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It was another dramatic day of shifting fortunes in what continues to be the most interesting Giro d'Italia for years. CSC's team captain Ivan Basso, recovered from the stomach problems that saw him lose 42 minutes and a several kilograms in the Stelvio stage, rode a brilliant finale to win the 17th stage on the Colle di Tenda by 1'06 over Venezuelan pocket climber Jose Rujano (Colombia-Selle Italia) and Gilberto Simoni (Lampre).
"Today I proved that we meant business, when we made the decision for me to continue in this race," said Basso after the stage. "I've known all along that I'm a strong climber - maybe the strongest one here. And today I wanted to win without having to sprint for it. After my bad luck, I had only one thing on my mind: to win in Limone Piemonte. I said this to Bjarne already on the Stelvio. Now I did it, and it's a big relief both for me and my team. The whole group did a tremendous job for me today, and they all deserve a big thanks.
"I began this race almost three weeks ago with an ambition to win. That wasn't meant to be, and a stage win can't change that fact - but that's all behind me now. This victory says a lot about how much I've developed as a rider. A development owed first and foremost to Bjarne."
The latter two managed to move themselves closer to the treasured maglia rosa of Paolo Savoldelli, as the Discovery Channel man conceded 42 seconds to them on the slopes of the Tenda. Simoni is now in second overall at 58 seconds, while Rujano moved up to third at 1'24, jumping ahead of Juan Manuel Garate (Saunier Duval) and ProTour leader Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas). Di Luca had a bad day on the climb, and couldn't follow when Simoni and Rujano attacked. He finished the stage at 2'49 and may have lost his last chance to grab the maglia rosa, which seemed tantalisingly in reach yesterday.
The 17th stage started in Lissone at 11:50 with all 158 riders signing on. It was a very aggressive start to the stage, and riders were already going out the back on the Cat. 3 Colle di Cadibona after 20 km. Credit Agricole's Patrice Halgand won the climb ahead of Michele Scarponi (Liberty) and Michael Blaudzun (CSC). The three continued in front, joined by Verdugo, Kolobnev, and Laverde, but were caught at km 26.
After a tough first hour raced at 41 km/h, with several more attacks going and coming back, a breakaway formed after 54 km containing Thierry Marichal and Matthew White (Cofidis), Patrice Halgand (Crédit Agricole), Volodymir Gustov (Fassa Bortolo), Sandy Casar (Française des Jeux), Jan Hruska (Liberty Seguros), Stefano Zanini (Quickstep), Angel Gomez (Saunier Duval), Bram Schmitz (T-Mobile) and Rory Sutherland (Rabobank). They were joined by Roberto Laiseka (Euskaltel) and Thomas Dekker (Rabobank) at the 70 km mark, to form a group of 12 in front.
The average speed after two hours was a brisk 42.2 km/h, and after 83 km, the gruppo maglia rosa was 5'24 behind the leading break. This lead was ground down by the CSC and Lampre teams, and at the Intergiro in Borgo san Dalmazzo, it was Quick.Step's Stefano Zanini taking the 30 bonus seconds that also gave him the maglia azzurra of Intergiro leader. By this stage, the gruppo maglia rosa was at four minutes.
On the steep 7 km climb of Madonna Del Colletto (km 138), the leading group split into two, with Halgand, Laiseka, Sutherland, Gomez Gomez, White and Casar riding away from the rest. Sutherland had told Cyclingnews before the stage, "I'll try and get up the road in a break today, but with that finish it's going to be hard to stay there. I probably won't be riding for the win, probably riding just to get my name up there and do something but I'll have a go." That he did, but with Damiano Cunego towing the main group up the climb at 2'40 behind the break and CSC working on the flat, it wasn't going to stay away for too much longer.
The leaders were finally absorbed on the very short but very steep Colletto Del Moro at km 165,3, courtesy of Cunego's forcing. Over the top of the climb, it was Ivan Basso first ahead of Simoni and Rujano, the three best climbers in the race showing their cards early. After the descent, the gruppo maglia rosa numbered some 35 riders, with all the GC riders up there and waiting for the last climb. But it was not to be a steady run into Limone Piemonte, when the climb proper began with 13 km to go. There were several more attacks on the flat, and just before the 20 km to go banner, Basso got away in the company of his teammate Frank Schleck, together with Giampaolo Caruso (Liberty), Ruben Lobato (Saunier), Paolo Tiralongo (Panaria), and Dario Cioni (Liquigas).
The break wasn't too dangerous for the GC riders, as the best placed rider Cioni was 6'40 down in the classification. Lampre didn't react immediately, but sent Patxi Vila and Cunego to the front to set tempo for Simoni, while the rest of the riders in the gruppo, including Savoldelli, bided their time. As the road gradually steepened before the final climb, Frank Schleck - who had also been in yesterday's break - buried himself on the front for Basso, and opened up a gap of 1'43 on the gruppo maglia rosa, where Ardila had moved to the front to work for his Davitamon-Lotto teammate Wim Van Huffel.
At 6 km to go, Schleck finally blew, but had given Basso a perfect springboard of 1'20 to win the stage. Caruso was the first to attack, but Basso didn't take long to catch and pass the Liberty rider, and then set about maintaining his advantage to the summit. One by one, the rest of the riders in the break succumbed to the group behind, but not the CSC man. Basso rode the last climb with the similar stylishly powerful pedaling action that he showed a week ago when he took the maglia rosa. There was no way he was going to get caught.
Back in the gruppo maglia rosa, the fight for the general classification began when Van Huffel attacked at 6 km to go, but was countered by Simoni, Rujano, and Garate. The move immediately put both Savoldelli and Di Luca in trouble, with the latter unable to follow the maglia rosa and fighting a losing battle with the climb. Simoni and Rujano got rid of Garate after a kilometre, and the Saunier man went back to join Savoldelli, Gonchar, Van Huffel, Karpets, Parra and Valjavec. Rujano and Simoni continued to put time into Savoldelli's group, and at the top, the pair crossed the line 1'06 behind the victorious Basso, with Rujano nipping Simoni for second, which gave him enough of a bonus to move past Di Luca on GC.
Maglia rosa Savoldelli lost time, but he didn't panic, and at the end of the stage the damage was 42 seconds to Simoni and Rujano. In tomorrow's time trial, the Discovery rider should be able to claim back a few minutes over his nearest rivals, which will set the scene for a very interesting 19th stage to Sestrière.
The strong men of the Giro d'Italia will confront the final time test of Italy's grand tour. Starting in Chieri, the stage heads to Torino via the Colle della Superga, the climb that is the final dfficulty of Milano-Torino. Superga is a 7km ascent that has some steep pitches over 8% and finishes halfway through. Then Stage 18 rolls across the shoulder of Colle della Superga, descends to Torino and finishes along the Po River into Torino on Viale Medaglie d'Oro.