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It took Giancarlo Ferretti's men 10 days to win a stage of the Giro d'Italia, but finally Fassa Bortolo's gun sprinter Alessandro Petacchi was able to throw his hands in the air at the finish of stage 9 in Ravenna, which also marked the end of the first half of the corsa rosa. It's been a very bumpy start for the silver and blue train, which had a mortgage on all the flat stages in last year's Giro. Today, it had to work hard to fend off Credit Agricole, T-Mobile, Francaise des Jeux, and Davitamon-Lotto, who were all hungry for victory. But Petacchi's men kept their heads and more importantly, their positions at the front of the peloton with 1 km to go, giving Ale-Jet the textbook leadout that he wanted so that he could finish the job.
A fast finishing Paolo Bettini (Quick.Step) claimed second place on the line, just ahead of Aurelien Clerc (Phonak) and Robbie McEwen (Davitamon-Lotto), who started from too far back today to be a contender. "I didn't have the legs," McEwen told Cyclingnews after crossing the finish line. "I got too far back and I had to use my sprint to get into position to sprint. I got to the front just as Petacchi was making his move, but I'd already spent it all."
The race for the maglia rosa was put on hold today, and Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas) enjoyed a relatively easy day sitting behind his big teammate Marco Milesi, holding the pink tunic at the end of the day, and into tomorrow's rest day in Ravenna. In fact, there were no significant changes to any of the major classifications, as maglia azzurra Sven Krauss (Gerolsteiner) got in another long break and won the Intergiro sprint, increasing his lead in that competition. Koldo Gil conserved his five point lead in the maglia verde mountains competition, while Di Luca held off Bettini and McEwen by one point to keep the ciclamino points jersey.
In warm and sunny conditions, 186 riders left from the front of the Gino Bartali musuem in Florence at 13:42 for a short, 139 km stage to Ravenna, not far from Pantani's home town of Cesenatico on the east coast of Italy . There was just one climb en route, the Cat. 3 Passo di Muraglione, and the stage had all the hallmarks of ending in a bunch sprint. Most of the riders seemed to be content for this to happen, as the first break of the day with Intergiro leader Sven Krauss (Gerolsteiner), young Danish rider Mads Christensen (Quick.Step) and Eric Baumann (T-Mobile) was allowed to go at kilometre 1.
The trio quickly gained time as the peloton rode a steady controlling tempo behind, limiting the gap to 3'34 at km 36, just before the foot of the climb. The steady pace didn't help American Tom Danielson, who abandoned at the 10 km park with knee pain. Danielson has been feeling it getting worse in the last few days, and he told Cyclingnews at the start, "My knee's been bothering me since the last day of the Tour of Georgia. I probably injured it on the climb to Brasstown Bald, because it was cold."
On the Muraglione, Krauss and Christensen rode at a good pace, and Baumann was forced to drop off, crossing the summit 2'00 behind the pair, with Christensen taking the three points for being first over. Baumann's troubles didn't end there, as he missed a corner on the descent and ended up in a driveway. Fortunately he didn't come off and was able to remount, and the peloton swallowed him at the halfway mark of the stage. Christensen suffered a similar mishap a little further down the mountain, and finished up running into the back of a car. Even more fortunately for the Dane, he did not hit it hard, and was able to rejoin Krauss.
Fassa Bortolo had control of the peloton with Massimo Codol and Volodimir Gustov riding tempo, along with Nick Gates (Lotto), then Marco Milesi who was protecting teammate Danilo Di Luca in fifth wheel. The gap to the two leaders came down from 3'30 to 1'40 at the Intergiro in Forli (35 km to go), where Krauss took the sprint uncontested from Christensen. Stefano Zanini was third, keeping his chances alive in that competition.
The pace in the bunch increased after that and the leaders were swept up with 19 km to go to Ravenna, having been away for 120 km. Then the battle for position started, with the GC and sprinters teams constantly moving their men up, but no team really taking control of the peloton. In recent years, it's been Fassa Bortolo all the way, but that was not the case today and Fassa remained just behind the front of the bunch until the final 3 kilometres, when they made their move.
T-Mobile had managed to get Erik Zabel in the prime position behind Alessandro Petacchi, who had three men to lead him out in the final kilometre. Robbie McEwen seemed to be too far back to be a threat, while O'Grady and Cooke were looking hungry. But this time, Fassa timed it exactly right and no-one could challenge the leadout of Alberto Ongarato and Marco Velo, who took Petacchi to 200 metres to go and left the finishing touch to Ale-Jet. Starting the sprint from his preferred position in front, Petacchi fired up down the centre of the road, drifted to the right slightly, then back to the centre, to win comfortably ahead of a fast finishing Paolo Bettini and Aurelien Clerc. McEwen had managed to get himself up to Petacchi's wheel but faded in the final metres to take fourth.
After a rest day, stage 10 is a flat, fast ride for the sprinters before the mountains start Thursday from Ravenna across the Polesine to Rossano Veneto, hometown of Giro sponsors Wilier Triestina and Selle Italia. Three finishing circuits of 5.2km will help separate the men from the boys in the finale of Stage 10. Petacchi will be trying to take back to back wins while Cooke and McEwen will surely challenge him. There should be no issues for Di Luca in pink.