It was a stage that was tailor made for Alessandro Petacchi. The speedster from La Spezia could look forward to a four kilometre finishing straight and have his well drilled silver train wind it up so fast that no-one could challenge him. That was the theory, and Petacchi looked good at 1 km to go with two teammates still ahead of him as the sprint into Santa Maria del Cedro wound up on the right hand side of the road. But for the second time in two days, the silver train disintegrated as other teams challenged it. In the end, it was Davitamon-Lotto's flying kangaroo Robbie McEwen who won after choosing Jaan Kirsipuu's wheel to get him to 100m to go, when he performed the coupe de grace. Petacchi was boxed in by then and Isaac Galvez (Illes Balears) and Robert Forster (Gerolsteiner) took second and third.
"It's a complicated sprint when it's four kilometres in a straight line, because even if they ride at 65 km/h, people can always find their way around," said McEwen afterwards. "I managed to find a good wheel in the sprint and I'm very happy to win a stage already in the Giro."
Asked what this victory meant to him, McEwen replied, "This is up there. It's nice to win a big bunch sprint in a Grand Tour when everyone is there and there is not a hill out the road that will drop some sprinters, and no corners were people will say I flicked through a small gap. Today I can say I was the cleverest and the strongest. Tomorrow, who knows, it may be someone else but today was my day."
In winning the stage, McEwen also took enough bonus seconds to wrest the maglia rosa from Paolo Bettini's shoulders, a first for the 32 year-old Belgian based Australian. "I never thought of taking the pink," he added, saying that it would be difficult to defend it. "I will try again tomorrow but I think it is maybe something again for Bettini. There is a climb of five kilometres only nine kilometres from the finish, so it will be a difficult day, and I will just be trying to enjoy my day in the maglia rosa."
The 'gentleman sprinter' Petacchi wasn't at all happy with the way things turned out. "I'm disappointed not to have won the stage and above all, the maglia rosa," said Petacchi. "In the finale I was aware of the agreement between Kirsipuu and McEwen to try to put me in difficulty, but what annoyed me the most was the way in which the Estonian moved towards the wheels of Ongarato and Velo. If we end up on the ground at that speed, we do ourselves a lot of damage.
"At this stage, the objective of the maglia rosa has gone even if my condition is better compared to last year. Sometimes you win when you go easy, sometimes you lose when you go strongly. I'll put everything into trying again," vowed Petacchi.
McEwen's shrugged off Petacchi's allegation of collusion: "Let's put it this way, this is not athletics, we are not running in lanes. There is no conspiracy. There was absolutely, positively, no talk of Kirsipuu taking someone out of the way. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time and benefited from their clash. You can't push Jaan Kirsipuu out of the way when you feel like it, he's like a block of cement. Kirsipuu just kept going and I stayed in his slip-stream which is pretty big, he's a big solid guy.
"That was just how the sprint turned out today. Tomorrow could be different and the next day different again. I was just fast enough, strong enough and clever enough to be in the right place at the right time. If you let the Fassa train stay in front until Petacchi moves at 200 m to go then 9.5 times out of ten he will win."
The Giro is only a few stages old, but it's already clear that the dominance of Fassa Bortolo in the sprint stages can be broken by last minute assaults from strong teams. The higher quality of the field and the presence of more international teams has certainly added to the interest, even if Petacchi doesn't like the tactics.
How it unfolded
196 riders left Catanzaro Lido at 12:36 in moderately warm 23 degree conditions with a light southwesterly wind blowing. First up the riders climbed out of Catanzaro where the day's only mountain sprint was located. Mountains leader Thorwald Veneberg (Rabobank) took second in the sprint behind Illiano (Colombia-Selle Italia), with Bram Schmitz (T-Mobile Team) third. Then it was a trek across the southern tip of Italy to the west coast, which the riders would follow all the way to the finish at Santa Maria del Cedro.
After a lethargic first hour at 30.5 km/h, four riders attacked at the 34 km mark: Philippe Schnyder (Colombia-Selle Italia), Freddy Bichot (Francaise des Jeux), Roy Sentjens (Rabobank), and Bram Schmitz (T-Mobile). A few kilometres later, they were joined by Moreno Di Biase (Colombia-Selle Italia), and Intergiro leader Sven Krauss (Gerolsteiner), and the break of the day was formed.
The six weren't given too much freedom by the peloton, and nudged it up to 5'35 by the 71 km mark. There were plenty of teams interested in a bunch sprint today: Fassa Bortolo and Davitamon-Lotto, of course, but also Cofidis (O'Grady), and Domina Vacanze (Quaranta). Thus it was left to Gustov and Codol (Fassa), Gates (Lotto), Vanotti (Domina) and Marichal (Cofidis) to do much of the controlling work.
After averaging 34.35 km/h in the first two hours, the break began to lose ground as the peloton gradually upped the tempo along the coast road. Sven Krauss achieved his major goal by winning the Intergiro sprint at Paola (km 111), while potential rival Moreno Di Biase slipped on some oil on a corner and came down. Di Biase scraped his arm and thigh, but was able to rejoin the break which now had 3'00 over the bunch.
At the feed zone in Marina di Fuscaldo (km 119), it was down to 2'30 and falling. With 47 km to go, just as the peloton had crossed a small, twisting climb at Acquappesa, Euskaltel rider Alberto Lopez de Munain lost concentration and overlapped a wheel in front, bringing himself down hard against the metal barrier on the right hand side of the road. With his face badly cut up, Lopez de Munain was taken to hospital and was out of the race.
The peloton continued its chase of the leaders and with 22 km to go, last man standing Freddy Bichot was swept up and it was gruppo compatto for the rest of the stage. The bunch flew into Santa Maria del Cedro with Quick.Step taking over the pace making to protect maglia rosa Bettini. Het Volk winner Nick Nuyens hammered away on the front up the climb on the finishing circuit, causing a group of 40 riders to lose contact, including Ivan Quaranta. CSC took over on the descent to keep Ivan Basso out of trouble, and it was Michael Blaudzun, Frank Schleck and Andrea Peron keeping the pace up.
With 3 km to go, the front of the peloton assumed a familiar shape as Fassa Bortolo took control with five men. But Ferretti's silver and blue clad boys did not have it all their own way today: After Baldato did his turn at 1.5 km to go, Francaise des Jeux started to move up with Cooke in tow. Then it was Credit Agricole for Kirsipuu, who had Robbie McEwen glued to his wheel. All of a sudden, Marco Velo and Petacchi on the right hand side of the road were closed in, and had nowhere to go as Kirsipuu led out from 250m. McEwen waited patiently on the Estonian's wheel, and launched his move at 100m out to win the stage ahead of Isaac Galvez (Illes Balears) and Robert Forster (Gerolsteiner), who had chosen the clearest route behind the Australian's wheel. Petacchi finished fourth, denied once again, and McEwen took the maglia rosa from Bettini.
Stage 3 - May 10: Diamante - Giffoni Valle Piana, 210 km
Again starting on the Tirennean coast, Stage 3 heads inland after 30km and crosses the hilly terrain of the Cilento, passing through Eboli, the village made famous by Carlo Levi's book "Christ Stopped In Eboli" with 30km to go. With a 6km ascent to the GPM in Montecorvino Pugliano situated 6km from the finish, Stage 3 will not be a sprint finish, but McEwen and Petacchi seem to have good condition at the moment to get over the climbs. Otherwise, Bettini is a chance to recapture the pink.