PavÃ© would like to thank Laekhouse for supporting our coverage of the 2011 Giro dâ€™Italia.
Hereâ€™s a preview of this weekendâ€™s main events:
1. I wonder if this yearâ€™s Giro dâ€™Italia has passed as quickly for the riders as it has for the fans? Regardless, the seasonâ€™s first grand tour ends this weekend with what looks to be a spectacular mountain stage and long individual time trial in downtown Milan.
Tomorrowâ€™s 242-kilometer trip from Verbania to Sestriere looks straightforward enough: 195 kilometers of flat roads followed by two major climbs, the last of which marks the end of the Giroâ€™s final road stage. That said these two climbsâ€”the Colle delle Finestre and the Sestriere are anything but usual. The Finestre was first used in the 2005 Giro dâ€™Italia and itâ€™s two main protagonists thenâ€”Danilo Di Luca and Jose Rujanoâ€”are both riding this year as well. Rising out of an Alpine valley, the climb is perhaps most famous for its final 8 unpaved kilometersâ€”a surface that should produce serious time gaps and stunning racing for fans.
After a descent that could favor those willing to take a few risks, the riders will tackle the final climb to the ski resort at Sestriere. Ironically, Sestriere was the scene of Lance Armstrongâ€™s mountain stage win in the 1999 Tour de Franceâ€”a rain soaked victory that saw him seize control of the race for good.
Saxo Bankâ€™s Alberto Contador requires no such heroics. With more than a 5-minute lead on his nearest rival, the Spaniard can ride comfortably, knowing that it would take nothing short of a major collapse for him to lose his maglia rosa. On the other hand, the battle for second and third is alive and well, with two Italians, Lampreâ€™s Michele Scarponi and Liquigasâ€™ Vincenzo Nibali, separated by less than a minute. Look for Scarponi and Nibali to use the Finestre’s ascent and descent respectively to try and launch their final bids to be #2. Other riders to watch include Androniâ€™s Jose Rujano (the stage winner here in 2005), Katushaâ€™s Joaquin Rodriguez (a rider trying to salvage a rather lackluster race for his team), and Acqua & Saponeâ€™s Stefano Garzelli (the current leader of the KOM competition).
In Sundayâ€™s 31.5-kilometer time trial in downtown Milan, Alberto Contador will put his final stamp on what might just be one of his most convincing grand tour victories. As for the rest of the podium, if Scarponi and Nibali are still close, the stage favors the rider from Liquigas. Scarponi will need the ride of his life to defend any advantage smaller than 45-seconds. As for a stage winner, watch out for Saxo Bankâ€™s Richie Porte (his form is improving) and Garmin-Cerveloâ€™s David Millar (one of the Giroâ€™s most aggressive riders) to battle for victory.
2. As for the Tour of Belgiumâ€”the other national tour wrapping-up this weekendâ€”a familiar rider is now wearing the black jersey as race leader: Omega Pharma-Lottoâ€™s Philippe Gilbert. Depending on how motivated he is, tomorrowâ€™s Stage 4 is not a day that should challenge King Philâ€”a mini-Ardennes classic with several climbs including the Mur de Huy, the Stockeu, the Haute LevÃ©e, and an uphill finish. If heâ€™s there at the endâ€”and itâ€™s hard to see any reason why he wouldnâ€™t beâ€”look for the day and the overall title to go to Gilbert. And if all goes well for Belgian fans, Sunday will see Quick-Stepâ€™s Tom Boonen take the stage and points title.
3. Germanyâ€™s Bayern Rundfahrt concludes this weekend with an individual time trial Saturday and a Sunday stage that will likely end in a field sprint. HTC-Highroadâ€™s Michael Albasini won todayâ€™s Stage 3, winning a 9-man group sprint to the take the day and overall race lead. As the gap to the main peloton was over 5 minutes, look for one of todayâ€™s escapeesâ€”whichever has the better ride tomorrowâ€”to take the overall victory Sunday. My moneyâ€™s on Saxo Bankâ€™s Nicki Sorensen, a talented time trialist who should take the lead tomorrow and defend it well Sunday. My sentimental pick: Garmin-Cerveloâ€™s Andreas Klier, although a win for Team Skyâ€™s Geraint Thomas would be nice to see as well. These three men all sit within 12 seconds of Albasini and appear to have the best chances to win the 2.HC event.
4. And finally, the US Professional Championships take place Saturday and Monday in South Carolina with all of the countryâ€™s best riders participating. In Saturdayâ€™s time trial, I see David Zabriskie taking the win over Levi Leipheimer and Taylor Phinney. On the other hand, national championship road races are always tough to callâ€”look for the Radio Shack and Garmin-Cervelo to do the lion share of the work while the smaller teams do their best to upset the apple cart. In the end, fitness and experience will rule the dayâ€”in other words, look for Chris Horner to add the stars and stripes to his ATOC win. Garmin-Cerveloâ€™s Andrew Talansky and BMCâ€™s George Hincapie will round out the podium.
And there you have itâ€”a quick rundown of what to expect this weekend. What are your picks and predictions?