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Basso climbs into the lead at the Giro

Ivan Basso had to wait for 19 stages before being able to claim the maglia rosa, but he was finally able to pull on the jersey worn by the leader of the Giro d’Italia at the end of today’s stage. He is now the odds-on favourite to claim overall victory in Verona on Sunday.

Today’s stage from Brescia to Aprica featured two major climbs: the Trivigno and the monstrous Mortirolo. The latter is one of the great monuments of the Giro. After climbing it while preparing for the 2004 Tour de France,  Lance Armstrong said of the Mortirolo:

It’s a terrible climb. On the hardest parts, I was hurting, really hurting. [Mortirolo] is the hardest climb I’ve ever ridden.

Its reputation is fully deserved, but as a collective unit Liquigas conquered it today. Basso’s team rode tempo at the front of the pack to claw back the advantage gained by the day’s early breakaway by the time they arrived at the foot of Mortirolo, while rival Cadel Evans‘s remaining BMC teammates had long since faded away. But as the last of his domestiques burned himself out, Basso took over. With only teammate Vincenzo Nibali and the ever obdurate Michele Scarponi able to live with him, one by one the remaining elite riders dropped off the pace – just a bike length at first, then two, and finally sliding away out of view beyond the climb’s twists and turns. Current maglia rosa David Arroyo fell first, soon followed by Alexandre Vinokourov and finally Evans himself, who assumed the familiar rolling-shouldered pedalling style he always exhibits under extreme duress.

From that point the Australian slid inexorably backwards. First Vino rode away from him, then Arroyo caught him and then sped away on the narrow, winding descent from the Mortirolo, a route made all the more difficult by a wet, greasy surface. Basso, not the most confident descender, looked distinctly uncomfortable and will have been grateful to Nibali, who acted as a pilot fish for his senior teammate, on a number of occasions slowing to wait for him. Evans was unnerved by one scary moment when he slid uncontrolled off the road and narrowly avoided a row of parked vehicles. He would continue to lose time on the descent and on the final climb into Aprica.

In the meantime Basso, Nibali and Scarponi worked together to extend their advantage to three minutes by the time Scarponi raced away from the Liquigas men to claim the stage victory. But the greatest victory belonged to Basso, who stripped Arroyo of the pink jersey and now holds a 51-second lead over the Caisse d’Epargne rider, with Nibali 2:30 behind in third, Scarponi fourth, and Evans trailing at 4:00.

Basso had ridden superbly in setting the pace up the Mortirolo, but was quick to recognise the decisive role played by his team:

We knew it was going to be difficult, because we saw Arroyo going well the past few days and he has a strong team. But everyone on the team knew their role and we divided up the responsibilities.

The benefit of a strong team should not be underestimated. At no point in the mountains has Basso been left exposed. He has generally had Nibali riding shotgun alongside him, and the rest of the Liquigas team have been instrumental in chasing down breaks and controlling the pace at the front of the peloton, all of which has allowed him to manage the race at his pace and conserve energy. Evans, on the other hand, has ridden over the mountains in splendid isolation, his team unable to offer any support whenever the going got tough – which was when he needed them the most. Who knows how much energy it has cost Evans in having to do all the hard work for himself?

Doubtless, he paid the price for it today – barring a miracle on the Gavia tomorrow (assuming it is passable), the best he can realistically hope for now is a top-three finish, as he acknowledged in his post-stage interview:

Liquigas’s rhythm was a little too strong for me with the condition I have now. I didn’t have the legs to follow them. There was nothing to do. Four minutes is hard to pull back on Basso. If he continues like this with the same legs, it will be difficult to win.

For now, it appears we saw a decisive selection on the upper slopes of the Mortirolo today. With Arroyo clearly now a spent force, the only person who can stop Ivan Basso from winning the 2010 Giro is Basso himself. And even then he will be able to rely on his team to offer a not inconsiderable safety net of support if required.

General Classification after Stage 19

1. Ivan Basso 81h 55m 56s

2. David Arroyo @ 0:51 behind

3. Vincenzo Nibali @ 2:30

4. Michele Scarponi @ 2:46

5. Cadel Evans @ 4:00

6. Carlos Sastre @ 5:32

7. Richie Porte @ 6:00

8. Alexandre Vinokourov @ 6:02

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

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