Il Falco flies again

Capturing his first Tour de France victory in Stage 17 , Paolo Savoldelli has shown the world he can...

An interview with Paolo Savoldelli, July 20, 2005

But is Savoldelli ready for GC at Le Tour?

Capturing his first Tour de France victory in Stage 17, Paolo Savoldelli has shown the world he can win on cycling's centre stage. The question Anthony Tan asks now is, can he take over centre stage once Lance Armstrong retires?

At the Discovery Channel press conference on the first rest day in Grenoble, team manager Johan Bruyneel was asked on the condition of this year's Giro d'Italia winner Paolo Savoldelli. The Italian was hired specifically to help Lance Armstrong win his sixth Tour, but one week into the race, there appeared to be a few question marks over his form.

"Well, he's definitely not in the same condition he was in the Giro, that's for sure," admitted Bruyneel. "We all expected that and we all knew that. Savoldelli is here to support Lance and the team and he's in good enough shape to be with him a long time in the mountains, but I don't expect him to become one of the favourites of the race."

Over the next week and a half, Savoldelli did indeed improve. Along with George Hincapie, Yaroslav Popovych, Jose Azevedo and Jose Luis Rubiera, the quintet became Armstrong's fearsome fivesome - on the flats, in the hills, in the finales...whenever he needed them.

Today, the 33 year-old Texan needed someone in the day's break, so the rest of his team could have a pseudo rest day back in the bunch. They only wanted one guy in the move, but when Savoldelli and Rubiera both made the cut, it was a dream scenario.

"At the beginning, there were a lot of rolling hills and there were attacks left, right and centre," said Armstrong. "We wanted to put somebody in the break, not necessarily two, but two's better than one. The guys jumped up there, and we had enough guys to control the race behind and just ride steady tempo."

Added Savoldelli: "Of course, it was good to go in the break, because we had two riders from our team at the finish if we had to help Lance, but with 17 riders in the break, I knew it would be very difficult to try and win the stage, and it was a kind of lottery."

With a large group of guys and not one posing any threat to the riders high on GC, the break's lead continued to balloon as it headed towards the half-hour mark. Savoldelli's chances also expanded as the 17 became eight with 40 kilometres to go, and when he saw Sébastian Hinault's attack on the final climb of the Côte de Saint-Ferréol, he knew his odds could improve yet again if he managed to bridge up to him.

"[Hinault] was the first to attack before I could, so I went myself one kilometre from the top. I think I was the strongest rider in the group because it was really easy catching him; he wasn't collaborating, but I don't think it was because he didn't want to, it was more because he was too tired - we saw that in the end, where he was not able to sprint for the stage win."

Unlike the Credit Agricole rider, Savoldelli had plenty left in the tank. A slight regrouping took place with Kurt Asle-Arvesen and Simon Gerrans coming across after the descent, though the Italian was confident he was the strongest regardless of the Norwegian's superior finishing speed under normal circumstances. Even Arvesen himself didn't rate his chances in the sprint, hitting out just under the flamme rouge, but in the final 50 metres, Il Falco flew right past him, holding his advantage all the way to the line.

"Well, it's a lucky year for me," said a beaming Savoldelli on his first victory in La Grand Boucle.

"Everything has been going well from the beginning of the season. I knew I had a possibility to win a stage, but I've also learned it's very difficult to win [a stage of the Tour]... and when it happens to you, you are just so happy!"

Asked if he was comfortable in the role of domestique at this race, he replied: "For me, it is absolutely no problem. Mentally, I was ready to help Lance, and quite simply, Lance was a lot stronger than me. Concerning the future, I don't know; I'm not the only good rider - there's also guys like Popovych - and maybe next year, they will sign up another strong rider - the team will talk about that in the next few weeks.

"It's so difficult to win the Tour," Savoldelli added. "You must be incredibly strong, and for us Italians, the last winners were [Felice] Gimondi and [Marco] Pantani, so that is proof of the level you need to be at. For me, the Giro is really important, and I don't know if I'm ready to sacrifice the Giro for the Tour."

But with speculation on Alexandre Vinokourov centred around Cofidis, Credit Agricole or Ag2r next year and Ivan Basso renewing his contract with Team CSC till 2009, Savoldelli may get his chance yet - whether he likes it or not...

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