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Dauphiné Libéré
Photo ©: Sirotti

Latest Cycling News for May 24, 2004

Edited by Chris Henry

Giro enters phase three

Popping Popovych: The knives are out

By Tim Maloney, European Editor

Zip up, get ready
Photo ©: Sirotti

Maglia Rosa Yaroslav Popovych (Colnago-Landbouwkrediet) is likely concerned about what fate awaits him starting with Tuesday's Stage 16 of the Giro d'Italia. He'd better be, as not only is this the first mountain stage where the tough Ukrainian will have to defend his jersey, Popovych will be alone against the world. His Colnago-Landbouwkrediet team is admittedly not very strong, especially in the climbing department since Popo's designated climber Gasparoni retired on Stage One.

With the top fifteen on GC filled with strong, ambitious climbers and separated by four and a half minutes, there should be plenty of action before the dust settles in Milano next Sunday. And the knives are out. 2003 Giro winner Simoni (Saeco) is mad that he fell and embarrassed himself in Saturday's time trial and is determined to get either his third Giro win, or have his talented young teammate Damiano Cunego get it. Simoni is sitting pretty in 4th at 1'27", with Cunego in 6th at 1'48." No doubt about it, Saeco has the strongest squad at the Giro and the entire Red Train is ready to ride right over Popovych.

Stefano Garzelli (Vini Caldirola) has slipped to 8th, 2'31" from the Maglia Rosa after another disastrous time trial. It seems that the classy rider from Varese just can't get his efforts against the watch down, but Garza is in no way out of this Giro. In fact, with Popo in the Maglia Rosa, Garzelli and his still intact Vini Caldirola squad including Pavel Tonkov (21st @ 7'18") have likely found a natural, albeit temporary alliance with Simoni's Saeco squad to squash the Ukrainian.

Sandwiched between Simoni and Cunego is another big danger man for Mr. Maglia Rosa. Franco Pellizotti (Alessio-Bianchi), the so-called "Dolphin of Bibione", is from the flat coastal area near Venice, but the lanky climber has never met a mountain he doesn't like. This year, Pellizotti is very strong, really ambitious and after his much-improved performance in the TT. With the support of his teammate Andrea Noe', he is now 5th, 1'32" behind Popo and looking for a podium place. Other climbers with Popo's dossard #122 in their sights are the Lampre duo of Wladimir Belli (10th @ 3'09") and Juan Manuel Garate (14th @ 4'06"), Panaria's pocket rocket Emanuele Sella (12th @ 3'38")

Shape Of Things To Come

Tuesday's Stage 16 foray into the Dolomiti will be an insidious, spectacular and above all hard test for Popovych. First it's the 12.4km Forcella Staulanza, then the mythical 15.4km ascent of Valparola (Falazarego), the steep 12km up the Passo Furcia and the short (7km) and difficult Terento close to the finish. Expect Saeco to throw everything including the kitchen sink at Popovych to set up an attack by Simoni on the Furcia for the eventual recovery of Gibo's cherished pink tunic.

After a well-deserved rest day on Wednesday, where Gilberto Simoni hopes to be once again pretty in pink, Thursday's Stage 17 is a transitional mountain stage where only the 15km Passo della Mendola will present any challenges. This is a perfect stage for an opportunistic climber who has no GC ambitions to attack.

In 2000, Gilberto Simoni had an excellent stage victory to Bormio 2000 on his way to finishing third and he's looking to repeat the Bormio stage win in '04. On Friday's Stage 18, after the antipasto of the 15.2km Passo Tonale, this short (118km) but not sweet stage heads for the Giro's high point of Cima Coppi atop the legendary Passo di Gavia (2,618m altitude). The terrible Gavia is a narrow 16.7km climb with an average 7.9% grade and so far, the currently snow covered peak is open to traffic, but a late season snowstorm could change that in a hurry, right Andy Hampsten? Down the backside of Gavia and up to the ski resort of Bormio 2000 is a 10km, 7.5% ramp to the final mountaintop finish at this year's Giro.

Saturday's alright for fighting the legendary Mortirolo on another short but action-packed stage, number 19 and the 87th Giro d'Italia's penultimate. After a 30km descent from Bormio to Valltelina, the Giro turns right and hits the terrible ascent of the super-steep Mortirolo. To the summit and Cima Pantani. Amid a wall of screaming tifosi, after 4km of climbing, Mortirolo's steepest section ramps up at 18%, and then the hard part of this climb begins! The middle section of 6.1km has an average grade of 12.4%!

The Mortirolo will make a natural selection on the stage, but then it's south down Val Camonica and west into the Alpi Orobie with some regrouping to the ascent of the seldom climbed Vivione. It's a monster, with almost 20km of ascending at a 6.9% average grade, with the final 4.7km at 9.7%. After a tricky 20km descent off Vivione, the final climb of the 2004 Giro awaits: a steep 7.9km climb up to Passo Presolana, then back down to the finish in Presolana.

