As three-time winner of the Amgen Tour of California(AToC), Levi Leipheimer, predicted the race for the overall title will once again come down to the time trial. With the move of the race from February to May, it was hoped that the longer and more difficult courses would provide some separation, but that was not the case with the top four riders separated by only 14 seconds after 29 hours of racing.
To uplevel the discussion a bit, the race really does need a mountain top finish if it wants to provide a bigger challenge. Leipheimer has been vocal about the lack of such a finish, luckily for him, he is a very good time trialist. But, with the move to May, difficulty means not just adding more climbing, but making that climbing relevant. The fact that critical breakaways were chased down on both Stage 3 and Stage 6 demonstrates that it is not sufficient to put the final climb within 10-15 miles of the finish line.
So, without a mountain top finish, Saturday's time trial will be about as exciting as possible. The three strongest riders, Michael Rogers(HTC-Columbia), Dave Zabriskie(Garmin-Transitions) and Levi Leipheimer(Team Radio Shack) are all excellent time trialists. Michael Rogers is a three-time World Time Trial Champion. Dave Zabriskie has won time trials at the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia and is a medalist at the World Championships. Levi Leipheimer has won time trials at the Tour de France and the Vuelta a Espana and an Olympic bronze medal.
The one big unknown is the time trialing ability of Slovakian Peter Sagan. The 20 year old is the revelation of the 2010 season. He has shown he can sprint with two convincing stage wins at the AToC (as well as at Paris-Nice and Tour of Romandie) and that he can climb. But, can he go fast in the race against the clock?He is only fourteen seconds out of the lead and could take the jersey with an inspired ride.
Today's stage up the Blockhaus will undoubtedly provide some huge fireworks and may prove to finally solidify the true contenders for the maglia rosa. Unlike most mountain top finishes, the riders will hit the slopes of the Blockhaus after only 36 mostly flat miles. Add in the fact that this stage follows the Giro's second rest day and you will have the scenario of a lot of racers who think they can win the stage.
This scenario is pretty uncommon in the grand tours. Back in 1991, the Tour de France rolled up to Alpe d'Huez with only flat miles in their legs instead of a couple of category 1 ascents such as the Galibier, Glandon or the Croix de Fer. What transpired at the bottom of the Alpe was an explosion as both the stage hunters and overall riders were swept up in a wave of aspirations. Two groups of riders with different goals, but riding side-by-side up one of the world's most storied climbs.
The GC riders don't like this type of situation. They have to ride harder and punchier(not steady) than they would like in the third week of a grand tour. The guys going for the stage win will launch attack after attack and they GC riders usually respond. This has changed a bit with power meters and riders knowing what they can and cannot do on the bike, but still there is a group mentality which pervades and unless the GC riders call a truce, they can get sucked up into the fray.
Guys like Levi Leipheimer aren't punchy riders and a stage like today could cause him more difficulty. Personally, I hope not, but Levi may have a tough decision to make whether to ride within himself or go with the moves. The podium is on the line for the Team Astana rider which makes the decision even more difficult.
The final ascent is a 17km(11-mile) 1200m(4000') climb that averages about 7%. This should take the top riders about 45-minutes. Look for racers like Menchov, Sastre and Basso to be forcing the pace with Di Luca hanging on near the front. BTW, Ivan Basso won here in 2006 on his way to his first, and only, overall Giro win.
In the late 1960's Eddy Merckx won his first ever mountain-top finish in a grand tour. A few years later, the Giro hosted a similar stage as today in the morning and then ran a 200+km flatter stage in the afternoon. These "split stages" were common in grand tours up until the 1990's. Nowadays the UCI has outlawed them.
Race organizers of the Tour of Gila have certainly had an up and down ride this winter and spring. The popular New Mexico stage race was in danger of folding up shop when sponsorship woes raised their ugly head. At the last minute component manufacturer SRAM stepped in and saved the day. Then only a few weeks before yesterday's first stage, rumours started circulating that Lance Armstrong and his Team Astana might be on the start list.
There are a lot of interesting tidbits surrounding Team Astana's participation at Gila. First off, the team rides SRAM components on their Trek bikes. Having your marquis riders show up at an event you are sponsoring is always a good thing. Secondly, both Armstrong and Horner are recovering from broken collarbones, Lance at the Vuelta Castilla y Leon and Horner from the Vuelta Pays Basque a few weeks later. These two guys definitely need some racing miles if they want to be competitive at the upcoming Giro d'Italia which starts on May 9th.
Teammate Levi Leipheimer on the other hand has been racing and winning for the past several months starting with the Tour of California then the Vuelta Castilla y Leon and most recently at the Sea Otter Classic. As Levi will most likely be the Astana team leader at the Giro he needs to do what is necessary to arrive at the start in Venice ready for major action.
One interesting point about Gila is that the race takes place out of Silver City, New Mexico which is 6000'. As anyone knows who has tried to perform at altitude, you need to acclimate if you want to be competitive. Lance has been training in Aspen at 8000' and Levi has been in Park City at 7000' so both should be ready to roll at Gila.
On Wednesday, Levi proved that he was ready to race winning the first stage, which included a 5-mile climb to the finish, by almost one minute over his nearest rival. Lance and Chris Horner, who were there to support Levi's bid for overall victory, were active during the critical parts of the race.
There was a bit of drama before the start with the UCI almost preventing both Astana and Team BMC from starting citing a almost-never-enforced rule that restricts the top professional teams, those with Pro Tour and Professional Continental status, from participating from non-UCI events as either a team or individuals. A last minute truce allowed the three Astana riders to compete as Team Mellow Johnny, Lance's bike shop in Austin. Team BMC, which is competing as Team B, had to send five of its eight riders home to comply with the three rider limit.
While Levi looks on form to take another victory, most eyes will be on Lance to see how his fitness is progressing after his broken collarbone. But, keep an eye on Leipheimer as he will most likely be leading Team Astana at the Giro.