Giro d'Italia 17: Rodriguez wins in pink

Spaniard strong after tense, exciting battle in the Dolomites

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Spain’s Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) won a dramatic stage 17 at the 2012 Giro d’Italia, overcoming some of his closest rivals in the general classification as the race headed into the Dolomites for the first time.

A leading group of about 25 riders was dismantled in brutal fashion as it started the final big climb of the stage. Liquigas-Cannondale’s injection of pace resulted in a breakaway group of six riders for the final 25km, with all of them handily placed in the GC.

In the end it was Rodriguez who marginally handled the descent and small uphill finish best. He crossed the line in Cortina d'Ampezzo ahead of Ivan Basso (Liquigas Cannondale), Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Barracuda), Rigoberto Uran (Sky), Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) and Domenico Pozzovivo (Colnago-CSF), consolidating his lead in the overall standings and retaining the pink jersey after an epic mountain stage that captivated everyone who witnessed it.

With four uncompromising climbs ahead of them, each one woven into the folklore of the Giro, there was a palpable tension in the air amongst the riders as they waited at the start in Pfalzen, close to the Italian/Austrian border. Temperatures were in the mid teens and there was a generous covering of clouds, offering the riders protection in the early stages.

At the 50km point, a bunch of five broke away. Matteo Rabottini (Farnese-Vini), Branislau Samoilau (Movistar), Kevin Seeldraeyers (Astana), Matteo Montaguti (Ag2r-La Mondiale), and Jose Serpa (Androni) pulled clear and steadily built up a lead of roughly five minutes as the riders got over the first big climb of the day, the Falzarego. Rabottini, who won stage 15 in dramatic fashion on Sunday, added more points here to extend his lead at the top of the mountains classification.

By the time they reached the top of the Passo Duran with 55km to race, the gap had come down to 1:30. Back in the main group, which by this point had shrunk to around 40 riders, Liquigas was in control and keeping Basso’s powder dry for the business end of the race and protecting him most effectively. But all of the main GC contenders were there, including both of Astana’s leaders, Roman Kreuziger and Paolo Tiralongo.

The next climb, the Forcella, came along fast, and by this time, Mikel Nieve (Euskaltel-Euskadi) had caught up with Seeldraeyers, who had been dropped by the leaders. Rodriguez’s position was starting to look precarious back in the main group, which had shrunk to 25 now and contained none of the pink jersey holder’s Katusha teammates. Moments later Kreuziger was the first of the big names to crack as he lost touch with his GC rivals and fell off their pace.

The excitement amongst the crowd was about to be turned up a notch as the main chase group swallowed up the breakaway riders as they started the final, gruelling climb, the Passo Giau. Before they had a chance to catch their breath, Liquigas made its devastating attack and within minutes the leaders were strung out like laundry on a line. When the dust had settled it was those leading six riders who were left to fight it out for the remainder of the climb and the fast descent that followed.

As they approached the top, Pozzovivo attacked. Scarponi cramped up and he and Uran were temporarily dropped. They managed to fight their way back to the wheels of the leading four with 2km left to go. As they wearily closed on the finish line, which was on a gentle final gradient that probably seemed much steeper after the sweat and toil they had left on the road, Basso and Scarponi took it in turns to attack. But Rodriguez was poised in behind and produced a devastating late burst to prevail, winning his second stage of the race and confirming his superiority over his closest pursuers for pink.

In the end, there wasn’t a great deal of change at the top of overall GC, with the exception of the Astana duo, who were the big losers on the day. To those simply looking at the bare result and the overall standings, the stage may look an uneventful one. But it was far from it, and we’ll know more tomorrow in terms of its impact on the well being of the men who pushed themselves to the limit in search of Giro glory.

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