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87th Giro d'Italia - Grand Tour

Italy, May 8-30, 2004

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Rest Day 1 - May 18: Porto Sant'Elpidio

The story so far...

By Jeff Jones

Bradley McGee (FDJeux.com)
Photo ©: Olympia

The first 10 days of the 87th Giro d'Italia have been a mixture of sprint and mountain stages, with the emphasis on the former as the riders have made their way down the west coast of Italy. The true mountain stages in the Dolomites come right at the end of the three week race, and it will be there that the Giro will be decided.

The Giro opened on May 8 in the historic northern Italian city of Genova with a 6.9 kilometre prologue time trial held on a tough, technical circuit through the city streets. After German Olaf Pollack (Gerolsteiner) surprised a few people with a ride of 8'40 and the early lead, Australian Brad McGee blasted home in 8'30 to take the stage and the first Maglia Rosa. Pollack was second while an impressive Yaroslav Popovych (Colnago-Landbouwkrediet) was third - the best performance of the main Giro contenders. Gilberto Simoni was solid in 15th spot while Stefano Garzelli was a little disappointing in 57th, 46 seconds behind McGee.

I'm the Man!
Photo ©: Olympia

Stage 1 was a fairly gentle introduction to the road stages of the Giro with a 143 km leg from Genova to Alba. The peloton took it fairly easy in the first few hours before Colombian Marlon Perez (Colombia-Selle Italia) escaped and gave the bunch something to chase. He gained up to 3'15 but was brought back after the downhill run into Alba with 6 km to go. Fassa Bortolo demonstrated its strength as a leadout team for Alessandro Petacchi and delivered him to the line for his first of several stage wins. Pollack finished second, and took the Maglia Rosa from McGee in the process.

Olaf Pollack (Gerolsteiner)
Photo ©: Sirotti

The second stage between Novi Ligure and Pontremoli was a tougher prospect for the sprinters, and most of them - including race leader Pollack - were dropped on the final climb of Passo del Brattello, 11 km at 5.4%. Saeco took control of the stage and simply rode a hard tempo to reduce the bunch to 40-odd riders at the finish in Pontremoli. Brad McGee had survived the climb and was led out by Philippe Gilbert for the sprint, but was overtaken in the final metres by an impressive Damiano Cunego (Saeco), who took his first Giro stage win. The consolation for McGee was that he regained the Maglia Rosa.

Simoni makes the move
Photo ©: Sirotti

Stage 3 was tougher again: 191 km from Pontremoli to Corno Alle Scale, a difficult 12.8 km climb with a steep final 3 km. It was the first mountaintop finish in this year's Giro and also passed by Saeco's HQ at Gaggio Montano before the final climb. Saeco was determined to make the stage theirs, but allowed solo breakaway artist Renzo Mazzoleni (Tenax) a lead of 16'05 with 100 km to go before beginning the inevitable chase. Mazzoleni was brought back with 16 km left, just before the fireworks started on the final climb. On Corno Alle Scale it was all Saeco, all the time, with the red train thinning the peloton to 20 riders with 3 km to go, when Cunego attacked to lure the other GC riders into chasing. After Popovych obliged for a short while it was Simoni who delivered the coup de grace, flying past Cunego to take a solo victory and the Maglia Rosa. Cunego was second, showing a great deal of character and talent for this young rider.

A wounded Mario Cipollini
Photo ©: Sirotti

The fourth stage handed the spotlight back to the sprinters, with a 184 km ride through Tuscany between Porretta Terme and Civitella Val di Chiana. The racing didn't heat up until after 100 km, when a small climb provided the springboard for a number of attacks. There was a near disaster for Petacchi when he crashed on the climb, but the Fassa Bortolo train brought him back to the peloton and then proceeded to chase down the remaining breakaways. On the wet run in to the finish, it was once again Petacchi who had the best legs, sprinting to his second stage win of the Giro ahead of Robbie McEwen. Unfortunately a little further back, Mario Cipollini's teammate Andrus Aug moved off his line and took his captain out in what would be a Giro-ending crash. Cipollini received 14 stitches in his elbow and shin and was able to continue racing, but pulled out three days later due to the pain.

Photo ©: Olympia

Stage 5 from Civitella In Val Di Chiana (Stab. Del Tongo) to Spoleto was another one for the sprinters, although the 11 km finishing circuit at the end was a tough one and required a sprinter who could climb. A group of 14 riders got clear after 100 km and gained a minute, with no team really committed to the chase. But the 14 became 6, and Fassa Bortolo once again took up the reins and rode them down on the finishing circuits with 20 km to go. A counter attack by McGee, Moos and Marzoli looked dangerous for a while, but was brought back with one 11 km lap left. Then it was a battle of the sprinters' trains, and for once the wheels fell off the Petacchi-mobile when he was boxed in by a teammate with 500m to go. That left the door open for Robbie McEwen to take his first stage win of this Giro, ahead of Pollack and Zanotti.

