By Jean-François Quénet in Agordo
Despite their average start to the Giro d'Italia, losing one minute 25 seconds to Liquigas in the opening team time trial, Saunier Duval is undoubtedly the impressive team of this year's race. The one-two by Riccardo Riccò and Leonardo Piepoli at the Tre Cime di Lavaredo was a great achievement after Piepoli's solo win up the sanctuary of Nostra Signora della Guardia and Gilberto Simoni's second place behind Stefano Garzelli in Bergamo. "We have fired up the race every day since Montevergine," Simoni said in a press conference organised by his team on the rest day in Falcade.
Although they have a leader, Simoni, who has won the Giro twice before, Saunier Duval has attracted a lot of sympathy because of Riccò who is a friendly bloke, a good talker, a spectacular climber and a true champion in the making. He's already clever when it comes to answering the sceptics. "I turned professional one year later than planned because of my blood values but it was all checked and I now have a special authorisation by the UCI just like Damiano Cunego," he said.
Questioned about his relationship with Roberto Pregnolato who was Marco Pantani's controversial soigneur, he answered: "He's from Modena like me and he gives a massage sometimes when I'm at home."
Having 'the Pirate' as an idol makes Riccò friendly but it also places him under suspicion. He doesn't care much about that, nor does he care about the friction already created in the peloton after he accused the majority of bike riders of being "vegetables" because of their passive attitude in the bunch. The facts are in favour of Riccò though, not only does he talk loud and clear but he assumes his role on the road.
"Shall I repeat it? Winning at the Tre Cime di Lavaredo has been the most beautiful day of my life", he said. Piepoli gave him advice for his cycling career: "Learn who to trust and who not." While Simoni is prepared to give him the captaincy of the Saunier Duval team, should the two have be racing together again next year.
For now, they are team-mates but also room-mates. "We don't have much in common though," Simoni said. "At 10pm, he already sleeps, I don't go to bed before midnight. When I go back to the room, he's asleep and when I wake up, he's gone. We actually meet more during the race."
Aged 36, Simoni has given up his ambitions of winning the Giro for the third time. "This is the last time I race as a captain," he said. "I can maybe ride another Giro but I'll do it at the service of someone else who is able to win it."
Riccò is the logical choice, although he's already under pressure. "I haven't said I'd go for the win next year but for the overall classification," he corrected. "This year, I've done what I had to. I'm fine. I'd be happy to go home now. I know there's still a possibility to ride for the white jersey. But if Andy Schleck keeps going the same way, he'll even have an advantage on me in Saturday's time trial. I'll fight till the end. But my only chance really is if he has a bad day."
The idea of a bad day is also what the whole Saunier Duval team hopes for to eventually beat Danilo Di Luca. "Yesterday Di Luca was in the hardest situation and he played it perfectly," directeur sportif Pietro Algeri explained. "At the end, he was even the strongest uphill. It means he's going to be very hard to beat although anything can happen."
"Di Luca can have a black day," Piepoli added. "If so, it'll be up to us to bring the light. Well, we'll try and put him in difficulty and we'll see if he's got the balls or not."
The big battle is expected on Wednesday on the Zoncolan, which will be climbed on its steepest side. "This hill can create a difference," said Simoni. "But Di Luca has no adversary uphill, I'm the only one and yesterday he didn't bother. If I was only 31, I would have done a different race yesterday. The only thing I can do is to follow Di Luca, I can't drop him."