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Basso and Evans close in on the maglia rosa

If you had to quantify what hell is, you could do worse than to recite the statistics of today’s Giro d’Italia individual time trial on the Plan de Corones: 12.9km long – nearly half of it on an unpaved road too narrow for cars – with a total ascent of 1,086 metres and gradients of up to 24%. Add to that the fact the leading riders were scheduled to go mid-afternoon, fully exposed to the effects of a hot, sunny day, and words like “inferno”, “cauldron” and “bastard stage” start to trip readily off the tongue.

One by one, in reverse order of overall standing in the general classification, the riders set off. Most sought merely to survive, with a handful taking 50 minutes or more to complete the course. Some charged up the mountain ramps in search of the glory of a high placing. For a precious few – the last ten or so riders – it represented a rare opportunity to gain (or lose) valuable seconds on their rivals at the top of the GC, without having to worry about tactics, timing or the forging of temporary alliances.

The French call it ‘contre la montre’ (against the watch); a straightforward battle of man and machine against the limits of physical ability. But it is as much a battle of willpower as it is of wattage, as those who want it the most strive to block out the excruciating pain which comes with every turn of the wheels.

The 5.3km gravel and dirt road section which comprises most of the upper section of the climb is particularly vicious, featuring the steepest gradients of the course on a narrow, uneven road which, even in late May, is flanked by banks of snow. The final kilometre in particular seems to last an eternity as each competitor in turn climbs out of the saddle and stamps on the pedals, at points virtually grinding to a standstill. With the crowds pressed three deep against the barriers in places, almost close enough to touch the exhausted riders, it is a stifling and claustrophobic finish, with many collapsing off their bikes in agony as soon as they have crossed the line.

It truly is forty-odd minutes of hell.

Garzelli is fastest, but Evans and Basso are the big winners

On the one previous occasion (in 2008) the Plan de Corones time trial was held, Franco Pellizotti (yes, him again) won with a time of 40:26, with only seven riders dipping under 42 minutes.

Today, it was not until over 130 riders had already completed the course that Stefano Garzelli (24th overall at the start of the day) became the first man to better 42 minutes – indeed, the first under 43 – setting a benchmark time of 41:28.

One at a time, the big contenders in the top ten tried – and failed – to better Garzelli’s mark: Linus Gerdemann, Michele Scarponi, Vincenzo Nibali, Alexandre Vinokourov. Even Cadel Evans, fifth on the general classification but many people’s tip for the win today, fell short, slotting into second spot with a handy time of 42:10.

Evans’s time looked even better as the men ahead of him in the GC completed their efforts. Carlos Sastre started the day in fourth, 22 seconds ahead of Evans, but a mediocre time of 43:59 meant he lost time to the rest of the top eight and dropped to fifth, almost a minute and a half behind the Australian. Second-placed Richie Porte finished 2:17 behind Garzelli and 1:35 adrift of Evans. And race leader David Arroyo stopped the watch just one second faster than Porte.

Once the dust had settled, it was clear that Evans was the day’s big winner, but Ivan Basso will have been equally pleased. Although the Liquigas team leader finished only sixth, 1:10 behind Garzelli, he maintained most of his advantage over Evans while making significant gains on Arroyo and Porte, leapfrogging the latter into second place. He is now firmly within striking distance of the maglia rosa and must now be considered the race favourite, but given how small the gaps now are between the leading contenders, Basso knows there is no margin for error:

“On balance, it’s a positive stage. I lost a little time to Evans, but I took time on Arroyo and Sastre, so I moved up on GC, I have a lot of respect for all my adversaries. There are still four or five riders who can win this Giro.”

Away from the hurly-burly at the top of the GC, Garzelli – who turns 37 in July – was delighted to have won this iconic stage in the twilight of his career:

“It’s incredible to win today. This is one of the mythic stages at the Giro, I still cannot believe I won.”

The net result of today’s stage was to further compress the time gaps at the top, as the weekend’s two climbing stages had already begun to do. Basso is now just 2:27 off the race lead, with Evans at 3:09 – just three stages previously, both had been more than 11 minutes adrift.

The vultures may now be fewer in number, but they are starting to circle menacingly over David Arroyo and the pink jersey. It is surely only a matter of time before one of them strikes. But who will it be?

Mortirolo and Gavia will be decisive

The riders will receive a modicum of respite over the next two days as the race heads northwards towards its conclusion in Verona on Sunday. Stage 17 tomorrow is an intermediate stage which features one major climb, the Passo delle Palade, at its midway point before a long, steady ascent to the finish at Peio Terme, where significant time gains are unlikely. And Thursday sees a short, flat transition stage to Brescia – one final opportunity for the sprinters if they can summon up the wherewithal to chase down the obligatory opportunistic break. Meanwhile the leaders will sit back, recharging their batteries for the Giro’s sting in the tail: the epic Mortirolo and Gavia climbs – the latter the highest peak in this year’s race – on stages 19 and 20.

General classification after stage 16

1. David Arroyo 68h 32m 26s

2. Ivan Basso @ 2:27 behind

3. Richie Porte @ 2:36

4. Cadel Evans @ 3:09

5. Carlos Sastre @ 4:36

6. Vincenzo Nibali @ 4:53

7. Alexandre Vinokourov @ 5:12

8. Michele Scarponi @ 5:25

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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