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Totally isolated and left behind by the lead group with 40 kilometres to go, it seemed Paolo Savoldelli's time in the maglia rosa was facing certain death. However, a combination of guts, courage and cramping saw the race eventually swing back in his favour, and barring disaster, 'Il Falco' will fly into Milano tomorrow afternoon to claim overall victory in the 88th Giro d'Italia.
"I don't feel like one of the great champions of the Giro, because the old champions used to attack on the climbs and make a big difference to the show. I'm more of a regular rider, and I have to calculate a lot, because I know what my limits are," said a pragmatic Savoldelli to Cyclingnews.
"I was afraid at the beginning of the climb [Finestre], because the pace was going so fast. I didn't think I was going to make it. I went at my own pace. I was very careful to eat and drink enough on the climb, the most important thing was not to have a crisis. Now I'm going to the Tour de France to help Lance Armstrong.
"I've got through the Giro without any problems. The only bad day was when I crashed in the first week and lost 43 seconds. I knew it was possible to lose the jersey today. I wouldn't have been upset to lose the tour to a rider that was prepared to attack and risk everything. After cycling? Well I won't be a team manager. I've got a construction business."
Today's penultimate stage of the Giro lived up to all expectations plus more, the never-before used climb of the Colle delle Finestre with its 9.2 kilometre-long section of unpaved road murder for the riders but a treat for the spectators, who witnessed one of the greatest offensives ever seen in the history of the race.
Gilberto Simoni (Lampre-Caffita), Josè Rujano (Selle Italia-Colombia) and Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas-Bianchi) gave it their all in their attempt to knock Il Falco Savoldelli from his perch, but in the end, the incredible effort took its toll on all but one, as mountain man Rujano rode away to a much-deserved stage victory in Sestrière.
"It was so fast on the Finestre," Said Rujano to Cyclingnews: "It was too hard to attack, so we decided to wait for the final climb. It's been a great Giro. To finish with the King of the Mountains, winning a stage, it's better than I could have ever dreamed."
At the top of the Finestre, 33 year-old Simoni must have surely thought victory was his as he climbed his way into the maglia rosa virtuale. But one thing he did not foresee was both he and Di Luca becoming the victim of cramps on the final ascent to Sestrière, which ultimately cost him the race.
"When I saw Savoldelli couldn’t sustain the rhythm I accelerated," said Simoni after the finish. "I was looking for Rujano help but only Di Luca and I have worked well together. Danilo has done a really great job." But on the last descent, "Danilo had cramps and I was not so well either. It was destiny, after my two wins at the Giro (2001-2003) and my three third places (1999-2000-2004) to take the second place this year. Maybe I could have saved energy on the climb…but I was fighting for the Giro d’Italia!"
As a result, the top five at the start of today's stage - Savoldelli, Simoni, Rujano, Di Luca and Garate - all held their positions on the classifica generale, and tomorrow's procession to Milano will be without stress for all bar the sprinters.
The much-awaited stage to Sestrière began in glorious sunshine, and with over 70 kilometres of climbing on a 190 kilometre-long parcours, the 154-strong peloton rolled out a little earlier than usual, leaving Savigliano at twenty past eleven Saturday morning.
It took less than 20 minutes for the early - and inevitably ill-fated - break of the day to be established. While previous days have seen larger groups gradually wear down into smaller ones, today it was a tiny TV-hungry trio comprised of Ruslan Ivanov (Domina Vacanze), Mark Renshaw (Francaise des Jeux) and Grischa Niermann (Rabobank), the latter initiating the move.
With Germany's Niermann the best-placed - if one could call it that - in 58th position on the classifica generale, almost a hour and forty minutes behind the maglia rosa of Paolo Savoldelli (Discovery), it was no surprise to see their lead balloon. By km 14, they were already seven-plus minutes ahead, reaching 12'22 at km 25 and a whopping 17 minutes by the base of the first of two ascents up Sestrieres, at the town of Villar Perosa (km 55.4).
Back in the peloton, most of the contenders and their teams knew the real racing wasn't going to happen until they were inside the final 50 kilometres, which included the climbs of the Colle della Finestre and the second ascent of Sestrière, where the day would eventually end, 2,035 metres above sea-level.
Discovery Channel's assistant DS Sean Yates gave a likely forecast on the day in a team statement after the previous stage: "The way it's [the race] panning out, Basso will try and win again tomorrow so they [CSC] will do a hard tempo on the climbs, and then it should be every man for himself in the last 30 kilometres."
The climb to Sestrière isn't steep, but it is long (try 45.7 kilometres long!), and around 10k into it, Aussie Mark Renshaw found himself having to let go; the 22 year-old former track pursuit and junior sprint world champion probably happy just to get a head-start, before finding a nice gruppetto to get through the rest of the day.
Meanwhile, further up front, Ivanov (Domina Vacanze) and Niermann (Rabobank) soldiered on, and by the GPM at km 101.1, the pair had lost less than four minutes of their 17'12 advantage when the climb first began, cresting the summit with a comfy lead of 14'35.