Alessandro Petacchi (Fassa Bortolo)
Photo ©: Olympia

The sixth stage took the Giro gruppo further south, travelling 164 km from Spoleto down to Valmontone, about 45 km south of Rome. Although the day started out dry, the weather turned nasty towards the end of the stage and the finish was held in a heavy downpour. After the climb of Valico della Somma, Fortunato Baliani (Panaria) went solo, but even a 5 minute lead wasn't enough to stop him from being caught by the bunch with 20 km to race. Fassa Bortolo controlled the finish very well, and delivered Petacchi to the line for his third win. But there was trouble for the Domina Vacanze team as the luckless Andrus Aug crashed on the edge of the road after the finish line and had to abandon the race with several broken bones. Similarly Mario Cipollini had spent the day yo-yoing off the back of the peloton, and decided to call it quits before the start of the next stage.

Damiano Cunego (Saeco)
Photo ©: Sirotti

The focus now turned back to the general classification with Stage 7 from Frosinone to Montevergine Di Mercogliano (214 km) featuring the second mountaintop finish, a 17 km climb averaging 5 percent. Gilberto Simoni was still in pink, but not by much and it was up to the Saeco team to look after him and Cunego. It was a fast stage, with a break of six getting away early and building a lead that never topped 6'00, as its best placed rider on GC, Luca Mazzanti, had started the day only 2'34 behind Simoni. Saeco rode a controlling chase tempo until the final climb, when the last two riders in the break (Aebersold and Mazzanti) were brought back. Then the attacks started and didn't stop until the summit, with Saeco, Vini Caldirola and Panaria duking it out on the twisty Montevergine climb. In the end it was Simoni himself who led out Cunego for the stage win, which meant that the Kid also took the Maglia Rosa and some more pressure on his young shoulders. Noteworthy was Brad McGee's second place on the stage, using every ounce of his strength to hang with the leaders and then going into oxygen bankruptcy for the sprint.

The peloton
Photo ©: Sirotti

Stage 8 from Giffoni to Policoro was another long one at 214 km, but this time the sprinters could rejoice with some flatter terrain. The peloton flew along the bottom of the Italian boot, allowing a break of six containing Marlon Perez and Jacky Durand to get 7 minutes before upping the tempo to chase. The leaders were caught with 15 km to go after 150 km of freedom, and once again it was the familiar sight of Fassa Bortolo on the front, guiding the bunch home. Everyone was fighting for Petacchi's wheel with 10 km to go but it was to no avail as Petacchi showed why he's the best sprinter at the moment and soared to his fourth stage win in a week. Second placed Robbie McEwen was later relegated to 117th for receiving a handsling from a teammate in the finale.

Fred Rodriguez (Acqua e Sapone)
Photo ©: Sirotti

The last stage before the first rest day was a short, 142 km leg across the heel of the Italian boot between Policoro and Carovigno. The headwinds made for slow racing and the action didn't really start until shortly before halfway when Rafaele Illiano (Colombia-Selle Italia) and Alessandro Vanotti (DeNardi) took off together. They could get no more than 1'30 lead as they battled the wind, while Fassa Bortolo simply rode at the front. A crash with 25 km to go saw Colombian climber Fredy Gonzalez abandon the race with facial injuries, and it also caused a number of splits in the bunch, with 50 riders not making it back. Fassa rode in front until the finishing circuits, when they were challenged by several other teams for leadout supremacy. Nevertheless, Petacchi looked to have the stage in the bag as Velo led him out with 500m to go but the quadruple stage winner didn't have the confidence to go early into the headwind, and it was Fast Freddy Rodriguez (Acqua e Sapone) who anticipated the jump and went himself, winning the stage from Petacchi with a smart sprint.

So at the end of 10 days, the score among the sprinters is Petacchi: 4, McEwen and Rodriguez: 1, while among the rest, Cunego has 2 wins and Simoni and McGee have 1 each. Cunego and Simoni are the top two riders on GC, separated by a mere 10 seconds, and less than 1'30 splits the top 10 riders. There's clearly still a lot of interesting racing to come in this Giro.

General classification after stage 9
1 Damiano Cunego (Ita) Saeco                                     41.59.15
2 Gilberto Simoni (Ita) Saeco                                        0.10
3 Franco Pellizotti (Ita) Alessio-Bianchi                            0.28
4 Yaroslav Popovych (Ukr) Landbouwkrediet-Colnago                    0.31
5 Giuliano Figueras (Ita) Ceramiche Panaria-Margres                  0.52
6 Serguei Gontchar (Ukr) De Nardi                                    1.08
7 Dario David Cioni (Ita) Fassa Bortolo                              1.10
8 Stefano Garzelli (Ita) Vini Caldirola-Nobili Rubinetterie          1.15
9 Andrea Noe' (Ita) Alessio-Bianchi                                  1.17
10 Eddy Mazzoleni (Ita) Saeco                                        1.29
11 Wladimir Belli (Ita) Lampre                                       1.43
12 Sven Montgomery (Swi) Gerolsteiner                                1.47
13 Bradley McGee (Aus) FDJeux.com                                    1.49
14 Tadej Valjavec (Slo) Phonak Hearing Systems                       2.18
15 Cristian Moreni (Ita) Alessio-Bianchi                             2.23

Points classification
1 Alessandro Petacchi (Ita) Fassa Bortolo                             125 pts
Mountains classification
1 Damiano Cunego (Ita) Saeco                                           28 pts
Intergiro classification
1 Massimo Strazzer (Ita) Saunier Duval-Prodir                    25.18.33