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Like a hungry orange cat pouncing on a tasty mouse, Rabobank's Oscar Freire jumped at just the right moment in the final sprint of the 98th edition of Milano-Sanremo to beat the best sprinters in the world, taking his second career win in the most prestigious of Italian one day races. And this time, it wasn't close like his 2004 victory, as Freire swooped the other speedsters to win by a bike length.
With a huge smile like the cat that ate the canary, a clearly delighted Freire told RAI-TV's Alessandra Di Stefano in a post-race interview: "I was really good today and I didn't have any problems to find the right wheel. I wanted to win and this time, my win was different from the last one (in 2004)". Three years ago, Freire snuck by an exultant Erik Zabel on the right, who celebrated his fifth Milano-Sanremo win too soon and the Spaniard won by 3cm with a brilliant bike throw. Today, the Rabobank man positioned himself perfectly on Petacchi's wheel behind the Milram leadout and made his move with a blistering jump on the left side of the road to comfortably beat Discovery Channel's Alan Davis.
Davis made a brilliant kamikaze move from behind with 150 metres to go, reaching Freire's wheel just as the Spaniard jumped and following him to the line with a perfect bike throw to snatch second from Tom Boonen, with his fellow Aussies Robbie McEwen (Predictor-Lotto) 4th and Stuart O'Grady (CSC) in 5th. With his runner-up spot in La Classicissima, Davis continues Discovery Channel's series of excellent results this Spring. Quick.Step's Tom Boonen had a good race to make the podium at Milano-Sanremo, while Milram's Alessandro Petacchi was a disappointing 8th. And although he had a royal lead-out today with Ongarato, Velo and Erik Zabel in the last kilometre, Petacchi seemed to lack the explosive action in his jump; the Italian even stopped pedaling in the last 50 metres and was passed by Zabel who ended up 7th. Petacchi's loyal Milram teammate Marco Velo seemed to rationalize Petacchi's poor performance today when he said post-race that, "we did a great job today and after all he's been through, Petacchi's ride today was like a victory."
Fresh from back-to-back stage wins at Tirreno-Adriatico, Saunier-Duval's Ricardo Ricco made a brilliant attack on the Poggio as he promised. Ricco took off with Francaise des Jeux's Phillipe Gilbert and got what looked like a race winning gap. At the summit of the Poggio ascent, the duo had a 10" lead, but just couldn't hold off the determined chase of the sprinters' teams and were reeled in with 1200 metres to go. "There were only two of us," explained Ricco, "and if we had been three or four away, we might have stayed away. In the last kilometre of the Poggio, Gilbert went and I followed, then counter-attacked. After that, I was tapped out and didn't have anything left. I had really great legs today and showed something, so I'll be back next year for another try."
World Champion Paolo Bettini (Quick.Step) had an unlucky Milano-Sanremo, as he was caught behind a crash before the Cipressa with 30km to go and had to chase hard to get back in the race.
But the tough little Tuscan showed why he is wearing those rainbow stripes and came back to have an important impact in the finale of this year's race. "I wasn't too good today but I have to thank my teammate Tosatto who encouraged me today," said Bettini. "I wanted to abandon at the second feed zone but he told me to keep going. I had to come back before the Cipressa and it was hard but I was there on the Poggio, working for Tom (Boonen)." Although his team rode an excellent race, last year's winner Filippo Pozatto (Liquigas) was never a factor in this year's edition of Milano-Sanremo.
How it unfolded
197 riders rolled out from Castello Sforzesco at 9.15am for the ceremonial start, and at 9.30am in via Chiesa Rossa on the southern outskirts of Milan, the race was officially started and the hostilities began right away with attack after attack. In the first hour, 46.1km were covered on the flat roads south of Milan into a headwind. The high speed and constant attacking continued for another hour, and after two hours of Milano-Sanremo, the average speed was 46.2km/h.
After 86km of racing near Pozzolo Formigaro, the right combination of six riders got away from the main gruppo and the escape consisted of Pavel Brutt (Tinkoff), Andrei Kunitski (Aqua & Sapone), Emmanuele Sella (Panaria), Aitor Hernandez (Euskaltel), Koen De Koert (Rabobank) and Roberto Trafficante (LPR).
After 120km in Ovada at the foot of the Paso Turchino, the six riders had a maximum advantage of 7'51". At the first feed zone in Campo Ligure after 135km, there was a crash with Frédéric Guesdon (Francaise des Jeux) and José Ivan Gutierrez (Caisse d'Epargne), who both abandoned. As the riders approached the coastal mountain range that divides the Po River valley from the sea coast of Liguria, the snowy north slopes of the Passo Turchino and the cold mountain air made for difficult conditions. At the top of the Passo Turchino, it was Sella who passed first with the gruppo at 7'05".
