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89th Giro d'Italia - GT
Italy, May 6-28, 2006
Rest Day 1 - Wednesday, May 10
When you're hot...
Savoldelli on song, McEwen scorching and Petacchi leaves early in Belgium
By Les Clarke
The first four stages of this year's Giro belong to Robbie McEwen, with the Australian, riding on his team's home turf in the second biggest race of the year, notching up two wins on the sprint finishes to stages two and four. All of the four stages were run throughout southern Belgium, and the locals came out in full force to support what could be the year's most intruiging bike race.
Stage 1 - Saturday, May 6: Seraing - Seraing ITT, 6.2 km
Long enough to be called a stage, the first stage in Seraing was essentially a prologue, and at 6.2km it was a test against the clock that favoured a rider such as Francaise des Jeux's Bradley McGee, who won the Giro prologue in 2004.
The Australian went close, but it was defending champion Paolo Savoldelli (Discovery Channel) who showed that he's well over the illness he experienced at the Tour de Romandie and in fine form to try and make it back-to-back overall victories with a time of 7'50" that won him the stage and the first maglia rosa of 2006.
It was a performance a la Armstrong, whereby Savoldelli's rivals were sent a very clear message that the defending champion was going to take the battle to the challengers very early in proceedings. It also confirmed what most observers already knew: that this year's Giro was going to be a very tough, competitive three weeks throughout Belgium and Italy.
Stage 2 - Sunday, May 7: Mons - Charleroi Marcinelle, 197 km
Belgium turned on the inevitable waterworks for riders at the start of stage 2, and stayed with the field for most of the 197km from Mons to Charleroi Marcinelle. Opinions were mixed when predicting the result, with McEwen showing good form at the Tour de Romandie and Alessandro Petacchi demonstrating so far throughout 2006 that he's got good legs for a bunch kick with a fair schwag of wins to his name.
But in their first duel for the year, McEwen showed the world why he's one the 'big three' with some crafty race craft to outfox Petacchi and the rest of the sprinters to take his winning tally in the Giro to nine. McEwen said after the stage that, "The lead out was perfect - I was able to follow the Milram train for the last five kilometres but I knew there were lots of roundabouts all in a row, so I was able to ride a good position and stay on the wheel of Petacchi." That worried the Italian and he never recovered, finishing in a disappointing fourth place.
Savoldelli held on to the leader's pink jersey, and although honoured to wear it so early in the piece, it was only a matter of time before the Italian would give it up and hide himself safely in the pack, waiting for the mountain stages to begin. That day would come on the following stage, which threw up a few obstacles all the riders would have to be careful of, not just those with overall classification ambitions.
Stage 3 - Monday, May 8: Perwez - Namur, 202 km
Gerolsteiner's Stefan Schumacher proved that the future of German cycling looks solid with a commanding performance in the final kilometres of stage 3 up the cobbled climb to the Citadel of Namur. The 24-year-old German made the most of the wet, slippery conditions and won ahead of Discovery Channel's Chechu Rubiera, Paolo Bettini (Quick.Step) and teammate Davide Rebellin, with the latter two riders two of the favourites for the stage win according to many at the start in Perwez.
Once again Belgium threw precipitation into the racing mixture which spelled the end of Alessandro Petacchi's Giro and possibly his Tour de France hopes after the Italian fell in the last 30 kilometres, suffering a small fracture of the kneecap. The day belonged to Schumacher, however, as the German positioned himself correctly to take advantage of Bettini's surge near the finish before blazing past Rubiera with about one kilometre to race.
From there Schumacher never looked like being headed, and try as he may, Discovery Channel's Spanish worker couldn't close the gap and watched Gerolsteiner's new talent take the win. None of the GC candidates experienced any difficulties during the day, and with CSC, Discovery and Saunier Duval vigilant in protecting their overall leaders, there weren't any unpleasant surprises for any of the major contenders.
Stage 4 - Tuesday, May 9: Wanze - Hotton, 193 km
It was numero due at this year's Giro for Robbie McEwen with a win on stage 4 into Hotton. The Australian was a class above the rest as he used the services of Milram's train (sans Petacchi) and powered home to easily hold off a fast-finishing Paolo Bettini (Quick.Step). Riders travelled on the Spa-Francorchamps racing circuit, and with Stefan Schumacher in pink on the day, there was a little humour in the bunch.
But it was no laughing matter for McEwen's opponents about three kilometres from the finish in the small southern Belgian town as teammates Henk Vogels and Nick Gates brought their compatriot up to the Milram train before the boys in pale blue delivered McEwen to the final kiometre. From there McEwen shot past a fair portion of the field and kept going for another commanding win.
With his parents in attendance and his son's birthday the next day, McEwen made the win a family affair while further proving he'll be hard to beat this July in France. McEwen isn't looking that far ahead, preferring instead to get through as much of the Giro as possible before planning his assault on the green jersey.
Where to now?
After today's rest day, riders will begin the Italian part of the Giro and head straight back into action at top speed with the team time trial from Piacenza to Cremona for stage 5. At 38km it'll be a stiff test for teams with overall ambitions or those just looking to get something from this year's race. Either way it should make for an interesting spectacle. The week between rest days shouldn't prove too difficult for most riders, and those looking for stage wins but not in the race for the overall title will have to make hay while the sun is shining during the six days before the second rest day and the big mountains take centre stage.