By Brecht Decaluwé in Bagnères-de-Bigorre
After a series of accelerations with five kilometres to go in stage nine on the first category climb Col d'Aspin, Saunier Duval's Riccardo Riccò managed to slide away from the peloton. Riccò, nicknamed the "Cobra from Formigine", was unstoppable and blasted past riders who had escaped earlier. He seemed to have little competition as he rode away to an eventual stage victory.
Maxime Monfort (Cofidis) tried to hang with Riccò for a while, but eventually Riccò rode solo towards the top of the Col d'Aspin. One kilometre before the top, he passed Sebastian Lang who had been on the attack all day long. At the top of the climb, Riccò had about two minutes on the first part of the peloton and held on to more than a minute of that advantage as he reached the finish line.
The 24 year-old Riccò talked to the press in Bagnères-de-Bigorre about his decisive move, his next goals and the rumours following him at the Tour de France.
"I'm very happy, probably even more than after my first stage victory as this has been the first real mountain stage," said Riccò. "Everybody was looking at each other on the Aspin, and when I accelerated, I created a gap. The first part of the descent turned out to be rather technical and fast, so that was ok. Then it was a lot harder, and I had to use a lot of force to keep going; it was like a time trial."
Before the Tour de France, Riccò was considered a favourite, but for more than a week the Italian has downplayed his general classification ambitions. "Others have prepared for the Tour from the beginning of the year. Although I won today and the other day, I still don't want to think about the general classification. I'll continue to look at it day by day.
"Tomorrow might be a different scenario, and I hope that I can work hard in the front, to help team-mate [Leonardo] Piepoli toward a stage victory," said Riccò. "He did an excellent job today by leading the peloton on the Aspin and then he didn't care about his own chances. Actually, the plan today was to set him up for the victory, but my legs were so good that I attacked."
When Riccò jumped away in an attack with a style like his hero Marco Pantani, the big guns didn't seem ready to fire their ammo just yet. Riccò appeared to have little competition from the pure climbers he encountered in the Giro d'Italia, and most of the climbers in the Tour de France still believe in their chances for the general classification and were saving energy for the uphill finish towards Hautacam on Monday.
"The others, like [Caisse d'Epargne's Alejandro] Valverde, weren't too concerned when I attacked," Riccò said, but he also noted the competition in the Tour de France has been tougher than in the Giro d'Italia. "The only climber who's not here is Contador. All the strong climbers are here, like [Cadel] Evans, [Denis] Menchov, and also [Carlos] Sastre."
During the last few days, rumors about Riccò circulated through Tour de France's media circus. Some said Riccò was one of the five riders who had received a letter from the AFLD concerning irregular blood values. Riccò denied receiving such a letter and said after his second stage victory that he was disappointed with the rumours.
"If people make me angry, then this is what you get," said Riccò by way of explaining his blistering attack on the Col d'Aspin. "I'm not angry about the rumours, I'm just disappointed. I've had these blood values ever since I was a child," said Riccò, who has a naturally high hematocrit level of 51 although the highest allowed level is 50.
"The UCI knows my situation, and I have a certificate to prove it," said Riccò. "I'm following the UCI regulations and I hope that people can appreciate my performances as I've got a natural high hematocrit level."
No one has to tell Riccò that he has the racing style of his deceased Italian cycling hero, Marco Pantani. Riccò admires the Italian rider who won the Tour de France ten years ago. "When I crossed the line today, I thought about Pantani, because I want to be like him. As a 14 year-old kid, I saw Pantani win the Tour de France on TV. He's my idol and I still watch tapes of him. One day I hope to be like Pantani," said Riccò, who was surely not referring to "Il Pirata's" drug problem which played a role in his death in 2004.