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Two Men, One Mountain

Pretty simple now, innit?

Denis Menchov handily dispatched his two closest rivals today. He broke Levi Leipheimer on the lower slopes of Monte Petrino, ending the American's hopes of winning a grand tour, possibly forever. We will see; Leipheimer is forever a serious candidate but who struggles to find his best form at the right time. Today it was the heat. It's unlucky, but that's cycling.

That done, Menchov next set about ending the hopes of Danilo Di Luca. Il Killer himself and the Italian press will point to the narrow 43 second gap between the two protagonists and protest that anything can happen. But as the race draws closer and closer to Rome, it shifts more and more into Menchov's hands and away from Di Luca's. Yes, a sudden catastrophe or massive meltdown can do in Menchov, but why should that happen on the Block Haus or Vesuvio, if it didn't happen today? And if Di Luca, who finishes climbs well but doesn't always hang on with the mountain goats, couldn't steal some bonus seconds today, how will he manage to do so on the Block Haus? How will he pull comfortably ahead of Menchov to hold him off in the final time trial? It can happen, but in all likelihood that window is closing, not opening. Il Killer may nab a bonus on stage 20, ending in a short climb, but this only underscores his weakness against Menchov, the idea that he must look under these nondescript rocks for opportunity.

The only remaining threat to Menchov's third grand tour title is Carlos Sastre. The maillot jaune parlayed his signature double-acceleration to soften and then break his pursuers, bagging a half-minute and a time bonus for his efforts. Somewhere Sastre must find at least 150 seconds, perhaps more, to seize the lead by enough of a margin to offset Menchov's advantage in the time trial. That isn't especially likely on Vesuvio, a hard enough climb but not deadly, and coming after a gorgeous promenade rather than a succession of leg-softening climbs. If anyplace, if there is a stretch of road where Carlos Sastre can undo all the great work Denis Menchov has accomplished over the last 17 days, it can only be the Block Haus, or what's left of it.

I know there are numerous variables, but assuming everyone stays upright, Denis Menchov almost can't lose. Carlos Sastre has a slim chance of ripping that maglia rosa off his back, in one more massive attack, just as he did last July. But the odds are longer now and the foe as formidable as any.

Does anyone see any other scenario other than the usual dangers of crashes and illness?