Lance Armstrong On Trial In Italy (UPDATED)

As we noted several months ago, this year's Giro d'Italia -- Italy's answer to the Tour de France -- was given a very strange layout to celebrate the race's centenary.

That layout was designed before race organizers knew that Lance Armstrong was going to make a comeback and race in the Giro for the first time. But even if they had known he was coming, the layout couldn't have been designed in a more favorable way to the legendary Texan.

Specifically, I'm talking about tomorrow's stage 12, the longest individual time trial I can ever remember seeing.

Armstrong is so strong in individual time trials -- which are raced solo, against a clock rather than against other riders -- he racks up major time gaps on other competitors over relatively short distances. (Never more dramatically than when he actually caught and passed his biggest rival, Jan Ullrich, over a short time trial that began the 2005 Tour.)

Tomorrow's race, however, is simply insane...

Racers will go individually over a ridiculous distance -- almost 61 kilometers -- which should produce time gaps not in the seconds, but in several minutes. Now, it's true that some of it is very technical, winding up and down hilly roads, which will tend to minimize Armstrong's sheer time-trialing power. But assurances that the hills will favor the climber-types as much as riders like Armstrong ring hollow to me.

However, Armstrong has not looked particularly strong over the first week and a half of this three-week race. It's sort of shocking to see him losing time in the mountainous stages. Sure, he's still recovering from his broken collarbone, and he didn't enter the race in top shape. And he is older than dirt. But for those of us accustomed to watching him fly uphill away from other riders, it's stunning to see him suffer.

Still, he's only a little more than 5 minutes out of the lead. It's natural that journalists are paying closer attention to the strong time triallists -- Michael Rogers, Denis Menchov -- who are only a little more than a minute behind race leader Danilo Di Luca. But this race layout is so ridiculous, it's hard to imagine that anyone will be able to predict what's going to happen.

There have already been some memorable moments in this Giro -- Lance bellyaching on his Twitter about the treacherous rain-soaked end to stage 7 in Chiavenna, and his participation in the mass rider protest to the strange criterium-like circuit-race around Milan in stage 9 (another route that had me scratching my head when I first saw it). But tomorrow is one of the days that will really define this race.

Lance says he's still supporting Levi Leipheimer as team leader, so tomorrow will be Levi's big day to prove he deserves that support. But time and again, on big days like this in big races when everything is on the line, Levi has had a tendency to choke.

I'd like to think Lance still has something to show us all, and he's still within striking distance, even if he continues to downplay his chances.

I hope he surprises us in the Cinque Terre.

UPDATE: Well, Lance told his Twitter followers that he's happy with finishing just outside the top 10 on today's time trial, which he described as "epic."

Glad he's happy with it.

Leipheimer didn't choke, but he was edged out by Denis Menchov, who's stage win also gives him the pink leader's jersey.

Menchov and Leipheimer -- not exactly the kind of box office gold the Giro's organizers were hoping for, I'm sure.

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