was, not late in week three. So the obvious question is, is he peaking now? Does he usually do better in the early and middle stages of a Grand Tour then hangs on? Tough question to answer but let's look very briefly at his past: the 08 Tour, and 07 Vuelta.

- 08 Tour. Recapping Menchov's Tour, he had a good 1st TT (5th), and stayed strong through the Pyrenees. The 1st Alp stage (15-Prato Nevoso) saw the Menchov "slip" when he attacked the GC group then slipped, almost falling, thus losing his initiative. He still finished the stage a little ahead of the other GC guys but was still 4th on GC behind F. Schleck, Kohl, and Evans, 38 seconds back. The next stage though, after a rest day, saw Denny lose 35 seconds on that final descent (where Augustin went over the embankment). The final mountain stage, L'Alpe d'Huez saw Menchov initiate nothing, staying on Evans' wheel even at the top when riders like Samu and Frank Schleck broke away to take a few seconds. He finished in the back of the GC pack. Game over.

- His last GT win (07 Vuelta) doesn't tell us much as the race front-loaded it's decisive stages. The two pivotal stages were 10 (TT) and 11. He out-TT'd his main competitors, Evans, Samu, and Sastre then basically matched their attacks the rest of the way, giving a some back at the very end to Samu. Maybe there's a very late weakness there... hard to tell. He had a sizable cushion and was never really threatened. IMHO the competition wasn't nearly as strong there as we have in this Giro.

So I don't know and everyone could will interpret this differently. But I do see a middle week peak and a late third week hanging on. If so, I see him losing his current lead. I do think he dips in form just a bit and the stronger competition here will do him in- if they peak late. My certainty? Only 75%-he could still hit the wire the winner.  He's just gonna get attacked a lot harder then he has when he won his Vueltas. If he is smart he should imagine the possibility of losing the lead then regaining it. Killer already is...

4) If not Menchov, who? Sastre and Leipheimer have consistent records of third week peaking. Levi is much better placed right now plus he has a better team than Sastre or Menchov.  Jen Grey and Ivan Basso make a formidable duo on what I still think of as the strongest team. Then there's Di Luca who guaranteed will do an unusual attack.

But if form holds there's a good chance that Menchov can withstand a stage 16 attack unless one team gets creative. Stages 17 (even with the rest day) and 19 will see him more vulnerable. He'll get isolated in each stage. Much will depend on how patient (too patient?) his competitors are. Maybe the whole thing winds up on Vesuvius like last year's L'Alpe d'Huez stage. The thing is, Levi could do that (wait) but I think the other racers need to attack before that stage and again on Vesuvius because Menchov with his TT skills makes them need an extra 30 second lead on him going into the final TT. Confused? Basically Levi just needs to make up 20-30 seconds by the last TT, while you need to tack on an extra 30 seconds to the current deficits of the other riders. 

Here is where team comes into play. Remember I wrote above about Colom helping Contador on that last mountain stage. That, I think, was huge. So was J-Rod helping out Bert. Ricco by contrast was alone, especially after Piepoli crashed out. Menchov has a decidedly thin team and with Horillio out it's all the weaker. Since it's a given that Menchov will be attacked from several angles by several riders and at least two team assults (Liquigas and Astana) Denny will have to be real smart on who to reel in (or try to) and who to let go. Ten Dam might best be used like Colom was last year. So the smartest team may produce the winner. Bottom line: with Menchov leading and the rest as far back as they are (not far), we have the possibility to great attacking over the last week. The lead may change hands a couple of times. Or not at all. Regardless, it will be chaotic.