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92nd Giro d'Italia - GT
Italy, May 9-31, 2009
Stage Rest Day 1 - Monday, May 18: Cuneo
Two teams dominate first week
By Laura Weislo
Nine stages have passed and so far the Giro d'Italia has been a tale of two teams: Columbia-Highroad, winner of the team time trial and three individual stages, and LPR Brakes with overall leader Danilo Di Luca and three stages to its name.
Both squads have dominated the post-stage podiums in nearly every classification, which begs the question: can anyone challenge them?
As befits the Giro d'Italia's centenary celebrations, the first week of this year's edition has piled on more kilometres and climbing than that of any Grand Tour in recent memory; only the strongest riders have come out of it with a hope of taking home the maglia rosa in two weeks' time.
The riders have not only had to deal with soaring peaks, but the inevitable and precipitous descents which have pushed the boundaries of safety.
Riders have complained mightily of descents which have seen them top 110km/h and arrivals through towns where the width of the road is little more than two metres and traffic islands provide additional danger. Add a horrific accident in which Rabobank's Pedro Horrillo plummeted 60m into a ravine, and it's no wonder the peloton refused to contest the technical and ill-prepared Milan-100 circuit.
Contenders sorted early
As the general classification takes shape, Danilo Di Luca retains a thin 13 second margin over a surprisingly strong Thomas Lövkvist, who has ridden well beyond his 25 years. He is followed by teammate Michael Rogers, who has been tipped as a hot favourite for the overall.
Also fulfilling expectations is Astana's Levi Leipheimer, who holds onto fourth overall. The only surprise surrounding his squad is countryman Lance Armstrong, who has consistently lost time while super-domestique Chris Horner has been at Leipheimer's side daily, riding out of his skin. As a result, the third of Astana's American amigos is eighth overall at just 1:25 down - he fully deserves his usual McDonald's meal on the first rest day.
Denis Menchov threw his name into the hat as a contender on the fifth stage when he countered an attack by Carlos Sastre (Cervélo TestTeam) and powered away to the victory on the Alpe di Siusi, giving Rabobank its first stage win in the history of the Giro d'Italia. He sits in fifth, 58 seconds down on Di Luca. Basso is sixth at 1:14 and Sastre seventh.
As for Sastre, he and Basso have taken opposite approaches in the mountain stages. Basso has sent his Liquigas team to the front of every mountain stage to set a furious pace, burning through his domestiques as if he has an endless supply. Unlike the days of old, he hasn't been able to storm away for the stage win, putting minutes into his rivals in the process. His highest placing was a fourth on stage five, yet he managed to add only one second to the nine seconds Liquigas put into Sastre's Cervelo team in the first stage.
Sastre, on the other hand, has played his cards close to his chest, dangling at the back of the group but managing to slip around riders as they start to get dropped. He is using his team sparingly, ordering them to conserve while keeping only one or two nearby until the final group forms on the mountains. We shall soon see which tactic works better as there are several very tough stages ahead of the riders in the final week.
Rounding out the top ten are the always present Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas) and Caisse d'Epargne's David Arroyo.
Stage 1 - Saturday, May 09: Lido di Venezia (TTT), 20.5km
Much was made of the pre-race rivalry between the two American teams - Garmin-Slipstream and Columbia-Highroad - the results showed that the two teams are almost equal when it comes to the discipline, however. Astana finished third, making a top three with American roots.
While Mark Cavendish donned the race's first pink jersey, the LPR Brakes Farnese Vini team was lurking not far behind in fourth, ready to propel Alessandro Petacchi into the lead through the sprint bonuses.
Stage 2 - Sunday, May 10: Jesolo - Trieste, 156km
Petacchi put himself well on the way to doing just that with an early jump to the line in Trieste, surprising Cavendish with the move. Cavendish managed to hang on to the maglia rosa for another day but placed the blame for the loss of the stage squarely on his own shoulders.
"I was delivered perfectly by my team. My team was perfect; everything was perfect, except for me at the finish. Normally, I should have jumped earlier. I was lazy," Cavendish said. "I left it too late to make the sprint easier for myself, but Alessandro got the jump on me - you can't beat him when he gets the jump."
Briton Ben Swift (Katusha) lived up to his surname with a well-executed third place ahead of Allan Davis (Quick Step).
Stage 3 - Monday, May 11: Grado - Valdobbiadene, 198km
Cavendish waved goodbye to the pink jersey thanks to an ill-timed crash with 10km to go which stopped the majority of the peloton. LPR Brakes started its lead-out for Petacchi apparently unaware that the maglia rosa had been held up in the incident and Petacchi took the somewhat technical power finish with ease ahead of Garmin-Slipstream's Tyler Farrar. It came out later that Farrar did the final 10km with a broken rear derailleur, which could explain the look of abject agony on his face at the line.
Farrar also profited from the crash, taking over the best young rider's jersey from Cavendish. The jersey was some consolation for the fact that the team's GC hopeful, Christian Vande Velde, crashed hard and was forced to abandon the race with several broken ribs.
Stage 4 - Tuesday, May 12: Padova - San Martino di Castrozza, 162km
The race hit the first mountain finish on stage four, and the day was tailor-made for a breakaway. The move formed early as it had in the previous two stages, but this time the group had the motor of Jens Voigt in its midst. Voigt may have feigned weakness on the Croce d'Aune climb, but easily caught up to Francesco Bellotti (Barloworld) and Francesco De Bonis (Serramenti) before doing them in on the final ascent to San Martino di Castrozza.
