Three changes to the top ten, more expected tomorrow
As he turned his head around metres before the line, making sure no-one would pass him, Joan Horrach Rippoll's strawberry blonde ponytail flicked back softly against his neck, his right arm began swinging in a circular motion as if waving a lasso, before both arms lifted in unison, his index fingers and azure eyes pointing towards the baby blue Ligurian sky.
Catching his breakaway companions by surprise with a perfectly-timed move five hundred metres from the line, the 32 year-old Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears rider took the greatest win of his six-year career in the seaside town of Sestri Levante. Until today, no-one had heard too much of this man who hails from Deia on the popular Spanish holiday island of Majorca, who hadn't taken a trick since his two stage wins in the Volta a Portugal four years ago. But now, Horrach had the eyes of the Giro upon him.
"When the Panaria rider [Emanuele Sella] started the forcing on the final climb, it was tough but I managed to hang on. I thought about making an attack in the finale and the time was right, so I was able to win. It's the most important win of my career," he stated.
"It is a very special victory for me, because it is a big race, three weeks, twenty-one stages, a lot of riders... and the chances of winning a stage are very small," continued Horrach. "Illes Balears don't have a man for the general [classification] now, so every day, we'll try to go in the breaks. I don't like the high mountains but the medium-sized ones are good for me, where there aren't too many riders and there's no big sprint [at the finish]; I'm quite fast but only in a group of ten riders or so."
Today's escape contained three men relatively high on the overall classification - Sella (Ceramica Panaria-Navigare), Wladimir Belli (Selle Italia-Serramenti Diquigiovanni) and Manuel Beltran Martinez (Discovery Channel) - who profited from a hard day's work as five riders - Sella, Belli, Addy Engels (Quick Step-Innergetic), Manuele Mori (Saunier Duval-Prodir) and Sella's teammate Fortunato Baliani - all finished on the same time, five seconds behind Horrach.
But despite Sella jumping eighteen places, now fourth overall at 4'17 behind maglia rosa Ivan Basso; Belli twenty, 5'31 behind; and Beltran sixteen, 6'36 behind, Basso and his team were rock solid again, and did not panic.
Said Basso: "We can't chase every rider and only let go riders who are 30 minutes behind [on general classification], so it's not unusual to see Belli and Sella move to the top of the classification. The break was actually good for us; on the final descent, we took it very easy because we knew there had been some crashes ahead."
Sella, along with Mori, twice fell victim on the highly technical and dangerous descent of the Passo del Bracco, and will no doubt be licking their war wounds tonight and maybe for a few more days to come.
"We got away on the final descent and it was a good move with Mori," said Sella. "But we hit some tough corners; I followed Mori and we crashed - then it happened again! After the second time, it was too late and the others were gone. I'm really sorry because I wanted to win today; I didn't think the descent was that bad... "
Mori was looking worse off than Sella, holding a towel underneath his bleeding chin while being interviewed. "Yes, I'm disappointed about what happened. Me and Sella were ahead; we gave it our best shot and I just blew the curve," he said. "For a while, it was looking good for us but it ended up bad. I went into the corner too fast."
While Sella and Mori bravely got back on their bikes and lost no time, Serguei Gonchar (T-Mobile Team) was not so lucky. After roughly ten kilometres' racing, the Ukraine, third overall at the start of the day, crashed hard along with Cyrille Monnerais (Française des Jeux), Daniel Navarro (Liberty Seguros-Würth), Dario Cioni (Liquigas) and Roberto Laiseka (Euskaltel-Euskadi), and never properly recovered, with Gonchar dropped on the final climb and stumbling down the classifica generale by the day's end to 21st place, ten minutes in arrears.
"Today was quite difficult but in saying that, this year's race has been difficult; it feels like the Tour de France," said Basso. "The speed is very high, there is no time to rest, and it's been a very competitive race.
Asked if Simoni and Cunego are racing for second, he swiftly replied: "No, I'm sure they aren't looking at things like that, because they are champions and I'm sure they'll attack and make life as difficult as possible for me. Anything can happen in the coming stages.
"Tomorrow, maybe there is a break and behind, the battle between the favourites will take place... or maybe a favourite wants to win tomorrow, and his team will want to control the race. The last descent is quite difficult, but I'm not afraid of descents; I'm more afraid of the climbs. Saturday's crucial moment is the ascent of Colle San Carlo; it's very hard and then there's a descent to La Thuile. Also, if Savoldelli chooses to go like a motorbike on the descents, I will not take risks [to try and follow]... he's crazy on the descents."
Added Simoni: "I'm still looking to the podium even if Basso seems unbeatable - I have a lot of work to do!" he said with a wry grin, fully aware he was stating the bleeding obvious.
So what will Horrach do now?
In the short term, most likely try and get himself in a few more breakaways, but he already knows what he wants to do once his career as a cyclist is over. "After I retire, I want to be a carpenter, like my Dad and brother. This [victory] won't change my life, but it's a good souvenir," he said.
How it unfolded
On a warm, sunny spring Friday, 182 riders departed Rotonda di Ardenza in the attractive Tuscan port city of Livorno at 12:52 with two riders non-starters, Belgian puncheur Phillipe Gilbert (Francaise de Jeux) and climber Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank). The percorso headed due north along the Ligurian Sea through Pisa, the city of the famous Torre Pendente (Leaning Tower) and then rejoined the coast road of the via Aurelia. As expected, the pace was high from the start, as many riders didn't go all out in Thursday's time test and were looking to go on the attack.
After 8km exiting Livorno, Bonnet (Credit Agricole) attacked alone before a crash two kilometres later involving Gonchar, Di Luca, Cioni and Laiseka, but all rejoined without consequence except Laiseka, who abandoned 4km later with a suspected broken collarbone.
