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The race of truth does not lie, and on a sticky Thursday afternoon in Pontedera, birthplace of the...
Serguei Gonchar (T-Mobile)
The race of truth does not lie, and on a sticky Thursday afternoon in Pontedera, birthplace of the Vespa scooter, Jan Ullrich had his motor tuned to perfection, blitzing the entire field with a perfetto display of power time trialling. The flat as a tack course was tailor-made for the 32 year-old from Rostock, but so far this year, the German had given little indication he had the form to win. Today changed all that, and it would not be presumptuous to say on July 1 in Strasbourg, he will be ready to take all on at the Tour de France.
"I'm amazed that I posted the best time - I didn't fire on all cylinders at first," said a surprised though exuberant Ullrich, who said he was simply using today's stage as a test of form more than anything else. "But when I heard that I was among the best [at the intermediate time checks], I gave it a hundred percent."
Added his T-Mobile Team director and confidant Rudy Pevenage: "Jan rode a very strong second half of the race. With the headwind, the plan was not to go at full throttle until the latter half [of the race]. From the final time check on, he gave it his all. When I saw the way Jan worked in the opening stages, I knew he would be on track [today]."
Second place was no surprise, as it was around this time last year and not too far away that one first witnessed Ivan Basso's massively improved ability against the clock. In the eighth stage of the 2005 Giro, Basso finished just 17 seconds behind his CSC team-mate Dave Zabriskie in a 45 kilometre time test from Lamporecchio to Firenze; a week and a half later, he won an equally demanding TT on the third to last day of the Giro.
Given today's parcours was totally against his preference, 27 seconds adrift of Der Jan was another big tick in the box for the maglia rosa, who is a man growing in confidence by the day: "I'm happy with my time trial and I did better than I thought," said Basso. "It's very important to finish a time trial well; I started well, but I finished really well. Generally speaking, it's a good sign to finish a time trial stronger than I began."
About the half-minute gap between Ullrich and himself, he replied: "For the moment, I'm not concerned about it and I don't want to think about it, because this Giro is taking a lot of energy out of me each day. With the Tour, we will see... I think we will both be well-placed on general classification."
Asked about catching and passing Lampre's Damiano Cunego in the final kilometres, and whether it bore any significance, Basso was quick to dismiss any notion of bad blood between the two. "Just because I caught him, it's not revenge or something personal; it's just the nature of the time trial, that you go as fast as possible. I did my race and there was Cunego ahead, but there could of been other riders - my target was to take as much time as possible [from my rivals]."
Not leading until the third of four checkpoints but not far off Marc Wauters' fast early times, it took until kilometre 41.5 of 50 before Der Kaiser really got his engine humming, eventually singing a tune not one could follow. 58 minutes and 48 seconds set an average speed of 51 kilometres per hour, with those figures alone silencing his critics.
"It was just a test. The result doesn't matter; what counts is the Tour," Ullrich said.
Honourable mentions should go to Saunier Duval-Prodir's Marco Pinotti, Ullrich's team-mate Serguei Gonchar, and defending champion Paolo Savoldelli (Discovery Channel), who finished between 1'01 and 1'19 behind the winning time. However, with all of Basso's rivals losing out to the gangly man from Gallarate, they must be praying for a Basso implosion similar to last year in order to have any chance at victory.
"It was hard today," said Gonchar. "From the beginning until Pisa there was a strong headwind. I'm happy with my ride today and happy for my team-mate Ullrich who won the stage."
Said Savoldelli: "It was a good time trial for me today; I thought I'd lose about one second per kilometre and that's exactly the way it went. So I'm pretty happy and there are still a lot of stages to go, especially with the super-difficult last week. This Giro won't be decided until the end."
When the final accounts were taken in Pontedera after the flat, fast power stage, just 50 kilometres of racing had taken a terrible toll on the climbing contenders at the 89th Giro. Perhaps worst off of the GC riders is pocket Venezuelan José Rujano, the Selle Italia rider losing four and a quarter minutes and now fourteenth overall, a massive 9'19 down on Basso. And Rujano actually did better than Simoni, Di Luca, Cunego and Pellizotti in the TT.
"I think it's normal the other climbers lost some minutes," said Basso, "because with a time trial like that with a headwind at the beginning and a tailwind at the end, it's very hard when you're 59, 60 kilos. It's difficult for them, it's normal; you have to have some particular characteristics for this [type of] time trial."
Phonak's raging bull José Gutierrez Catalunya keeps his second place, 2'48 in arrears, with Ukraine Serguei Gonchar (T-Mobile Team) third at 3'24 and Savoldelli fourth, a further two seconds back. The good news for Discovery is that they now have two cards to play, as Tom Danielson's solid ride moved the American up to fifth overall, 5'36 behind Basso. Liquigas-Bianchi has found a new leader in Franco Pellizotti, 6th at 6'37, while another Phonak man, Victor Hugo Pena, is seventh. However, Giro contender Cunego was another hit hard today, losing six places on GC to eighth and now 6'55 behind, with Gibo Simoni ninth at 7'13 and Danilo Di Luca rounding out the top ten, 7'33 behind the maglia rosa.
"It was very, very hard today," said Simoni. "I haven't ridden a long time trial like that for a while! Now I'm glad that there are just mountains to come. It's still possible to do something at this Giro."
A disappointed Di Luca expected to take time from Cunego and Simoni, but it didn't work out that way: "It just didn't go the way I hoped today... I could never get my rhythm going. So now I'll wait for the mountains."
The stage was the turning point in the Giro d'Italia, with the antipasto run in Belgium to start the Italian Grand Tour, while the primi were the tasty stages run since the corsa rosa returned to the Italian boot. Today's flat, fast individual time test started and finished in Pontedera, in the heart of the Val d'Arno west of Firenze, and was dedicated to the memory of Italian cycling legend Gino Bartali, who is from nearby Firenze.