Yet the Italians had plans for the stage finish, and they did not involve a German winning on top of the mountain. First Liquigas, then Lampre and finally LPR Brakes slowly wore the Saxo Bank rider down and he finally conceded defeat with 2km to go. Mauricio Soler (Barloworld) immediately countered with a promising move, but in the end Di Luca's perfectly timed attack blew past the Colombian with just metres to go.
The pink jersey, however, passed onto the shoulders of Columbia's young Swede Thomas Lövkvist, who held fast to the attack of Di Luca and finished on the same time. Di Luca, thanks to the time bonus, lurked just two seconds behind, while Lövkvist's teammate Mick Rogers had a little run-in with Damiano Cunego, and lost six seconds.
Stage 5 - Wednesday, May 13: San Martino Di Castrozza - Alpe di Siusi, 125 km
The fifth stage was mercifully short, but certainly not easy. A climb of nearly 25km finished the stage, and finished the hopes of many riders in this Giro. Among the dropped were 2000 Giro winner Stefano Garzelli (Acqua e Sapone), Lance Armstrong, Damiano Cunego and Tom Danielson, who ended Garmin's GC hopes by losing over 13 minutes.
The intense pace of the Liquigas team spelled doom for most of these riders. Few could attack under the pressure of the pace of the men in green and blue. But when the last man pulled off, Basso took up the pace himself and succeeded only in dropping his teammate Pellizotti, but few others.
Sastre swung at the back of the group, looking as if he would be dropped any moment, but when there were only eight riders remaining and just 600m to go, the Spaniard put in his attack. He lacked the power to go clear, and was immediately caught and countered by the Russian Menchov, with which not even Di Luca could get on terms.
Lövkvist held on tenaciously to his GC hopes and finished a brave third, taking an important time bonus and staying within five seconds of pink.
Stage 6 - Thursday, May 14: Bressanone/Brixen - Mayrhofen (Aut), 248km
A monster of a stage, both in length and in height, the sixth day to Austria would test both the wills and the skills of every rider in the peloton. As is the norm on lengthy stages, a breakaway went clear, but just when it seemed as if the riders would be swept up in the final kilometres, a few things happened.
First, Michele Scarponi (Diquigiovanni) rode all but one of the breakaway riders off his wheel on the final climb, the Hochkrimml. Only Belarusian Vasil Kiryienka could stay with him, but then the Caisse d'Epargne rider suffered a flat tyre and cramps in the finale which spelled his doom.
The peloton, which split on the climb, faced a white-knuckle descent and a run-in through narrow streets riddled with obstacles. This greatly favoured Scarponi. Despite Petacchi making it over the climb in the front chase group, he appeared to call off the chase when it became clear that closing down the gap might risk life and limb for the peloton.
In the resulting disorganisation, Columbia's Edvald Boasson Hagen took the bunch sprint for second ahead of Allan Davis and Filippo Pozzato.
Stage 7 - Friday, May 15: Innsbruck (Aut) - Chiavenna, 244km
Two huge days and two stages with terrifying descents before the finish; once again Boasson Hagen featured at the front. This time, the young Norwegian nabbed his first Grand Tour stage with a powerful, long sprint which even specialist Robbie Hunter (Barloworld) could not match.
It was a relatively quiet day for the overall contenders, except for the ruckus caused by Astana's riders showing up to the stage with all sponsor names removed from their jerseys. Seems the Kazakh companies who had committed to the team had yet to actually pay up, and the team has come under increasing pressure from the UCI to fulfil its financial obligations.
With six riders staying clear at the finish, the situation was unchanged for the top of the overall classification, and even maglia rosa Di Luca predicted there would be no more attacks from the favourites before the long time trial next Thursday.
Stage 8 - Saturday, May 16: Morbegno - Bergamo, 209km
Di Luca's predictions did not come true. Another massive day and a 10-man breakaway group which lacked any of his team's riders put pressure on the LPR Brakes boys to control the race for much of the day.
More wicked descending inevitably caused a horrifying accident, in which Rabobank's Pedro Horrillo went over a guard rail and fell 60m down into the ravine. Rescue crews needed ropes to get down to the fallen rider, and he was eventually airlifted by helicopter to a hospital with multiple, serious injuries.
The veteran's teammates and friends struggled to soldier on and postpone the worry. The peloton had no choice but to get back to work, and indeed they succeeded in bringing back the escapees on the final climb.
The last bump saw an attack by Garzelli and Pellizotti, which in and of itself was not very dangerous, but tagging along was Michael Rogers and Chris Horner, both of whom were highly placed on GC. Horner, playing the good teammate, refused to work as Leipheimer made his way across to the group.
The leaders managed to pull nearly a minute out of the peloton before the team of the maglia rosa could organise and pull the move back. Kanstantsin Siutsou (Columbia-Highroad) took advantage of the moment to successfully attack and hold off the exhausted peloton to give the team its fourth stage win.
Stage 9 - Sunday, May 17: Milano Show 100, 165km
The riders faced 165km; 11 laps of a 15.5km circuit with 19 turns and several questionable roundabouts on Sunday, and after a week of near-death experiences they'd had it. After taking a lap and seeing parked cars on the course, poorly controlled pedestrian crossings and barely cordoned off oncoming traffic, they protested to the race organiser and the stage was neutralised for the overall classification, leaving only the stage win glory to be fought over.
After 10 laps of parade riding, Thomas Voeckler (Bbox Bouygues Telecom) was rather predictably the first rider to attack. With that out of the way and the Frenchman brought back into the fold, the Garmin-Slipstream boys went on the hunt for a stage win for their sprinter Farrar.
But again it was Columbia-Highroad adding to its tally of stage wins, finally delivering Cavendish to sprint victory in Milan.
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Images by Roberto Bettini/www.bettiniphoto.net