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Filippo Pozzato (Quick.Step) corners
When we saw Filippo Pozzato Saturday morning in Piazza San'Ambrogio at the start of the 97th edition of Milano-Sanremo, the 24 year-old Quick.Step rider made sure to show us his brand new saddle with a design of a blond angel on top. Pozzato then told us he had "super" legs and was hoping to find a way to ride his own race in La Classicissima di Primavera. In the end, after a tension filled race, perhaps it was the angels who looked out for Pozzato in the last 500 meters along via Roma in Sanremo, for Pippo made just the right move at just the right time after his Quick.Step team had dominated Milano-Sanremo all day.
The talented young rider from Sandrigo, Italy had promised a breakthrough win for several years after his stage win in the 2004 Tour de France with Fassa Bortolo, and passed to Quick.Step with high hopes. But sickness kept Pozzato from fully showing his talent last season, although he did score a big victory in the HEW Cyclassics at the end of July in Hamburg, Germany. This year, Pozzato prepared well over the winter and has already had some solid results in Het Volk and Tirreno-Adriatico. Today in Sanremo, it was Pozzato's turn to confirm the talent and class many have seen in him for years with a dramatic win in Italy's biggest one-day bicycle race.
As Pozzato was surrounded by a mad scrum of media and hysterical tifosi after his victory, he told RAI-TV's Alessandra DiStefano, "With two big champions in the team like Tom Boonen and Paolo Bettini, I was hoping to have the chance to do something today. I felt great today and when I saw on the Cipressa that no one had the legs to make a difference, I went to the front and rode hard tempo to keep it together." Pozzato and Quick.Step had a further advantage when teammate Guido Trenti was away in break in the 10km between the base of the Cipressa and the first slopes of the Poggio.
"On the Poggio, I thought Paolo (Bettini) might go, but he didn't, so when Ballan attacked, I followed his move. I got across to him, but I felt bad because I wasn't working. That was what the team car told me to do, but it's not my way to race."
Pozzato often trains with his neighbour Ballan and is no stranger to the Lampre-Fondital rider's strong ascending skills, but Pozzato had the legs and the focus to stay right with Laigueglia winner Ballan. Pozzato spoke of his winning move, a classic Italian contropiede counterattack, explaining, "I saw Nocentini wasn't doing much in the front group and was expecting his move. When he went, I did too and when (Nocentini) slowed, I had to go with 400 meters to go. I was pretty cooked, but I manage to hold off the group. I have to thank the team and all the people that have supported me. My fan club is here today and my fiancée Chiara and my parents. So this is a dream... a race I've always dreamed of winning. I couldn't believe it at first, but now it's sinking in. Today is the best day of my life."
For Milano-Sanremo runner-up Alessandro Petacchi, it was close but no cigar today on via Roma, as Ale-Jet's afterburners were just not enough to close the gap on his former teammate Pozzato. The speedster from La Spezia wanted to win one for his new Milram team, but his disappointment came through as he sat up and clapped his hands, crossing the finish line just behind the Quick.Step man in second place. Even thought Milram was outridden and outsmarted by Quick.Step today, Petacchi showed he is a team player by saying, "The team did a great job today; we were on the front all day. We had the responsibility on our shoulders; I won last year and we were racing to win today and did as much as we could. To win at Sanremo, you need great condition and some luck too.
"Even before the Poggio, (Quick.Step's) Trenti was away and I tried to save Sacchi and Zabel for the final. We sacrificed our riders chasing; our plans kind of got upset, we had to use Sacchi to pull the break back before the Poggio. And Filippo was very good today to get away on the Poggio, where my team had to work, which helped Boonen. We did our best... I showed how strong I was today with my sprint, but I'm sorry about the way it worked out. I wanted to win today, but I needed a little bit of luck."
Like his training buddy Pozzato, Alessandro Ballan was all smiles after Milano-Sanremo, as his superb attack on the Poggio was almost the decisive move in today's Milano-Sanremo. Ballan explained, "I tried to get away and it worked; I thought the sprinters would catch us sooner but we had a good gap, even though the only one working with me was Astarloa. Pozzato couldn't work since he had the World Champion on his team. It's too bad because I could have had a better result today, but that's OK. It was a moral victory for me and I'm really happy with my condition. Now I'm waiting for the Belgian classics."
Elegant and stylish as always, former Milano-Sanremo winner Mario Cipollini came from his nearby home in Monte Carlo to presented Pozzato with his Milano-Sanremo trophy and afterwards paid homage to the race and the winner. "Today was a bad day for the sprinters' teams from the beginning as they had to work all day to bring the break back. That decimated their teams and the ability to control the race in the final kilometres. It was a stupendous race, very emotional and filled with tension. The situation was changing all the time in the finale and Pozzato had a fantastic ride at the end, confirming all the quality we've all seen in him. Plus Ballan was superb; to attack like he did on the Poggio is not easy. It was great to see two young talents in Italian cycling.
"It was much more emotional to watch the race today than to ride it. I think today was a great day for sport and a great day for cycling. Plus an Italian won, so it was an extraordinary Milano-Sanremo."
Certainly, Pozzato and his guardian angel would agree with Super Mario.
After the official start in the southern part of Milano at 930, there was a short lull before the hostilities began, but quickly the battle commenced with attack after attack. Eventually an eight man group got away after 27km on the outskirts of Pavia, with Daniele Contrini (LPR), Unai Etxebarria (Euskaltel), Staf Scheirlinckx (Cofidis), Ludovic Auger (Française des Jeux), Kjell Carlström (Liquigas-Bianchi), Mirko Allegrini and Sergiy Matveyev (Panaria-Navigare), Giampaolo Cheula (Barloworld). The eight escapees quickly gained time on the gruppo and by Novi Ligure after 95km, the break had 10'30 on the gruppo. This big lead woke up the sprinters' teams and Quick.Step began to chase.