On a hot, sunny day with light breezes from the west-southwest, Stage 11 headed north out of Pontedera, then west around the Monte Serra hills along the Arno River, which put a headwind in the face of the Giro testers. It then stayed due west through wide open country filled with nurseries and farmlands, before traversing the twisty roads in the centre of Pisa, through Piazza Miracoli and past the landmark Leaning Tower. Later heading east out of town to the tailwind section along the Arno River, riders passed through the last time check in Cascina with 8.7km back to Pontedera for the finish.
The early results of Stage 11 showed that this was a race for the real time trial specialists, as the first rider under 1h03' was Panaria's Ukrainian tester Sergei Matveyev, a former winner of the Firenze-Pistoia time trial. Matveyev rode 1h02'34, but young Lithuanian talent Tomas Vaitkus (AG2R) bested Matveyev by four seconds. But Belgian time trial specialist, giant Bert Roesems (Davitamon-Lotto), clocked in at a perfect 1h02.
Next to lower the bar was another Belgian, the experienced Marc 'Soldaat' Wauters (Rabobank), who was 10 seconds faster than his fellow Flahute Roesems at 1h01'50. At a quarter to one, the turn of another big man, powerful Swede Gustav Erik Larsson (Francaise des Jeux), neared the magic 50 km/h average with a speedy 1h01'10 to go into the hot seat.
The afternoon heat began to rise as the start list got deeper and deeper into the contenders and the tension cranked up. Big Larsson, fourth in the 2004 world TT championships in Bardolino stayed in the lead as former Italian TT champ Dario Cioni (Liquigas-Bianchi) got within two seconds of the Swede, but all eyes were on Jan Ullrich (T-Mobile Team) who started at 14:46:30. But it was the maglia tricolore of Italian TT champ Marco Pinotti who rode up viale Italia to the finish with the best time, the first rider to go under the hour with the excellent time of 59'49.
Ulle was looking beautiful on the bike as usual and going very fast, but just behind was his T-Mobile teammate, World TT champ Mick Rogers, who wanted to win at all costs today. But for the last 30 riders in Stage 11, Mother Nature was playing some tricks as the wind had shifted around to become variable and sometimes a headwind in the final phases. Nevertheless, some recent dental work meant Rogers was feeling better and was a picture of class and power as he smoothly sped along the roads around Pisa.
Ullrich was third at the 28 km check, 17 seconds off the pace of Wauters and was clearly going all out to test himself in the 50km time test. After posting the fastest split at the 41.5km mark, he pounded a huge gear over the last 5km into Pontedera and looking like the great time triallist he is, Ullrich smashed Pinotti's time by 1'01 with a 58'48, just over a 51km/hr. average speed.
Behind Ulle, Rogers evidently just didn't have the legs today and had already lost over a minute to his teammate at the first time check after 15km, and despite the presence of his fan club and mascot Skippy at the finish, Mick eventually rode a disappointing 1h02'08.
Gilberto Simoni and Danilo Di Luca were already 2' behind the fastest splits at the first time check after 14.5km in Caprona, while Gonchar was surprising slow, 46 seconds off the fast pace set by Wauters at 17'30. Savoldelli rode through Caprona 18'35, already gaining time on his GC rivals. Cunego was clearly trying hard but was also over 2' behind at the first time check. Riding through Caprona last was pink clad Giro leader Basso, pedaling at a high cadence and already gaining 24" over Savoldelli.
As the contenders cleared Pisa's Piazza dei Miracoli and passed the halfway time check at Lungarno Galilei after 28km, Simoni was the first contender through at 36'38, while Di Luca had l0 seconds on Simoni with 37'04. Savoldelli was looking good as he turned onto the Lungarno Galilei and passed through with 34'56, clearly gaining on Di Luca, Simoni and Cunego, the latter riding all out but had been caught by Phonak's Gutierrez. Gonchar pounded through in 34'38, while Phonak's Gutierrez was having an excellent ride with 34'46. Cunego was out of his element and his time of 37'25 after 28km showed it as he was already 3' behind Basso. The maglia rosa was looking great as he passed through the second time check with 34'34, faster than Gonchar and 22 seconds ahead of Savoldelli, losing two seconds to the Discovery rider.
Tom Danielson had an excellent ride to finish in 1h01'23, while his team-mate Savoldelli cranked it up on the return leg, passing through Cascina with 50'12 and riding the third leg faster than the Ukraine TT specialist Gonchar. Cunego was labouring in a big gear, too big as he struggled to stay ahead of Basso, who was closing fast on the Lampre rider.
In Pontedera, the first of the Giro favourites finished as Gibo finished in a respectable 1h03'09. Gonchar, who had caught Di Luca and Caruso, pounded up the long finishing straight in his 53x11 to finish in 59'57, while Di Luca ended his agony in 1h04'01. His Liquigas-Bianchi teammate Pellizotti had a good time of 1h03'45, while Basso was getting busy catching Cunego in the final kilometres, passing the Lampre man with 500 metres to go.
Ullrich took the stage win in Pontedera behind a superb Basso, with an incredible ride by Marco Pinotti for third, just 1'01 behind Der Jan and 8 seconds ahead of fourth-placed Gonchar. Savoldelli was a solid fifth at 1h00'07 for a 49.903km/ hr average and a surprising Gutierrez from Phonak was sixth on the stage.
A transitional stage that goes through Alessandro Petacchi's backyard, who will unfortunately be visiting the Giro on crutches. With the steep Passo del Bracco 19km the finish, sprinters may not make it to Sestri Levante together, and a breakaway is likely to make it.