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87th Giro d'Italia - Grand Tour
Italy, May 8-30, 2004
Rest Day 2 - May 26: Falzes
Calm before the storm
By Chris Henry
The middle phase of the Giro d'Italia, from stages 10 through 16, offered its share of excitement even if the heavy favourites for this year's title were biding their time before the decisive mountain showdowns to come in the final week of racing.
Stage 10 featured a number of climbs early on, but with the Fassa Bortolo team in cracking form there was almost no doubt that the flat finale would come down to a bunch sprint and a chance for Petacchi to carry on with his winning ways. After a rare defeat in this year's Giro, at the hands of American sprinter Fred Rodriguez (Acqua & Sapone) in stage 9, Petacchi was back to claim his fifth win in Ascoli Piceno. An attack in the closing kilometres showed that prologue winner Brad McGee (FDJeux.com) was still enjoying top form, but there was little the Aussie could do against the silver train of Fassa Bortolo.
Nearly every stage in the Giro thus far has featured a breakaway of some sort, but up until stage 11, no group could find the winning combination to foil the sprinters' teams, particularly Petacchi's Fassa Bortolo armada. If a group couldn't arrive at the finish in front, young Italian Emanuele Sella decided maybe, just maybe, he could do the job himself. On an aggressive day of racing, and a long, difficult parcours, the first year professional from Ceramiche Panaria-Margres broke clear with 45km to go and put in the ride of his life to fend off a variety of chase groups and the teams of the GC contenders. Sella, among others, even crashed on a fast, technical descent, but neither a bit of road rash nor the time lost could shake his nerves as he fought his way to Cesena on the home turf of fallen hero Marco Pantani.
It seems if Alessandro fails to win a stage in this year's Giro, you can almost bet he'll be back the next day. That's how it played out once again in stage 12, another 200+ kilometre march up the eastern side of Italy from Cesena to Treviso. Three men set out on a day-long attack, but on flat roads and with Petacchi piling on the wins in search of a post-World War 2 record for stages in a single Giro, the writing was on the wall. Leonardo Scarselli (Colombia-Selle Italia), Croatian champion Radoslav Rogina (Tenax) and Geert Steegmans (Lotto) put in a valiant effort, keeping Fassa Bortolo and the peloton at bay for some 175 kilometres, but in the end it was the silver train and "Ale Jet" Petacchi who cruised to victory. Petacchi at this point had won six of the twelve Giro stages covered and showed no signs of slowing down.
Stage 13 was the first crucial day of this second part of the Giro for the general classification contenders. The only major time trial of the tour, a long 52 kilometre test around Trieste, stage 13 would provide some adjustments to the standings before the final week of climbing to come. For riders like maglia rosa Damiano Cunego, his team leader Gilberto Simoni, and arch rival Stefano Garzelli, the objective was to minimize their losses to the pure specialists against the clock.
Cunego was almost certain to lose his jersey, with Yaroslav Popovych (Landbouwkrediet-Colnago), Serguei Gontchar (De Nardi), and Brad McGee (FDJeux.com) counting themselves among the favourites for the stage and a possible overtake of the Giro lead. McGee was excited to be within shouting distance of another maglia rosa following his incredible first week, but Gontchar and Popovych had plans of their own. The Ukrainian duo took top honours on the day as Gontchar won the stage and Popovych donned the jersey by day's end. A crash didn't help Simoni's chances, while Garzelli too suffered through a bike change and a difficult day.
Another sprinter's stage, another win for Alessandro Petacchi in stage 14. Petacchi put his name in the history books as the Giro thundered into Pola in Croatia. While Popovych tested the weight of his new maglia rosa, Fassa Bortolo got back to work after the time trial- where Marzio Bruseghin still managed an impressive time after all of his work for Petacchi- delivering their sprinter to a record-tying seventh Giro stage win. It wasn't an easy run, as Fred Rodriguez's Acqua & Sapone team made a valiant effort to take control of the field in the closing kilometres. Not to be deterred, the entire Fassa formation turned up the heat and replaced Acqua & Sapone at the head of the bunch, just in time for Petacchi to make another blistering run to the line.