The break hit the long winding ascent to Passo Turchino and atop the climb with 151km to go, the break still had 8'00 lead. Down the long descent to SS1, the old Roman coast road called via Aurelia plunged the racers and the break hit the Ligurian coast in Voltri and headed west to Sanremo with a northeast tailwind pushing the pace for the escapees and the gruppo. Team Milram was powering the pace, and the break's lead began to fall. Alessandro Cortinovis was hammering on the front up Capo Mele ascent as the costal ascents began with 52 km to go, and the break was less than 3'00 ahead. Milram, Quick.Step and Credit Agricole were chasing, with Rabobank playing possum. The break was working well together, but the pace behind was being driven too hard by Milram.
After 254km, Allegrini attacked and split the front group on Capo Berta and was quickly joined by Etxebarria. This duo went off the front and quickly gained time on the six remaining break riders, with the gruppo coming up fast. As the gruppo passed through Onelia with the dangerous roundabout with the fountain, Naturino's Massimiliano Mori crashed hard, but wasn't seriously injured. As the remains of the break exited Imperia with 32km to go, the front two riders had 15 seconds on the other six chasers, with the gruppo led by Lampre-Fondital. But as San Lorenzo al Mare approached with 27km to go, all eight riders were finally absorbed after being away for 240km, just before the penultimate climb of the day - the Cipressa - began.
Gerolsteiner sent Wrolich up front and the next move was from Garzelli, who bridged across to the Gerolsteiner rider. Rebellin, Bettini, and Schleck up front, but no determined chase of the Liquigas man. Suddenly Gerolsteiner's Moletta and Schleck punched it and went past Garzelli. There was a regroupment behind, and Moletta gained on the others, but Arvesen (CSC), Mazzanti (Panaria) and Pozzato (Quick.Step) covered the move. The Quick.Step man then went to the front and rode hard tempo, with teammate Boonen on his wheel. Bettini took over for the last kilometre, and at the summit of the Cipressa climb with 18km to go, the time for the ascent was 9'55, considerably slower than 2005's 9'28.
On the tricky Cipressa descent, Carrara (Lampre-Fondital) gapped up front, but Bettini closed it as Quick.Step blue was swarming ahead. The Olympic champion led the long line of riders back down to the via Aurelia, putting pressure on the group and trying to create a split, while McEwen and Napolitano struggled to get back on after being dropped on the climb. Back on the coast road with 18km to go, Moerenhout (Phonak) went away and was quickly joined by Trenti (Quick.Step), Schleck (CSC) and Reynes (Caisse d'Epargne). This quartet quickly got 0'10, Rabobank sounded the alarm bells behind and upped the chase pace behind with Team Milram. Trenti was not working as he was working as a stopper for Boonen. At 15km to go, the break was helped by a tailwind and now had a 0'25 lead in Arma di Taggia. Quick.Step was smartly sitting back, as Milram's Sacchi and Den Bakker were burning all their matches on the front to bring the gap down, while Lampre and Gerolsteiner were helping them.
At Capo Verde just before the Poggio behind, a light rain had begun to fall and after 280km, the pace was still blazing and as the as the Poggio began, the quartet had 0'18 lead as they passed the pink race marker that indicated 9km to go. As the gruppo hit the bottom of the final 3.3 km ascent, Rabobank hit the front, while Milram's Velo and Sacchi were cooked by the chase, so Petacchi only had Zabel left for his leadout man. Erik Dekker powered the chase with Freire and Flecha behind as the break's lead was disappearing. Schleck attacked with 8.3km to go, but lost time when he blew it on a curve, while there were still at least 100 riders in chase group. With 7km to go, 1.5km from the summit of the Poggio, Schleck had dropped the break and was 0'10 ahead of the chasers, with the gruppo at 0'15. Suddenly Ballan attacked from the chase gruppo on the steep part of the Poggio just before the small chapel that has seen so many decisive moves in Milano-Sanremo.
Pozzato marked the Lampre-Fondital rider's move and eventually, Barloworld's Astarloa got across too. At the summit of the Poggio with 5km to race, Ballan led Pozzato and Astarloa, with the Milram-led gruppo chasing hard 0'10 behind. The ascent was ridden in 6'14, well behind record pace.
Nocentini (Acqua & Sapone), Schleck and Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) got across as Milram just couldn't close the gap with Sacchi chasing desperately up front. At the base of the Poggio with 2.2 km to go, the leaders still had 0'08 as they entered the via Aurelia. A few raindrops were falling as Milram put Zabel on the front to chase. The break was not united as the finish approached and a solo move by Sanchez with 1.5km to go doomed them to be caught.
As the front of the race passed under the 1km kite and made the left turn into via Fiume, then the right hander with the finish in sight, the gruppo was just about to make contact with Rabobank's Dekker back on the front with Milram's Zabel. Nocentini made a strong attack in a bid for glory with 600m to go, but he was cooked, and Pozzato, who had covered his move, countered with 350 meters to go and just kept going to the line for the win. Behind him, Petacchi rode a superb sprint to reduce Pozzato's 10m gap to 1 bike length, but for the 2005 winner from Team Milram, it was just too little, too late, as Pozzato and the Quick.Step squad just rode better and smarter to win the 97th edition of Milano-Sanremo.