On the long descent of the Passo Turchino, Daniele Contrini (Tinkoff) and Marco Fertonani (Caisse d'Epargne) hit a guardrail causing the Tinkoff rider to abandon. As the gruppo headed down the descent and rode on to the via Aurelia coast road, light intermittent rain began to fall along the Rivera Ligure, making the road slippery and provoking numerous crashes. Up front, Trafficante was dropped from the break in Piani di Invrea as Brutt and Kunitski were riding hard to stay away. After the second feed zone in Ceriale, there was a crash near Alassio, where Sébastien Hinault (Credit Agricole) and Riccardo Riccò (Saunier Duval) hit the deck.
In Pietra Ligure after 215km, the now five-strong break's lead had dropped to 4'52", with the average speed after five hours of racing a speedy 43.84km/h.
By Laigueglia, the break had a 3'00" lead with Milram, Quick.Step, Lampre and Rabobank chasing on the front. The front riders hit the first of the coastal climbs, Capo Mele and Brutt rode hard, gapping the other riders in the break.
On Capo Cervo with 48km to go, Sella and De Koert were dropped from the break and swallowed up by the fast moving gruppo. The four breakaway riders' lead was falling and at the conclusion of Capo Cervo, the break's gap was now down to one minute. At this point there was a crash in the gruppo that took Gerolsteiner's David Kopp out of the race.
Brutt continued to power the break through Diana Marina and into Imperia with 40km to race, but the gap was now down to 40". There were 10km between the base of Capo Cervo and the beginning of the penultimate ascent of the day, the Cipressa, and the wet slippery roads were causing more crashes, as Marco Zanotti (Unibet) and two Barloworld riders hit the deck. World Champion Bettini was caught behind the crash and was delayed, re-injuring his broken rib and having to chase hard to get back on the tail of the main gruppo.
With 27km to go in San Lorenzo a Mare, the 5.7km ascent of the Cipressa began. The front trio still had a 30" lead as the riders maneuvered for position behind. Hernandez attacked the break as Brutt chased hard but the gruppo sucked up the break with 26km to race on the first ramps of the Cipressa. Meanwhile, Thomas Voeckler (Bouyges) attacked off the front of the gruppo but his move was covered by Manuel Quinziato (Liquigas) as Bettini was trying to work his way back through the group to the front. Quick.Step brought back the attack and it was gruppo compatto halfway up the Cipressa.
Franco Pellizotti was next to attack from Liquigas to keep the pressure on and Andrea Moletta (Gerolsteiner) bridged across to him as some splits were created behind. Next up was a big attack from Yaroslav Popovych (Discovery) who came across to the front duo as Lampre chased behind. At the summit, the asphalt of the tricky, twisting descent back to via Aurelia was fortunately dry.
The time for the ascent was 9'57", while the record for the Cipressa is 9'28", an average speed of 34km/h.
Local lad Mirko Celestino (Milram) dove down the twisty road with 20km remaing to try and get across to the break with Patxi Vila (Lampre), as Moletta then crashed hard out of the lead break when he lost control on a tight curve and hit a light pole on the left side of the road, smashing his left side hard. Now on the via Aurelia, Popovych and Pellizotti were 10" ahead of Celestino and Vila, with the gruppo at 20". In Arma di Taggia, the gruppo, led by Boonen's Quick.Step boys was closing in on the Milram and Lampre riders as Celestino wasn't pulling through under team orders.
Popovych and Pellizotti had gained time up front and with 12km to race through the Gastaletti tunnel, the duo had 28" on the Quick.Step led gruppo. Bettini had come back and was tucked in just behind his team. As the final climb of the Poggio began with 9km to go, the dynamic duo had lost ground to the now CSC led peloton and were just 8" behind. After 500m of the Poggio, it was gruppo compatto as Carlos Baredo (Quick.Step) was on the front. The pace was fast but not all out while Popovych attacked again before the first hairpin curve. He was chased by Alexander Efimkin (Barloworld) who never got across, but then Ricardo Serrano (Tinkoff) went after Popovych. As the attackers hit the false flat near the Madonna della Guardia chapel, Popovych was caught and Philippe Gilbert (Française des Jeux ) then attacked on the steepest part of the Poggio. Ricco took off after him with Matthias Kessler (Astana) and the Saunier Duval rider then counter-attacked, ascending the Poggio like an elevator with just 6.5km to go.
Behind, Kim Kirchen (T-Mobile), Bettini, Fränk Schleck (CSC) and Freire were chasing hard and over the top of the Poggio with 5.7km to race, Ricco and Gilbert had a 10" lead on the chasing group. But World Champion Bettini was still working hard, chasing all out to bring the two escapees back with Lampre's Ballan and Vila and Kirchen behind. As the front duo came back on the via Aurelia after the Poggio descent with 2.3km to go, they still had a lead of 100m on the chasers, but the sprinters' teams like Lampre and Milram were setting up behind and they brought the two fugitives to heal with 1.2km left to race. It would be a mass sprint again on via Roma and Milram rode a great leadout for their man Petacchi, but an opportunistic Oscar Freire came off Petacchi's wheel with perfect timing as the 31 year-old Spaniard from Torrelavega who lives in Switzerland has won three World Road Championships. If Freire can keep his health this year, he may make it four this coming September in Stuttgart.