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Stormy weather swept the 88th Giro d'Italia on Saturday and changed the face of Italy's Grand Tour, where Lampre-Cafitta's Cunego-Simoni tandem put a whuppin' on their Giro rivals like CSC's Ivan Basso, Stefano Garzelli and Dario Cioni of Liquigas and Sergei Gonchar (Domina Vacanze). The scene of the crime was the steep, tough, final ascent of Sammomme' that concluded with 17km to go before a wide open descent back to the finish in Pistoia.
First over the line in Pistoia was Koldo Gil Perez (Liberty Seguros), who had been on the attack for 180km on Saturday as part of a 21 man break and hung tough to maintain his lead on the final ascent to take a magnificent solo victory in Pistoia. It was Gil's fourth career stage win today after taking the Tour Of Murcia GC in March, and the 27 year old from Pamplona, who lives just lives two kilometres from Miguel Indurain and was on the same youth cycling team as Miguelon, seemed astonished that he hung on for the victory.
"I was strong today, but I wasn't really thinking of winning. I went as hard as I could on the final ascent and when I got to the top of the climb, Manolo (Saiz) told me I had a minute lead, so I knew I could do it." Gil took the points atop Sammomme', giving the Liberty rider the maglia verde of best climber. But the talented Gil, who's been on the attack since the Giro started, has no ambitions in tomorrow's time trial. "I'm here to help (Michele) Scarponi in the mountains; he's the boss."
Maglia rosa Paolo Bettini lost his pretty pink tunic to ProTour leader Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas-Bianchi), who had made the tough selection on Sammomme', unlike his teammates Garzelli and Cioni. "It's a good climb for my characteristics and I wanted to get the maglia rosa back. Tomorrow I'll give it my best in the time trial." Bettini was philosophical about losing the top spot on Giro GC. "My goal was to arrive in Pistoia with the maglia rosa and even though I lost it today, I'm happy. Maybe the other day I rode too hard (Stage 5), but now I want to do well on a mountain stage. That's my next goal."
Giro favourites CSC did the hard work today to bring back the break, while Liquigas and Lampre-Cafitta sat back most of the day, but in the end it was CSC who lost time. Basso crossed the line 0'54 behind Gil and 0'34 behind the Di Luca/Cunego group. Basso was right there on Sammomme' until the last kilometre when he dropped off the pace. "I had some cramping in my left leg 500m from the top of the climb," he explained. "I changed bikes on the San Baronto climb and perhaps it was the change in temperature or the bike change. So I had to slow near the top. My spare bike is brand new and maybe the saddle was too high since I've never ridden it. It's too bad I lost the time, but that happens. I didn't have any problems following the pace otherwise."
Although Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Cafitta) raised his hands as he crossed the line for second in Pistoia (he didn't know that Gil had just won 20 seconds before), he was happily embarrassed by his performance. "There was a lot of confusion today and the break got almost 15'00 lead. But in the final, we showed how strong our team is."
188 riders started Stage 7 this morning at 11:51 in Grosseto on an overcast, humid morning and headed north across Tuscan on tough stage to Pistoia. There were plenty of attacks from the start, which took its toll on sprinter Ivan Quaranta (Domina Vacanze), who abandoned from stomach troubles. On the climb up to Roccastrada after 32km, Domina Vacanze's Mirko Celestino attacked and provoked a major move that eventually included 21 riders, including Evgeni Petrov (Lampre), Laurent Lefevre (Bouygues Telecom), Thierry Marichal (Cofidis), Ivan Parra (Selle Italia), Patrice Halgand (Credit Agricole), Christophe Brandt (Davitamon), Michael Barry (Discovery), Mirko Celestino and Marco Fertonani (Domina), Sandy Casar (Francaise Des Jeux), Marcel Strauss (Gerolsteiner), Jose Luis Carrasco Gamiz (Illes Balears), Dariusz Baranowski and Koldo Gil Perez (Liberty Seguros), Charly Wegelius (Liquigas), Steve Zampieri (Phonak), Cristian Moreni (Quick Step), Theo Eltink (Rabobank), Angel Gomez Gomez and Joaquin Rodriguez Oliver (Saunier Duval), and Matthias Kessler (T-Mobile).
Maglia rosa Paolo Bettini's Quick.Step squad wasn't that interested in keeping things together, so this massive break quickly gained time. After only 8km, the break had 6'15 and the first hour of the race covered 44.2km. With a tailwind and occasional rain showers, the break had gained another 3'15 by Frosini after 63km. The gap continued to grow as no one in the peloton wanted to take the initiative so by the 95km mark in Colle Val d'Elsa, the 21 fugitives had a huge 13'00 lead. Moreni and Celestino were the best placed on GC, with Celestino leader on the road in 9th, 49 seconds behind Bettini.
