Friday, May 25, 2012

Giro d'Italia 2012: the Races within a Race

With Ryder Hesjedal's heroic ride up the Pompeago, the dynamic of the Giro d'Italia GC race is turned upside down. Despite not having the strongest team in Garmin-Barracuda, he and his squad has exceed expectation. Many had bet that climbing specialists would take time away from him, instead he has taken time from them. And somewhere in there, Ivan Basso of Liquigas-Cannondale is sandwiched between the pocket rockets and the time trial specialist.

Just like in other Grand Tours (GTs), there are multiple races within the GC competition of this year's Giro d'Italia. Simply put, this is because unlike in classics races, finishing in the top-ten of a GT is of great value to an aspiring rider, not to mention the multiple jerseys on offer.

Riders such as Ivan Basso, Lampre's Michele Scarponi and Katusha's Joachim "J-Rod" Rodriguez all started the Giro aspiring to win the overall GC. On the other hand, despite manager Giuseppe Martinelli's boasting, it looked as if Astana's Roman Kreuziger aspired for a podium finish, to improve on his prior top-ten GC finishes. At the start of the race, did Ryder Hesjedal himself believe that he would be contending for more than a top-ten GC finish? As a top-ten contender, he would be in fine company with Sky's Rigoberto Uran, Colnago-CSF's Domenico Pozzovivo, and Vacansoleil's Thomas De Gendt.

So what has happened so far? With only one climbing stage left, Hesjedal is second on GC with only 17 seconds. Many estimate that Hesjedal can put serious time in the Milan ITT. All that Hesjedal has to do is basically limit time losses in tomorrow's epic stage up the Stelvio.

For a pocket-rocket such as Scaponi or J-Rod to win the GC outright, they'll have to put time to everybody else in the race, simply because these two are terrible ITT riders. The thing is, they are both riders of very similar characteristics. That means that if they decide to guard against each others' GC ambitions, they may end up negating each other. Whereas if they were to ride against Hesjedal and Basso, they may make useful attacking partners.

For a steady "diesel" climber like Basso to win, he'd have to produce a miracle both on the Stelvio and in Milan. But for Basso to get on the podium, all he has to do is control losses on the Stelvio, as he's almost sure to get some time back from the pocket rockets in Milan. In this scenario, his strong team will make a great set of helpers for Ryder Hesjedal's bid for victory.

All this algebra may sound Machiavellian, and it is very much game-theoretic in the dynamical sense, as it will evolve as the outcome of the Stelvio stage reveals itself.

Not to forget that last year, the race for the overall win was settled very early on with Alberto Contador's beyond-human strength. Scarponi and Vicenzo Nibali of Liquigas-Cannondale ended up racing for second against each other, perhaps with knowledge that Contador's win had a good chance of being nullified.

Further down the GC ladder, riders such as Rigoberto Uran, Domenico Pozzovivo, John Gadret (Ag2R), and Thomas de Gendt (Vacansoleil) are all looking to see whether they can improve their top-ten chances with a shot at a top-five finish. If the Stelvio stage ends up being very competitive, they'll want to be limiting losses to the winner and gaining time against each other. If the stage ends up being lethargic, they may want to put in a dig, as the likes of Rodriguez may not be paying attention at all. After all, they had all let Kreuziger escape to win the stage today.

Anyway, having considered all that, we think tomorrow's Stelvio stage will go as follows.

  1. Basso will give up on riding for the overall title and aim for a podium instead.
    This means LIQ will ride to control the race. Which plays into Garmin-Barracuda and Ryder Hesjedal. Basso is then likely to vie for leadership in the Tour de France, or at least co-leadership with Vicenzo Nibali. Which will hasten the latter's departure from Liquigas-Cannondale. 
  2. Scarponi and Rodriguez will give it at least three attempts.
    By this we mean that they will attack at least a few times, as yet another podium finish (on the road) is unsatisfying and they have very little propect for the Tour de France. Might one of them bother to ride the Vuelta a Espana? 
  3. If both Scarponi and Rodriguez fail, somebody outside the top-ten may win the stage.
    After all, a lethargic stage gives much breathing room for an attacker to steal a stage. However, we think this is not so likely. If Rodriguez fails to gap Hesjedal, the race will immediately turn to that for the Red Jersey, as Rodriguez is damn close to taking that off of Mark Cavendish's shoulders. That's right: things are always more complicated than they seem and in this year's Giro a Spanish pocket rocket will vie for the Red Jersey against the Manx Missile. 

What do you think will happen on the slopes of the Stelvio? Will Ryder Hesjedal win the Giro on Sunday or can he win it on the Stelvio? Are we out of our minds? Share your thoughts below.

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