A huge surge of riders chased Bonnet and soon 15 riders were up the road, consisting: Alberto Ongarato (Team Milram), Wladimir Belli (Selle Italia-Serramenti Diquigiovanni), Joerg Ludewig (T-Mobile Team), Addy Engels (Quick Step-Innergetic), Pat Mc Carty (Phonak), Patrick "Beautiful" Calcagni (Liquigas), Fortunato Baliani and Emanuele Sella (Ceramica Panaria-Navigare), Joan Horrach (Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears), Triki Beltran (Discovery Channel), Manuele Mori (Saunier Duval-Prodir) and Sven Krauss (Gerolsteiner), Mickael Delage (Française des Jeux), Arnaud Labbe (Bouygues Telecom) and William Bonnet (Credit Agricole).
Once CSC saw that there were no dangerous riders up the road, they let the break go and after 19km of liberty in Pisa, the front runners already had 2'06. At the seaside resort of Viareggio after 38km, the break was riding hard up the via Aurelia and had doubled their advantage to 4'10, with Bonnet taking the intermediate sprint in Viareggio. After one hour of racing, the coastal tailwind had propelled the riders over 51.1 kilometres.
At the intermediate sprint in Marina di Carrara, with the Alpe Apuane and their vertiginous marble quarries looming above, it was old pro Belli riding his 13th Giro d'Italia, who took the prize with CSC riding the tempo on the gruppo maglia rosa 6'24 behind. Up past Amelia through the feed zone and through La Spezia, the escapees headed toward the first climbs into the beautiful hills of Cinque Terre. Back in the peloton, AG2R's Mark Scanlon abandoned in Amelia.
After two hours, the average speed was high at 49.2 km/hr and the climbing had started. Up and over the small Madonna di Buonviaggio climb, the break hit the base of Stage 12's first serious ascent up to Biassa and at the GPM signaling 67km to go, it was Panaria's Balliani who took the points, while the CSC led gruppo maglia rosa was at 7 seconds. The break flew down the twisting climb high above the Mar Ligure and at the 110 Gazzetta sprint in Volastra, it was Horrach who took the sprint and tried to attack, but was brought back as the gruppo maglia rosa was still 7'02 behind. Despite Labbe and Bonnet going out the back on the climb out of Volastra, it looked like the break would stay away with 56km to go.
Through the beautiful terraced hills of Cinque Terre, among some of the most beautiful scenery in Europe, the break sped along with Panaria's Balliani pushing the pace for his team-mate Sella. CSC was chasing hard but not all out, just to keep the gap at a reasonable level. Past the turning down to the beautiful seaside village of Vernazza, cool grey gusts of foschia (sea fog) enveloped the riders but as they descended to Levanto, the town at the north end of Cinque Terre, the sun came back out and after three hours, the average speed was 44.3 km/hr. The break commenced the Valico di Guaitarola, a 9.5km ascent with an average grade of 6.5 percent
Seven minutes behind in the gruppo maglia rosa, Gonchar was hurting up the Valico di Guaitarola climb. Suddenly Di Luca went on the attack, with Bettini and Cunego, as CSC's Gustov desperately tried to hang on. Di Luca's move exploded the gruppo but the action only lasted one kilometre as Basso's men took control of the situation. Balliani was hammering hard on the front of the break and his pace reduced the front break to six: Balliani, Sella, Mori, Engels, Horrach and Belli.
With 20km to go on the long descent from Passo del Bracco down towards Sestri Levanti, Sella and Mori had gotten off the front and as they hit the turn that led to the steep 4km descent to Casarza Ligure with 9km to go, the young duo had gained 15 seconds. A four-man chase group was close behind, though, with a another group containing Ongarato, Krauss, and the gruppo maglia rosa 6'34 back. Ullrich was still with them, but Gonchar was suffering from his crash and had dropped off the back of Basso's group.
Suddenly, both Mori and Sella had crashed on a steep, tight left-hand bend. Mori made a youthful mistake and went into the curve too fast. The Saunier Duval rider put his right foot out and managed to make a soft landing. Sella did a header and went over the guardrail, but both got up quickly as the break caught up with them. The young riders went down again less than a kilometre later on the steep descent, and this time, Mori and Sella both lost contact with the four other riders.
Finally down the descent in Casarza Ligure, with Mori and Sella desperately chasing, Balliani, Horrach Belli and Engels began the pre-sprint manoeuvres. First Belli went with 2.5km to go and got a gap, but Balliani chased him down 500 metres later.
All together again with 1400m to go, Engels made a test jump, while Horrach was playing it smart on the back. With 600 metres to go, Sella and Mori caught up and as the others were looking at each other, Horrach made a classic finneseur move to ride home solo, finishing 50 metres ahead of the remains of the break. Engels won the sprint, while Sella was third and got an eight second time bonus.
A four-man chase group of Kraus, Ongarato, Ludewig, and Beltran came in 1'05 behind, while the CSC-led gruppo maglia rosa crossed the line in Sestri Levanti 7'02 behind, led home by Paolo Bettini. After the stage, Gonchar went to the hospital to have his shoulder and back checked out.
Stage 13 - Saturday, May 20: Alessandria-La Thuile, 216 km
The first real mountain stage of the '06 Giro. The course heads from Alessandria across Piemonte, gradually climbing to Val d'Aosta, then climbing out of Morgex to the Colle S. Carlo at 1951m, before a 7km to finish to the La Thuile ski station. Climbing kid Jose Rujano will test his legs on the ascent, but watch out for daring descender and defending Giro champ Savoldelli to take a dynamic win.