Even Petacchi thought stage 15 would be a day for someone else, but when the team says it wants to win, the quiet speedster from La Spezia never wants to disappoint. Mario Scirea (Domina Vacanze), Daniele Righi (Lampre), Giancarlo Ginestri (Tenax) and Russell Van Hout (Colombia-Selle Italia) mounted the requisite escape mid-stage, but Fassa Bortolo wanted to stamp Petacchi's name in a new page of the history books and again reeled in the fugitives before the finishing circuit in San Vendemiano. Petacchi mustered the same strength he has shown throughout the Giro and punched the air as he crossed the line to take an unprecedented eighth stage victory. Aussie sprinter Robbie McEwen, one of only two sprinters to beat Petacchi this Giro, followed his plan and pulled himself from the race after the stage, thinking ahead to more duels to come in the Tour de France.
With the Giro in its final week, Milan looked closer, but not that close. Virtually all of the major climbing in this year's race is stacked in a frantic few days in the Dolomites and stage 16 was the first test for the leaders following the time trial a few days prior. All eyes were on the Saeco duo of Gilberto Simoni- defending Giro champion- and his young teammate Damiano Cunego, who thus far has stolen Gibo's thunder with two stage wins and a lengthy run in the maglia rosa in his first grand tour. As Simoni's rivals marked him on the climbs from San Vendemiano, Cunego took off in a perfect display of power and team tactics.
The peloton had no response and Cunego stormed to his third stage win and a new, more important maglia rosa. Was Simoni still biding his time or letting his bid for a third Giro victory slip away to the upstart Cunego? Every rider in the race knew the Giro was far from over, but doubts about Cunego's ability to go the distance were fading quickly. Stefano Garzelli lost more time, admitting that he has been chasing the leaders for much of this year's race. Time trial ace Serguei Gontchar had a great ride of his own, jumping past compatriot Popovych in the general classification, while Brad McGee held his own and made a top ten finish in Milan look more promising.
Three more days climbing remain and fortunes can change quickly in the mountains. Saeco has been the dominant team as far as the general classification is concerned, while Petacchi's Fassa Bortolo boys can count on hanging tough in the mountains before one more run at a sprint victory in Milan.
General classification after stage 16 1 Damiano Cunego (Ita) Saeco 73.01.21 2 Serguei Gontchar (Ukr) De Nardi 1.14 3 Yaroslav Popovych (Ukr) Landbouwkrediet-Colnago 2.22 4 Gilberto Simoni (Ita) Saeco 2.38 5 Giuliano Figueras (Ita) Ceramiche Panaria-Margres 3.31 6 Bradley McGee (Aus) FDJeux.com 3.52 7 Wladimir Belli (Ita) Lampre 4.20 8 Stefano Garzelli (Ita) Vini Caldirola-Nobili Rubinetterie 4.26 9 Dario David Cioni (Ita) Fassa Bortolo 4.31 10 Franco Pellizotti (Ita) Alessio-Bianchi 5.31 11 Tadej Valjavec (Slo) Phonak Hearing Systems 5.40 12 Andrea Noe' (Ita) Alessio-Bianchi 5.55 13 Juan Manuel Garate Cepa (Spa) Lampre 6.01 14 Christophe Brandt (Bel) Lotto-Domo 6.24 15 Emanuele Sella (Ita) Ceramiche Panaria-Margres 7.45 Points classification 1 Alessandro Petacchi (Ita) Fassa Bortolo 225 pts Mountains classification 1 Fabian Wegmann (Ger) Gerolsteiner 45 pts Intergiro classification 1 Crescenzo d'Amore (Ita) Acqua & Sapone-Caffe Mokambo 40.10.54