However, the descent to the Intergiro at Susa (km 145.6), also marking the start of the Colle delle Finestre, was roughly the same length as the climb, and the natural momentum of 150-odd riders didn't do the duo's chances any favours - not that it really mattered, considering the 18.5 kilometre monster that lay ahead. As the pair began the climb, Ivanov's companion said arrivederci, but the 31 year-old Moldovian seemed unperturbed, and continued on his own, content to ride at his own pace.
It wasn't long afterwards that the fiercest parts of the Finestre greeted the bunch, its maximum 14 percent gradient coming after less than 1.5 kilometres, and it was here where the fireworks began. Selle Italia-Colombia's strategy in sending Rafael Illiano to the front caught many by surprise, including that of maglia rosa Paolo Savoldelli (Discovery Channel), and straight away, a select group of no more than 12 riders formed.
Notable others in the mix included: Illiano's team-mates Josè Rujano and Ivan Parra (Selle Italia-Colombia), Gilberto Simoni and Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Caffita), Daniel Atienza (Cofidis), Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas-Bianchi), Wim Van Huffel (Davitamon-Lotto), Juan Manuel Garate and Joaquin Rodriguez (Saunier Duval-Prodir), Serguei Gonchar (Domina Vacanze), Vladimir Karpets (Illes Balears); notable others out of the mix were: Savoldelli (Discovery Channel), Ivan Basso (Team CSC) and Pietro Caucchioli (Credit Agricole).
Averaging 9.2 percent, the Finestre's relentless gradient created a further selection less than a kilometre later. As Illiano rolled off, his job done for the day, Kid Cunego was next to drop off the back, and when a few others did likewise, the group was down to eight. By the halfway point of the climb, Savoldelli was two minutes down and completely isolated bar two riders - Mauricio Alberto Ardila Cano (Davitamon-Lotto) and Mirko Celestino (Domina Vacanze) - who could do little to help him, nor stop the inexorable pace ahead.
But Il Falco wasn't the only one struggling. Up front, Parra (Selle Italia-Colombia), Atienza (Cofidis), Van Huffel (Davitamon-Lotto), Garate (Saunier Duval-Prodir), Gonchar (Domina Vacanze), and Karpets (Illes Balears) all fell by the wayside at various points on the climb, leaving just three - a rampant Rujano (Selle Italia-Colombia), a seething Simoni (Lampre-Caffita), and a determined Di Luca (Liquigas-Bianchi).
As the front three hit the final 7.9 kilometres of gravel "strada bianca", it was, quite amazingly, Dani Di Luca doing much of the pace-setting, and when Simoni realised he was in the maglia rosa virtuale, he also was happy to contribute. Surprisingly, Ivanov (Domina Vacanze), the last member of the early break, was only caught by this group with just over a kilometre before the GPM, but the man from Moldovia could only watch and admire as the three flew by.
Crossing the 2,178 metre-high summit of the Finestre with a 2'23 advantage over the gruppo maglia rosa, Savoldelli was still in with a chance, and very smartly, had not killed himself on the climb. Il Falco's famed descending skills also saw him pick up quite a few friends on the descent, including Gonchar (Domina Vacanze), Van Huffel (Davitamon-Lotto) and Tadej Valjavec (Phonak), who would no doubt help him later on.
Under normal circumstances, Rujano's downhill dramas would have seen him dropped, but Simoni and Di Luca were keen to have him hang around - at least for the time being. But suddenly, sadly, with 15 kilometres to go, Di Luca fell victim to cramps, unable to pedal without grimacing, and watched Simoni and Rujano ride into the distance...
The flattish ascent to Sestrière, averaging just 5.1 percent over 9.8 kilometres, did nothing for Simoni and Rujano's chances, however, and with the loss of Di Luca, coupled with a strengthened gruppo maglia rosa - now six strong - Savoldelli's chances were looking better all the time. At four kilometres to go, Simoni also starting cramping, spurring an acceleration from Rujano. Metres later, the Venezuelan was on his own, riding away to a certain stage win; behind, Di Luca was having a battle with himself, doing everything possible to keep the wheels turning.
As Rujano crossed the line, fists clenched in victory, the battle for the maglia rosa was being waged behind him. Two-time Giro champ Simoni recovered well to finish 28 seconds back, Di Luca a further minute behind, but Savoldelli was receiving plenty of help from Garate and Van Huffel in particular, who both appeared to be riding with Discovery jerseys for the rest of the day.
After 190 kilometres, the gruppo maglia rosa crossed the line just shy of two-minutes from Rujano, thus preserving Savoldelli's race lead, and ultimately, overall victory. A truly epic day.
With the podium decided, it's all over but the shouting as the final stage of the 88th Giro heads from Albese Con Cassano near Lake Como and back to Milano for the final 10 finishing circuits in the centre of Milano, where sprinters - or what's left of them - will rule the day.