Popo Calling

Although it may seem that Maglia Rosa Popovych is totally isolated, that may not be exactly the case. He may forge an alliance with the current second place on GC, Serguei Gontchar (De Nardi), a fellow Ukrainian. who is ten years his senior. With his contract up this year, Gontchar may be looking for a new home at the side of rising star Popovych.

Don't underestimate the ability of Popo's padrone Ernesto Colnago and Colnago-Landbouwkrediet's clever diesse Marco Saligari (nicknamed "il commisario" as a rider for his astute race vision) to find alliances of convenience on the road to Milano. And certainly don't underestimate the ability of Popo, period. This guy is the real deal. A hardened competitor at 24, he dominated in the U23 ranks with his strength and smarts. Popo pretty much just has to watch Simoni's rear wheel, unless hard-headed Gibo wants to give the Giro away to Cunego.

No matter what, expect the mountain stages of this wide open, hotly contested Giro d'Italia to offer some of the best racing in years.

Lampre needs some luck

Still searching for a stage win, the Italian Lampre team has nonetheless been visible during the first two weeks of the Giro d'Italia, thanks to consistent attacking by riders like Juan Manuel Garate, Igor Astarloa, and Francisco Vila, the team's Spanish contingent. After the weekend's important individual time trial, Italian veteran Wladimir Belli remains the team's best-placed rider in the general classification.

"We're not doing badly, but we need a little luck in the end," directeur sportif Maurizio Piavoni commented. "It's clear that Astarloa was not at his best for the Giro, but he's shown that he's a real professional and he's attacked on his preferred terrain. Day by day he's getting better, and even though he's not yet been successful, for us it's been a joy."

In addition to world champion Astarloa, Piavoni has been pleased with his two other Spaniards, Garate and Vila. Garate, a former fourth place overall in the Giro, has frequently been on the attack in the stage finales, but he too has been unable to come up with a stage win.

"He's not at his best right now, but he's improving steadily," Piavoni added. "The places of honour are going to be tricky. His mission now is to look for stages, same with Vila, because for the general classification we're betting on Belli."

Belli has not disappointed thus far, putting in a good time trial Saturday and keeping himself in 10th place overall, 3'09 behind race leader Yaroslav Popovych.

"I have a good team," Piavoni affirmed. Considering the top steps of the Giro podium out of reach, he added that "Garate, Astarloa and Vila will have plenty of freedom to get into the breakaways."

Long may it wave?

With the presence of top Slovenian cyclists like national champion Tadej Valjavec and teammate Uros Murn (Phonak), Stangelj, Derganj, Mervar, Hauptmann and Podgornik, plus the proximity of Trieste to Slovenia, which entered the European Union on May 1st, it's not surprising that large red, white & blue Slovenian flags adorned the TT course atop the Carso during Saturday's Stage 13 TT.

What was surprising were the anti-Italian Slovenian nationalist road graffiti, like "Viva Stalin", "Trst je nas" ('Trieste is ours' in Slovenian) and "Viva Tito". Despite the fact that 2004 is the fiftieth anniversary of Trieste's return to Italy, old feelings obviously die hard in the capital of nowhere. Plus who knew Tito Jackson was that popular in Slovenia!?

Nani Pinarello happy for the wins

Giovanni Pinarello
Photo ©: Tim Maloney

"I'm happy to see the Giro again in Treviso, and happy that my bicycle won again!" That's what 81 year old Giovanni Pinarello told Cyclingnews when we saw him at the stage finish in Treviso Friday and "Nani" will be waiting at the finish in San Vendemiano to see if Fassa Bortolo's super-sprinter Alessandro Petacchi can break the post-WW2 Giro d'Italia stage win record today on his innovative magnesium frame Dogma bike. Pinarello was born in July 1922 to a family of farmers, the eighth of twelve sons.

Young Nani was a good cyclist, good enough to ride the 34th Giro d'Italia in 1951, where he entered the history books as "Maglia Nera", last place on GC. Back in the day, the Giro organizers actually made the last place rider wear a black jersey, which hangs today in Pinarello's factory in Treviso.

The next year, as Pinarello prepared for the Giro, his Bottecchia team asked him to make way at the last moment for up and coming sprinter Pasqualino Fornara. Nani didn't want to, until when Bottecchia offered him the important sum of 100,000 old Italian lire (equal to about €5,000 in today's money), with which he opened Pinarello's first bicycle officina (workshop) and store in the centre of Treviso.

Today, Nani is retired but his daughter Carla runs the Pinarello store in the centre of Treviso while his two sons Fausto and Andrea manage Cicli Pinarello, one of the top bicycle brands in the world, just outside of Treviso in Villorba.

Moreau wants Tour podium

Christophe Moreau, whose best Tour de France performance remains a fourth place overall in 2000, believes the final podium in Paris is within his grasp. Thanks to overall victory at the Tour du Languedoc-Roussillon, a key Tour tune-up for many of July's likely protagonists, the Crédit Agricole leader is brimming with confidence after a disappointing spring season plagued by injury.

"At 33 years old, I feel like I'm still progressing, that I've finding myself every day," Moreau commented in l'Equipe. "I've already finished fourth in the Tour de France but I believe I can reach the podium. I've learned how not to be dropped, particularly mentally."