Back in the gruppo maglia rosa, the various team directors started to do the math; 111km to go...that's 0'07 per kilometre so we'd better start to ride! CSC hit the front outside of Poggibonsi and upped the pace. At the Intergiro in Certaldo, Gomez Gomez beat Marcel Strauss and Baranowski with the gruppo maglia rosa 10'00 behind with 96km to go. With the big group working well and no all-out chase behind, it was hard for the gruppo to bring back the break. But the chase behind would make its mark over the next hour of racing.
CSC was racing on home turf, as team manager Bjarne Riis lives in Lucca and he sent his train to the front. At the first GPM of the day at San Baronto, the break had with 4'57 with CSC's Blaudzun splitting the peloton into three sections. Through the finish in Pistoia with 32km to go, lead was down to 3'50. CSC had brought back 1'00 in 16.2km between the top of San Baronto and Piazza San Francesco d'Assisi in the centro storico of Pistoia.
Zampieri made the first move before the Sammomme' and was quickly joined by Vuelta Murcia winner Gil and Gomez Gomez, who gained a 0'10 lead over the rest of the break with 30km to go. As the Sammomme' started in Piteccio, Kessler (T-Mobile) attacked to try to bridge to the three front riders, while Zampieri attacked off the front when he saw that Gil was uncertain. The gruppo maglia rosa was just 2'00 behind and about to absorb the remains of the break as Riis sent climber Schleck to the front to ride tempo for Basso. Panaria had Sella, Tiralongo and Mazzanti up there, as were Di Luca, Garzelli and Cioni (Liquigas-Bianchi), Gonchar (Domina Vacanze), Simoni and Cunego (Lampre-Cafitta) and Scarponi (Liberty Seguros). Miniscule maglia verde Rujano (Selle Italia) went to the front at the hardest, steepest part of the Sammomme' and his acceleration stretched out the gruppo.
Up front, Gil had dropped Zampieri and had 0'30 on the Swiss rider, while Gomez Gomez, Rodriguez and Fertonani were caught in between the gruppo 2'30 behind. Bettini dropped from the main chase group but was hanging tough on the steepest parts of the 11% slopes of Sammomme'. Up front, as the climb turned right with 2km to go, Simoni accelerated and instantly the Trentino climber's move split the front group in two. Just behind was maglia verde Rujano, Basso, Di Luca and Savoldelli, while Garzelli and Cioni lost ground. Cunego was at the front too and with 1.5km to the summit, it was Rujano pounding on the front as he realized that Gil's points at the KOM would take away his leader's jersey. Simoni and Cunego were right there, with Di Luca, Basso, Savoldelli and Ardila, while Garzelli and Cioni were just off the back of this chase group.
At the top of Sammomme' and the GPM, Gil was ahead of Fertonani by 1'00, with the remains of break at 1'15 including Halgand, Zampieri and Rodriguez, while the Di Luca/Cunego group was just about to absorb them. Down the wet descent for the final 17km into Pistoia, it was all Gil, all the time. With 10km to go, the Di Luca / Cunego group were 1'05 behind the Liberty rider, while the Basso / Garzelli group were chasing desperately at 1'40, while the gruppo maglia rosa was at 2'30.
At the 5km point, Simoni and Cunego's Lampre-Cafitta teammate Petrov was riding all out on front of the 13 man group chasing Gil 0'50 ahead, with a 0'30 gap over the Basso/Garzelli group. With 1400m to go, Garzelli crashed on a slick right hand bend and scraped his right thigh, but as he was within the last 3km, he kept the same time as his group. Great Gil hung on for the biggest win of his career and Cunego and Simoni showed they mean business at this year's Giro. Discovery Channel's Paolo Savoldelli had a superb ride today and showed that he is well and truly back and will also be a force to be reckoned with in the 88th Giro d'Italia.
The first real test of the 88th Giro d'Italia is Sunday's 45km individual time trial from Lamporecchio-Firenze. The chrono heads east along the Arno River valley towards Firenze, then climbs up amid the vineyards and olive trees of Monte Albano, gaining 300m in 6km. Over the top, there's a fast, wide open 10km descent to Poggio a Caiano and then a straight shot back to Firenze and the finish on Viale Lincoln along the Arno River.