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A look at the school, the races and the future of this unique 'sport'
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Danilo Di Luca and his Liquigas-Bianchi team turned today's stage upside down, leading a charge that began 30 kilometres from the finish line, before this year's winner of Amstel Gold and Flèche Wallonne finished things off in the best-possible style. Now just nine seconds away from a taste of the maglia rosa, 29 year-old Di Luca is surely thinking pink, and with four stages to go before Sunday's crucial TT in Florence, the rejuvenated rider is an odds-on favourite as the next leader of the 2005 Giro d'Italia.
"I have to thank the whole team and especially Brontolo," said an esctatic Di Luca, the nickname of 'Brontolo' in reference to his team-mate Andrea Noé. "I completed an extraordinary team effort that was all Celeste-green the last 15 kilometres of the race. Now I would like to win again, maybe near my home, in L'Aquila, and also aim at taking the maglia rosa."
It was a 50-strong front group that stormed into Giffoni Valle Piana, a minute ahead of the gruppo maglia rosa of Robbie McEwen (Davitamon-Lotto), and as a consequence, the lead swapped shoulders for the fourth time in as many days, as Paolo Bettini (Quick.Step) regained his position at the top of the tree. All the GC favourites made the cut, but it was interesting to see the variation in form within the group, with Garzelli and Savoldelli so far looking the goods.
Said Team CSC's Ivan Basso, 22nd on the stage and now 14th overall, 36 seconds behind Bettini: "I felt really strong today. When we hit the climb, I actually considered an attack, but I chose to save my strength. I didn't have any problems keeping up and actually had energy to spare at the end. I consider this a good sign, and now I'm just looking forward to hitting some real mountains."
"I knew it was going to happen," said McEwen to Cyclingnews of his short spell in pink. "I knew Bettini would smash it to bits on the climb, which they did. I managed to come back to the group with Petacchi, Zabel, Cookie and Stuey, and we chased like hell, but they were too far in front.
"I think I can win another stage, maybe tomorrow, but I won't see the maglia rosa again. Maybe the purple one!" he quipped.
With Brett Lancaster (Ceramica Panaria-Navigare) taking the opening prologue and Robbie McEwen (Davitamon-Lotto) winning Stage 2, thus starting today's stage in Diamante as race leader, keeping the publicity north of the equator has been difficult to say the least. So when Adelaide boy Russell Van Hout (Colombia-Selle Italia) launched himself out on his own right from the start, European cycling commentators began scratching their heads, with very much a 'What the ... ' mindset.
"Willo and I had a look at the stage last night; we saw it had a few hills in it, and we thought it was a good day to break away," said Van Hout to Cyclingnews. "First, Willo went with Gatesy [Nick Gates] and Robbie [McEwen], but there was no way they were going to let Robbie go, so when the bunch caught them, told them they were idiots and to settle down, I hit out as hard as I could."
The 28 year-old, second in this year's Australian road time trial championships, looked like he was after more than a little TV time, and soon settled into a steady tempo that was to last for much of the day. The peloton, ambivalent about his chances, were initially content to let him go, and go Russ went, moving past the five minute mark less than an hour into his effort, and more than doubling that advantage two hours down the road.
Zooming past Casalbuono at km 80, Van Hout gained his daily maximum of 17 minutes, and held steady for the next 40 kilometres, tapping out a rhythm that didn't look like breaking anytime soon. Quick.Step and Liquigas-Bianchi weren't so sure, either, and over the next few hours, they chomped away kilometre after kilometre, eating into Russ' advantage, before spitting out his hopes shortly before the GPM of Santa Tecla (km 191.4), where the race in earnest was about to begin.
Recalled Van Hout: "I was going alright, and still had 15 minutes with 140k to go. I thought, 'If I can just just get a little bit more time, I might be able to do this'... but then the wind changed into a headwind, and that didn't do anything for my chances. Now, I'll save myself for the time trial on Sunday; I'm not going to put too much pressure on myself, but if I'm on a good day, another top 10 finish might be possible." [He finished eighth in the Stage 13 time trial at the 2004 Giro d'Italia - ed.]
True to their name, the Liquigas trio of Danilo Di Luca, Dario Cioni and Stefano Garzelli appeared to be powered by liquid nitrogen as they flew the coup up the six kilometre ascent, with Di Luca particularly forceful. The relentless pace shattered the peloton and any hopes Robbie McEwen may have had of holding onto the maglia rosa by the day's end, as rider after rider found themselves drifting towards the back of the bunch.
It was Liquigas 1-2-3 over the GPM, before the tenacious trio hurtled down into Giffoni Valle Piana. A slight regrouping occurred with all the GC contenders represented, but by that stage, the gruppo maglia rosa were now a minute behind, out of sight, out of mind.
With strength in numbers, it was a big ask to take on the might of Dani et al at the finish line - but Kid Cunego gave it a good go, only just coming off second best at the line, and moving himself into third overall behind Bettini and Di Luca. 2000 Giro winner Garzelli ended up third on the stage, and now lies fourth on GC, 23 seconds off the race lead.
Danilo Di Luca and his Liquigas-Bianchi team turned today's stage upside down, leading a charge that began 30 kilometres from the finish line, before this year's winner of Tirreno-Adriatico, Amstel Gold and Flèche Wallonne finished things off in the best-possible style. Now just nine seconds away from a taste of the maglia rosa, 31 year-old Di Luca is surely thinking pink, and with four stages to go before Sunday's crucial TT in Florence, the rejuvenated rider is an odds-on favourite as the next leader of the 2005 Giro d'Italia.
It was a 50-strong lead group that stormed into Giffoni Valle Piana, a minute ahead of the gruppo maglia rosa of Robbie McEwen (Davitamon-Lotto), and as a consequence, the lead swapped shoulders for the fourth time in as many days, as Paolo Bettini (Quick.Step) regained his position at the top of the tree. All the GC favourites made the cut, but it was interesting to see the variation in form within the group, with Garzelli and Savoldelli so far looking the goods.