Moreau won his first race this season at the Trophée des Grimpeurs at the beginning of the month, but difficulty in the subsequent Four Days of Dunkirk, which he won the year before, kept his confidence in check.

"I had moments of doubt right after my win at Grimpeurs," he explained. "To win a race like the Tour du Languedoc-Roussillon, that gives you wings and boosts the morale.

"Next, the Dauphiné becomes an objective, even if I know I'm a bit behind physically. It's a race that really counts before the Tour... It's really an enormous satisfaction to have kept the yellow jersey [at Languedoc-Roussillon]. I've rediscovered some serenity."

Chavanel wants a stage

Sylvain Chavanel
Photo ©: Luc Claessen

Sylvain Chavanel (Brioches La Boulangère) has reclaimed his position as one of France's top young talents with successive stage race victories in this year's Four Days of Dunkirk and the Tour of Belgium. About to turn 25, Chavanel has struggled with illness through much of the early season, but has turned a corner with his two victories this year and the experience that leading (and winning) a stage race can bring.

"Nobody came up to help us, not one turn of the pedal," Chavanel commented after a difficult defense of his leader's jersey in the animated final stage of the Tour of Belgium. His young Brioches La Boulangère team managed to reel in a dangerous break, featuring potential winner Rik Verbrugghe (Lotto-Domo), and Chavanel emerged victorious, "on my own little cloud".

"At the beginning of the season, I was always struggling with a cold or bronchitis," Chavanel said. "I could never really reach 100%, but my first win at the Four Days of Dunkirk helped get things going."

As for the Tour de France, Chavanel now has a unique team leader, Joseba Beloki. However the young Frenchman still expects to have some opportunities of his own in addition to helping Beloki in the general classification.

"A stage win would be great, but in the mountains I'll be there to help Beloki," Chavanel explained. "After that, the general classification comes on its own."

Confidence grows for Phonak

Martin Elmiger (Phonak), winner of stage 3 at the Tour du Languedoc-Roussillon, received the confidence boost he needed with the team's first participation in the Tour de France approaching quickly. Elmiger, 25, could be a key lieutenant for teammate Tyler Hamilton, who this year for the first time in his career will ride as sole leader at the Tour. Elmiger's victory was his first of the season and number eight for Phonak, which dramatically improved its roster in the off-season.

"I have shown repeatedly that I'm capable of great things," Elmiger commented on his team's website. "If my morale is right, everything goes much better. As long as I have good legs, I can take the lead. That applies to a classic or a tour stage."

As for the Tour, Elmiger added simply, "If my condition continues to improve, nothing is impossible."

Another man showing great confidence is Phonak CEO Andy Rihs, who has placed his faith firmly on the shoulders of team leader Hamilton. Rihs says without hesitation that victory Paris is within the realm of possibility.

"The chances of that are very good, at the very least," he said. "I believe that, barring bad luck or accidents, two Americans will be standing on the winners podium in Paris. We are preparing meticulously. All we have to do now is 'dot the i'. It will be a gigantic test of strength."

Pezzo power

By Tim Maloney, European Editor

In her first mountain bike World Cup race since 2000, double Olympic champion MTB-XC champ Paolo Pezzo (Gatorade-Specialized) was a respectable sixth, 3'53 behind winner Gunn-Rita Dahle. Pezzo told Cyclingnews post-race by telephone from Madrid that "Yes, I felt very good today and it's a relief because it's been a long time since I've raced a World Cup. This course was defiantly not made for me. It was too fast and not that technical."

In only her fourth race of the season, Pezzo was one place behind her long-time Italian rival Annabella Stropparo, but already ahead of rivals like Blatter, Leboucher, up and coming young Pole Wloszczowska and Americans Dunlap, McConneloug and Haywood. Marga Fullana and the other talented young Polish riders Szafraniec and Sadlecka did not finish in Madrid. "My preparation was delayed somewhat by my appendicitis before Easter, but I think I'm on the right track now," said Pezzo.

Already pre-selected for Athens, Pezzo will ride most of the European MTB World Cups in her run-up to the Olympics. In the recent pre-Olympic mountain bike race held May 15th in Athens, Pezzo was 5th, again behind Dahle.

"It's a hard circuit," Pezzo explained of the 6.1km Olympic XC course on Mount Parthenia. "Difficult and above all, technical. The ground is made up of clay, sand and gravel, which makes it slippery and dusty at the same time! So as the race goes on, the conditions will certainly deteriorate. You'll have to have good bike-handling skills to win in Athens.

"I was fifth I the pre-Olympic race, but I was in 2nd when I crashed and smashed my derailleur and had trouble shifting after," she added. "Dahle will be tough, as well as Sydor, World Champion Spitz and the three young Polish riders, Szafraniec, Sadlecka and Wloszczowska. But the heat and humidity in the end of August will be tough for everyone."

Pezzo will be back for her second MTB World Cup of the season next weekend in Houffalaize, Belgium.

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