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Liquigas deliver Basso to verge of Giro victory

As the last road stage before the Giro d’Italia‘s closing time trial in Verona later today, stage 20 yesterday was always going to be a nervy affair, with the top riders all seeking to protect or improve their standing, and others chomping at the bit for their last shot at the glory of a breakaway stage win. The only objective that mattered for Ivan Basso and his Liquigas team, though, was to defend the maglia rosa and ensure he retained a comfortable cushion against any mishaps this afternoon.

The fact that they achieved this with consummate ease, on a day featuring five climbs including the Gavia, the highest point in this year’s Giro, was a resounding tribute to both the strongest man and the strongest team in this year’s race.

The attacks started almost immediately, and eventually Johan Tschopp of BBox Bouygues Telecom and Lampre‘s Gilberto Simoni went clear on the freezing cold Gavia, which had road-side banks of snow up to three metres high in places. A chase group including two top eight riders, Carlos Sastre and Alexandre Vinokourov, also slipped free of the Basso group. But Liquigas always had the gap under control, allowing their team leader a relatively untroubled ride with a full escort party.

If Basso was ever going to be troubled, it was going to be on the descent from the Gavia before the final climb of the Passo del Tonale. On Friday, he had looked particularly hesitant coming down from the top of the Mortirolo, despite having teammate Vincenzo Nibali for company, while second-placed David Arroyo had flown down a tough descent which was only slightly more treacherous than the Gavia’s. If Arroyo was going to recover any of his 51-second deficit to Basso, it would be here. But the expected daredevil attack never materialised; indeed, Arroyo would end up losing a further 24 seconds by the top of the Tonale.

Tschopp rode away from Simoni over the top of the Gavia and completed the last 30km solo to claim only his second professional win. In the final three kilometres, Cadel Evans launched a brave, if ultimately futile, attack of his own – enough to pull nine seconds clear of Basso, but too late to either catch Schopp for the stage win or to pull out enough time on Nibali and Michele Scarponi to realistically threaten a podium place. It was thrilling stuff, though; yet another great individual effort from a man whose team (BMC) has utterly failed him over the three weeks.

There were no such worries for Basso, though. The way Liquigas controlled the pace throughout yesterday – leaving Basso with a comfortable 1:15 margin over Arroyo – yet again underlined the value of having a strong team.

Tschopp was delighted with his memorable win, his only previous success having been a stage at the 2009 Tropicale Amissa Bongo.

I gave everything on the final climb. I heard the attacks were coming from the GC favorites, so I was happy that I had enough to win. Winning a stage in the Giro is the biggest victory for me.

The only note of caution for Basso as he contemplates his seemingly inevitable coronation later today is that last year Denis Menchov, in a similar situation on the final time trial stage, crashed heavily on wet cobbles almost within sight of the finish, almost costing him overall victory. But Basso is fully aware of this, and continues to take nothing for granted.

The Giro is not won yet. Today was a big step toward victory, but I will not breathe easy until I cross the line in Verona. I should have enough to hold off Arroyo, but anything can happen until the final kilometre — just look at [Denis] Menchov in last year’s Giro.

And, as ever, he was quick to credit the efforts of his Liquigas teammates in protecting his position.

My team did a great job to keep me protected. Our plan was to stay together so I would not be isolated.

Quite right too.

I remain somewhat equivocal about Basso’s impending win, in the same way I was less than comfortable about Vinokourov taking the pink jersey earlier in the race. After all, this is a rider who received a two-year ban but has never admitted to anything more than (in his own words) “attempted doping”, rather than actual doping.

Take nothing away from Basso. He has been physically and tactically strong throughout one of the toughest Giro routes ever, but I prefer to reflect on his position at the top of the general classification as more of a collective than an individual triumph.

Chapeau, Liquigas.

General Classification after Stage 20

1. Ivan Basso 87h 23m 00s

2. David Arroyo @ 1:15 behind

3. Vincenzo Nibali @ 2:56

4. Michele Scarponi @ 2:57

5. Cadel Evans @ 3:47

6. Richie Porte @ 7:25

7. Alexandre Vinokourov @ 7:31

8. Carlos Sastre @ 8:55

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

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